Science fiction in times of crisis

In 1968, Judith Merril and Kate Wilhelm planned to run an advertisement in a science fiction magazine with a list of authors announcing their opposition to the Vietnam War. But when they reached out to other members of the Science Fiction Writers of America to add their names, Merril and Wilhelm were shocked. There were a significant number of outspoken pro-war authors in the community, and they were also keen to share their views with the science fiction reading public.

When the ad was aired Science Fiction Galaxy, it covered two full pages. On the right, the names of authors including Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, Samuel R. Delany and dozens of others were listed under the caption “We oppose the participation of the United States in the Vietnam War”. .” On the left-hand page was another list of names, including Robert A. Heinlein, Leigh Brackett, Jerry Pournelle and Jack Vance, the undersigned who believed that “the United States must remain in Vietnam to fulfill its responsibilities to the people of this country. ”

While there were more traditional science fiction writers in the anti-war section, such as Ray Bradbury, Gene Roddenberry, and Isaac Asimov, both petitions largely signaled a generational divide: science fiction of the “age d’or” and the writing that followed. The legacy of those who strayed from the mainstream continues to this day, but at the time these writers were emerging and relatively obscure: Le Guin published his first novel two years prior, and Delany was just 26 years. Science fiction, for these writers, was “the ideal vessel for […] rejection of established power and social relations,” write Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette in the introduction to a new anthology they edited, Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950-1985. In the wake of Hiroshima, and as outer space became a Cold War frontier, these authors realized that scientific breakthroughs could be weaponized. They were preoccupied with threats to the environment, and their stories were more likely to explore technology as a ruinous force, as well as address issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender. Unlike Golden Age gee-whiz stories of white male heroes conquering space and solving problems with gadgets, theirs were science fiction steeped in “pansexuality, communal lifestyles, hallucinogens and the radical politics” of the counterculture. An outlaw sensibility runs through the work featured in the book – which ranges from genius to campy – and audiences were receptive to it. Even the most extraordinary and strange writings could achieve commercial success (Delany’s Dalgren, for example, sold over a million copies). The breadth of this anthology underscores what unites these disparate authors: each writer has expanded the genre themselves and what material could be considered “science fiction.”

The key characters featured in the book have strongly influenced writers and filmmakers working today. The Babadook director Jennifer Kent is working on a project based on the life of Alice Sheldon, who wrote science fiction under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. The influence of Ira Levin, author of The Women of Stepford and Rosemary’s baby, appears in the films of Jordan Peele. Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” adapted into a film Arrivalseems heavily influenced by Delaney Babel-17, and the author studied with Disch at Clarion, the famous science fiction writing workshop. Contemporary writers, including Neil Gaiman and China Miéville, frequently speak of the influence of the “New Wave” on their work.

Likewise, Octavia Butler has gone from cult writer to legend in our time. The author, described by Michael A. Gonzales in Dangerous Visions and New Worlds, wrote distant science fiction in an “earthly and grounded” style. Butler was shy, dyslexic, and considered “slow” as a child by his teachers; as an adult, she worked minimum-wage jobs and was a self-proclaimed hermit. But she contained worlds and blossomed on the page, dazzling readers with her confident yet unassuming voice, her human gift for rendering complex characters, and the sheer wonder of her imagination. Butler wrote powerfully about racism and structural inequality as the most prominent black science fiction writer of the time. In recent years, Butler’s 1993 novel parable of the sower came to be considered a 20th-century speculative classic on par with George Orwell 1984 and Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel movingly depicts community resilience during societal collapse with startling prescience, including a fascist leader who pledges to “make America great again.” The author hit the New York Times List of bestsellers for the first time in 2020 with Parable, and A24 has a film adaptation in the works, with Garrett Bradley set to direct. This is just one of many Butler projects, which also include wild seedin development with Viola Davis’ production company, JuVee, and Dawn, with Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Filmworks. A series based on Butler’s Kinship is forthcoming from FX, with a pilot directed by Janicza Bravo.

The influence of alley of damnation– both Roger Zelazny’s 1969 novel and its loose film adaptation, directed by Jack Smight in 1977 – is explored in an essay by Kelly Roberts. The novel is a mix of Hells Angels culture, Western and nuclear holocaust history. Like his contemporaries madmax (1979) and A boy and his dog (1975), adapted from Harlan Ellison’s 1969 short story, it features the desert as a natural post-apocalyptic backdrop. The premise, in which a criminal is offered a full pardon if he manages to fight his way through a desert and save the world, also influenced Escape from New York (nineteen eighty one). The ‘Landmaster’ created for the film is a fully operational vehicle that is regularly displayed at auto shows, when not parked in the parking lot of a Southern California body shop as a roadside attraction. Tesla’s Cybertruck appears to have been designed with the vehicle’s menacing geometric shape in mind.

The title Dangerous Visions and New Worlds is a nod to two outstanding publications of the time: the magazine new worldsedited by Michael Moorcock from 1964, who published avant-garde and genre-crossing material by JG Ballard and others, and both Dangerous visions anthologies edited by Harlan Ellison. (A final installment, The Last Dangerous Visions, announced in 1973, became legendary for its long and spiteful delays – even after Ellison’s death in 2018, his estate claimed it would still be published.) Norman Spinrad, quoted in the book, says that at the he golden age, science fiction was “edited as if it were teenage stuff, or more precisely, what librarians thought teenagers should be able to read”. Ellison and Moorcock, however, were open to experimentation and wild ideas as editors.

But the next generation was not an every man for himself either; Moorcock was clear about what he didn’t want. In his 1977 essay “Starship Stormtroopers,” the new worlds the publisher identified the “crypto-fascists” its screenwriters took a break from: “There’s Lovecraft, the misogynistic racist; there is Heinlein, the authoritarian militarist; there is Ayn Rand, the staunch opponent of trade unionism and the left, who, like many reactionaries before her, sees the world’s problems as a failure of capitalists to assume the responsibilities of “good leadership”; there’s Tolkien and that bunch of middle-class Christian fantasies […] To all of these and more, the working class is a stupid beast that must be controlled or it will ravage the world.

The Golden Age “had no function; he wasn’t attacking much,” Moorcock said in February 2022, when he appeared at a virtual symposium for the anthology hosted by the City Lights bookstore. “We were trying to change science fiction into something more political,” author Marge Piercy said on another panel, noting that she was first drawn to the genre as a college student in the 1950s. “We thought we were all going to die”, she said, and science fiction, unlike “mainstream literature”, addressed these anxieties.

Our present – the future in these books quoted in Dangerous Visions and New Worlds– is not a utopia. Piercy, in his 2016 introduction to woman on the edge of timesays that in the years since the publication of his 1976 novel, “inequality has increased dramatically […] more people are poor, more people are working two or three jobs just to get by. But the genre itself has improved over time: these writers have expanded our imaginations and paved the way for intergenerational travel companions.

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