A dangerous vision
Posted by Ron Edwards
September is Cosmic Zap month here at Doctor Xaos Comics Madness. I’m talking now about what was going on in science fiction and fantasy at the time, which is too huge to summarize – it has to be like one of those fragmented memory/epiphany scenes in a movie, with rapid, too-short shots interspersed with someone’s face going “AAAAH!” and maybe cloth-ripping or fake-Latin chanting sound effects.
There isn’t really a beginning to it, and definitely no real genre boundaries in practice. Fredric Brown. Ray Bradbury. C. L. Moore. Fritz Leiber was a giant long before “the sixties” and only became more so. The crucial political/literary venue of Playboy. There’s the lesson of Vonnegut: lauded for crossing venues of promotion and review, not content. I’ll go with one shattering landmark though, from 1956: Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination – the book to which an incredible amount of SF ever since is merely a footnote.
The sword-and-sorcery revival wasn’t only Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, but the recognition of those who’d been battering away at it more recently, including Leiber, Leigh Brackett, Gardner F. Fox, and Jack Vance. It was contemporary with the Tolkien revival, and similarly nabbed by the counterculture and political dissent – torn from the hands of zine writers and instantly in synergy with music and comics. Also, Moorcock’s earliest and best work was earlier than one might think, back in the mid-60s. So the old and the ongoing and the new exploded into visibility all at once, pretty much simultaneously with my learning to read.
My thing is social science fiction, but not tendentious, not chin-stroking “what if,” but as visceral and as (yes) problematic as possible, ripping emotional honesty and intellectual savagery right out onto the page and saying “deal with it.” That’s why science fantasy and sword-and-sorcery go with it sword-in-scabbard. This entire complex features the entire political spectrum because it’s not neutral or “balanced,” but instead most effective and fun at its most provocative. [side point: the real category is obviously fantasy, with science trappings, politics, far-future, mythic past, and others being non-exclusive subsets, but enough of that here] It’s all dangerous, off-message, weird shit.
That southern California scene was clearly insane, full of brilliant depressed loonies, con-men or near to it, and savage ranters, all of them with one foot in The Twilight Zone / The Outer Limits both literally (professionally) and mentally. Philip K. Dick was not then a fan-fave or status-read like he would become in the 90s – I think maybe he was too raw, too spot-on, and too painful, until an audience came along that was disconnected from the politics and more interested in adaptations and cachet.
Star Trek, pre-franchise – the show itself, then fandom, then conventions, the cartoon, and the Federation Outpost
Ah, granddaddy Harlan – so much stuff to feel and say. I guess I should confess that from about age 12 to 22, I wanted to be Harlan Ellison, until I realized that he was simply a human who had perfectly understandable limitations in every way, and that I was already more like what I wanted to be than he was. Since then I’ve preferred to consider only the author at his best, the creator of the Ticktockman, Catman, Vic & Blood, and so many other incredible ideas/characters, and especially not to concern myself with the person or, for that matter, with SF fandom culture at all. I don’t think anyone’s going to have meaningful perspective on his work and influence until maybe another five or six decades from now, and at the moment, I find myself more happy contemplating him as direct and indirect mentor to generations of authors.
But please do consider the impact that Dangerous Visions had on a young reader, and even more so, the second collection which holds so much astonishing power I cannot even begin to talk about. Not only did dozens of new authors launch from these, but the relatively established ones who participated all went through doors of escalated ambition and technique which literally became a literary revolution. Norman Spinrad. Roger Zelazny. Gene Wolfe. Tanith Lee. Avram Davidson.
Naming these and thinking of all the others in a jumble reminds me too of tie-ins not with other SF but rather with specific branches of literature, whether pulp detective or existential lit or ancient classic theater, or especially, other current fiction which for one reason or another didn’t get genre-tagged (or smeared) as SF, like A Clockwork Orange or a fair amount of Roald Dahl. If you read this, you were also reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Herman Hesse, Luis Borges, John Hersey, Kobo Abe, John Gardner, Carlos Fuentes, Yukio Mishima, Edward Abbey, and Vladimir Nabokov, to say nothing of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Albert Camus.
Time to hurt you again: Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke weren’t a triumvirate of gods. They were merely the authors whose old work could be easily re-issued and whose new work could be beefed into mainstream promotion – mainly because it was politically and culturally “questioning” without being confrontational. Go ahead and point to two or three good stories from each, and I’ll nod; that doesn’t change anything. 2001: A Space Odyssey pretty much sucks. And yes, Dune too, and Herbert as a writer in general: beta at best, and usually considerably lesser. Once you read Leiber, calling these three/four the “greats of science fiction” is merely laughable.
In the U.K., they (or at least Judith Merrill) called it the New Wave, and I remain unconvinced. Editor Brian Aldiss promoted and wrote perhaps the most boring ouevre in the history of letters. Lots of that deliberately experimental stuff was posturing gibble-gabble, and arguably that’s when Moorcock stopped writing and started adding. Then again, I do like Jerry Cornelius for reasons I cannot explain well, and I also think his best book is Breakfast in the Ruins, which is as textbook avant-garde as it gets (not ordinarily a compliment from me). And of course there are these emergent gems from that scene, not to be missed.
By the early 70s, the bookstores were suddenly a big cultural and social thing, and the relevant section featured an amazing explosion of five decades of fiction all suddenly appearing at once. The publishing houses were fearless, hiring bright weird people to be the editors for anthologies and for in-house lines of paperbacks – throwing out some names at random like Bantam Spectra Editions, Byron Preiss, Damon Knight, or that anyone of my age can spot a DAW or Del Rey cover spine from 50 yards. The stores became indescribably cool: pillows, cats, candles, coffee, … and women. Lots of women, five to ten years older than me.
Kid fantasy, for which Lewis is only a start: John Christopher, Lloyd Alexander, John Bellairs, that “steel magic” book. The greatest coloring books ever, from Troubador Press:
There were tons of these, including beautiful natural history, mythology, zodiac, and more. Why every kids’ store is not loaded with them to this very day, I have no idea.
Oh! The crucial role of The Planet of the Apes, as individual politically-powerful films sprung from the awesome presence of Rod Serling, as the marketing push of 1974 (Go Ape!!), as the first major SF franchise including a brief but pretty good TV show and a shockingly edgy Saturday morning cartoon, and as a case study of all its hard-won intellectual capital going flush due to factors which still demand a thinking dissertation. One only need watch the first couple of Apes movies, without distraction and without your buddies hollering memes, then the first couple of Star Wars ones, and tell me what you see happening before your eyes.
The Apes were the standout among an incredible feast for the low-budget, edgy movie-goer, which included the full range from brilliant to wretched and often a mix of the two: Zardoz, A Boy and His Dog, Silent Running, Soylent Green, and so many more, culminating in arguably the worst ever made relative to its cultural “gonna be such an event” buildup, Logan’s Run.
Who knows what’s going through your head throughout this montage. For me, the net take is that “problematic” is a good thing, and God knows there was enough of it to work with; check out Piers Anthony’s Battle Circle some time. I’m thinking too of all those books that I can’t imagine any modern SF fan I know reading in a million years, including authors Julian Jay Savarin, John Robert Russell, Barry Malzberg, Arthur Byron Cover, Andrew J. Offut, George Alec Effinger, Kate Wilhelm, Robert Stallman … my point being that every one of them would yield a whole term’s dedicated and frightening debate in a decent college course in culture/lit/polysci, if any such could be located. Say it again: problematic is good. Only too far is far enough.
And the music just kept coming. Did I say Julian Jay Savarin?
In line with the sudden thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations, all this generally eastern-bloc SF suddenly hit the shelves, just as interesting in its painful and confused framing for U.S. audiences as in its remarkable excellence – or at least in what I read, especially Lem and the Strugatski brothers, no surprise to anyone.
And the painful attempts at big-budget cosmicity: every publisher wanted another Stranger in a Strange Land or Dune, so they tapped authors all over to deliver big fat profound novels, often well out of that author’s groove or skills. Anderson’s Avatar, Anthony’s Macroscope, tons more – you’re lucky if you get a glimmer of a good idea in the first couple chapters, just as in the more famous ones.
How can I possibly explain it? The politics of the day rocketed up and down and sideways among SALT, Watergate, Vietnam, the SLA, Weather, the Black Congressional Caucus, and revolution/counter-revolutions exploding across Latin America and Africa. You can’t go by “decade,” you can’t even go by year – each new creative product needs to be understood in its month of creation and publication. And even more so, each such product appeared in a weird and complete identification among book/music/movie/comics, with strangely, TV as probably the lesser partner in this mix. Any one of these could inspire or be the first expression of a story that showed up across all the others, whether as adaptation or rip-off or continuation.
Comics – like I said, it’s a matter of instant synergy. It’s impossible to summarize the adaptations left and right (Lord of Light, More Than Human, Jerry Cornelius), and of how much, e.g., not just Conan but Howard’s poetry. I think it was the most apparent among the dystopic subset including, in rapidly descending order of quality, the black-and-white Planet of the Apes (which was terrifying), Deathlok, Killraven (which preceded Zardoz, for you fashionistas), Bloodstone, Skull the Slayer … the fall-off after about 1977 is significant … and I feel a whole post of crazy talk coming, so I’ll sign off on that for now. My point is that one didn’t read, say, Killraven in isolation as “a comic book” – the experience was all wrapped up this crazy complex of multiple media, perspectives into past work (in this case War of the Worlds), and immediate political context.
Here’s where Metal Hurlant fits in, especially with its adaptations of, among others, More Than Human. Again, it’s not merely “comics,” but comics/books/films/everything, and again, past and present works arriving in a new sea of sensation and interpretation. I still cannot understand the mid-late 80s fetish of the “new” graphic novel, not when I was reading Chaykin’s adaptation of The Stars My Destination years ahead of that.
I just remembered too: all those repeated attempts at prose-comics hybrids in mass-market paperback format, ranging from Gil Kane’s Blackmark to Byron Preiss’ edited series Weird Heroes to the compilation of Marvel’s Star Wars – no one knew what to do with this “comics are awesome” insight and somehow discovered every format that wouldn’t work.
I hate to finish on a bummer, but by the mid-80s all of this had become a dream, absent not only from the landscape but evidently from memory. I’d put 1986 as the clincher year, featuring the original Robocop as the last truly great SF film and Aliens as the first excellent science-trappings action film. But it had been coming for a while, with the exercise in emptiness Star Trek: the Motion Picture in 1979, the occasionally charming but not very heavy-metal Heavy Metal movie in 1981, and that wretched farce The Return of the Jedi in 1983. But that’s movies; in comics … it was gone well before then. It’s one with the vans, become hip memes for glitzier films and GIFs to mine, or viewed as an incomprehensible alien past.
Links: War of the Worlds
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on September 10, 2015, in Politics dammit, The 70s me and tagged Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison, Hawkwind, Killraven, Metal Hurlant, Oodles of titles, Planet of the Apes, Rod Serling, Star Trek, Troubador Press. Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.