As the 1960s yielded to the 1970s, literary science fiction continued to descend into the doldrums with some of the last major works by classic authors and some by a handful of direct successors making their appearance.
Meanwhile, creative energy over the course of the decade definitely began to shift away from magazines and in the direction of novels.
The move represented a return to SF’s roots as original science fiction appearing in long form format, as opposed to being introduced as short stories or serials first. This copied the pattern set by early writers such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Olaf Stapledon.
By contrast, the magazine format, which over intervening decades had dominated the introduction of new writers and concepts into science fiction, had gone the way of the dodo. Where once dozens of titles swamped American newsstands, by the 1970s, they were almost all gone with the venerable Astounding Science Fiction the oldest and last of the earlier generation of pulp magazines to survive (retitled Analog in 1960). Reduced to digest format, among the few remaining newsstand magazines were The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and latecomer Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine making its first appearance in 1977.
These handful of magazines (not counting scattered small press and fan produced publications) would provide the sole remaining outlet for new writers. That window of opportunity however, was all the smaller due to submissions by established authors whose work naturally went immediately to the top of the slush pile or even skipped it entirely.
With rare exceptions, new writers coming onto the scene were fewer and less inventive than their forebears. Still under the influence of the anemic new wave rather than the more red-blooded themes explored by authors of decades’ past, the newer writers left the impression that there were no new worlds left to conquer.
But that attitude proved false with the emergence of James P. Hogan at the end of the 1970s.
A physicist himself, Hogan debuted on the SF scene with Inherit the Stars which not only kicked off a popular series of books dealing with the “gentle giants of Ganymede,” but reintroduced in a forceful, creative manner “hard” science into science fiction and single-handedly reignited interest in hardware and scientific theory.
Hogan’s mix of science fact, characterization, and old-fashioned adventure dressed up in a new hard-edged style suitable for a new audience whose tastes had matured since SF’s earlier days, proved a potent mix that aimed in a different direction than the psycho-sexual explorations of humanity that writers like J.G. Ballard would take to such a point that they could barely even be considered SF.
The bad news was that Hogan’s success would not be emulated by many and only served to slow down, not stop, SF’s slide into military and feminist fiction dressed up with sci-fi trappings, endless novelizations of popular television and movie franchises, or outright fantasy.
Also threatening the survival of traditional science fiction was the film industry.
Just as movies seemed to finally be recognizing the fact that adults were interested in the medium and adaptations of such novels as Planet of the Apes, The Forbin Project, The Andromeda Strain, Make Room! Make Room!, and Logan’s Run were becoming more common, the trend was cut short by Star Wars which reduced the SF element to simple adventure, bordering on fantasy.
The huge popularity of the Star Wars movies launched the SF film in a new direction that concentrated more on big gun action and shoot ‘em ups rather than idea-driven plots. Adaptations of classic SF stories more or less ended and those that did manage to make it to the big screen, were transformed into action thrillers.
The irony of it all was that though such films made science fiction as a mass genre more popular with adults than ever, fewer people were actually reading it. Thus, the following examples of the decades’ top stories likely made little impact on audiences outside the small pond of SF readers. An era that began with the publication of Tau Zero in 1970 as pulp era writer Poul Anderson bucked the new wave trend of the time to tell a story about a generation ship that ends up traveling at such speeds that it transcends time and within the lifespans of its crew, survives the contraction of the universe and emerges into the next to find a new world upon which to settle.
In a mix of hard science and new wave sensibilities, Isaac Asimov returned to SF with The Gods Themselves in 1972, a story that on one level involves aliens who seek to drain energy from our universe that if successful, could destroy the Earth and on another level, explores the aliens’ social makeup that includes having three genders instead of two.
Also in 1972, John Brunner returned to form with The Sheep Look Up. Structured in the same style as Stand on Zanzibar, the novel concerns itself with a dystopian America in the throes of environmental disaster.
1973 was marked by a pair of books by two of SF’s grandmasters including Arthur C. Clark with Rendezvous With Rama, about a giant alien ship that passes through the solar system on an eons-long journey to somewhere that the human astronauts who go out to meet it, never find out. Robert A. Heinlein returned with Time Enough For Love, a thick, dull volume of tales told by Lazarus Long, a character introduced by the author way back in 1941′s “Methuselah’s Children.”
Pointing the way to a trend in SF that would prove enduringly popular in coming decades was Joe Haldeman’s Forever War, a 1974 military tale of soldiers fighting aliens in an endless interstellar war with similarities to America’s experience in Vietnam. The military trappings, if not the larger lessons of war, would be endlessly copied by lesser talents and eventually reach full flowering with the rise of the computer gaming industry.
Another hard science outlier, The Mote in God’s Eye, a novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournell published in 1974, takes the reader to the year 3017 AD for an engrossing first contact story.
J.G. Ballard continued as the standard bearer of the new wave with a number of off-trail novels including 1975′s High Rise. Here, the author explores life in the closed environment of an apartment building whose tenants cut themselves off from the outside and soon descend into chaos and barbarism. Ballard’s exploration of the human animal was in the best tradition of the new wave and in view of the swiftly deteriorating conditions of the 21st century, suggests that it may have been a better tool for predicting the future than more traditional stories involving hard science.
The next year, it was classic author Fred Pohl’s turn to make the case for hard science with Man Plus, a story about government-enhanced humans called cyborgs which would become a household reference and pop culture phenom in following years.
The 1970s ended on a high note for the champions of hard science over new wave psycho-socio sensibilities with the publication in 1977 of James P. Hogan’s Inherit the Stars, about humans on the Moon finding the remains of an alien astronaut indicating the presence of intelligent life in the solar system that existed long before that of mankind. The popularity of this first novel launched a string of mounting successes for Hogan over the balance of the decade including The Two Faces of Tomorrow, The Genesis Machine, and a sequel to his rookie novel, The Gentle Giants of Ganymede.
Hogan’s body of early work would prove that traditional tales of science, aliens, and space exploration were still viable, even preferable as entertainment in science fiction but in a world of shrinking readership and flagging interest in space and science, it was increasingly an endangered species.
See the previous installments in this series: