Even in the early 1950s, the heyday of white masculine conquest of space and battle with multi-legged monsters and nefarious aliens, there lurked at the margins of the genre alternate views on human forays into the future. And of course, with predecessors like H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, other possibilities blazed up, as one would expect for a genre alternately dubbed “speculative.” It would be surprising indeed if so-called speculative fiction did not, sooner or later, trample taboos.
Well it did, briefly, with a vengeance. The real fiesta of sci-fi taboo smashing was the 1960s and ‘70s, as documented in the newly published Dangerous Visions and New Worlds, Radical Science Fiction 1950-1985, edited by Andrew Nette and Ian McIntyre. This survey includes essays on sci fi and the Vietnam war, post-nuclear-apocalypse dystopias, second wave feminism, the antiauthoritarianism of Philip K. Dick, Black power, eco-death, marijuana, LSD and methamphetamine, Dr. Who, radical sci fi in the Soviet Union, gender as reflected in the life and work of Alice Sheldon, aka James Tiptree Jr., animal liberation, the Women’s Press, Octavia Butler and much more.
The essay on the stupendous oeuvre of Philip K. Dick discusses his well-known reliance on amphetamines, which stoked his truly prolific output. The article does not mention his conviction, shortly before his death, that he was in telepathic communication with extra-terrestrials, but it does elaborate many of his mental oddities, for instance his paranoid certainty that the CIA was after him. If not the CIA, a conspiracy equally minatory. “Dick exhorted the FBI to investigate the break-in” to a safe in his house, “which he linked to what he called ‘a covert organization including politics, illegal weapons, etc., who put great pressure on me to place coded information in future novels.’”
Dick called this shady organization Solarcon-6. The essay also notes that “even though Dick was an avid drug user [who at one point converted his home into a commune, living with hippies and junkies], had once been married to a communist, and had a life-long one-way beef with Richard Nixon, in many ways he was profoundly conservative.” The wild man of sci fi also achieved fantastic success posthumously, with many of his novels converted into movies, like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and others.
The 1950s naturally displayed great concern with nuclear annihilation. What could be more timely in 2022 than that early cold war fixation on atomic apocalypse? In recent months, nuclear brinksmanship roared back into our lives, even if the likes of white house spokeswoman Jen Psaki dismiss Moscow’s “empty threats.” One would think Russia’s assertion, repeatedly and over decades, that Ukraine’s absorption into NATO would cause war and the fact that it recently did just that might make the Biden dimwits take the Kremlin’s threats as something other than “empty.” But so far, no luck. Still they might want to lift a page out of 1950s sci fi. That’s when people damn well had the sense to take the menace of nuclear war seriously. That realistic, healthy fear permeated political life, literary work and, very thoroughly, sci-fi – especially the stories of Roger Zelazny.
This excellent writer, neglected now, dealt definitively with nuclear Armageddon. Descendants of his classic Damnation Alley include the films Escape from New York and Road Warrior. He also co-authored another post-nuclear war dystopian fiction with Philip K. Dick, entitled Deus Irae. In this novel, hydrogen bomb warfare destroys human faith in God, birthing a new religion based on a God of Wrath. With echoes of another dystopian post-nuclear holocaust icon, A Canticle for Leibowitz, this book portrays the scarred, incinerated landscape, full of death and mutants, that human hubris inflicted on earth. Zelazny was a sci-fi legend for a reason; his collaboration with Dick produced a great, under-appreciated example of the genre.
“The specter of nuclear war,” writes Andrew Nette, “cast a huge shadow over postwar science fiction.” These books in the 1950s portrayed characters who must cope with “radioactive fallout, find food and help fend off looters…trigger happy soldiers and cannibalism…bandits and starvation…sickness from radiation and biological attack…gangs of savage homeless children.” The criminal nuclear cremation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had occurred in the very recent past, far too recent for anyone to be lulled into forgetting them. That generation had seen the extermination of atom bombs, unlike today’s millennials, accustomed to the American empire haughtily imposing no-fly zones and bombing countries back to the stone age with no repercussions, certainly not nuclear ones. Such, to many Americans, are barely imaginable. They think the U.S. can do to Russia what it did to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The only problem is that unlike those poorly defended nations, Moscow commands thousands of nuclear missiles, more even than Washington. Perhaps even now some uncommonly thoughtful sci-fi writer imagines a carelessly, ignorantly shattered, post-Ukraine-war world.
Later, sci-fi leftists consciously, deliberately transformed the genre. Take Ursula K. LeGuin and her feminist anti-capitalism. “From a social point of view, most science fiction has been incredibly regressive and unimaginative,” LeGuin said. “All those Galactic Empires, taken straight from the British Empire of 1880!…The Rotary Club on Alpha Centauri; that’s the size of it.” LeGuin belonged to a cohort of feminists, who, the rather conservative Isaac Asimov claimed, invaded science fiction. But then, Asimov had created the most extensive galactic empire in the genre, which was millions of planets bigger than the British one, with his Foundationseries.
Of course, this new, comprehensive tome also deals with the sci-fi reactionaries, like Robert Heinlein. By 1968, this “ex-leftist who had become a cold-warrior for the right” was definitely out of step with the times, which produced sci-fi’s New Wave. This movement got underway “with the anarchist Michael Moorcock, who took over the English science fiction magazine New Worlds.” Meanwhile feminist sci-fi cycloned onto the scene. Its writers “served as a counterweight to the more or less explicit misogyny of the sexual revolution.”
Avant-garde prose, radical politics, demotic themes – one cadre of sci-fi writers definitely turned left in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But many of these radicals quite intelligently retained an ethos from an earlier time, one especially relevant today, one that started back in the ‘50s, in the ionized shadow of the bomb.
(Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Hope Deferred. This article was featured on Counter Punch. She can be reached at her website.)