Robert A. Heinlein

Waving to the New-New Wave

science-fiction-bookshelf

As a kid, I loved going to the bookstore.  We had a Walden Books in the open mall where my mom would go to Kroger, so that is the one I would frequent.  When we first arrived in the US, my interest was in Hardy Boys, but I soon graduated to the science fiction section.

This part of the bookstore was dominated by names such as Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke,  even Silverberg… the gilded voices of the Golden Age.  These were the giants of the time when science fiction was finding its feet, establishing the things that would define it.  They were the men who ruled, uncontested, until the New Wave toppled them from their throne in the 1960s.

That is the narrative, of course.  The reality is that I was a kid in the 1980s, and none of these guys had been toppled.  They still ruled the roost as if the New Wave never happened.

Yes, I’ve discussed the New Wave here before, but never in the context of it’s effect on the genre of the 1980s and 1990s.

First, some context.  If you ask someone about the New Wave today, they will likely say that it marked the end of Campbell’s influence on the genre, and paved the way for today’s more character-driven and literary work.

There may be some truth in this… but it certainly isn’t 100% correct.  The reality on the ground in the 1980s was that the New Wave had pretty much been beaten back by the old guard by the time I started paying attention to science fiction.  Yes, some of the names from the sixties consolidated their places (notably Frank Herbert and Ursula K. LeGuin, with Philip José Farmer a lesser name), but for the most part, the blip had been neutralized, and the rest of the best-sellers were newer names such as Orson Scott Card and Larry Niven.

Girl Looking at stars

Even the writing style had gone back from the convoluted literary muddiness of Judith Merril’s anthologies to a more direct type of narrative with a  focus on story.  Had some of the character-driven sensibilities remained?  Yes, those had survived, everyone appeared to agree that they were a good idea… but the other stuff was discarded as soon as editors realized that readers hated it.

The eighties and the nineties, therefore, were good epochs for SF literature.  The genre sold well, and new readers arrived.

With the turn of the century, however, another shift occurred, a new New Wave, if you like.  SF became more politicized (it was always political, of course) and the sensibilities looked to the literary and experimental once more.  Slipstream flourished, straight idea-driven stories became anathema.  Some misguided souls began using the term “Golden Age” as a kind of benevolent insult.

The main result of this trend was actually a rise in fantasy sales.  People such as Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind and even George R.R. Martin benefitted.  They were telling straightforward stories of action and adventure in the traditional mold without looking to challenge or subvert anything… and readers flocked to them in droves.  They still do, in fact.  Harry Potter was also a product of this time.  No one will call Hogwarts progressive, but it certainly did become the darling of supposedly super-progressive Millennials…

Meanwhile, Science Fiction asphyxiated under the heavy yoke of literary writing, and split into factions (the Sad Puppies appeared to try to bring it back, but that effort was, at best, misguided), each of which defends their turf with rabid aggression.

Will any of today’s “superstars” be remembered in the 2030s or will they fall by the wayside the way the writers from the sixties did?  I think most of what is happening today will be forgotten as soon as Elon Musk establishes his Mars colony and people become fascinated with progress and ideas again (as opposed to the current preoccupation with politicizing even the tiniest of human interactions and navel-gazing).  When humans remember why we admire individuals with drive and initiative who push the species forward, SF literature will reverse its current trend towards utter boredom and resurge like the phoenix.

But even twenty years from now, the stuff written today will still be around so that future readers can look at it and scratch their heads much like I do when I read a lot of what came out of the sixties.  At the very least, today’s trends will serve as a reminder of how interesting dead ends can be.

 

Gustavo Bondoni has never been accused of being overly literary.  His latest novel, Timeless, is a romantic thriller in the mold of Sidney Sheldon.  You can check it out here.

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Five Classic SF Novels From the Fifties

merican Science Fiction- Five Classic Novels 1956-58

Two (or possibly seven) American classics came together through sheer serendipity for me.  I was walking through the Strand bookstore in New York (can’t recall whether it was in the SF section or in the hardcover / special area near the checkout counter), and I found a copy of American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-58. from the Library of America.

I love these Library of America editions for many reasons: price, presentation and, most importantly of all, the fact that they select only the cream of the crop.  Better still this copy, though pre-owned, didn’t appear to have been pre-read, so it was essentially like buying the book new.

But the important bit was the content.  Like it says on the tin, this contained five novels from a truly fruitful era of science fiction, written by five different men.  Here’s the list:

– Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (this was the only one of the five that I’d read before)

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

Who? by Algis Budrys

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

merican Science Fiction- Five Classic Novels 1956-58 with Artwork!

By far and away, the most memorable of these, if not necessarily the best or most enjoyable is the Bester.  Some of this novel is extremely well done, and the parts that aren’t are, at least, laudable for attempting to do something different and audacious.

The main character is strikingly brutal, but then, the fifties were still an era where people understood the banal brutality of the common man, as opposed to what we do today which is to try to look for specific psychoses.  It’s interesting to realize just how effective dumb aggression from a man too underprivileged to know any better, but, at the same time too dogged to give up can be.  It’s also a reminder of why SF was more widely read back then than it is now – the heroes represented everyman, warts and all.  The poor unprivileged main character didn’t need to have a heart of gold… he could just be a guy doing the best that he could.

The part that isn’t brilliantly done is the whole time travel / trippy / ESP bit.  Of course, this was in vogue in the fifties, but it was not impressive sixty years later.  Still, a big book in its day, and still a staple of “best SF novel” lists, and of books like this one.

Who? and A Case of Conscience are tied as the next most memorable.  They are both deeply informed by the fears of the Cold War, and represent their time brilliantly, possibly even better than the Bester.  Staple reading for SF cognoscenti, and decent novels in themselves.

The Big Time is classic Leiber in the sense that he plays with boundaries of the genre and its rules as well as with history and time travel.  It is more fun than the others, and takes itself less seriously at the same time (which ends up making it a good book).  I found it slightly half-baked… and I think Leiber would agree, as he later expanded this concept.

The best of the bunch is still the Heinlein, even though it isn’t one of his “major” works.  Heinlein was just that good.

Most people who buy a book like this one will be general readers attracted to it by the fact that the works were selected by the Library of America.  They will come away with a critic’s-eye-view of what SF meant in the 1950s, and of five sociologically important books of the era.  Is it representative of what the public was reading?  Possibly, but it goes a lot further than that, too.

I heartily recommend this one to my readers who are looking for a good primer on science fiction.  If you share Margaret Atwood’s belief that science fiction is monsters and spaceships, you’ll be surprised by both the literary quality and the connection to the zeitgeist that this one displays.

And if you already like SF, chances are you may have overlooked these novels.  They are definitely worth knowing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is very much connected with the trends of the 21st century and explores the fears we have… or, at least, should have.