After many decades, the steam in the SF train that had left the station in the earlier part of the century, finally began to run out.
It wasn’t something that happened right away or even a trend that could be recognized at the time, but in conjunction with the spirit of the times, a younger set of writers, more interested in aspects of social development, moved the field more in the direction of “soft” SF rather than the more traditional “hard” science fiction of the golden age.
This movement, or “new wave,” spearheaded by the likes of Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, and Judith Merril, concerned as it was with sexual mores, politics, psychology, environmentalism, drug use, and social breakdown, might have been considered a maturing of science fiction with its more “adult” interests and disdain for pulp-era SF, but it came at a cost in excitement and wonder that had contributed mightily to the rise of SF as a literary genre in the first place.
As a result, the field would become increasingly marginalized in the decades beyond the 1960s, infiltrated by fantasy and watered down to a handful of sub-genres such as cyberpunk, military fiction, and alternate history.
Hard, science-oriented stories of space opera, nuclear power, and alien civilizations would give way to soft science stories that, as new-wave guru J.G. Ballard put it, focused on “inner space” rather than outer space.
In short, science fiction would become less and less interesting to young readers. The same age group that had been so fascinated by the work of Jack Williamson and Edmond Hamilton in previous years would begin to abandon the field over the course of the 1960s and more so in following years.
In short, science fiction wasn’t much fun anymore.
Which is not to say there still weren’t a lot of good stories out there. They just became harder to find and further in between. After all, this was the decade when such writers as Gene Wolfe, R.A. Lafferty, Ben Bova, Fred Saberhagen, and Larry Niven made their first appearances in print.
Ironically, SF-based movies were also growing in popularity and in maturity of content with decent adaptations of The Day of the Triffids, Fahrenheit 451, Fail Safe, and 2001: A Space Odyssey all appearing over the course of the decade.
Furthermore, television was also getting into the act with shows like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and The Outer Limits available for adult consumption while Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, and Land of the Giants still managed to convey that old sense of wonder to the younger set.
But on the literary scene, it was veteran author Robert A. Heinlein who kicked off the decade with his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. About a man raised by Martians who comes to Earth and becomes the guru of a religious cult, the book became a forerunner of the new wave and required reading among the cognoscenti of a growing counterculture movement.
Another early progenitor of the new wave was Polish SF author Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, a novel about an expedition to a living planet that taps into the dreams, aspirations, and regrets of the human astronauts. Adding to the story’s brooding strangeness is Lem’s sometimes psychedelic prose, a term that would come into common usage as the decade wore on.
Mainstream author Anthony Burgess made his own contribution to the genre and to the new wave, with 1962’s A Clockwork Orange, the story of a juvenile delinquent named Alex who inhabits a dystopian future where gangs of roving youth practice extreme violence. Though the state attempts to force reform on Alex, it fails and he returns to his criminal ways. In the end, however, there are hints that youthful anti-social attitudes eventually burn themselves out and the instinct towards domestication ultimately triumphs.
Having begun his career in the 1950s as one of the most promising of new writers, Philip K. Dick would eventually abandon his near-perfect string of SF short stories for the novel format, including that of 1962’s The Man in the High Castle, an early alternate history novel that postulates an Axis victory in World War II. Although Dick manages to tell a coherent story here (despite referring to the I Ching for plotting assists), The Man in the High Castle points the way to the author’s later, more self-indulgent work that, while seemingly in tune with new wave sensibilities, was actually unreadable.
Reflecting the spirit of the times to come wherein Western civilization would become rife with self-loathing, Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel Planet of the Apes postulates a world turned upside down where simians instead of humans have become the dominant species on Earth. In the story, Boulle cleverly uses the reversed circumstances to highlight the contradictions and hypocrisies of mankind, a subversive attitude that would prove perfect for the coming social upheaval of the later 1960s.
Also in 1963, Frank Herbert’s “Dune World” was published, the first installment of what would be retooled as a novel in the next decade titled simply Dune. Tapping into the zeitgeist, Herbert managed to create a conservationist manifesto wrapped in traditional SF themes of galactic empire and space opera with a touch of drug use.
A champion of the new wave, J.G. Ballard’s interest in exploring inner space is evident in 1966’s The Crystal World, which on the surface resembles a typical disaster novel of the period but, with its concentration on the emotional and philosophical turmoil among the characters, betrays the author’s true interests. Adding to the stylization, Ballard’s description of the spreading crystallization creates a setting of delicate beauty and color that would also become a hallmark of the new wave.
Michael Moorcock, today known more for his sword & sorcery character Elric of Melnibone, spearheaded the new wave with his influential magazine New Worlds. Not to be outdone by the authors he cultivated, Moorcock made his own contribution to the movement’s growing body of literature with the controversial “Behold the Man” in 1966. Striking at the foundations of Western civilization, Moorcock tells the story of Karl Glogauer as he travels back in time to meet Jesus of Nazareth and ends up replacing him on the cross.
While Moorcock worked from England, in the United States author Harlan Ellison was editing a groundbreaking anthology called Dangerous Visions. Published in 1967, the book contained a mix of golden age authors and newcomers who were instructed to come up with stories that broke taboos both in content and in stylization. They succeeded, and Dangerous Visions became a legend in the SF field and a touchstone for the new wave.
The 1960s ended with John Brunner‘s Stand on Zanzibar, the last great contribution to SF of the era. In it, the reader is presented with a dystopian future world whose nihilistic, chaotic nature is reflected in the book’s unique format in which different characters and ongoing events are tracked in short, bite-sized segments. The novel was a perfect metaphor for a real world that at the time seemed to be spinning out of control and whose future promised no more than did Brunner’s novel of the year 2010.
Despite the heated battles between enthusiasts and traditionalists, the new wave would peter out by the end of the 1970s, leaving behind only a vague sense that science fiction had to meet the literary standards of mainstream fiction. Whether such a standard had helped or harmed the genre is for posterity to judge; but in a world where reading as a pastime is fast disappearing, how much will it matter?
Or does SF need to return to the fevered prose of the 1930s or the technical wonder of the golden age in order to once more attract young, questing minds? You decide.
Editor’s Note: Check out the previous installments in Pierre’s series exploring the development of science fiction by decade: The 10 Most Influential Science Fiction Stories of the 1910s, The 10 Most Influential Science Fiction Stories of the 1920s, The Most Important, Visionary Science Fiction Stories of the 1930s, What Were the Most Significant Science Fiction Stories of the 1940s?, and What Are The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of the 1950s?