An Uneven Showcase of 1960s SF
By Rob LathamDecember 13, 2019
American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s by Gary K. Wolfe
American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s, ed. Gary K. Wolfe
Poul Anderson, The High Crusade (1960)
Clifford D. Simak, Way Station (1963)
Roger Zelazny, … And Call Me Conrad (1965)
Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (1966)
R. A. Lafferty, Past Master(1968)
Joanna Russ, Picnic on Paradise (1968)
Samuel R. Delany, Nova (1968)
Jack Vance, Emphyrio (1969)
FOR THE FIRST two-plus decades of its existence (it was founded in 1979), the Library of America — a small press devoted to “publishing America’s greatest writing in authoritative new editions” — hewed closely to the established canon: Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Twain, Thoreau, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill. Its coverage of more contemporary writing focused on talents widely celebrated by mainstream critics: Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty, Philip Roth. Meanwhile, the press also curated a superb four-volume survey of American poetry, a highly useful compendium of early debates about the US Constitution, and pathbreaking collections of reportage about World War II and Vietnam.
A pair of 1995 volumes gathering Raymond Chandler’s novels and stories and a 1999 collection of Dashiell Hammett’s work marked rare excursions into genre fiction, but the real departure was a 2005 collection of H. P. Lovecraft’s weird fiction, edited by Peter Straub — who, a couple of years later, put together a two-volume anthology of American Fantastic Tales. Starting in 2007, Jonathan Lethem assembled a three-volume set of Philip K. Dick’s best SF novels, and not long afterward Brian Attebery edited three volumes of Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction and fantasy. Other recent books have canvassed the work of noir masters David Goodis, Elmore Leonard, and Ross MacDonald. Amid this diversification of output, collections devoted to major mainstream authors such as Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Joan Didion continued to appear, but it was clear that the press was steadily expanding its remit beyond such obviously safe parameters.
At the same time, it further boosted its coverage of popular fiction by issuing tomes that marshaled representative major works in specific genres. In 1997, a two-volume set of midcentury “American Noir,” edited by Robert Polito, featured crime novels by James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Cornell Woolrich, Chester Himes, and Patricia Highsmith, among others. And Gary K. Wolfe, in 2012, assembled two volumes of 1950s novels by Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester, Leigh Brackett, and other SF authors. While such compendia raised the question of whether some of these talents should have received their own individual volumes, they nonetheless effectively showcased the kind of ambitious, provocative work that had long been marketed and consumed as popular fiction.
Now, the Library of America has released a second two-volume set edited by Wolfe, gathering eight “Classic [SF] Novels of the 1960s.” Since Wolfe is one of the genre’s most celebrated critics, author of the important study The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (1979) and for many years lead reviewer for the trade journal Locus, and because the 1960s was one of the most consequential — and controversial — decades in SF history, I was really looking forward to this collection when it was first announced. Even though I had already read seven of the eight novels it contained, having the chance to sample them again in this context, enshrined as the cream of a very rich crop, promised to be an exciting and gratifying experience. So why was I ultimately so disappointed?
The shortcomings of this set derive, in large part, from constraints not wholly of the editor’s making. Probably because the press wanted to extend its coverage as much as possible, a decision was made to exclude writers who had been featured in the earlier 1950s volumes, meaning that talents who continued to produce compelling work into the subsequent decade — Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, James Blish, Frederik Pohl — were programmatically passed over. At the same time, major authors whose work has come to define the 1960s, but who were already spotlighted in single-author collections, were barred as well: hence, this set does not include Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) or Ubik (1969), Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), or Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963) or Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). And the goal of gathering as many texts as possible into two manageable volumes meant that exceptionally long books could not be chosen, which ruled out the novel often voted by fans as the best ever written in the genre, Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965). Finally, the goal of “balanc[ing] the halves of the decade” — as Wolfe puts it in his introduction — has produced a first volume that is significantly inferior, aesthetically, to the second, since (for reasons I explain below) the early 1960s was a relatively fallow period compared to the decade’s later years. (In fact, as Wolfe admits, he could easily have produced a substantial two-volume set featuring novels from 1968 alone.) These constraints — combined with some debatable decisions more fully within Wolfe’s editorial control — make for a collection that is less impressive than it otherwise might have been.
Even with the stated goal of “balance,” the respective volumes are curiously lopsided, the first gathering four novels from 1960–1966 while the second features four from just 1968–1969. This asymmetry reflects the actual development of SF during the decade. A notoriously boom-or-bust field, the genre began the 1960s still suffering the effects of a major catastrophe: the collapse, in 1957, of the American News Company, a trade syndicate responsible for the distribution of most SF magazines. The result was a momentous contraction of the market, from 142 issues of 23 different titles in 1957 to a mere 60 issues of only six titles in 1961. Since the magazines were the principal source of new SF, including novels in serialization, this was a massive blow, and as the decade dawned, there was a widespread sense that the genre was in crisis (the Hugo-winning fanzine for 1961 was titled Who Killed Science Fiction?). Facing this disaster, a number of major authors — e.g., Bester, Sturgeon, Algis Budrys, Walter M. Miller Jr., Ward Moore, William Tenn — stopped writing altogether, either returning intermittently in later decades or falling silent forever. At the time, only a handful of publishing houses — most notably, Doubleday, Ballantine, and Ace — had initiated SF lines, so the possibility of pursuing a meaningful career as an SF writer looked much bleaker in the early 1960s than it had in the mid-to-late 1950s.
Given such a history, it is hardly surprising that the first half of the decade should have produced such a paucity of scintillating work by comparison with the second half, but two other factors — the explosion of the SF book market and the emergence of the so-called “New Wave” — also contributed to this aesthetic imbalance. By mid-decade, a number of major hardcover publishers — e.g., Harper & Row — had begun to expand their SF production, a process the 1965 merger of Putnam with Berkley Books accelerated. At the same time, a host of new paperback houses debuted — e.g., Lancer Books, founded in 1961 — and, along with established firms like Bantam, Pyramid, and Signet (an imprint of New American Library), were soon flooding the field with fiction reprinted from the ’40s pulps and the ’50s digests. Meanwhile, anthologies of all-original stories, such as Damon Knight’s Orbit series (which launched in 1966), were offering stout competition to the surviving magazines. While it’s impossible to assign a specific date to the transition, critics generally agree that, sometime in the mid-1960s, SF ceased to be a predominantly magazine market and became a field defined by book releases, including novels that had never before appeared in serialization. (This transition is reflected in the contents gathered here: all four of the novels in the first volume were initially serialized in the magazines or were expanded from short stories previously published, compared to only one of four in the second book.) The multiplication of available outlets lured a host of new writers to the field, which by the end of the decade looked very different — much more diverse and robust — than it had at the outset.
This publishing expansion coincided with an aesthetic renovation. In 1964, a pugnacious young author, Michael Moorcock, took over editorship of the premier British SF magazine New Worlds and was soon publishing starkly original fiction, including ambitious works by American expats in flight from the doldrums stateside. At the same time, outspoken writers in the United States, most centrally Harlan Ellison, were issuing diatribes that indicted contemporary SF as a moribund husk in desperate need of revitalization. In short, a rising cohort of mostly younger authors, on both sides of the Atlantic, had begun to question both the format and the ideology of the traditional SF story, adopting literary techniques and critical perspectives that broke sharply with pulp conventions. In their extrapolation of fictional futures, these writers abjured the celebration of scientific know-how and the commitment to linear storytelling that had marked postwar American SF in favor of powerful critiques of technocracy articulated in offbeat, sometimes boldly experimental prose. Reflecting trends in society at large, the genre was riven by a generational struggle that pitted the pulp tradition against a rising SF counterculture, dubbed at the time the “New Wave,” whose incendiary demands for change provoked concerted resistance from the genre establishment. By the late 1960s, this struggle had taken on all the textures and tones of encompassing social battles between the youth counterculture and the silent majority.
At issue were not merely radical new modes of expression but also disturbing new forms of content. Capitalizing on the greater openness of the ’60s book market to controversial material, New Wave writers began to explore alternative gender and sexual arrangements — not to mention forms of chemical self-enhancement — that flouted prevailing codes of belief and conduct. They shattered taboos by generating ingenious erotic scenarios of a startling and unsettling alterity and, in concert with the burgeoning feminist and black power movements, launched pointed assaults on the white male subject that had long been the heroic center of the pulp tradition. In short, the New Wave introduced a sharp strain of social militancy into the field, forging substantial links with counterculture discourses, such as the media theories of Marshall McLuhan, the avant-garde fictions of William S. Burroughs, and the various liberation movements associated with antiwar activism, second-wave feminism, and ecopolitical causes. Indeed, the best works of the late 1960s reached beyond the borders of genre to unite with the radical traditions that had informed and inspired them, making New Wave SF a significant counterculture discourse in its own right. In this way, too, late 1960s SF looked very little like its early decade counterpart.
Wolfe gestures at this history in his introduction (and in a recent interview on the Library of America website, where he characterizes the New Wave, rather dismissively, as consisting of “stylistic bells and whistles”), but it is reflected at best haphazardly in the books’ contents, due not only to the spurious goal of “balance” across the decade but also, in large part, to the editor’s specific selection (and omission) of texts. While the set features a few authors — Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, R. A. Lafferty — who debuted during the 1960s and whose work came to define the period’s most ambitious trends, fully half its lineup consists of authors whose careers began in the ’30s, ’40s, or ’50s: Clifford D. Simak, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, and Daniel Keyes. Wolfe justifies this arrangement by claiming that their ’60s fiction “represent[s] th[e] mature-stage growth of earlier traditions,” marking a phase of smooth “transition” by contrast with the “revolution” represented by the New Wave, but I’m afraid I don’t find this rationale very persuasive.
The basic issue is how precisely one is to interpret the set’s subtitle, “Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s.” There’s no question of course that all eight novels were released during the decade and in some cases were widely honored, including those by the “older” authors: Simak’s Way Station (1963) won a Hugo Award, for instance, while Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon (1966) won a Nebula. (“Older” is in quotes because, as Wolfe points out, the issue is not mere chronological age: Lafferty, one of the most innovative of the New Wavers, was actually older than both Anderson and Vance because he didn’t begin writing until late in life.) But “Classic Novels of the 1960s” can also be taken to mean — and, arguably, will be so taken by most readers of these volumes — path-breaking works of fiction that have come to define the era. That was certainly the case with the nine novels in the 1950s set, even though it included a few authors — Heinlein, Leiber, Isaac Asimov — who had started their careers in the previous decade. Yet it’s hard by any measure to see Simak’s Way Station or Anderson’s The High Crusade (1960) as quintessential works of the 1960s: the former is a quaint, intermittently affecting character study of an immortal Civil War veteran who oversees a secret transit point for extraterrestrial visitors, while the latter is a lightweight, rollicking space opera in which Medieval Englishmen commandeer an alien spaceship and set off to conquer the galaxy. Both are basically entertainments with little speculative content to speak of. Indeed, Way Station was controversial at the time among some of the New Wave upstarts because it beat out Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, a more obviously ambitious text, for the “Best Novel” Hugo.
For its part, Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon is an expansion of a celebrated short story originally published (in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) in 1959, and I’m not convinced, despite its Nebula, that the novel-length version is actually an improvement. In other words, this is a story that was basically conceived, written, and published in the late ’50s; its poignant tale of a mentally handicapped young man whose intelligence waxes, then wanes during the course of a scientific experiment is, as Wolfe admits, widely familiar, even to general readers, having been reprinted dozens of times (and adapted into an Oscar-winning film, Charly, in 1968). The three texts by Anderson, Simak, and Keyes take up most of the space in the first volume, and while they do provide some sketchy horological “balance,” they have also elbowed out a number of other works that more clearly could be seen, at least in terms of their key themes, to epitomize the decade.
And by this I don’t just mean novels published during the late 1960s, after the advent of the New Wave movement. If the editor had reached beyond the contemporaneous award winners, he might have considered one of the early novels of Daniel Galouye, a highly talented but now neglected author whose Dark Universe (1961) and Simulacron-3 (1964; a.k.a. Counterfeit World) are brimming with febrile ideas and the kind of speculative energy sorely lacking in High Crusade and Way Station. Dark Universe is a brilliant literalization of a “country of the blind,” set in a lightless subterranean community of nuclear-war survivors who have constructed an elaborate cosmology around the effects of radiation; intense and claustrophobic, it was nominated for a Hugo Award but was beaten by Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (another quintessential work of ’60s SF, doubly ruled out here because of its length and the fact that its author had already appeared in the 1950s volumes). Simulacron-3 is even more compelling — and also quite prescient in terms of its treatment of proto-VR technologies, featuring a computer-simulated domain whose denizens are ignorant of their incorporeality, and whose abrupt portage into the “real” world spurs all manner of striking paradoxes (the novel was filmed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, as World on a Wire, in 1973). Since Wolfe was unable to include a novel by Philip K. Dick, deploying one of these texts instead could have served to cover some of that missing author’s pivotal themes (which were crucial to the period as well): paranoia, self-deception, counterfeit realities. Such a choice would also perhaps have revived interest in a unique SF talent whose work deserves more readerly and critical attention than it has received.
Another writer who produced important work during the period, but whose star has waned in subsequent decades, is Edgar Pangborn. Pangborn’s 1964 novel Davy is a picaresque post-holocaust tale in which the eponymous protagonist, a winsome, randy youth, struggles against the strictures of a theocratic dystopia; though waywardly episodic, the book is beautifully written, and its brief for a life-affirming sensuality anticipates later New Wave efforts to expand the genre’s erotic vocabulary. Other authors whose work fruitfully sketches a transition from the 1950s to the 1960s are Philip José Farmer — who could have been represented here by Inside / Outside (1964), a grotesque, hallucinatory exercise in futuristic eschatology — and Avram Davidson, whose Masters of the Maze (1965) is a much more arresting and ambitious space opera than Anderson’s High Crusade, its interdimensional intrigue leavened with a heady streak of absurdism. The Farmer and/or Davidson novels would have fit neatly alongside the one book in the first volume that I feel truly merits inclusion: Zelazny’s …And Call Me Conrad (1965; a.k.a. This Immortal), a Hugo-winning take on alien-human relationships that baroquely explores the psychic roots of human creativity and the price of spiritual redemption. On top of being witty and highly erudite, Zelazny was also an early forerunner of the New Wave tendency to luxuriate in style for its own exuberant sake.
None of these alternatives to Anderson, Keyes, and Simak were as clearly celebrated at the time (though, as noted, Dark Universe was nominated for a Hugo, as was Davy), but they powerfully prefigured the New Wave penchant for highlighting the mythic or metaphorical dimensions of SF narratives, and thus might have formed a better bridge to the texts gathered in the second volume. A different option would have been Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966), an oppressive tale of overpopulation and resource depletion (filmed as Soylent Green in 1973) whose bleakness foreshadows New Wave treatments of these same themes, such as John Brunner’s 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar (ineligible for inclusion not only because of its length but because its author was British). And Frank Herbert’s The Green Brain (1966) might have been considered: like Harrison’s novel, it depicts, with the ecological shrewdness characteristic of the author, an overpopulated Earth in which humans must struggle for survival with a mutant insect hivemind; including this novel would also have served, in the absence of Dune, to affirm Herbert’s crucial role in the development of 1960s SF.
As these examples show, an important trend more or less wholly neglected in Wolfe’s volumes is the near-future dystopia, which was pioneered in the 1950s (the earlier set features classic examples, such as Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants ), and which the New Wave would make its own in scabrous texts like Robert Silverberg’s Thorns (1967), John Sladek’s Mechasm (1968; a.k.a. The Reproductive System), Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration (1968), and Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron (1969) — all uniquely brilliant novels, none of which is included here.
Even granting the editor’s goal of cross-decade balance, these omissions are peculiar. Silverberg’s absence can be explained by the fact that his best work was produced in the early 1970s, as the American New Wave continued its flowering, and Wolfe has acknowledged holding the author back in anticipation of another set of volumes devoted to the ensuing decade. But given this rationale, one wonders why he decided to include Joanna Russ, since she is a writer even more centrally associated with the ’70s, especially with the emergence of an overtly feminist SF in such classic texts as The Female Man (1975) and We Who Are About To… (1977). The novel gathered here is her first, Picnic on Paradise (1968), a modestly purposed story whose main innovation is to feature, at the center of a fairly standard planetary-adventure plot, an unapologetically bold and brawling female heroine. The only explanation I can see for not holding Russ back for a prospective ’70s set is that she is the only writer here who is not male, since Le Guin — whose The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) would otherwise have been a cinch for selection — was precluded by fiat. Painted into an editorial corner by press-driven directives, Wolfe has been compelled to choose a second-rank title — admittedly by a top-rank talent, but one whose best work was produced in the subsequent decade — in order to attain some minimal semblance of gender equity.
The decision to capture Russ in these volumes, for whatever reason it was taken, along with the truly perplexing choice to end with Vance’s 1969 novel Empyhrio (on which more in a moment), means that Disch, Sladek, and Spinrad, three of the finest SF authors of the period, have been displaced and exiled. I cherish the fond fantasy that Disch has been held aside for a future single-author compendium; certainly, he is the American SF writer most deserving of such enshrinement, following Dick, Le Guin, and Vonnegut. But Wolfe does not say so in his introduction, and in any case, this does not explain why Vance is present here and Sladek and Spinrad are not. (Some of these omissions, of course, could have been due to issues related to reprint rights, though one assumes that most authors — or their estates — would welcome the opportunity to be included in a Library of America edition.)
Vance’s Emphyrio was the one novel in this set that I hadn’t previously read; in fact, I had never heard of it before. That’s not because Vance is an obscure or minor talent: few SF authors have had careers as long or as distinguished, producing superior fiction in seven different decades. I’ve never read a Vance story that isn’t at least charmingly written; a consummate stylist, his best work has a stateliness and elegance that carries the reader along, even amid the often threadbare or hackneyed plots. A master of the planetary romance, a form he largely invented in such classic texts as Big Planet (1957) and The Languages of Pao (1958), Vance excels at crafting vivid worlds, often socially stratified and always rich in cultural intrigue. Emphyrio is no exception; indeed, it is virtually a compendium of the author’s key themes — exile, disguise, revenge — all basted in a pleasing light irony. (Moreover, this is apparently a “restored” version of the novel, excising later editorial redactions.) I certainly enjoyed reading it, but the real issue is whether it truly belongs in this assembly, especially considering the texts it has crowded out.
The test, once again, is whether Vance’s novel is clearly a “classic of the 1960s,” and I don’t see how one can honestly say that it is. Unlike the aforementioned works by Disch, Spinrad, and Sladek, which burn with historical relevance, Emphyrio could easily have been published a decade earlier or a decade later. In my view, something by Vance should probably have been culled for the previous set of volumes covering the 1950s, the period when his best work was not only entertaining but also genuinely pathbreaking. Emphyrio’s baroque adventure story adds nothing especially noteworthy to a compendium of ’60s SF — as compared with Camp Concentration’s dazzling critique of political authoritarianism, Bug Jack Barron’s pungent arraignment of modern mass media, or Mechasm’s caustic satire of out-of-control technocracy.
Happily, the second volume does contain two gems that are indisputably crucial works of specifically ’60s SF: Lafferty’s Past Master and Delany’s Nova. Each book takes a traditional subgenre of the field — utopian romance and space opera, respectively — and radically reimagines it in delirious New Wave fashion. Biographically speaking, these two authors could hardly have been more different: in his mid-50s when the novel was published, Lafferty was a conservative Catholic who despised what he saw as the decadent excesses of the youth counterculture, whereas Delany was less than half his age, a bisexual sprite who for some years during the decade lived in a hippie crash-pad in Greenwich Village. And yet these contrasting talents produced two of the most brilliant novels of 1968 — a year Wolfe acknowledges was something of an annus mirabilis for the field, also seeing the publication of Camp Concentration, Mechasm, Blish’s Black Easter, and Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Faced with this embarrassment of riches, the Nebula voters underwhelmingly opted for Rite of Passage, a competent but hardly cutting-edge coming-of-age story by Alexei Panshin.)
Like so many of Lafferty’s idiosyncratic tales, Past Master takes a quirky premise and, in a wise-cracking, mock-heroic style, spins out its ramifications into a mordant reductio ad absurdum. Set on a putatively utopian planet in the 26th century, the novel deploys a time-traveling Thomas More, author of the first literary utopia in 1516, who proceeds to offer earnest, pedantic disquisitions on human perfectibility. As a devout Catholic, Lafferty was keenly skeptical toward secular forms of idealism, which he viewed as dangerous phantasms, and the astonishing achievement of Past Master is that it manages to be at once a colorful, sophisticated depiction of a quasi-utopian society and an unsparing deconstruction of the utopian impulse itself. As its example demonstrates, the New Wave was capacious enough to accommodate a thorny conservatism, so long as it came packaged with verbal pyrotechnics and a black humor bordering on the ultraviolet. That such an SF novel could be written and published in 1968, just a scant few years after commentators were widely bemoaning the moribund state of the field, is a testament to how thoroughgoing the New Wave’s aesthetic renovation was.
Past Master is also a perfect example of how deeply the paperback revolution transformed the genre during the 1960s. The novel was published in a series of “Ace SF Specials,” edited by Terry Carr, that featured works of challenging originality, often written by newer authors (the series also included Sladek’s Mechasm and Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness). For its part, Delany’s Nova was issued in hardcover by Doubleday before appearing in paperback from Bantam Books — both presses that had been specializing in science fiction since the 1950s. Yet while the story does traffic in some familiar tropes — hurtling space travel, interstellar intrigue, a far-flung quest narrative — it twists these elements into a strikingly original kind of countercultural hard SF, where cybernetic high-tech rubs shoulders with occult practices and scientific ideas come haloed with a sheen of the mythic or the mystical. Central among these concepts is the titular “nova,” literally the explosion of a thermodynamically stressed star, yet whose metaphorical resonances for the author include cultural apocalypse, the breakdown of language, and the violence implicit in sex and artistic creation. As in his earlier space opera Babel-17 (1967), Delany features a starship crew of tatterdemalion oddballs whose various peccadillos prompt musings about racial difference, psychosexual “deviance,” and (sub)cultural relativism (John W. Campbell notoriously declined to serialize the story in Analog because he claimed his readers could not identify with a black protagonist). Nova so dramatically and cogently reimagines the classic space-adventure story that the much more conventional Emphyrio, which follows it here, suffers grievously by comparison.
I should, in summing up, say that I’ve probably been too harsh in my assessment of these volumes, indulging the typical reviewer’s vice of second-guessing a seasoned editor’s decisions. Surely a major critic of the field such as Wolfe has earned the right to exercise his editorial judgment as he sees fit, and certainly most readers will enjoy this collection, since the novels it features all have their own peculiar charms (though I must admit I don’t think Anderson’s The High Crusade has aged very well). If “Classic Novels of the 1960s” means a gathering of proficient, generally well-regarded books from the decade that will provide hours of readerly entertainment, this set undeniably fits the bill. But if it means instead an assemblage of works that definitively epitomize the era, representing the most searching speculation it had to offer, then I’m afraid this new Library of America collection succeeds only partially and haphazardly, at best.
Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor.
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