Today, we begin what we hope will become a popular, long-running and Nobel-Prize-Winning* series on Science Fiction. It will likely have a focus on literature, at least initially, but will be perfectly willing to include movies, comics and any other interesting subjects.
It will also be open to Fantasy and certain types of Horror, as much of the audience for the three genres overlaps.
A couple of weeks ago we reviewed and analyzed one of the many Year’s Best collections that the Science Fiction / Fantasy genre: the Wollhein 1989 Year’s best SF. Suddenly, it dawned on us that that review of a book that has proven to be a minor volume in genre history is actually an excellent starting point for comparing eras. So let’s call that post the honorary “Part Zero” of this series.
A logical place to start was with a couple of collections that could be compared directly to that ’89 book. We chose the 1969 and 1972 Wollheim Year’s Best collections, but not without some trepidation, as we will explain a little further below. But misgivings aside, these fit the bill perfectly – by choosing the same editor, we avoid questions of wildly differing taste and bias, and by going back nearly two decades, we get enough of a gap that contrasts are notable.
The first thing one notices about these two titles is how much more recognizable the names of the authors are than on the 1989 edition of the same collection. Genre fans will all recognize Sheckley, Anderson, Silverberg, Aldiss, Knight, Delaney, Lafferty, Foster, Sturgeon and Lieber from the older books. And everyone, even non-genre readers will perk up at seeing the names Vonnegut, Clarke and Ellison – three writers whose names appear on the tables of contents of the 69 and 72 books whose stature simply isn’t matched on the 89.
Why were so many important names present? Well, there are a couple of reasons. The first is that during the late sixties and early seventies, the writers that made the genre important were still active and close to their primes. The amazing Golden Age of Science Fiction has, to date, never been equalled, and the writers active in the 30s and 40s were still around. Just look at that list again.
The second reason is that SF briefly became chic in the sixties due to a combination of experimental writing in the genre and, quite possibly, an excess of recreational drug use by editors of journals such as The Atlantic and The New Yorker, who allowed their hallowed pages to be sullied by this basest of genres. Also, in order to be able to say that one read Playboy for the articles, one needed to be able to discuss the articles – and there was some SF there as well. This mainstream exposure is still why casual readers recognize names like Bradbury or the aforementioned Clarke, Vonnegut and Ellison.
The second thing one notices is just how much difference the editor makes in one of these collections. We’d had some trepidation in selecting the era because of an intimate knowledge of Judith Merril’s anthologies of the same era. Possibly fueled by the same drugs as the editors of the journals, she seemed to have a knack for selecting kaleidoscopic jumbles of words which, though possibly beautiful, were not ideal places to extract meaning. It was like reading a modern artist or looking for the truth in the patterns generated by a lava lamp. Perhaps you had to be fully immersed – in every aspect – in sixties culture to appreciate the stories. Like they say: If you remember the sixties, you weren’t actually there.
Wollheim’s selections were not aimed at making a statement about pop culture, but rather are core SF tales that explore ideas about how the world will be like some years in the future. That is what SF used to be about, and is still what good SF is about today, whether the changes be technical, social, ecological or political. It can reflect and comment about the present, of course, but if it isn’t done obliquely, it becomes preachy and unreadable – and a lot of the (thankfully now forgotten) SF of the sixties fell into that trap.
It defeats the purpose of this analysis to do a story-by-story rundown, but suffice to say that even the Vonnegut tale is almost completely devoid of impossible dreaming – although it is admittedly weird.
So, compared to their peers, these two books hold up reasonably well, but how do they stack up against the 1989?
Without taking into account individual highs and lows, such as the excellent “Peaches for Mad Molly” in the ’89 collection the older books are better overall. I believe that is driven mainly by the fact that the level of the writers was higher, as was the purity of the genre elements. By 1989, science fiction was in a transition between the popular but looked-down-upon work of the 40’s and the literary but boring SF of today. Sometimes that transition produced masterpieces (Dune, or Ender’s Game are examples), but more often muddled works that attempt to be socially relevant but really only succeed in being vague, preachy or both.
The older anthos are highly recommended, with some true classics among the more pedestrian tales.
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*We refuse to believe that there is no Nobel Prize for blogs. This should be reviewed. We may need to put a clause in our manifesto making this an explicit goal of the site.