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Science Fiction: A Primer

By Galen Strickland

 

Although some of the ideas expressed in this article are mine, I have also paraphrased passages from several reference books, most especially The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It is intended as an introduction for those just discovering the genre.

[Note: This was one of the first articles I wrote while still posting on the old Prodigy Books & Writing Community forum (no longer existant), even before I created this site. It is possible that many of the book links I have provided are out of date and certain titles are no longer available in new editions, and even possible that some for which I did not provide a link are back in print. I already realize that the Encyclopedia of SF is not in print at this time, but you could find a good used copy of it through that link. Right now I am just transferring the text over to the new site design, and once I am finished with all the existing pages I will return to check on those links.]

 

Chapter I: In the Beginning

There has been much debate but little consensus within the science fiction community on the origins of the genre. Many self-appointed scholars have cited specific authors or works as the genesis of what has become, to quote Ray Bradbury, "the central literature of our time." Fantasy of course has a much longer history, in fact is probably as old as human language. From tales told around caveman campfires of beasts and lands over the horizons, to the Gilgamesh epic and Homer, from Greek and Roman mythologies to the Norsemen's Valhalla, from Shakespeare to the magic realism of Borges, fantasy boasts a long and varied tradition.

Science fiction as a genre conscious of being a genre had to wait for the general awareness of the scientific method to be absorbed into the consciousness of society at large, roughly the late 18th to early 19th centuries. A strong case, in which I am in agreement, has been made by Brian W. Aldiss in his Trillion Year Spree for the acceptance of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein : or the Modern Prometheus as the first genuine SF novel. Shortly thereafter authors as varied as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and Herman Melville were incorporating SF elements in their work.

In the 1860s what Jules Verne's publishers termed "Extraordinary Voyages" began what most agree to be the traditions of modern science fiction, followed by the "scientific romances" of H.G.Wells. It has been said by some that SF has only nine or ten basic plots, and if that is the case they were established early by these two ground-breaking icons, everything since being just variations on the themes. Verne and Wells were not alone though. Everett Blieler's Science-Fiction : The Early Years lists 618 SF stories and novels from 1863 to 1895, when Wells' first novel The Time Machine was published, evidence that Wells was merely refining an existing tradition.

Just as many early SF scholars jumped from Verne to Wells, another period often overlooked is the first few decades of the 20th century. Due to the popularity of Wells, many specialty fiction magazines, among them Pearson's, Argosy, and All-Story Magazine, devoted a majority of their space to SF and fantasy themes. Among the authors who rose to prominence in their pages were Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ralph Milne Farley, Murray Leinster, and A. Merritt, while others like Arthur Conan Doyle, E.M.Forster, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, and Edgar Wallace made their mark in book publication.

The next major landmark on the SF road to the future came in 1926 with the launch of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, a publication devoted exclusively to what its editor termed "scientifiction." Although much of its space was devoted to reprints of Verne, Wells, and Poe among others, several names later associated with the "Golden Age of SF" got their start in this monthly; Jack Williamson, E.E. "Doc" Smith, John W. Campbell, and Edmond Hamilton. Gernsback's place in SF history is assured. Not only did he officially coin the revised term "science fiction" in 1929, the Hugo award, given each year since 1953 by readers to the best in the field, is in his honor. Many name changes and editors later, this publication is still in existence, however it has rarely been a significant player in the field since the late '30s, due to the emergence of a rival publication.

Astounding Stories (re-named Astounding Science Fiction and later Analog) was just one of the many digest-size pulp magazines that flourished in the wake of Gernsback's Amazing Stories. Titles like Thrilling Wonder Stories, Strange Tales, Unknown, and Doc Savage entranced their mainly juvenile audience monthly or quarterly with colorful, lurid covers of far-off tales of adventure and danger. Then in October of 1937, John W. Campbell, who had his start as a writer in Amazing, became the editor of Astounding, and thus began the period known appropriately and rightfully as science fiction's "Golden Age."

 

Chapter II: The Golden Age

There is little agreement on when the "Golden Age of SF" ended, and next to no argument about when it began. Older readers regularly refer to it as precisely the years 1938-46. The term is used of genre magazine SF, and it is almost always seen as referring to the period ushered in by John W. Campbell's assumption of the editorship of Astounding Stories in October of 1937. Within a few years Campbell managed to win over not only many of the best working writers of the period, including L. Ron Hubbard, Clifford D. Simak, Jack Williamson, and Henry Kuttner, but to develop such new writers as Lester del Rey, Eric Frank Russell, Theodore Sturgeon, and especially his "big three", Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and A.E. van Vogt. Under the tutelage of Campbell and this stable of writers many of their younger contemporaries emerged as new forces in the late '40s and early '50s, so it is difficult to say in what sense the Golden Age could be said to have stopped in 1946, or anywhere in the '40s. Notable names of this period include Alfred Bester, James Blish, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, and C. M. Kornbluth. Bester, Blish, and Pohl, among others, became editors in their own right so the legacy continued well into the middle '50s.

By 1946 Astounding was regularly receiving high-class competition from Startling Stories, and a few years later by Galaxy Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. By the early '50s it was more a force of conservatism in magazine SF than an innovator. Thus, the end of the Golden Age may have had more reality for devotees of Astounding than for SF readers in general. Certainly the period of 1938-46 was one of astonishing activity, the time that shaped the majority of SF's themes and motifs, which are still yet being reworked and modified. Genre SF since Campbell became progressively more mature, however due to the diversity and plethora of publications, an increasing number of hack writers partly obscured the steady improvements of the upper echelon of the field. The Golden Age also has to be viewed as an exclusively American phenomenon. To keep things in proportion it must be mentioned that elsewhere, most especially in Britain, non-genre SF books of considerable literary quality were being published that had no connection to what Campbell was offering, examples of this being Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Ape and Essence, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, and Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men and Star Maker.

Even though there is an almost undeniable counterclaim that SF is now better written than it was then, there is still a residual truth to the Golden Age myth. Certainly today we expect SF to amaze us with new and ever-more challenging concepts. In the '30s and '40s the wild speculations and yearnings of the genre writers, mostly very young and extremely energetic, seemed to spring miraculously from nowhere. It was a quantum leap in quality, perhaps the greatest the genre has ever experienced. This view of the Golden Age does not lack defenders in the historians of the field, most notably James Gunn, Frederik Pohl, and Donald A. Wollheim. Most especially, the science in science fiction became a more integral part of genre writings. All current practitioners of the field owe a great debt of gratitude to these innovative pioneers, and in that sense perhaps the term Golden Age should be enshrined.

 

Chapter III: Science Fiction in the '50s

There are three specific developments that distinguish the SF of the 1950s from that of the Golden Age and before. First, the launch of two publications to rival the supremacy of Astounding Science Fiction's technology dominant stories; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction stressed literacy and style, while Galaxy Science Fiction explored sociological satire. Secondly, the ability of some of the genre's foremost practitioners, particularly Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury, to break out of the pulp "ghetto" and graduate to slick publications such as The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers signalled the first stirrings of SF respectability. Finally, the paperback book boom brought genre SF to the attention of a vast new audience.

Doubleday, Simon and Schuster, Grossett and Dunlap, and Scribners were among the established publishing firms that added SF lists to their output. Anthologies of various merit abounded and many of the classic Golden Age novels first saw book publication during this decade, having before been only serialized in the pulp magazines. Scribners was already well entrenched in the field having begun the highly popular Heinlein juvenile series in 1947. A significant boost to new writers came from Ace Books, whose Ace Doubles coupled them with more established names. The most significant change in SF throughout the '50s was the gradual transition from the genre magazines to books as the dominant form of publishing, and by the end of the decade a large portion of the paperback trade was original material not previously printed in the periodicals.

In a certain sense the 1950's can also be described as the Heinlein Decade. Robert A. Heinlein was arguably the most able craftsman of speculative fiction to emerge from the Campbell era and the first to cast off the constraints of the genre and establish a credibility with mainstream publications. By 1951 he had already gained a wide audience among young readers with the first four of his highly admired juvenile novels from Scribners. Librarians throughout the country can be thanked for embracing and disseminating this series to anxious youngsters year after year. This series continued on an annual basis until 1958, but during the same period Heinlein produced four novels aimed at older audiences, two of which won him the coveted Hugo award for best SF novel of the year. The second of these, 1959's Starship Troopers, had been intended as the next in the juvenile series, however Alice Dalgliesh, Heinlein's editor at Scribners, objected to not only the excessive violence protrayed but also to the political slant expressed by the author. Heinlein, unwilling to compromise his position, was able to place the book with rival G.P.Putnam's Sons and the juvenile series came to an end.

More than any other writer in the genre, Robert A. Heinlein proved the viability and marketability of intelligent science fiction to all age groups. After all, the adolescents who discovered and cherished his work during the Golden Age were now young adults whose literary interests were still the magnificent flights of imagination he had imbedded in their minds. Many who later would become scientists and engineers point to Heinlein as the most significant influence on their choice of careers, and further testimony to his importance was his inclusion as a guest commentator during television coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Other notable and legendary names from this era are Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, Lester del Rey, Philip K. Dick, Philip José Farmer, Frederick Pohl, Clifford D. Simak, and Robert Silverberg. All of these, along with countless others, helped shape the field into the "thinking man's" literature and significantly improved its reputation as a literary genre. In the mid 50's a new and controversial voice began to be heard. Initially a protege of del Rey and Silverberg, Harlan Ellison would prove to be one of the catalysts for the genre's next major advancement.

 

Chapter IV: Science Fiction's New Wave

Isaac Asimov, in the introduction to one of the many anthologies he edited, described SF stories of 1926-38 as "adventure dominant", those of 1939-50 "technology dominant", and of the '50s "sociology dominant". SF historian James E. Gunn, perhaps with these descriptions in mind, labelled SF of the 1960s as "style dominant". During this period SF was being read by a much larger audience and its ideas were beginning to feed back into the mainstream and a complex cross-fertilization of genres began to emerge. Quite a few that came to prominence within the genre, among them Harlan Ellison, Kurt Vonnegut, and J.G.Ballard attempted to shrug off the SF moniker while writers as varied as Russell Hoban, Romain Gary, and Thomas Pynchon were embracing many of the essential elements of SF.

As worries about politics, overpopulation, and the ecology grew, a shift from the general optimism of genre SF toward a more pessimistic view of the future was perceptible. In the minds of readers this was most evident in a branch of the literature that quickly became known as the "New Wave." This has never been an easily defined movement, and certainly one that was not organized or even named by those seen to be its main practitioners. The term itself was borrowed from the French nouvelle vague film movement associated with Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, and its first use in SF is generally attributed to UK writer and critic Christopher Priest, who in 1964 used it to describe the kinds of stories regularly appearing in the British periodical New Worlds Quarterly.

Reborn from previous incarnations and nurtured by editor John Carnell and his successor Michael Moorcock, New Worlds attracted writers more concerned with style than content and influenced more by mainstream authors than genre ones. The writers most closely associated with this publication were J. G. Ballard, Brian W. Aldiss, and a transplanted American, John Sladek. Their work was rich in metaphor and inclined more away from the hard sciences toward the soft sciences psychology, sociology, and anthropology. The New Wave focused primarily on the present to the very near future and can be said to be more concerned with inner space than outer space.

Two American writers who were quick to embrace the New Wave were Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg. Both had entered the field through the typical genre publications but had labored for years under its straightjacket-like constraints. The genre that they had supposed was to be at the forefront of change and newness was quickly becoming archly conservative. A crisis point had been reached; too many writers were reworking the same themes and both style and content were becoming overly predictable. Much of Ellison and Silverberg's refocused work was influenced by and shared the sensibilities of the growing counter-culture movement; an interest in Oriental religions, mind-altering drugs, Pop Art and media, and the lifting of sexual taboos.

Ellison was able to bring this movement to the attention of - and amazingly have it embraced by - a large portion of the genre establishment with their inclusion in his award-winning anthologies Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972). His invitation to the cream of the SF world was for their most daring stories, either those rejected or extremely trimmed by conservative editors or ones never submitted for fear of rejection for reasons of style and/or content. His promise was for no editing aside from grammatical errors, or in the case of internal inconsistencies only on approval of the author. The response was so great it forced Ellison to delay publication of the second set - which included no author represented in the first - for five years. These anthologies are perhaps the greatest the genre has ever seen and were the recipient of ten major SF and Fantasy awards. Sadly, a proposed third installment, The Last Dangerous Visions, has yet to be published.

The single most significant aspect of SF's New Wave was the speed of its acceptance by the majority of the genre's establishment. What had at first seemed to be a revolutionary outrage against the canons of the field quickly gained acceptance due to two important factors; many of its practitioners were inordinately gifted craftsmen who seemed to share a true desire to invigorate the genre, and their recognition by critics outside of the field brought a new respectability to SF. It is true that a conservative faction, for instance editors Sam Moskowitz and Donald A. Wollheim, decried the seeming demise of Hard SF, but in essence the battle was quickly over. By the end of the 1960's SF writers experienced new freedoms of expression and all literary markets showed a greater readiness to accept diverse and sophisticated styles. It was at this time as well that fantasy - due primarily to the enormous popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth saga - and to some extent horror, gained a wider acceptance as being sister genres of SF. As Robert A. Heinlein had done some decades before, Harlan Ellison led a valiant but failing effort to rid the literature of its confining classifications. Speculative fiction, it was argued, could easily encompass the Hard-SF of Heinlein, as well as the fantasy of Tolkein and the modern urban fabulations of Ellison. Literary classifications remain however, basically due to publishers and booksellers' marketing strategies.

As mentioned previously, the New Wave which had begun in Britain was quickly embraced by both established and newly-emerging American writers. Along with Ellison and Silverberg, other established writers that seemed to fit easily into this niche included Philip K. Dick and Robert Sheckley, both of whose works had always been saturated with a rather pessimistic and ironic sense of humor. British writer John Brunner practically reinvented himself in the second half of his career, his earlier work being primarily cheerful space opera. For quite a few years during the late '60s and early '70s very little of a hard SF nature was being published other than in that most staunchly genre magazine Analog (formerly tilted Astounding Science Fiction).

Following, in solely alphabetical order, is a list of what I feel to be examples of the best of the New Wave writings:

1. Brian W. Aldiss- Barefoot in the Head; Greybeard; Report on Probability A
2. J.G.Ballard- The Crystal World; Vermillion Sands; The Wind From Nowhere
3. Barrington J. Bayley- Collision Course; Empire of Two Worlds; The Fall of Chronopolis
4. John Brunner - Stand on Zanzibar; The Sheep Look Up; The Shockwave Rider
5. Samuel R. Delany - Dhalgren; The Einstein Intersection; Nova
6. Thomas M. Disch - Camp Concentration; Echo Round His Bones; The Genocides
7. Harlan Ellison - The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World; Deathbird Stories; Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled
8. Philip José Farmer - Riders of the Purple Wage; To Your Scattered Bodies Go; The Wind Whales of Ishmael
9. M. John Harrison - The Pastel City; A Storm of Wings; In Viriconium
10. Christopher Priest - Indoctrinaire; Darkening Island; Inverted World
11. Robert Silverberg - The Man in the Maze; The Second Trip; The World Inside
12. Norman Spinrad - Bug Jack Barron; The Men in the Jungle; The Iron Dream

By the early '70s the furor created by the New Wave died out almost as quickly as it had emerged. But its influence, both the reaction to it and against it, helped pave the way for what can perhaps be seen as science fiction's second "Golden Age".

 

Chapter V: SF in the '70s

The furor surrounding the emergence of the New Wave was quickly over and the term was rarely used after the early '70s yet its impact can still be felt today, mainly evident in the relative absence of editorial constraints and the acceptance of a multitude of styles and a variety of content under the banner of SF. Early in the decade quite a few emerging writers clearly wrote in a style that would have been called New Wave only a year or so earlier, although to my knowledge they were never closely identified with this movement. Among the most prominent names in this category were Michael Bishop, Barry Malzberg, John Varley, Ian Watson, and Gene Wolfe.

Just as the New Wave writers had reflected much of the socio-political climate of the late '60s, the strength of the Women's Liberation Movement brought an increased interest in SF to a number of women writers. One of the most obvious attractions of SF to women - feminist or not - was the possibilities available for the creation of a female heroine within the framework of a genre heretofore predominated by men. Ursula K. LeGuin, whose career had begun in the mid-'60s continued to publish impressive work throughout the '70s as well. She was joined by Suzy McKee Charnas, C. J. Cherryh, Tanith Lee, Joanna Russ, and Pamela Sargent, to name but a few who rose to the challenge, but perhaps the most accomplised woman writer in the genre of this era was for many years believed by both readers and reviewers to be a man.

James Tiptree, Jr. was the most frequently used pseudonym of Dr. Alice Hastings Bradley Sheldon, a psychologist and former operative of the C.I.A. Many reviews of her work commented on the sensitivity and rapport displayed towards women and yet it came as a great shock to almost everyone when her identity was revealed in 1976. Her output of short stories in the '70s is among the most impressive the genre has ever seen, garnering two Hugo and three Nebula awards. Although shorter works have always been the backbone of SF, Tiptree's legacy as one of the finest writers in the field would be more universally recognized but for the fact she published only two novels. Her best work can be found in four separate story collections: Ten Thousand Light-Years From Home, Warm Worlds and Otherwise, Star Songs of an Old Primate, and Out of the Everywhere. Her two novels are Up the Walls of the World and Brightness Falls from the Air.

Interestingly, the most commercially significant new male writer of the '70s, John Varley, also made his mark predominately with his short stories, many of which featured female protagonists. Varley's work is all the more remarkable for the fact that he combined traditional Hard SF scenarios with a flamboyant, New Wave-ish style. It certainly did his career no harm that many critics immediately declared him the heir-apparent to Robert A. Heinlein, whose middle-period work Varley's most closely resembled. The Persistence of Vision and The Barbie Murders collects the majority of his best work of this period. Since the late '70s he has concentrated primarily on novels, the first of which was The Ophiuchi Hotline. In 1979 he published Titan, the first of his enormously successful Gaea Trilogy.

Gene Wolfe is another who emerged in the '70s with an abundance of short stories published in every conceivable periodical and original anthology in the genre. In my opinion he is the greatest stylist SF has ever seen, although he is not as well-known and popular due to the fact that the majority of his stories, as well as his novels, are more complex and oblique than most are willing to deal with. Of his work in the '70s, the best are collected in Gene Wolfe's Book of Days and The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (no, that is not a typo). Another work that can be read as a novel, but in essence is a collection of three linked novellas, is The 5th Head of Cerberus. The title story is my all-time favorite short story of any genre.

These and many others attest to the importance of the New Wave in establishing new perameters for the genre to explore and define, however the '70s also saw a significant rebirth and flowering of the traditions of Hard SF as well. Even though I have read a wide variety of science fiction and some fantasy, and number several New Wave writers among my favorites, I have always been partial to Hard SF, that is stories of possible futures and dealing with space exploration, new technologies, colonization of other worlds, and cultural and political changes in the future of Earth. Almost all the literature in the field that preceded the '60s is usually conceded to be Hard SF, but for a brief time it seemed as if the very thing that most centrally defined the genre - the science itself - was disappearing. A look at the Hugo and Nebula award winners of the late '60s will bear this out.

Then in the early '70s a shift back to Hard SF themes seemed to be evident. Two separate factors may have been involved. First, older members of the Science Fiction Writers of America may have been effective in influencing their younger colleagues to once again embrace what had initially interested them in the genre, and secondly, many new writers trained in the sciences made their mark with traditional stories told with much more polish and style than had previously been the norm. Larry Niven (mathematics), Jerry Pournelle (engineering), and Gregory Benford and Charles Sheffield (physics) are just a few of the new breed who brought their knowledge of the scientific method to the construction of some of the most honored works in SF history.

Niven's 1970 novel Ringworld won both the Hugo and Nebula, and in 1974 he co-wrote with Pournelle The Mote in God's Eye, which was credited by Robert A. Heinlein as being the best Hard SF novel he had ever read. Pournelle's solo work has a decidedly military slant, most of his early work appearing in a sequence known as The Co-Dominium, the climax of which is the aforementioned Niven collaboration. Benford has created some of the most believable alien worlds and species imaginable, his best work of this period to be found in the novels The Stars in Shroud and In the Ocean of Night, and in collaboration with Gordon Eklund, If the Stars Are Gods. Sheffield's technological expertise, honed in hundreds of scientific articles since 1962, bore fruit in two story collections, Vectors and Hidden Variables and his first novel Sight of Proteus.

The '70s also saw a resurgence of work by long established writers, some from the heyday of the Golden Age. Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves, Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama and The Fountains of Paradise, and Frederik Pohl's Gateway all were recipients of both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Remember that the Hugo is voted on by the fans and the Nebula is awarded by members of the SFWA, so this was a clear indication that both readers and writers were anxious to rediscover the roots of the genre. However, many of the other award winners of this decade were clearly of the new order. This combination of new horizons along with the old established style in my opinion shaped the 1970's into the richest decade in the history of SF. Perhaps it is because the 1970's was the decade in which I did the vast majority of my reading that I regard this period so highly. If I only had the time now to read that I did then. Oh well, we do what we can.

A comprehensive listing of the memorable work of this decade would be exceedingly long but I have attempted to contain this list to a managable length, but I also wanted to give an adequate overview so it was difficult to narrow it down to even this short a list. Again, in purely alphabetical order:

1. Poul Anderson - The Day of Their Return; Mirkheim
2. Lloyd Biggle, Jr. - This Darkening Universe; Silence is Deadly
3. Michael Bishop - A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire; Transfigurations
4. Ben Bova - Millenium; Colony
5. F. M. Busby - Cage a Man; The Long View
6. Octavia Butler - Mind of My Mind; Kindred
7. Suzy Mckee Charnas - Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines
8. C.J.Cherryh - Gate of Ivrel; Hunter of Worlds
9. John Christopher - Wild Jack; Empty World
10. Michael G. Coney - Mirror Image; Winter's Children
11. Glen Cook - The Heirs of Babylon; A Shadow of All Night Falling
12. Juanita Coulson - Unto the Last Generation; Space Trap
13. Richard Cowper - Time Out of Mind; The Twilight of Briareus
14. John Crowley - The Deep; Engine Summer; Beasts
15. Don DeLillo - Great Jones Street; Ratner's Star
16. Lester del Rey - Pstalemate; Weeping May Tarry
17. Philip K. Dick - Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said; A Scanner Darkly
18. Gardner Dozois - The Visible Man; Strangers
19. George Alec Effinger - What Entropy Means to Me; Relatives
20. Harlan Ellison - Approaching Oblivion; Strange Wine
21. Philip José Farmer - The Lavalite World; The Fabulous Riverboat
22. Ron Goulart - Shaggy Planet; When the Waker Sleeps
23. Charles L. Grant - The Shadow of Alpha; Ascension
24. James E. Gunn - The Listeners; Some Dreams Are Nightmares
25. Joe Haldeman - The Forever War; Mindbridge
26. Robert A. Heinlein - I Will Fear No Evil; Time Enough for Love
27. Frank Herbert - Hellstrom's Hive; The Dosadi Experiment
28. James Hogan - Inherit the Stars; The Genesis Machine
29. Fred Hoyle - Into Deepest Space; The Inferno
30. Ursula K. Le Guin - The Lathe of Heaven; The Dispossessed
31. Richard A. Lupoff - Space War Blues; Sword of the Demon
32. Barry Malzberg - Galaxies; Herovit's World
33. George R. R. Martin - Dying of the Light; Sandkings
34. Andre Norton - Exiles of the Stars; Forerunner Foray
35. Frederick Pohl - Man Plus; Jem
36. Tim Powers - The Skies Discrowned; Epitaph in Rust
37. Marta Randall - Islands; A City in the North
38. Mack Reynolds - The Towers of Utopia; Lagrange Five
39. Spider Robinson - Telempath; Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
40. Joanna Russ - And Chaos Died; The Female Man
41. Pamela Sargent - Starshadows; Cloned Lives
42. Robert Silverberg - The Stochastic Man; Shadrach in the Furnace
43. Clifford Simak - A Choice of Gods; Cemetery World
44. Norman Spinrad - No Direction Home; A World Between
45. Brian Stableford - Man in a Cage; The Mind Riders
46. Wilson Tucker - The Year of the Quiet Sun; Ice and Iron
47. Sydney J. van Scyoc - Starmother; Cloudcry
48. Ian Watson - The Embedding; Alien Embassy
49. Kate Wilhelm - The Infinity Box; Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
50. Roger Zelazny - Jack of Shadows; My Name Is Legion

 

Chapter VI: SF in the '80s and '90s

By this time, SF was more widely read than ever, perhaps due to the enormous popularity of the film Star Wars and the many that followed it's success; Close Encounters, E.T., etc. The growth of the Fantasy field was strong by this time as well. Following the success of the Tolkien phenomenon came Stephen R. Donaldson's series on Thomas Covenant as well as Terry Brooks' Shannara sequence. Many consider the bulk of Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley's work to be more fantasy than science fiction. Horror became more identified as a sister-genre to SF with the success of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and John Saul, among others.

Perhaps the most significant new occurrence in Hard SF of the '80s was the emergence of the "Cyberpunk" movement. The late '70s and early '80s saw the birth of the personal computer age and a significant number of writers attempted to visualize a future world in which the human mind would be melded with a computer matrix. William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer is credited with the introduction of the term "cyberspace" into the language, but it was hardly the first of this type of story. The identifying term itself comes from Bruce Bethke's short story "Cyberpunk" of 1983, but the roots of this sub-genre can be traced as far back as the early '50s with Bernard Wolfe's Limbo and Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, and the geneology continues through many works by Cordwainer Smith ("Scanners Live in Vain"), Philip K. Dick (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), James Tiptree Jr. ("The Girl Who Was Plugged In"), John Varley ("Overdrawn at the Memory Bank"), Norman Spinrad (The Void Captain's Tale), and Rudy Rucker (Software). Another evident influence on the atmosphere of cyberpunk tales is the "Film Noir" of the '40s and '50s and most definitely their SF descendants Blade Runner and Videodrome. Other writers whose work fits into this category are Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, and more recently Pat Cadigan, Michael Swanwick, and Neal Stephenson.

Other writers who emerged in the '80s and '90s and who continue to produce impressive work include Greg Bear, Lois McMaster Bujold, Orson Scott Card, Greg Egan, Elizabeth Hand, Roger MacBride Allen, Tim Powers, Kim Stanley Robinson, Frank M. Robinson, Dan Simmons, L. Neil Smith, Allen Steele, Connie Willis, Robert Charles Wilson, and Timothy Zahn, among many others.

I would like to conclude this article with yet another mention of my current favorite. It is my opinion that the most impressive work of SF in both the '80s and '90s has been that of Gene Wolfe. 1980 saw the publication of The Shadow of the Torturer, the first of four volumes of The Book of the New Sun which was followed in the '90s by the four-volume Book of the Long Sun, a tale of travelers on a generational starship set in the same universe/time-line as the New Sun stories. Late 1999 saw the publication of On Blue's Waters which continues the saga as the ship reaches its destination. It has been joined by its own sequels, In Green's Jungles and Return to the Whorl, to complete his latest series known as The Book of the Short Sun. Wolfe's Fantasy titles of this period include Castleview, There Are Doors, Soldier of the Mist, and its sequel Soldier of Arete.

In summation, and as mentioned previously, the genres of SF and Fantasy are so complex and enormous today it would be impossible for any one reader to absorb even half of what is published in the fields each year, let alone catch up on everything that came before. Prevalent today are endless tie-ins to television shows, movies and comics, along with shared-worlds such as Harlan Ellison's Medea and Robert Asprin's Thieves' World, as well as the share-cropping of themes by prominent authors like Asimov's Foundation and Robot series, McCaffrey's Pern, Bradley's Darkover, and Norton's Witch World. Add to that the many venues for original short stories and novels and you have a vast array of work from which to choose.

Happy reading everyone!

 

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