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10 Essential works of Science Fiction from the 1970s

By / September 15, 2016 / no comments

The 70s was a strange, liminal time in science fiction. As the decade began, the New Wave was still in full flood, but the wave petered out very quickly. In Britain, New Worlds magazine folded and was replaced by an original anthology series called New Worlds Quarterly that, despite its title, managed only 10 issues in six years before folding again. In America, Harlan Ellison followed up Dangerous Visions with another massive anthology, Again, Dangerous Visions, but the long-promised third volume, The Last Dangerous Visions, never materialised, evidence suggests that it was just too unwieldy ever to see the light of day.

As with New Worlds, other magazines stuttered during the decade, and the best new short fiction tended to appear in original anthology series such as Terry Carr’s Universe, Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions, Damon Knight’s Orbit, and a string of one-off anthologies edited by the indefatigable Roger Elwood. These often gave a venue for exciting new writers such as Kate Wilhelm and Gene Wolfe, but publication could be unreliable and the anthologies tended not to have very long runs.

By the middle years of the decade, sf seemed to be in something of the doldrums, but then the film Star Wars came along, and the genre was revitalised, but in an unexpected way. Suddenly the old and generally disparaged form of the space opera was in the ascendant yet again, though it would take some time for this to work through into the literature and well into the 80s it was writers who had emerged from or been influenced by the New Wave who were producing the most interesting work.

1970

The Atrocity Exhibition (Flamingo Modern Classics)The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard

We start the 1970s with the most archetypal New Wave book of all, a work that displays the Modernist aesthetic, the interest in formal experiment, the concentration on psychology and “inner space”, and a willingness to constantly upset and reshape our expectations. It is a collection of linked stories or, to be more accurate, what Ballard himself called “condensed novels”, and even at the time it was so controversial that the initial American print run was destroyed on the direct orders of the owner of the publishing company. The name of the central character constantly changes, reflecting the break-up of his own personality in the face of a media-saturated world. He is a doctor at a mental hospital, but is himself going through a mental breakdown, so everything is open to questions and shifting interpretations; a landscape, for instance, can become a close-up image of skin. It’s not an easy book, but it is an invigorating climax to the New Wave.

Other key works: Ringworld by Larry Niven, Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg, Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny.

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1971

To Your Scattered Bodies Go (Riverworld Saga, Book 1)To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer

Philip Jose Farmer was always a somewhat eccentric writer, whose work veered from the most conventional of fantasy to the most daring explorations of sex, from tongue-in-cheek novels supposedly written by fictional characters such as Doc Savage or Kilgore Trout to complex fictional experiments. But his best work was very possibly his most straightforward. This Hugo-winning novel was the first part of his Riverworld sequence, and tells the story of the adventurer, Richard Burton, who dies on Earth and awakens beside a mysterious river. Here he finds other people from every period of Earth history, from a Neanderthal to an alien who caused the destruction of all life on Earth. By dying again and being reborn, Burton sets out to explore the seemingly endless river, often in the company of Hermann Goring, in the hope of discovering the beings who are behind this strange existence.

Other key works: Half-Past Human by T.J. Bass, The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem, A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg.

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1972

334: A Novel334 by Thomas M. Disch

This was an amazing year. Any of the books listed under other key works would have deserved to be the main choice here, but by a whisker it is 334 that stands out. This was a period in which, following the New Wave interest in Modernist literary techniques, science fiction and the mainstream were coming together again, and there are few books that illustrate this confluence as well as 334. It is a sequence of linked stories all centering upon an apartment building in New York in the very near future. One of the stories, “Angouleme”, has the unique distinction of being the subject of a book-length critical study by Samuel R. Delany. It tells of a group of 11-year-old school children who plan a murder as an art project, and the disconnect between the crisp, unsensational prose and the description of everyday occurrences and attitudes that are so at odds with our own experience, are what make this such a powerful work.

Other key works: Again, Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison, The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner, Other Days, Other Eyes by Bob Shaw, Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg, The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe.

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1973

Rendezvous with RamaRendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

All the contradictions and contrasts of science fiction in the 1970s are illustrated by the Nebula Award ballot for this year, in which the very traditional science fiction of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama was up against the postmodern games of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. In the end, Clarke won (he also picked up the Hugo Award), though it is interesting to speculate how science fiction might have changed if the decision had gone the other way. But apart from such flights of fancy, let us not forget that this is easily one of Clarke’s best novels. An anomalous object travels through the solar system, and an exploratory team discovers that it is actually a space ship, though with no trace of its original inhabitants. In the brief window available for their exploration, the team has to learn as much as they can about aliens who never actually appear in the novel.

Other key works: Crash by J.G. Ballard, Herovit’s World by Barry N. Malzberg, The Embedding by Ian Watson, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

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1974

The Dispossessed (Hainish Cycle)The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

It is hard to decide which is the most significant contribution Ursula Le Guin has made to science fiction: The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed? Suffice it to say that both novels had a tremendous impact, both continue to be rated among the very best works of science fiction, and both linger long in the memory of every reader. This is an extraordinary reimagining of the idea of utopia. On one planet there is a functioning anarchist society; on its neighbour divided between contesting states, very much like America and the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war. But even in the anarchist utopia there are individual tensions and disputes, and one scientist has to leave for the neighbouring world in order to be able to complete his epoch-making research. It’s a novel that makes you question the relationship between the individual and the state, and science fiction doesn’t get much more relevant or intriguing than that.

Other key works: Walk to the End of the World by Suzy McKee Charnas, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick, Inverted World by Christopher Priest.

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1975

DhalgrenDhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

Two of the most important works in the history of science fiction were published this year. One was The Female Man, easily the most significant work of feminist science fiction ever written, and a book that should be one everybody’s reading list. And Dhalgren, a work which ventured into areas that science fiction had never touched before. It is a post-apocalyptic account of a city that has undergone some weird and never-explained catastrophe, but the catastrophe has liberated those who remain in the city and embrace chaos. Violent, sexually explicit, and one of the most extraordinary work of literary experimentation that sf has ever seen, Dhalgren tells of the arrival of a damaged youth in this damaged city, and loads his story with mythic overtones so that the modern world is seen to follow patterns that were established in antiquity. Probably more than any other book on this list, Dhalgren is a novel that haunts the memory.

Other key works: The Female Man by Joanna Russ, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner.

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1976

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang: A NovelWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

One of the key themes throughout the entire history of science fiction is to ask: what it is to be human. And that question seemed to get a new lease of life in the mid-70s. It was there, for instance, in Frederik Pohl’s account of a man being remade to suit life on Mars, and it was here in Kate Wilhelm’s Hugo Award-winning story of cloning and apocalypse. Environmental collapse is destroying the Earth so one family establish an isolated community in an attempt to survive. When humanity becomes infertile due to environmental damage, they start cloning, but the clones become so dependent upon each other that they are unable to go far from the community. When an independent child is born, its very independence is seen as a threat to the rest of the community.

Other key works: Man Plus by Frederik Pohl, The Alteration by Kingsley Amis, Doctor Rat by William Kotzwinkle.

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1977

Gateway (Heechee Saga)Gateway by Frederik Pohl

Like Rendezvous with Rama before it, Gateway, which swept the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards, is a novel about aliens in which the aliens do not appear. Humans have taken over technology left behind by the long-vanished Heechee, but they don’t fully understand how the technology works. Setting out in a Heechee spaceship is always dependent on luck, since no-one can be sure where they might end up or how long the journey might take. The story is told by one of these explorers whose third expedition left him immensely wealthy but at a cost that has left him psychologically damaged. What is fascinating about the story is the way that Pohl combines traditional hard sf drama with New Wave psychological insights. It is also fascinating for the way that the aliens are more vivid by not appearing; when the aliens do appear in later volumes of the Heechee sequence they are almost a disappointment.

Other key works: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick, A Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest, Michaelmas by Algis Budrys.

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1978

DreamsnakeDreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

All too often, stories set in our post-apocalyptic future are stories of conflict, Vonda McIntyre does something very different, making it a story of healing. Winner of the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards, and based on her Nebula-winning novelette, “Of Mist and Grass and Sand”, Dreamsnake is set in a future where much of the planet is blighted by radiation, where tribalism has grown more evident, but where there have been great advances in biotechnology. Snake is a travelling healer who uses three snakes, two of which provide venom that can be made into potions and vaccines, while the third, of alien origin, brings calming sleep and dreams. When this snake, Grass, is killed by one tribe, Snake has to embark on a journey to find another, a journey that brings healing to a bitter and divided world.

Other key works: The Road to Corlay by Richard Cowper, Strangers by Gardner Dozois, The Two of Them by Joanna Russ.

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1979

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Comedy is something that science fiction seems to do extraordinarily badly. Even the most successful examples, by Harry Harrison for example, often end up being remarkably crude and broad, lacking in much subtlety. So it was a surprise when a six-part British radio programme first broadcast in 1978 proved to be perhaps the funniest and most effective sf comedy ever. The radio programme gave rise to a television series, a feature film, a computer game, a stage show and a comic book, but after the original radio production it is best known as a book, or rather as the first volume in a trilogy of six parts (the final part was written after Adams’s death by Eoin Colfer). This first volume was adapted from the first four episodes of the radio series, beginning with the destruction of Earth to make way for an interstellar by-pass and ending with the discovery that earth was a computer designed to find the ultimate question (the answer to which is 42), and which was destroyed just before completing its work. Surprisingly, subsequent volumes proved to be just as good.

Other key works: Engine Summer by John Crowley, Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke.

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