So many types of science fiction exist, and British SF writing in the 1970s was often in the business of inventing new types or manipulating the old ones into interesting directions. Astonishing visions were created that reflected back on a changing world where the growth of superpowers jostled with the economic hardships at home. Were we heading in the right direction, as a species? What did it mean to be human, anyway, caught in an explosion of scientific and technological advances?
Some writers gave us space-travelling escapism, and some gave us nightmare thrillers at home. Some gave us alien intelligences and some gave us human stupidities. From the foreseeable future to the end of the universe, here’s a look at eleven incredible British science fiction novels of the 1970s…
DG Compton – The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974 UK, 1973 US as The Unsleeping Eye)
In a world where medical advances have led to everyone living for a very long time, death has become an intense curiosity for all. More than that – it’s the ultimate selling point.
Katherine Mortenhoe, a middle-aged book editor, has just been told by her doctor that she has only a few weeks left to live due to a rare condition of brain information overload. Now the press won’t leave her alone, and a television company wants to screen her final days 24/7 for avid viewers under an exclusive contract. The entire world has loud opinions about everything, including her impending death. But one cameraman sees more than a talking point; he sees things that cannot be transmitted through a lens.
As novels became more and more cinematic in approach, there were few books that explored the gap between what we can see and what we can experience. The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe does so with humour, compassion, and foresight.
Doris Lessing – Memoirs Of A Survivor (1974)
The disaster novel deals with the moment of blowing something apart, and the post-apocalyptic novel with the picking up of the pieces. But Memoirs Of A Survivor is about the build up to the destruction, which can be quiet, slow, and guilt-ridden for those living through it. It has a quiet power as an old lady narrates her story of taking in a pre-teenage girl and her cat, and then trying to raise her while the fabric of society wears thin.
The girl grows, and starts to wonder where she belongs – with the scared residents in what remains of a suburban street, or with one of the travelling communities of the young who thrive on bartering at best and cannibalism at worst? How far the world has degraded is difficult to tell. The hardest thing is to experience the powerlessness of our narrator, who has no choice but to let it happen. She watches from behind the living room curtain, and prays for the safety of her girl as what she thought of as civilisation comes to an end.
Arthur C Clarke – Rendezvous With Rama (1973)
First contact: Commander Bill Norton lands his solar survey vessel, Endeavour, on a huge object that is travelling through our solar system. He gains entry to what turns out to be an alien starship. Its purpose would seem a be a mystery that needs solving, but when everything inside such a space is inexplicable, how do you even start to understand it, let alone communicate with it?
This is a big, proper space adventure that relies on the sense of vast otherness that Clarke was so good at creating, and it creates awe, and expectation, and frustration in equal measure. With so much literature created about what first contact might be like, realising that all our ideas about such a scenario might be totally useless when it comes to such a moment is a very powerful idea.
John Brunner – The Sheep Look Up (1972)
This is the first of two books on this list that imagines the United States as a broken nation, although in The Sheep Look Up there’s the brilliant, and terrifying, idea that nobody will admit it.
A large cast of characters can make this slow-going at first, as we get to know the mega-rich and the forgotten, the workers and the terrorists, in a future US where the air is practically unbreathable, crops are failing, and wars are being fought under false pretences. If you can afford air and water purifiers you can almost carry on as normal, but the balance is tipping towards disaster, moving a little further every day. The characters’ lives begin to intersect as desperation sets in, and on top of it all sits a ridiculous president who claims it’s still the greatest country in the world. Sound familiar? Reading this book is a horrible, mesmerising experience.
David Graham – Down To A Sunless Sea (1979)
The second US-set disaster novel combines a traditional thriller approach with a very scary scenario: oil-dependency has led to the collapse of the United States, and there has been a widespread descent into violence and destruction. Jonah Scott, a British pilot, flies a jumbo jet to and from this madness in order to fly out those who can afford a ticket. The first quarter of this book paints a picture of this degradation, and I would say that it’s the weakest part of the story. But get past that and you reach a moment when you realise what it means to live in a world where a country with nuclear weapons is not longer able to make good decisions, and it grips you so strongly that you can’t stop reading.
Jonah Scott flies his plane and talks to Air Traffic Control, and the simple things they tell him about what is happening below him, is pure horror. Down To A Sunless Sea remains, simply by describing the act of trying to get one aeroplane down on a safe patch of ground again, one of the most believable descriptions of catastrophe I have read.
Michael Moorcock – An Alien Heat (1972)
The first book in the series of novels and short stories that comprise the Dancers At The End Of Time, this is a novel where flair is all that’s left after everything else has been experienced. Humanity has evolved to the point where all whims are catered for in a moment, and nothing is taboo. The only question left is – is it interesting?
Jherek Carnelian is a man who finds the Victorian period of history fascinating, and in particular his interest lies in Mrs Amelia Underwood, a very moralistic lady who has been snatched from the streets of Victorian London and brought to the end of time as a zoo exhibit. Carnelian hatches a plan to have her for himself, and to fall in love, which should be diverting before the universe ends. It’s a plan that will show just how naïve he is, and how much humanity has changed.
Witty, erudite, and endlessly questioning about our motivations and morality, An Alien Heat has a charm of its own.
Barrington J Bayley – The Garments Of Caean (1976)
If Jack Vance had watched The Great British Sewing Bee and then decided to write a book about it that was set in space, then he might well have produced something very like The Garments Of Caean. It’s smart and funny and has a great eye for the physical and personal flaws that can be covered up by a snappy suit.
The anthropological angle is fascinating – why have the inhabitants of the planet of Caean become obsessed with garment making? By the end Bayley’s novel begins to stray into very weird territory to answer that question, so if you like Emphyrio, the Southern Reach trilogy, or The Emperor’s New Clothes then give this a try. Yes, it is as crazy as it sounds.
But it’s also quite a simple story at heart. Peder Forbath, a tailor, rescues a sublime suit of Caean origin from a crashed spaceship. It’s made of a unique material, highly prized, and when he wears the suit he finds himself standing a little taller, feeling a little more confident, and eventually getting into the heart of a dangerous diplomatic situation which might lead to universal war…
Christopher Priest – Inverted World (1974)
I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.
The first sentence of Inverted World is a brilliant one. It tells us straight away that this is a novel about movement; the movement of a city called Earth. It’s a city on rails, and people are trained to lay those rails, and scout ahead in order to keep Earth travelling forward. It must always travel forward, but in the distorted landscape ahead an understanding of where you are, and what you are travelling towards, is not an easy thing to find.
With elements of classic tales of a dystopian society, Priest writes a story that you have to keep reading just to find out why this world he has created is so strange. The unfolding of how the protagonist, Helward Mann, reaches an answer to that question is original, and reveals something about how we affect the things we see.
Ian Watson – The Embedding (1973)
I love the way The Embedding ties together three different linguistic investigations to reflect upon how we use and abuse language as a whole. Watson’s writing clearly shows that when we fail to communicate properly, or use language as a tool to hide our true intentions, terrible things can happen. If that makes The Embedding sound like a dense and involved read, I haven’t done it an injustice. It’s science fiction for those who like to analyse and understand our own world as much as to escape into another.
The three investigations consist of an anthropologist who is trying to learn the secret language of one of the last Amazonian tribes, a scientist who is raising children in a controlled environment to see what kind of speech they develop, and the arrival of an alien starship in Earth’s atmosphere. How these strands come together is fascinating and also very disturbing. You have to be feeling brave to tackle this book.
Douglas Adams – The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (1979)
Arthur Dent’s house is about to be demolished. When he finds out why, he’s going to be grateful that he made friends with one Ford Prefect, an alien traveller who knows how to hitch rides, and doesn’t go anywhere without a towel and the very handy Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
The first in a trilogy of five books, based on a radio series, and on the way to becoming a television series, a couple of films, computer games, interactive fiction, and a worldwide Towel Day, this books proves that we all know, deep down, that life is a ridiculous business. Nobody has quite framed that thought as well as Douglas Adams, or with such lightness of touch. He continues to define comic science fiction writing.
Tanith Lee – Don’t Bite The Sun (1976)
A planet where three huge cities stand in a desert, an environment where robots take care of your every need and will even supply you with a new body after you commit suicide, and a narrator who is straining to find meaning in a place where it has been removed: Don’t Bite The Sun uses a language of its own to describe the experience of being Jang. Jang represents youth, and in this place young people who are expected to have no sense of responsibility. It’s both amusing and involving to go along with our narrator as she tries to live in that fashion, before deciding there must be something more to life.
People change over time, and this book is very good at showing how change comes to us whether we like it or not. Over time, in such a place, wouldn’t you start to clamour for some meaningful task to complete, or some genuine emotion? The hunt to find anything to make your life worth living dominates this book. It may appear shallow at first, but the final pages contain a great understanding of humanity, and why we must ask questions, and grow. Even in a desert.