Stranger in a Strange Land

In my last essay, I tried to explain my memory of science fiction from the 1960s by picking eight books I read back then that now gives me a singular feeling about that decade. I realize after several comments that I did not achieve my writing goal. I naively assumed that most SF fans would know these books and just the thought of them would trigger my personal impression of science fiction in the 1960s. I realize now that I can’t communicate by making connections to what I believe are common shared experiences. I must describe my POV in detail so it’s self-contained. That’s going to be difficult, to say the least.

Is it even possible to describe a decade to people who grew up after that decade? For that matter, are my perspectives on the 1960s anywhere close to anyone else’s living through that decade? I assumed if you read science fiction during the 1960s we might be close in our experiences, especially if you were reading the same books I did. But I am reminded of one of the most vivid lessons I experienced in the sixties. While on acid I had this realization, we were all essentially living on desert islands inside our heads and our best attempts to communicate where no better than putting messages into bottles and throwing them on the ocean hoping they’ll be found. We all want telepathy but must struggle to make Morse code do.

I picked Stranger in a Strange Land as my number one book not because it’s my favorite science fiction novel from the 1960s, but because I believe it captured the feel of the decade in science fiction for me. I was just 13 when I read Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time in 1965. I came to the novel late, since it was first published in 1961, but I believe it was only the second novel I had read published in the 1960s. The first was A Wrinkle in Time in 1963.

Up till then, I had gorged on H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, the Oz books, the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift Jr. books, Heinlein’s juveniles, Andre Norton’s juveniles, and the Winston Science Fiction juveniles. Stranger in a Strange Land was my first adult novel, and it was a doozy to read at 13. But you have to understand the context in which I was reading it. In 1965 the Psychedelic Sixties hadn’t become trippy just yet. Life was mundane to the max. Going to school every day and thinking about growing up to a life of working in a factory or office wasn’t that exciting. I didn’t want to be my father or mother. Their lives seemed miserable and they fought all the time. I wanted a happier present and future, and I found that in science fiction.

In 1965 the black and white 1950s still held sway over most of the landscape. In 1964 The Beatles had landed with the British invasion on the AM radio shaking up my world. In the summer of 1965, I heard “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan and I realized I was nowhere hoping to go somewhere. Times really were a-changing. And it’s at that moment when I read Stranger in a Strange Land in the Avon paperback edition you see above.

I didn’t know it then but Heinlein had written a novel to reinvent himself and science fiction. I know this will drive some people crazy, but I believe Stranger in a Strange Land was the first New Wave science fiction novel of the 1960s. I’m sure this will also make Heinlein turn over in his grave, but his book really was different, experimental, and more literary than anything the genre science had produced before. Stranger in a Strange Land was colorful, although not quite as psychedelically dayglo as the 1960s would become. It had sex and nudity, which was different for SF, and titillating to my 13-year-old self. It also touted New Age like powers. And most of all, it represented a counter-culture. Not the counter-culture of the hippies, but still a counter-culture, which is why the hippies loved it.

During 1964-1966 I read all of Heinlein and a lot of lesser science fiction that was mostly from the 1950s. Then during 1967-1968, I started catching up with new SF books. I remember discovering both Dune and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep at the Coconut Grove Library in Miami, Florida. I remember pulling Dune off the shelf, and I was daunted away by its size. I think it was the biggest book I had read until then. Most science fiction novels usually came in around 200 pages or under. Stranger and Dune were big books. They were ambitious books. Heinlein and Herbert both aimed to hit one out of the solar system, and they did. Dune was mysterious, rich, dense, and hard for me to understand. I was only 16. It dealt with culture, ecology, and anthropology in strange and mysterious ways. I didn’t really understand it, but it felt epic, like the decade.

I can still picture in my head reaching up and pulling Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? down from the top shelf of the new 7-day books at the Coconut Grove Library. The cover was a strange pop-art collage that didn’t seem very science-fictional but I took it home and became hooked on Philip K. Dick. I mean, WTF!? I’m not sure when I first read The Man in the High Castle, but I listed it instead of Android for the 1960s because the idea of alternative history was so mind-blowing, and the 1960s were all about blowing our minds.

It was around this time I read Flowers for Algernon. I was now a senior in high school, and the turmoil of the 1960s was blazing away every night on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.  Even though Flowers was about Charlie Gordon, a guy who was born mentally slow, I felt I had started my teen years being slow and science fiction was speeding up my development. By then I was also dabbling in drugs and had taken my first trip. The idea of artificially improving oneself with chemistry and technology was the call of the Sirens, impossible to resist.

I wanted to go further and faster. I wanted to be stronger and smarter. I had grown up with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. We thought the future was so full of potential that everything could happen. I didn’t realize then, that like Charlie Gordon, I would come down from my high frontier high. Space travel was what astronauts with the right stuff got to do. That’s why reading Delany’s “The Star Pit” was so achingly beautiful while being exquisitely painful. That story made me realize the glass boundaries of the fish tank in which I lived. When I read Nova about dumbass young hippies like myself hitchhiking in space it launched me into orbit with its mind-expanding space opera. I was already hitchhiking around Dade county, meeting some of the dregs of society and I identified with Delany. I didn’t know he was black and gay, but I did feel he was young, which was so different from all the other science fiction authors at the time. He was less than a decade older than I.

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner scared the shit out of me in early 1969 when I was 17. This 1968 novel had all the impact of the nonfiction Future Shock, but that book would come out two years later in 1970, and become an international bestseller. It’s a shame Brunner’s book didn’t earn that fame. Science fiction imagines possibilities, but Stand on Zanzibar comes closest to any science fiction book of predicting the future that I’ve ever read. Brunner didn’t get the details right, but he imagined the world we live in now being dominated by terrorism, ecological collapse, political polarization, and information overload. Imagine if you were told about now fifty years ago. Would you want to grow up? That’s how powerful Stand on Zanzibar was to me back then.

Then there’s Mindswap by Robert Sheckley. The other SF novels I picked to define my view of 1960s science fiction are rather famous today, classics, even legendary. But few people remember Sheckley, and especially Mindswap. My all-time favorite science fiction novel when I was growing up was Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Heinlein. It’s a 1958 boys’ book that praises and parodies every science fictional fantasy we had back then. Clifford Russell wants to win a trip to the Moon by writing a bar soap jingle but ends up being captured by evil aliens in a flying saucer. Not only does he get to the Moon, but Pluto, a planet in the Vega system and a lesser Magellanic cloud. Kip even got to time travel too.

In Mindswap Marvin Flynn gets to go a similar galactic adventure, but one more bizarre than any acid trip. Sheckley both delights and denigrates our childish desires for space adventures. Mindswap was a hip absurdity. But then the 1960s was incredibly absurd, among all the countless extreme adjectives that could be used to describe the decade. That’s why I picked these eight science fiction books to describe my fading impression of growing up in the 1960s.

Now, the last book, that came towards the very end of the decade in 1969. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s significant that it’s by a woman writer. It’s serious and heavy, and it’s about gender. Her worldbuilding had a human society where people cycled back and forth from male and female. Didn’t see that one coming, even after reading plenty of Delany. Le Guin was saying to the boys of science fiction you haven’t seen anything yet — get ready and let me show you where science fiction can really go. In many ways, The Left hand of Darkness is the first science fiction book that defines the 1970s. (And I probably didn’t actually get to it until 1970.)

It’s hard for me to imagine, even impossible I’m sure, to picture kids growing up today reading these books that blew my mind over and over again back in the 1960s. They will seem so tame, so old fashioned, and even unenlightened offensive. Maybe in another fifty years, these kids will have their minds blown by decades of future shock, and then they might comprehend the transition I felt growing up a caterpillar in the 1950s and emerging from my cocoon in 1965 to take flight in the late 1960s. In the 21st-century it feels like kids are born butterflies never knowing what it’s like to crawl on the ground.

My intuition tells me the 2020s will be the new 1960s. It a sense I feel deep down. I’m feeling the same vibes I felt back in 1965.

Today people think of the 1950s in terms of Happy Days, Grease, and Back to the Future. Kids today hate books like Catcher in the Rye and On the Road, but they are closer to the real 1950s. For me, the book that best captures my memories of the 1950s is Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick. The 1950s had a black and white look to them, even though I remember its colors. The eight science fiction books I picked were those books I remember reading that reminds me of how the 1950s went from mundane B&W to widescreen Technicolor. It’s only an illusion though. Pop culture is what paints over the dull primer of our decades, and underneath that is another reality.

James Wallace Harris, October 29, 2019

 

 

 

One thought on “Let’s Try This Again, Explaining 1960s Science Fiction

  1. OMG. You track the 60s so like I did. Starting with Heinlein, finding my way to Dick, and then finding real home with LeGuin. I even had a very comparable LSD experience of the uniqueness of every life and the impossibility of exact communication. I would add The Crying of Lot 49 and a culmination in Gravity’s Rainbow. Oddly in a way that last represented the end of science fiction for me. Don’t know why exactly. It was also roughly the end of psychedelics around that time for me as well.

    Anyway thanks for a fun flashback.

    Like

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