I’ve always thought of the ‘70s as a hangover after the wild party of the ‘60s. All that positive social change, wild-eyed optimism and experimentation came home to roost or led to extreme reactions. We go from mind-opening drugs to addiction and violence, from civil rights to urban violence and persisting poverty, from Camelot to Watergate. Nuclear war had been the overriding fear, now it was environmental catastrophes, overpopulation, race war, or just the general disintegration of society.
It’s not surprising that the dystopia became the dominant genre, especially in film. I was generally pretty bored with the parade of interchangeable dystopian films that dominated the genre. At least A Clockwork Orange had Kubrick’s vision behind it; Soylent Green and Rollerball pale in comparison. I think novels tended to execute these ideas better: The Forever War managed to place these crises in historical context by stretching out its timeline, and The Lathe of Heaven, especially, uses these fears as a background for exploring ideas about dreams, escapism, and the dangers inherent in seemingly easy solutions.
It’s also not surprising that fantasy began to take off as a genre in this period. The future no longer seemed like the ideal place for escapist fiction. As the future got scarier, suddenly the past…or a mythical world, seemed like a better locale for escapism. Not only did fantasy begin to take off in the ‘70s, it would soon rival (and surpass) sf in popularity. I don’t think fear of the future is the only reason for this (fantasy stories tend to be more universal, and I think fantasy writers have a better record with female audiences), but I do think it’s a significant factor. Film takes the same turn – it’s a great big leap from the parade of dystopias to the (light)sword and (jedi)sorcery adventures of Luke Skywalker or the capable-of-defeating-even-death power fantasy of Superman.
Finally, we do also have the return to classic sf elements over the ‘60s New Wave. LeGuin is often associated with the New Wave, but I think next to the likes of Brunner, her stories were always more conventional in form, even as they contained very original content. Silverberg’s Time of Changes was the last novel that really felt like New Wave sf to me (though Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is closer to a New Wave tone). Instead we have the rise of Larry Niven, who has always seemed like the secret love-child of Clarke and Heinlein to me. You also get two big wins for Clarke and one for Heinlein. Overall, we have a lot more old fashioned swashbuckling space adventures and/or engineering challenges and triumphs – the stuff is ‘40s and ‘50s sf. It was also a decade for clear-cut sf classics, as more books than any other decade swept the awards.
Top 3 novels of the ‘70s:
Bottom 3 novels of the ‘70s:
Star Wars: The unheralded cult classic.
Alien a close second.
A Clockwork Orange third and winner of the illustrious Best ‘70s Dystopia award.