Science fiction is so embedded in the cultural mainstream that it’s difficult to imagine how it was once viewed as a specialist genre of minority interest. Movies and gaming in particular are dominated by either visions of a technologically empowered and/or degraded future or the pan-dimensional, anything-goes scenarios of the various superhero universes. In our daily lives, the application of SF staples such as AI, virtual reality, and robotics are increasingly commonplace, while the fantastical, mind-blowing complexity of the digital world we now inhabit is taken totally for granted. And let’s not forget that the world’s two richest men are currently engaged in an interstellar pissing contest that could have been ripped from the pages of a pulp SF magazine.
Yet arguably, science fiction as literature still remains a slightly disreputable tributary of ‘proper’ fiction, corralled into its own section in bookstores and safely kept apart from the more respectable tomes at the front of the shop, like the heavy metal of the literary world. The irony is that, beyond the super-science of warp drives and anti-gravity suits, and the florid depiction of alien planets, SF was traditionally a conservative, even reactionary, genre, with many stories being thinly veiled colonialist or military fantasies. And given the majority demographic of both its writers and readership, classic SF was populated by strong-jawed white male heroes who invariably valued ideals and ideas above empathy and emotions.
That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of more nuanced and subversive works produced during SF’s ‘golden age’ of the 1940s and 50s. But it wasn’t until the coming of the countercultural 60s that SF really began to experiment with its boundaries and admit more diverse voices and viewpoints. On the one hand, this meant a new focus on inner rather than outer space, an acknowledgement that, as J.G. Ballard put it, the earth was the only alien planet worth exploring. On the other, it saw a greater emphasis on how human beings, with all their quirks and idiosyncrasies, might live in the future and even transform as a species.
This ‘new wave’ of SF, as it became known, is the root inspiration for Dangerous Visions And New Worlds – Radical Science Fiction, 1950–1985, an excellent collection of essays, edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre, that not only covers well-known new wave writers such as Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delaney and Roger Zelazny, but also includes fascinating and compelling pieces on less acknowledged figures and some of the more obscure byways of SF publishing. There’s a refreshing commitment to highlight in an entirely non-tokenistic fashion the works of female writers such as Judith Merril, Alice Sheldon and Octavia Butler, while the articles on gay adult science fiction novels and ‘speculative fuckbooks’ are especially eye-opening. It’s also sumptuously illustrated throughout with numerous reproductions of the weird and wonderful covers these books came in.
Both Michael Moorcock – editor of New Worlds magazine – and Harlan Ellison – editor of the Dangerous Visions anthologies – preferred the term speculative, rather than science, fiction to describe the genre they were helping to nurture and develop, and it’s that sense of exploring every possibility, SF as a revolutionary means of expression, that pervades this collection.
I spoke to co-editor Iain McIntyre to find out more about the genesis of the book and why many of the works it discusses still resonate today.
What inspired you and Andrew to put this book together?
This is the third collection about books that the two of us have edited, the first being Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, And Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction And Youth Culture, 1950 To 1980 (2017), and the second Sticking It To The Man: Revolution And Counterculture In Pulp And Popular Fiction, 1950 To 1980 (2019). Initially we were going to include some chapters about speculative writers and radicalism in Sticking It To The Man, but that book just grew and grew. With the high/low culture, literary/pulp distinctions particularly blurred with sci-fi, and a huge range of authors and works to choose from, we decided the field really needed a book of its own.
What for you defines ‘radical’ science fiction?
Works that pushed the boundaries of the genre, and fiction overall. For some authors, as well as illustrators and designers, during this period radicalism was mainly seen in terms of expression, style, aesthetics, etc. The influence of the Beats, modernism, New Journalism, psychedelics, non-Christian spirituality, etc. had a huge impact. At the same time, many authors were either part of, or influenced by, left-wing, anti-authoritarian and liberation movements and this shifted the topics they wrote about and the way they approached stories set in the past, present and future.
Starting in the mid to late 1960s a slew of thought-provoking, experimental and politicised works emerged that gained enough momentum to be dubbed the ‘new wave’ of science fiction. Despite resistance from some fans, publishers and editors, the novels and short stories associated with this term became hugely popular to the point of pretty much dominating awards and the field in the 1970s.
While the heart of this book is based around the new wave scene of the 60s and 70s, you make it plain that there was plenty of radical SF before this period…
From the beginning, science fiction’s basis in speculation attracted those with differing visions of the world and a desire to upend the political and literary status quo. Pioneering authors such as Catherine Perkins Gilmore, Edward Bellamy, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell all created utopias and dystopias to explore the problems of the present and how things might develop in the future or parallel worlds.
Echoing, and sometimes part of, the New Left that emerged during the post-war era, writers such as Judith Merril, John Brunner and J.G. Ballard challenged conservatism through stories that tackled issues regarding nuclear war, authoritarianism, prejudice, sexual repression, colonialism etc. A number of authors who became associated with the new wave started their journey much earlier.
On saying that, much of this SF was written in the response to the “empires in space” stories from SF’s so-called golden age, which were often very reactionary…
The experimentation and radicalism of 1960s and 70s SF not only echoed the wider social changes afoot, but was also a direct reaction to the strictures and censorship of the publishers and editors who controlled the SF field from the 1930s right up until the early 60s. These had ensured a focus on straight white male heroes, prim sexuality, scientific progressivism, and linear narratives. Those writers who wanted to explore how life might be different in the future or on other worlds, or to consider inner as well as outer space, and play with the form, chafed against the genre’s restrictions.
Famously, membership of the new wave and the ‘old guard’ was largely exemplified by the lists of those who signed onto statements in advertisements run in Galaxy magazine during 1968 either supporting or opposing American involvement in the Vietnam war.
You clearly view the period of radical SF in the 60s and early 70s as being an integral part of the counterculture and vice versa…
Unsurprisingly, stories incorporating altered mental states, sex, drugs, rock & roll, the occult, feminism, anti-authoritarianism etc., and featuring experimental prose, topics and book covers, proved popular with the counterculture. Many writers whose work was first published in the late 1960s were firmly part of radical political, feminist and countercultural scenes. For example, Marge Piercy’s first speculative novel Dance The Eagle To Sleep was set in New York’s Lower East Side and directly drew on the militant politics, psychedelics, spirituality and music that was happening there. In the UK, writers like Mick Farren and William Bloom were veterans of alternative publishing, underground band and drug scenes, with their initial SF novels taking in rock festivals, psychedelics and eastern spirituality.
Authors who’d gotten their start earlier were also heavily involved in the counterculture. Michael Moorcock transformed the long running New Worlds magazine over the course of the 1960s, with its design and inclusion of non-SF content eventually making it more akin to the UK underground newspapers of the time. New Worlds featured many of the key new wave figures and broke down the parameters of what was considered SF from the mid-sixties onwards, while a number of Moorcock’s own novels were popular with the counterculture – not least those featuring the ultra-hip and gender fluid Jerry Cornelius. A habitué of the Ladbroke Grove scene, Moorcock also performed with and wrote for Hawkwind, and had his own band The Deep Fix.
Samuel Delany was similarly ensconced in the counterculture, living in the pansexual New York Heavenly Breakfast commune for a time and playing in a band of the same name. His increasingly experimental work pushed and blurred boundaries regarding race, gender and sexuality. His novel Dhalgren from 1975 has been hailed as a paean to the counterculture and sold over half a million copies in its first two years. Then you had authors like Philip K. Dick, whose personal politics could veer to the right, but whose work, influenced by spiritual exploration and illicit drug use, was immensely popular with the counterculture.
You’re also keen to show that there’s lots more to SF in this period beyond its core constituency…
SF always had audiences and enthusiasts beyond the straight white male sections of society in which it mainly sold. However, these readers were often excluded from organised fandom and generally denied opportunities to publish or enjoy stories that fully spoke to their lives and experiences. With Dangerous Visions And New Worlds, we wanted to show the diversity of attitudes, styles, concerns, backgrounds and people involved with radical SF from 1950 to 1980, regardless of whether the authors and their work were well known at the time, hailed in later decades, or languished in obscurity.
The early days of the new wave were male-dominated, but that began to break down to an extent in the 1970s thanks to the second wave of feminism, the popularity of writers such as Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ, and the work of publishers like the Womens Press. In particular, the inclusion of increasingly explicit depictions of sex and explorations of a fuller range of sexualities were one of the flashpoints around which the new wave emerged and transformed SF as a genre. Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany also broke SF’s racial barriers during this time, and their simultaneous ability to disrupt norms around gender, sexuality and class have made them canonical.
There was also crossover with other genres and areas of publishing. Some writers best known for SF also wrote thrillers, action novels and erotic fiction, often pseudonymously. Action-adventure novels depicting near future Black Liberation movements crossed over with the utopian and dystopian elements of SF as well as included futuristic technology and time travel. And in an era during which erotic novels still hinged around plot, the ‘Adults Only’ market began to include speculative themes and writing, while SF-themed novels for LGBTIQ+ readers offered non-hetero heroes, anti-heroes and plot lines.
What impact did this period of radical SF have on the wider culture at the time?
It can’t be neatly separated out, but the combination of changing social conditions, the demographic shift towards youth, and the demand for new types of stories and themes built on the ground broken by authors from the mid-1960s onwards to encourage music, film and TV to explore SF and take more risks with it.
The original Star Trek series had a strongly progressive bent, but it was possibly in British TV where things were shaken up the most. The Jon Pertwee, Third Doctor-era of Dr Who (1970–74) saw the show tackle a host of social issues head on. The classic example from that period was the ‘The Green Death’, which involved an investigation into a mysterious toxic substance that was causing local miners from a declining Welsh town to die. The culprit behind the industrial poisoning was eventually revealed as a mind-controlling computer whose mission was process the world’s population into corporate automatons.
Serials such as Doomwatch and Survivors from the same period had a dystopian bent, and this trend rolled on to the end of the 1970s with Blake’s 7 and the return of Quatermass. Gritty dystopias were also big in US cinema in the late 1960s and 1970s, with films like Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, Rollerball, Logan’s Run etc. But nothing lasts forever, and echoing Hollywood’s turn away from the grim and cerebral, Star Wars definitely represented a shift back to blockbusters featuring clear cut heroes and villains and shoot ‘em up fun.
For readers new to this period of SF, what would you recommend as the most essential works?
That is very difficult to answer given the sheer number of influential and amazing books and short stories produced in the period our collection covers. While some of the novels of the time have become period pieces, and can be enjoyed as such, many of them were remarkably prescient and remain captivating.
Our collection’s title pays tribute to two ground-breaking sources. I’ve already mentioned New Worlds magazine but the other, Dangerous Visions (1967), was an anthology compiled and irrepressibly annotated by Harlan Ellison. It, and the follow up volume Again, Dangerous Visions (1972) feature a number of award-winning stories that cover a broad swathe of styles from core new wave authors and provide a strong introduction to the era.
Some favourite novels of my own from the 1960s and 1970s include The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner, Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch, The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick, Kindred by Octavia Butler, and Woman On The Edge Of Time by Marge Piercy.
What’s the legacy of this period of radical SF?
It turned the genre upside down and after that, there was no going back to the narrow range of topics, styles and people that had previously dominated the field. Even though cyberpunk in the 1980s saw a return to technology as a core focus, critiques of capitalism, consumerism and authority and the exploration of inner states that the new wave embodied remained a key part of SF, and continue to do so today. The turn towards darker visions of the future has become formulaic in many cases, but for good or ill, the new wave set the tone for the dystopias that dominate much of SF today.
As in broader society, the radicalism of the long 60s provided opportunities for a wide range of people previously denied them. Others had been writing and fighting before then, but the upsurge of the time really broke things open.
Dangerous Visions And New Worlds – Radical Science Fiction, 1950-1985 is published by PM Press