A Biblio-Critical Study of Speculative Fiction Novels

Chapter 02 Precursors of the Speculative Fiction Movement


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Chapter Two: Precursors of the
Speculative Fiction Movement

A. Introduction

Several authors of the late 1950s anticipated the attitudes, techniques, concerns, and material associated with the speculative fiction writers. The mainstream actually adopted some of the better novelists. Another group of writers continued to write innovative fiction within the science fiction tradition, appeared especially in Starting, FASF, and Galaxy, albeit with mixed success. In England, no direct predecessors to such authors as J.G. Ballard and Brian Alidss emerged, but two writers, John Wyndham and John Christopher, broke away from American pulp tradition and adopted a fictional form, the disaster novel, that these latter authors would also employ.

B. Too Good to Be Science Fiction? Authors Adopted by the Mainstream:
Bradbury, Miller, Keynes, and Vonnegut

Ray Bradbury's success helped to "legitimize" science fiction. Non-genre critics adopted Bradbury first. Further, Bradbury made his mark as a stylist, noted for his poetic language and criticism of modern society and science and not for his hard science. At the same time, however, other recent science fiction authors did all of these things equally well but did not receive the attention of a Bradbury, causing some dissatisfaction in the science fiction community. Still despite Bradbury's ambivalence to science fiction neither his settings nor his tone particularly distinguish him from other writers in the field, and to many outsiders he remains something of a definition of a "good" science fiction author.

Between 1951 and 1953, Bradbury published the three volumes that established his reputation as a writer: The Martian Chronicles (1950); The Illustrated Man (1951); and Fahrenheit 451 (1951, Galaxy as "the Fireman," 1953). The first two volumes contain anti-technology, fears of alienation, warnings of man's power to destroy himself, and emotional language. Bradbury's Mars nostalgically recreate as Burroughs that of Burroughs, and his stories loom with cravings for the grounded middle America of a Clifford D. Simak's. Bradbury's supernatural and horrific elements represent unashamed and freely acknowledged continuations of the pulp Weird Tales tradition of H.P. Lovecraft. His conscious symbolism and engaging language, elevate and differentiate Bradbury, away from his sources and his materials so that he more closely resembles Poe than science fiction. As Brian Aldiss succinctly states in the 1950s, "Christopher Isherwood came along and announced that Bradbury was a poet." (1)

This singular attention caused considerable resentment among science fiction writers that Bradbury himself attributes to fear:

"I left a family you see. And that's a danger to them. Because they haven't got out of the house." (2)

Non-genre critics could point out Bradbury as representing "the best" in science fiction. Actually, Bradbury's pessimism about the future and nostalgia for the past represented atypical departures from mainstream fiction. He showed that literate authors could use settings as anachronistic and escapist as Burroughs's for more serious purposes, and he helped create a higher standard in a genre that generally regarded how an author wrote a passage as far less relevant than what was wrote and especially its scientific logic.

Both Walter Miller (1922-) and Daniel Keyes (1927-) wrote single novels enthusiastically embraced by non-genre critics. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (FASF: 1953; Hugo winner, 1961) features a moderately atypical after-the-bomb novel. In Miller's novel, the Catholic church retains the surviving fragments of man's scientific knowledge. Civilizations recovers slowly with the reluctant assistance of the monasteries. Secular forces again drop the bomb, but a small group of monk-led survivors escape to the stars. Miller's book mixes humor, dark satire, mainstream skill, and philosophical message. Canticle for Leibowitz deserves acclaim as one of the classics of speculative fiction, but later works equaled his and received notably; less attention.

Daniel Keyes' Charly (1959; expanded, 1967), a retarded man undergoes a treatment that expands his intellect to normal level and beyond. The effects, however, wear off over time. The novel focuses on the main character, rather than the scientific process, a more usual concern of much science fiction. The novel achieved real fame through an award-winning film version starring Cliff Robertson.

Kurt Vonnegut probably surpassed all of these writers except Bradbury in terms of output and significance. Vonnegut found in speculative fiction a way to express his Swiftian, far-reaching satires on modern life, beliefs, and ethics. Vonnegut, though, quickly left the science fictions magazines when other markets opened to him. Novels, such as Player Piano (1952) and The Sirens of Titan (1959) sue the conventional science fiction dystopia and the space opera for very different purposes. Cat's Craddle (1963), beneath Vonnegut's metaphysics and humor, contains standard scientific inventions and a disaster tale. Slaughterhouse V (1969) contains, as its story within a story, summaries of the "Kilgore Trout" novels, almost a compendium of the worst space opera plots which Vonnegut uses to display the mental processes of his anti-hero. Later novels resemble Greek Old Comedy more than they resemble modern science fiction.

Vonnegut's relations with science fiction community remain strained. His recurrent character, Kilgore Trout, caricatures fellow science fiction authors at the same time offering an ironic self-portrait of Vonnegut himself. Vonnegut denies that he criticizes science fiction, but his statement hardly apologizes: "How could you satirize science fiction? Unless you demonstrate how badly written most of it is." (3)

Like his parody of a science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout, the science fiction community lent Vonnegut little recognition; none of his works won either a Nebula or a Hugo. Vonnegut uses science fiction to demonstrate a wider and wilder view of the universe; he may be the best speculative science fiction writer in the world.


C. An English Idiom: Wyndham and Christopher

In 1950s England, no writers appeared with the same stylistic and thematic concerns as speculative fiction writers. Carnell's magazine, Nova and Science Fiction featured fantasy, space opera, and hard science fiction. Newer writers such as Aldiss, Moorcock, and Ballard, however, regularly appeared in both magazines and began to develop their own voices.

John Wyndham Parker Lucas Benyon Harris (1903-1969) had been publishing fiction, mostly simple space operas, since the thirties under various derivations of his name. After the war, however, Wyndham began publishing novels presenting various forms of world-wide destruction such as The Day of the Triffids (1951) with cannibal plants and Village of the Damned (1957) with alien children. In both, middle class characters confront the problems of creating an ethical value system in a decaying world. In Village of the Damned, for example, citizens destroy alien-human hybrids despite their human parentage suggesting that a democracy may need to sacrifice individual freedom to insure group survival. Aldiss, while not denying Wyndham's influence on his work, derides works such as Day of the Triffids as "totally devoid of ideas, but read smoothly and thus reached a maximum audience, who enjoyed cozy disasters." (4) Wyndham's unspectacular disaster novels brought back to English science fiction the popularity and seriousness of H.G. Wells.

John Christoper carried on the disaster tradition in No Blade of Grass (1956), The Long Winter (1962), The Ragged Edge (1965), and Pendulum (1968). Christopher's darker view of mankind anticipated, in this respect, the works of Moorcock and Ballard. Individual survival becomes the only ethic in No Blade of Grass (1956) when the superpowers destroy their own grain sources. The government considers bombing London to insure national survival. One brother kills another because they head rival groups of refugees. After the mid-sixties, Christopher's fiction increasingly concentrated on children's friction. His darker, more psychological disaster tales, Aldiss states, at one time promised to make him "the leading science fiction writer in England." (5)

These two writers established an "English" identity, a set of concerns with survival in a declining world and its moral repercussions that continues in later works of authors such as Aldiss, Moorcock, and Ballard. In these later novels, the disaster ,however, becomes a symbol for personal as well as social and physical disintegration.


D. Venus Plus X: Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon (1918-) ran through a number of odd jobs and published stories in McClure's magazine before publishing his first story in ASF (1939). Sturgeon, like Heinlein, Asimov, and Van Vogt, blossomed in the 1940s during ASF's golden age. Sturgeon, however, published more profusely in Unknown. He became one of the most significant contributors to Galaxy in the fifties. In stories such as "Saucer of Loneliness" (Galaxy, 1953) and "Touch of the Strange" (1958) Sturgeon concentrated on the psychological exploration of character with science fiction or fantasy mainly used as to device. His emotional works showed an individual voice. He de-emphasized science and explored human relations, physical, mental, and even sexual. His collections include Without Sorcery (1948), E Pluribus Unicorn (1953), A Way Home (1953), Aliens Four (1958) and, perhaps the most descriptive, A Touch of Strange (1958). After a long absence, Sturgeon returned to speculative fiction with two recent collections: Sturgeon is Alive and Well (1970) and Case and the Dreamer (1974).

Sturgeon published fewer novels but at least one classic. In The Synthetic Man (1950 Sturgeon (1950) mars a competent story of youthful alienation and growth by introducing the superhuman origins for the main character. The Cosmic Rape (1958) concerns an attempt by aliens to integrate humanity into a cosmic super-being. The human turn the tables and draw the invaders into a united humanity. In Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1960) he turns out a competent movie novelisation. Venus Plus X, however, makes more of an impact. Humans land of Venus, ruled by a unisexual, peaceful society. The society has been described as a "sexual Utopia" in an "unremittingly didactic" (6) novel.

More Than Human (1953, Galaxy, "Baby is Three," opening and closing sections added) details the successful struggle of a multi-person "homo gestalt" to merge its human components. It reads as an effective, compelling story of individual efforts to adjust to the demands of society. "Morality," the novel's closing section, robs the book of its human dimension as the homo gestalt merges with similar groups throughout the galaxy in a transcendent, superhuman finale. "Baby is Three" alone marks this book a classic with its superior characterization.

Sturgeon brought new individual concerns to speculative fiction. His stories feature characters in charged, emotional, often alienated, situations that the fantastic elements only highlight. Harlan Ellison, in particular, relates his career to Sturgeon's. His biggest fault lies in his tendency to solve complex problems with intrusive, fantastic panaceas. More Than Human, with its godlike humans, does not solve the problem of deriving an individual ethical system independent of group compulsion. Sturgeon brought a personal, romantic voice to the field. He used the fantastic to explore an interior, personal, emotional world of human relations.


E. The Stars, My Destination: Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester (1913-) used science fiction to tell psycho-social dramas resembling Greek tragedies. His novels featured characters flawed physically and psychologically whose fall display their faults and satirize a decaying Western society.

Bester wrote science fiction in three different periods. After attaining degrees in both the humanities and science, he began publishing stories in Mort Wesinger's Thrilling Wonder Stories. He followed that editor into comic book scripting and dialogue-writing. Later, in the forties, he wrote for radio serials. In 1950, he returned to the genre again as a full-time writer, but he left again in the late fifties to become editor for Holiday Magazine. When, in the 1970s, that magazine, he returned to science fiction and recently published a new novel. Bester wrote a few scattered, important short stories during his career but made a more lasting impact as a novelist.

The Demolished Man (Galaxy, 1953) is Ben Reich, a modern Oedipus, who murders his father who also heads a rival corporation. Reich forcibly merges the two companies and threatens to economically dominate the solar system. Ben Lincoln, a futuristic detective and the leader of a mind-reading "esper" guild, pursues Reich. A mental projection of a "man with no face," a mental projection of his own guilt over killing his father, haunts Reich. Lincoln uses mind control techniques to force Reich to face his own guilt and brings about his downfall. Society then "demolishes" Reich cleansing him of his memories and retraining him for society. This cures him but robs him of his drive to move and dominate society. Bester's novel, full of intensity, narrative drive, Freudian speculation, social criticism, and space opera scope deservedly the first Hugo award in 1953.

The Stars My Destination (Galaxy, 1956) features another damned character. Gully Foyle, one of the most cleverly named characters in literature, becomes a pawn in the grips of capitalistic elites who wish to exploit his power of teleportation. He continually sees a "burning man," a projection of himself from the future, a symbol for his agony, and an objective correlative for a Blake poem. Perversity and hatred rack Gully's world while forces beyond the comprehension and control of the common man control Gully. Like Prometheus, he uses his powers to steal nuclear weapons. At the conclusion of the novel, he teleports from place to place giving weapons to the masses and challenges them to act:

"Takes a war to make you act. Takes a war to make you think. Takes a challenge to make you great. Rest of the time you sit around, lazy. Pigs, you are! All right, God damn you! I challenge you, now die or live and be great. Blow yourselves to Christ come or come and find me, Gully Foyle, and I'll make you men. I'll make you great. I give you the stars." (8)

Extro (1974) and Golem (1980) recapture much of the verve of these early works. The first tells of symbolic union of sun and computer. The latter uses over psychology as three people seek and find the psychological basis for evil in the id. All Bester's novels feature doomed protagonists, psychological exploration, comic-book imagery, experimental story organization, and driving narration. Bester showed that the pyrotechnics of science fiction could accommodate more serious thematic material. With his hyperbolic images, Bester explored the inner worlds of his characters. His influence appears in such writers as Samuel R. Delany who considers The Stars My Destination perhaps "the greatest single science fiction novel." (9) Bester created haunting images and used science fiction's dimensions to recreate the majesty of the classical tragedy.

F. Maker of Universes: Philip Jose Farmer

Some unfortunate accidents and an intention editorial fraud conceal the fact that Philip Jose Farmer (1918-) wrote or conceived almost all of his most innovative fiction by 1965 (10). Two main concerns dominate Farmer's fiction: sex and theology, both previously considered taboo in science fiction.

Farmer long admired science fiction, especially the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Farmer earned a BA in English in 1950 but turned to a variety of odd jobs. One publisher accepted a work of Farmer's on false pretenses; another of his main early publishers, Startling, folded. He returned to part-time status and remained so until the late 1960s.

Farmers concern with sexual exploration began with his very first work, "The Lovers," ("The Lovers," Startling, 1961), which Astounding and several other magazines rejected. The story pairs together an alien insect that can assume human form and a futurist human male, the product of a repressed society. The alien teaches Hal to overcome his inhibitions but because she needs to reproduce rather than from any more elevated motivation. The novel remains rooted in Freudian concepts of society and sexual relations. The collection Strange Relations (1961) and The Alley God (1960) explore similar material. Sex also plays a prominent role in Dare (written in 1955, but published in 1965) and a trilogy of detective/gothic written for Essex, a publisher of pornography: Image of the Beast (1968), Blown (1969), and Traitor to the Living (1973).

The exploration of godhood forms a second preoccupation of Farmer's. His deities, like the Greek, often seem to differ from humans merely by possessing massive powers, and men often surpass Farmer's gods both ethically and intellectually. Bishop in Carmody in Night of Light (1966) creates a god that satisfies his personal specification. In Inside Outside (1964), an apparent Hell exists within the center of the earth; ids await the birth of their bodies.

Elaboration of these themes appear in Farmer's two most famous series of novels. In the Riverworld series, conceived as a single novel in 1955, "Ethicals" resurrect all of the earth's dead in order to study mankind. The real interest in the series, however, lies in the fascinating character confrontations that this premise allows: Samuel Clements duels King John; Farmer's surrogate self meets Sir Richard Burton; Herman Goring becomes a monk. Novels in this still-expanding series include, To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1965-1966, Worlds of If, 1971), The Fabulous Riverboat (1967-1971 If; 1971), The Dark Design (1977), and the Magic Labyrinth (1981).

Men of incredible power build their own worlds to avoid boredom, an obvious reference to Farmer and his fellow science fiction authors, in Farmers "World of Tiers" series, which shows something of a lightening of tone: The Makers of the Universe (1965), The Gates of Creation (1966), a Private Cosmos (1968), Behind the Walls of Terra (1970), and The Lavalite World (1977),

Another of Farmer's works, "Riders of the Purple Wage" (1967) published in Ellison's Dangerous Visions shows Farmers at his most serious. The experimental, and the narrative intersplices poems and uncharacteristic black humor. It portrays the decay of near-future America. Most of Farmer's works after about 1967 either extend earlier stories offer lighter, adventure-oriented tales than his first stories. Many of these develop his own personal mythological system. He unites all his favorites heroes into a mystical "Wold-Newton" family that interbreed with superior aliens. These works revive and relate to the adventure of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but they have Farmer's particular sense of humor.

Farmer considered his favorite hero, Tarzan, in every possible variation. Tarzan Alive (1973), the hero's "biography" proves to scoffers that Tarzan really exists. Farmer directly continues Burroughs series into the modern day in A Feast Unknown (1970), Lord of the Trees (1970), and The Mad Goblin (1970) though even these contain godlike men and explicit sex. In Lord Tyger (1970), a millionaire attempts to produce his own apeman .Tarzan journeys in time to the dawn age of Opar, one of Burroughs lost cities, in Time's Last Gift (1972), Hadon of Ancient Opar (1974), and Flight to Opar (1976). Farmer also ties into this series such as heroes as Doc Savage in Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (1972), Ahab in The Wind Whales of Ishmaiel, and Phineas Phogg in The Other Log of Phineas Phogg. These later works, while witty, adventurous, and slick, lack the purpose of Farmer's earlier fiction. Venus on the Half-Shell (1975) Farmer credits on the cover to Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout. Farmer actually obtained Vonnegut's permission to write the book, but he hardly takes his character too seriously. Trout's heroic space wanderer reads novels by another non-existent writer that Trout seems to satirize, making this work a triple satire.

Farmer revived the adventure tale as a mode for speculative fiction. More importantly, he explored sex and theology. Farmer brought Freudian theory into genre. In his later works, Farmer lightened his tone, but developed a sense of humor, something often lacking in speculative fiction.


G. The Reality of Philip K. Dick

Dick brought only one new concept to speculative fiction, the subjective reality:

"I was interested in Jung's idea of projection--what we experience as external to use may really be projected from our unconscious, which means of course that each person's world has to be different from everybody else's because the contents of each person's unconscious will be to a certain extent unique. I began a series of stories in which people experienced worlds which were a projection of their own psyche." (11)

Dick attended one year at Berkely, at one time operated a classic radio station, and traveled widely in various intellectual circles. Dick avidly read science fiction reader and stated that Van Vogt's The World of Null-A gave him an "idea of a mysterious quality in the universe that could be dealt with in science fiction." (12)

Dick, like the surrealists, presents his reader with more than one perception of reality. Dick's "pan-realism" however, presents no reality as the ultimate. The reader or character must choose. Despite this apparent endorsement of all perspectives, Dicks' prejudices, however, come through in the way he presents these alternative realities. A general, for example, suddenly finds himself in a situation of total powerlessness at the mercy of another. Generally, anyone who physically or psychologically imposes his reality on another commits the greatest crime. Dick states:

"The greatest menace of the twentieth century is the totalitarian state. It can take many form: left wing fascism, psychological movements, religious movements, drug rehabilitation, powerful people, manipulative people, or it can be in a relationship with someone who is more powerful than you psychologically. Essentially, I'm pleading the cause of those who are not strong...this is a reason why my heroes are essentially anti-heroes. They're almost losers, yet I try to equip them with qualities by which they can survive. At the same time, I don't want to see them develop counter-aggressive tactics where they, too, become exploitive and manipulative. (13)

Dick uses variation on this basic theme and they haunt even work from the fifties. In the Simulcra and Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep modern loss of identity renders men indistinguishable from machines. In Eye in the Sky (1957) Dick explores various subjective worlds.

Dick's second period (1962-1970) contains a number of notable works. The Man in the High Castle (1962; Hugo Winner, 1963), presents an alternate world of an Axis victory in World War II; Americans, conquered and decultured, show little opposition to their masters, a direct contrast to the many science fiction depictions of Americans rebelling heroically against invasion. Martian Time Slip (1964) and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) both deal with a depressed, decayed Martian colonial world [this vision appears in the movie Total Recall based on Dicks' work]. In the latter, colonists, drafted by lot, serve out their lives in dreary holes on Mars. The Simulcra (1964) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968, also filmed as "The Blade Runner" mirrors some of the humors) also deals with men and machines. Ubik (1969) repeats the theme of Eye in the Sky. Other notable novels include The Penultimate Truth (1964), The Zap Gun (1965), Dr. Bloodmoney or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965), Now Wait for Last Year (1966), Galactic Pot-Healer (1969), We Can Build You (1970), and Maze of Death (1970).

After a short absence from the field, with some years spent involved in the drug subculture, Dick returned, with more literary technique, in the 1970s. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said contains more symbolic and emotional depth than many of his earlier works. Confessions of a Crap Artist (1970) constitutes his attempt to write a Dickian novel in a mainstream format. Many critics consider A Scanner, Darkly (1977) as Dick's best novel.

Dick, like many satirists such as Vonnegut with his Kilgore Trout, perceived the advantages of creating a fictional persona for himself or rather of himself. He posed as the "visionary messiah," who held the keys of enlightenment to his audience, not so much a messiah but a parody of one. For example, in The Man in theHigh Castle whom the searchers, sure enough, predicts that in a parallel world the US did not lose the war, but he cannot describe our own world. Dick's refusal to stop completely out of character forces readers to choose reality yet again. Rather than disillusion them, Dicks put his tongue firmly in cheek as in his interview for The Dream Makers when he launches into a long explication of this "vision" he purportedly had in his own house:

"'Are you describing now, a fictional concept, such as might occur in one of your novels...or is this serious?'"

"'You mean, do I believe in it?...Why no, of course not. You'd have to be crazy to believe in something like that,' and then he laughed.

Dick's novels remained stylistically conventional. He brought to speculative fiction some of the vision of mystical religion, even as he urged them not to believe too much in it. His concerns included war, individual freedom, psychological domination, physical force, and personal alienation, prefiguring the work of many of the authors in later chapters. Writers such as Thomas M. Disch, who quickly acknowledges the Dickian influence, and Usula K. LeGuin use the Dickian pan-reality to convey their own message. Dick, like J.G. Ballard, emphasized that the speculative fiction writer remained, "the man in the high castle," the philosopher revealing something of the cosmos. While Ballard might claim that this represents the truer reality, Dick believed in more than one true reality and forced his reader to see a never ending series of them.

For my own take on Dick's fiction click on The Plastic Tommorrow and read "And Dick is Dead"

(1) Brian Aldiss Billion Year Spree: the True History of Science Fiction (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1973), p. 259.
(2) Ray Bradbury in The Dream Makers, ed. Charles Platt J (New York: Berkley, 1980), p. 176.
(3) Vonnegut in The Dream Makers, p. 29.
(4) Aldiss, p. 293.
(5) Ibid, p. 295.
(6) John Clute in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, ed. by Peter Nicholle (London, Roxby Press, 1979), p. 580.
(7) Harlan Ellison, Dangerous Visions (New York: Signet, 1974), p. 377.
(8) Alfter Bester. The Stars, My Destination (New York: Pocket Books, 1978), p. 195.
(9) Delany quoted by Peter S. Altman in Twentieth Century American Science Fiction Writers, Volume 2, David Concourt, Thomas Wyner, ed. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1980), p. 34.
(10) Thomas Wymer, "Speculative Fiction, Bibliographies and Philip Jose Farmer," Extrapolation, December, 1976.
(11) Philip K. Dick in The Dream Makers (New York: Charles Platt, 1980), pp. 147-148.
(12) Dick in Platt, p. 147.
(13) Ibid, p. 149.
(14) Ibid, p. 149.

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