Arthur C Clarke once wrote: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
British science fiction of the 1960s gave readers both versions of that terror in novels set on Earth or in far away universes. For those writing about Earth, our own humanity was up for questioning like never before; are we on the path to our own destruction, or do we hold the key to our own salvation? For the novelists who threw all earthly troubles away and created entire universes in mind-boggling detail, they were still reflecting on the problems everyone faced back home: a generation who wanted freedom like never before, faith being shaken in the government, and big shifts in societal attitudes all contributed to an era where many talented writers felt they could best comment through the genre of science fiction.
Here’s a look at nine novels that give a flavour of what an varied time it was in science fiction writing, with some authors remaining in the ‘pulp’ feel of earlier times to create fresh space adventures, and others beginning to experiment with form and literary devices to take SF in an unexpected, and highly influential, direction…
The Drowned World – JG Ballard (1962)
Ballard brought something very different to science fiction with his style of detached, literary writing which is cold and intelligent and uncomfortable. You may not like his characters but his visions of the future draw you in and stay in your mind. They feel as if they have a truth about them.
The Drowned World is the story of Dr Robert Kerans, a biologist who has been sent to work in the submerged remains of what was once a great city. But water has covered most of the world due to climate change, and although the tower blocks still rise above the lagoons this is a place that belongs to the insects, the lizards, and no longer to humanity. A strange lethargy, born of the heat, infects Kerans and his co-workers, giving them troubling dreams. It infuses the book, too, and makes this a vivid, sensual and disturbing novel.
Transit – Edmund Cooper (1964)
Our hero Richard Avery finds a glowing crystal in a park, and upon touching it is whisked away to some unknown location where he finds himself becoming the subject of experimentation. Placed upon a desert island with two women and one other man, he has to find a way to survive whatever nature, and his captors, throw at him. Thank goodness they are provided with cigarettes, booze and pornography, or else the whole thing would be unbearable.
Out of all the books on this list, this one feels most like a product of its time to me. It’s like Kurt Vonnegut wrote an episode of The Prisoner – a page-turning survival story that’s part wish-fulfilment, part social experiment, and it entertains brilliantly, never flagging, and never demanding that we take it too seriously.
A Wrinkle In The Skin – John Christopher (1962)
The title of the novel comes from a moment early on when chat at a dinner party turns to the subject of recent earthquakes – “One or two wrinkles in the skin of an orange – the orange very big and the wrinkles very small,” says one character, dismissively, while enjoying the benefits of civilised society. But it turns out that the wrinkles aren’t so small after all.
John Christopher was great at turning mundane moments into chilling ones, and there is a brilliant description of the stillness that pervades before the big earthquake hits. But afterwards Guernsey – the home of horticulturalist Matthew Cotter – is no longer a safe haven of polite people and fine dining. The survivors become desperate, and the story turns into a journey through an unrecognisable landscape that juxtaposes so sharply with that first chapter. It’s a bleak read, and a worrying one; would civilisation so easily collapse at the first sign of a mere wrinkle?
The Doomsday Men – Kenneth Bulmer (1968)
Carver is a Ridforce agent; he has been trained, using new technology, to enter the mind of murder victims and replay their last memories to the moment of death, revealing the killer. He runs the risk of losing his own thoughts and memories with each case, but Carver is good at his job, and the department trusts in his ability to find the truth. Until he enters the mind of a victim and finds a troubling memory – why is Carver’s own teenage daughter, ensconced miles away in an expensive boarding school, present as a high-class prostitute in the victim’s memories?
A police procedural sci-fi thriller, The Doomsday Men reminds me of Mad Men tied with Minority Report. Slick, full of manly attitude, and yet dealing with crimes within the mind in which nothing the protagonist sees can be trusted, it’s a slippery fish of a read that ties itself into too neat a bow in the end, perhaps. Still, it’s a heck of an adventure, involving a lot of corpses, double bluffs, and even a ticking bomb.
Pavane – Keith Roberts (1968)
Alternative history books are hard to do well, and almost impossible to do with as much delicacy and complexity as Pavane. It starts with one question – what if Elizabeth I had died earlier and the Catholic Church had reasserted its hold on England?
Jump forward a few hundred years and we have a country without electricity, without equal rights, and with a reliance on the steam train that dominates the first section of the novel and makes this feel, initially, like steampunk. But Pavane doesn’t stay within one element of this alternative future; it gives us a number of wonderful characters throughout society and interweaves their stories to make an intricate pattern. Cause and effect is a complex business which doesn’t always get a lot of consideration in science fiction. I can’t think of a book that does it as well as Pavane.
Chocky – John Wyndham (1960)
In 2008 Dreamworks acquired the film rights to Chocky and it’s not hard to see why it would appeal; the tale of a boy who has an imaginary friend that perhaps isn’t imaginary after all, this is science fiction at its most personal and inclusive, filled with warmth for the situation and the family it describes.
If you’re in the mood for a more optimistic read, then either Chocky or The Trouble With Lichen (the only two novels Wyndham wrote in the 1960s) will fit the bill perfectly. They have humour and decency, but they still manage to raise troubling questions about how humans often assume a mastery over the world, and why we struggle to overcome our own preconceptions.
Greybeard – Brian Aldiss (1964)
The worlds of future fictions often belong to the young and Greybeard is a very effective counterpoint – imagining a time when humanity ceases to reproduce after a spike in radiation, and there will be no more children to inherit the Earth. Instead there’s only Greybeard and others like him, elderly men and women in a society reverting to feudalism and superstition as they die out.
The non-linear story documents Greybeard’s life, revealing factions and forces that created this last generation. It’s a reading experience of far more light, humour and beauty than this subject matter would suggest. It also reaches some really interesting conclusions about humanity. A world without children is not a new theme; a number of books tackle the same ground, but Greybeard is, I think, the most surprising and insightful of the lot.
The Hieros Gamos Of Sam And An Smith – Josephine Saxton (1969)
A boy walks through a strange land, perhaps a post-apocalyptic one, and yet it holds no threat for him. There are no wild animals, no radiation, and when he hears a baby crying in the wilderness he has no fear of approaching. The mother is dead, moments after giving birth, and the boy takes the baby girl, and begins to provide for her with no great sense of importance. The book follows the boy as he raises the girl, and we find ourselves examining the nature of life, of sex, of childhood and parenthood, afresh.
A short and marvellous book, I really can’t think of anything else quite like it. It proves that science fiction is a brilliant genre for examining deep psychological issues precisely because it can be free from the demands of realism. Also, the ending is my favourite of all the books on this list.
A Fall Of Moondust – Arthur C Clarke (1961)
HMS Selene cruises the Sea of Thirst, a vast bowl of powdery dust on the moon. The trip offers a thrill to those who are tired of exploring Earth and can afford the ticket price, but these travellers get more than they bargained for when the Selene is stranded deep within the dust. Can rescuers reach them?
A race against time, it would have been easy to make A Fall Of Moondust into a claustrophobic, if predictable, tale of human interplay between the trapped tourists. But what I love is that Clarke doesn’t do that. The poor victims play cards and form book clubs and provide the light relief at times, because this is a very serious exploration of how space tourism might look and what technological problems might await us on the moon. Published eight years before man set foot on a lunar landscape and found it wouldn’t swallow us up in dust, this book is a good reminder of how visionary science fiction could be when dealing with unknowns, and of how far our understanding has come since then.