Tuesday, December 15, 2009

1960s Wrap

As I’ve hinted before, the ‘60s brings us a new generation of science fiction writers. The big three: Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, and editors like the famous John Campbell had pioneered a number of stylistic tropes that dominated the genre in the ‘50s: a focus on discoveries in physics or mathematics, humanoid aliens with familiar traits, spaceships, galactic empires, robots, ray-guns, etc.

In the ‘60s, the New Wave emerged, and a cohort of writers began to focus on more human issues like language, gender and sexuality, religion, stranger aliens, modern politics. This group
included Delany, Brunner, and LeGuin, and looked more to the darker and more ambiguous works of Dick and Bester than to the Big Three. I admire this new direction, and yet, there is something I like about the more classic sci-fi (and I think that’s reflected very much in my rankings). The ‘70s brings a welcome swing back to hard science fiction with grounded narrative, without completely abandoning the intriguing lines of inquiry posed by the New Wave.

Speaking of New Wave science fiction, one of the biggest changes is probably the inclusion of frank sexuality in most works of science fiction (not that Bester didn't hint pretty strongly at it back in the 50s). One collection of stories in particular, Dangerous Visions, was very groundbreaking in this regard and highly influential. It was edited by Harlan Ellison, includes works by Dick, Zelazny, Brunner, Delany, Leiber, Niven, Farmer, Silverberg, and so on. It dominated most of the Hugo and Nebula categories in 1968, including novella, novelette and short story, and received its own special Hugo. I considered reviewing it, but decided to pass because a) As I said before, I'm not a tremendous fan of the short story, and b) I expect "groundbreaking" stories of '68 to be more of the pointless psychedelia and sex that I've been seeing in the novels. I really have no problem with graphic sex in a book, so long as it serves a purpose. But a lot of the sexuality in the '60s and '70s feels gratuitous, awkward, and more than a little sexist. It's less about portraying normal human activities or providing intimate character moments, and it's much more "Look! I just wrote a sex scene! Look! Look! Sex! Naked women! Totally naked horny women! Look!" We've seen it in Heinlein and Leiber, and we'll see it soon in Niven, Farmer, and even Asimov. Yes, because of lessening restraints in society, the depiction of sex in science fiction grew up in the late '60s - unfortunately, it's growing into puberty. I'm hoping it grows into real maturity sometime soon.

Anyway, my rankings so far (I'm including the '50s, since I didn't do a wrap for that decade's few awards):

Top 3:

1. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
2. Dune
3. The Left Hand of Darkness

Bottom 3:

1. They'd Rather Be Right
2. The Wanderer
3. The Big Time

Finally, I’ve decided to add the Locus awards to the mix. Subscribers to Locus magazine get to vote for these every year – so, it’s another popular award like the Hugo, though maybe less self-selecting (or maybe more?). From what I’ve seen, the Locus does not have the prestige of Hugo or Nebula, but it is a very interesting set of winners, many of which I’d like to talk about anyway. I won’t always look at the Locus, but I’ll include it when a Hugo or Nebula winner takes it, or when I find it particularly interesting or significant.

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