On November 5, 2019, the Library of America (LoA) will drop American Science Fiction: Eight Classics Novels of the 1960s edited by Gary K. Wolfe. This is a critical recognition for science fiction because LoA endeavors to provide deluxe editions of worthy American literature. This set is a followup to the 2012 set, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s. I must wonder, are these seventeen novels how the future readers will remember science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s? Wolfe had limitations in making his selections. I assume he couldn’t use SF/F/H authors that LoA had already recognized like Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kurt Vonnegut in their prestigious uniform Library of America series editions. And I imagined he was limited by length, availability, and other publishing issues, so I doubt even these 8 books Wolfe has selected for the 1960s are the exact ones he would pick for our descendants.

Now, I know this is going to sound rather woo-woo of me, but my mind conjures a certain psychic flavor when I think of the phrase ‘1960s science fiction.” Maybe Wolfe also has such a psychic feeling too, and we might be close in what we’re feeling and we might not.

It’s like this. When I say “Statue of Liberty” most people will picture the same object in the mind. It might be from a different angle or have a different hue, but we’re all pretty much thinking the same thing. Now if I ask everyone to think “Ford Mustang” you might think of a yellow 1964 original model, while I might picture a black 1968 sweptback model. We’re still close. And if I said think of a “dog” you might picture a graceful collie with a long snout, and I might imagine a cute ugly pug with a flat face. Now we’re moving further apart. So when I say picture “1960s science fiction” we might not even be close.

If you grew up in the 1960s reading science fiction you might have a psychic flavor in your head for what you read back then. But if you grew up in more recent decades you might not have any sense of 1960s SF at all, or maybe a faint lingering flavor from reading a couple odd novels. To make this problem of communication even more difficult some people think movies, television shows, and even comics when they hear the phrase science fiction. I imagine to most SF fans, 1960s science fiction is defined by feelings for Star Trek. And as much as I loved Star Trek back then, suggesting it was 1960s science fiction would be like proposing Li’l Abner belongs in the Literary Canon to Harold Bloom.

Gary K. Wolfe has picked eight science fiction novels to remember the Sixties:

I read The High Crusade in junior high and barely remember it. It was fun, but has a 1950s flavor. I have read Way Station, Flowers for Algernon, This Immortal, and Nova multiple times. I’ve tried to read Past Master and Picnic on Paradise but never got into them. And I’m totally unfamiliar with Emphyrio. If I had to pick eight novels as the ingredients to create the complex flavor of 1960s science fiction Way Station, Flowers for Algernon and Nova would almost certainly be on my list at first thought.

Past Master and Picnic on Paradise were part of Terry Carr’s highly regarded Ace Science Fiction Specials. So was The Left Hand of Darkness. I can understand why Wolfe selected them even though I never could enjoy them myself. This means Wolfe’s psychic flavor for 1960s SF is a bit different than mine, and probably yours too. Rite of Passage (1968) by Alexei Panshin would have been my pick from the Ace Specials, but I’m not sure if it would make my final eight. It did beat Past Master to win the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo.

To me the six most memorable science fiction novels of the 1960s were Stranger in a Strange Land, The Man in the High CastleDune, Flowers for AlgernonStand on Zanzibar and The Left Hand of Darkness. The Left Hand of Darkness and Dune stand at the top of the Classics of Science Fiction list. That leaves me just two slots. As much as I love Clifford Simak, and Way Station, I’m afraid it has the flavor of 1950s science fiction.

And let me be perfectly clear, these aren’t my favorite SF novels of the 1960s, but the ones I think defined the decade.

I consider Samuel R. Delany the main ingredient of the 1960s science fiction flavor, but I’m having a problem picking his one representative novel. To me, his perfect work is the novella “The Star Pit.” And if Babel-17 and Empire Star could be considered one novel I’d pick it. Empire Star is a novel mentioned by the characters inside Babel-17. However, I might go along with Wolfe and pick Nova because it stands stronger as a singular work even though emotionally it comes in second with me.

That leaves one other novel. The obvious choice is Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, but Vonnegut bitched and moaned he wasn’t a science fiction writer. He didn’t want to get pigeonholed into the low paying genre of science fiction. And Slaughterhouse-Five is the heavyweight champion among the literati for science fiction for the 1960s.

Actually, I remember the 1960s science fiction being owned by Samuel R. Delany and Roger Zelazny. Wolfe picks This Immortal, and that’s a major part of the flavor of 1960s science fiction, but I’m not sure it holds up as well as I loved it back when. The obvious choice from Zelazny is Lord of Light. It’s a very sixties SF novel. And it would be my eighth novel in the set if I was picking them for other people.

However, I think I will use my last slot for a personal favorite and pick Mindswap by Robert Sheckley. The 1960s were known as the Psychedelic decade and Mindswap is psychedelic science fiction. So this is my recipe to create the science fiction flavor of the 1960s:

1960s SF

Of course, my 1960s were created with hundreds of science fiction novels. I could create a whole cookbook of flavors using different combinations of SF from the 1960s. And to be perfectly precise the ultimate recipe to understand 1960s science fiction is:

F&SF + Galaxy + If + Amazing + Fantastic + Analog + Worlds of Tomorrow

James Wallace Harris, October 25, 2019


10 thoughts on “The Psychic Flavor of 1960s Science Fiction

  1. I like Emphyrio a great deal. I felt myself that a Vance should be in such a collection, and Emphyrio is the best standalone. (Some might plump for some of the series novels, but it’s better to have a standalone.) Of Gary’s choices, Emphyrio and Nova are the slam dunks for me (I prefer Nova to Babel-17 and Empire Star, but I can see why you might feel differently, and I agree that “The Star Pit” is magnificent, and perhaps not well enough known.)

    Off the top of my head, the one other novel I might choose is Camp Concentration, by Thomas Disch. Well, also Rogue Moon, by Algis Budrys, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller.


    1. I’ve always considered A Canticle for Leibowitz a 1959 novel, but some sites list it as 1960. If I considered it a 1960 novel I’d have tried hard to squeeze it on my list. Gary was limited to American SF writers. I didn’t follow that, but if I did I could have given Canticle the slot I used for Zanzibar. On the other hand, psychically, Canticle feels like a perfect 1950s SF novel.

      I thought about Camp Concentration and Rogue Moon but I read them much later, not during the 1960s. For my 8 I was going for the books I read back then that made an impact in the 1960s. I cheated a bit with The Left Hand of Darkness. I don’t think I got to it until 1970.


  2. Hmm. I think I’m more in sympathy with your list than Wolfe’s (even though I haven’t read all of either) if we’re going with representative works.

    My suspicion is that there is sort of a rescue mission here, giving authors who have fallen into obscurity (or, in Lafferty’s case, I suspect never got out of it) some publicity.

    Presumably Dune, using this criteria, needed no extra breath in keeping its reputation alive. But why the novel version of Flowers for Algernon? I haven’t read it, but I have heard often that’s not as good as the story.

    I like Robert Sheckley on your list. I’d pick a different Zelazny. I’m not a fan of Delany but, if you’re going for representation and influence, he belongs there (and it’s not like Dhalgren, for some unknown reason, needs any help in keeping readers).

    And, yes, one of Brunner’s big novels needs to be in the book.


      1. Wolfe had the requirement of American writers. For me, I decided to use any SF book I read back in the 1960s. Stand on Zanzibar was a peak reading experience back then. My goal was to pick eight books like he did, but the ones I read that gave me the my sense of 1960s science fiction.

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        1. I liked Stand on Zanzibar when I read it about 10 years ago. I can only imagine what it was like coming across it when it was published. The only thing in my reading experience I can think of like that is reading Neuromancer right when it was published.


        2. Of all the science fiction books I’ve read as a kid, Stand on Zanzibar is the one that’s come closest to real. It was also the scariest. In 1968/69 when I read it, I was horrified at the thought of all that terrorism. I didn’t know it then, but America experienced more terrorist bombings in the late 1960s and early 1970s than it ever did during the 9/11 years. Of course, none of them were like 9/11 in size though. It was mostly radicals bombing campuses and offices. Brunner got a lot of things wrong, but the total impact of his book, about all the various world problems, feels today that he was great at extrapolating the future.

          When I read Stand on Zanzibar it imagined the last future I wanted to come true. I wanted Mars colonies human exploration of space to be the future, not continued political strife.

          And Stand on Zanzibar now reminds me of the internet, with its bombardment of information. The book had real future shock.

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    1. Wolfe’s goal and requirements were different from mine. And I think you’re right, he was trying to rescue some of the lost classics of the 1960s. I’m guessing he didn’t want to use books that are well known with zillions of editions and copies already in print. Wolfe’s collection made me think about the feelings I have for 1960s science fiction. I was trying to pick just those eight books that would capture my gestalt memory of science fiction in the 1960s.

      On Facebook we’re discussing this and I really loved Richard Whyte’s unique view of the 1960s too. He’s younger and read his books outside the decade, but I thought it captured an excellent flavor of 1960s that I can relate to. I’ve read 6 of his 8 books (missing the Aldiss and Kavan). But his 8 is a recipe for a different SF take. Macroscope, Camp Concentration, and Pavane are books I read outside the decade when I was older, and they give me a different view. My guess is Wolfe is taking a snapshot of the 60s SF from his current vantage point. If I did that, I would pick different books, maybe 8 completely different books. But I’m not sure. I’ll have to think about it quite a lot.

      1. ‘Macroscope’ by Piers Anthony. Remember hubris? When a writer tries to write the greatest, hugest, most mind-boggling SF novel ever? If I measured Science Fictional awesomeness on a 10 scale, ‘Macroscope’ is a 26.
      2. ‘Barefoot In The Head’ by Brian Aldiss. The two great Sixties tropes, Acid and The Bomb (as well as a ton of other stuff), in one dazzling story. Not influenced by James Joyce, apparently, even though it reads like something he’d have written for ‘New Worlds’.
      3. The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick. The creation of false realities was a big theme of Dick’s, so putting the recent Imperial Japanese and Nazi ones in a present-day American context was an actual stroke of genius. His best novel.
      4. ‘Ice’ by Anna Kavan. When I was a child in the Sixties, all the grown-ups had lived through the War. Some of them were still living through it. This haunting of ordinary people, the feeling of an unstoppable, unimaginable worldwide catastrophe, runs through this amazing book with its great beauty right next to great terror.
      5. ‘Pavane’ by Keith Roberts. One of the greatest books about England I’ve ever read. In part about the power of the past over the present, it’s even more relevant now than it was in the last days of our Victorian Era, back in 1969. 😉
      6. ‘Camp Concentration’ by Thomas Disch. In which the SF superman story finally moves on from ‘Slan’, by looking back to ‘Faust’. The author breaks the ‘rule’ that you can’t describe the thoughts of a supergenius, and does it convincingly.
      7. ‘Norstilia’ by Cordwainer Smith. A poetic. Pulpish Far Future story set on a desert planet, that reads rather like a myth, but with such implicit wisdom that to me it’s like ‘Dune’ rewritten by someone with more experience of politics and power.
      8. ‘Way Station’ by Clifford Simak. What if people were capable of empathic, responsible behaviour towards others? What if that weird old guy in your village was actually an immortal human who links America’s past with a future where its exceptionalism is real and worthwhile? My first SF novel at age 9, and a book that I still love.

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