Science fiction is in the midst of a boom just now. And it isn't only because of blockbuster movies like Star Wars and Alien, although they have certainly helped. (On the other hand, Battlestar Galactica and its ilk have had just the opposite effect.)
It was once fashionable to talk about the sf "ghetto," from which any writer with literary talent—or, at any rate, literary pretensions—longed to escape. Nowadays the "ghetto" constitutes the largest part of the paperback market, and Robert A. Heinlein has just been paid a record $500,000 advance for his latest novel.
People are more receptive even to hard-core sf. Time was, only watered down, formularized books by outsiders, like Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain, attracted much attention. But in the last couple of years, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle have seen their Lucifer's Hammer become a million-copy seller. True, they aimed at the bestseller market—but they didn't compromise to do it.
And there is more to the success of science fiction in recent years than increased popularity. It's trite to say, of course, but sf is not only bigger but better. There appears to be a greater maturity in the genre—not merely the flashy use of new (or not so new, and borrowed) literary techniques that characterized the 1960s, but a greater appreciation of the inherent potential of science fiction.
One of the new writers who seems to typify the new science fiction is John Varley (two of whose stories were nominated for a Hugo award this past year). His The Persistence of Vision (Dial, 1978; now available in paperback) may be the most significant single-author collection of the decade.
Most of Varley's stories, although not all, are set in a common future bizarre enough to satisfy the most hard-core fans: a solar system in which aliens—who identify with beleaguered whales and dolphins—have dispossessed mankind of its home planet and left humanity to survive in artificial environments on other planets and satellites. But that is only the background; Varley's real interest is in creating new kinds of societies. Routine use of cloning, organ transplants, and sex changes has transformed human society—and customs and morals—practically beyond recognition. Yet Varley is able to make his readers see it all from the point of view of those who actually live in this future, to whom, naturally, it seems perfectly "normal."
"Retrograde Summer," for example, is the story of a teenager on Mercury who discovers his "mother" is really his "father." The sex change doesn't faze him at all. What shocks him is that he should be raised by his father at all in a culture where fatherhood is no longer even a legally recognized concept and the idea of the nuclear family as we know it seems obscene.
The story itself is anything but shocking, for it simply takes the customs and mores of its imagined society for granted. The relationship between the teenager and the visiting clone sister he never knew he had, and who eventually reveals the tangled "family" relationship, is as warm and tender as, say, the best episodes of "The Waltons" or "Little House on the Prairie."
"The Persistence of Vision" itself (title story of the collection and winner of a 1979 Hugo award) is not part of Varley's future history but takes on an equally difficult task. Countercultural movements and communes, with all their talk of "love," have become clichés. But in his depiction of a commune established by deaf and blind people in the New Mexico desert, and of the elaborate culture they invent for themselves, Varley is absolutely convincing. He makes the reader believe (along with his protagonist) that it could even be desirable.
This same sense of everyday reality and conviction underlies all of Varley's fiction—"The Phantom of Kansas," in which somebody keeps trying to murder an environmental artist (she creates carefully programmed storms), and the culprit turns out to be her illegally cloned male counterpart; "Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance," in which men and women in symbiosis with alien organisms create a new art form while living in Saturn's rings; and even "The Black Hole Passes" (the title is a play on that of an old John W. Campbell story), in which boy meets girl while working on the fringes of the system, disaster strikes and—switch—girl rescues boy.
Varley's latest book is Titan, which harks back to Larry Niven's Ringworld in a way: only this time the huge artificial world is alive. Not quite as serious as the stories in The Persistence of Vision, and with too many in-jokes, perhaps, but still an entertaining romp and more sophisticated than what used to be written in sf as pure "entertainment."
Another author to watch in contemporary sf is C.J. Cherryh (her full name is Carolyn Janice, but she avoids using it because she doesn't want to bother explaining that her middle name is pronounced Jan-ees, not Jan-ice). So far, she has seven novels to her credit (she hasn't written a bad one yet) as well as several short stories.
A student of language and culture (on which she can talk informatively for hours at a time, without let-up), she brings to science fiction a sense of depth and complex reality in her creation of alien (although usually humanoid) cultures. Just as important is the angle of vision in her novels: it was long common in sf for human protagonists to encounter the aliens and to see them through human eyes. Cherryh's protagonists are usually the nonhumans—and it is we who are the "aliens," inscrutable and even menacing. Reading a Cherryh novel can be a real workout: in Hunter of Worlds (1977), for example, there are three alien species, each with its own language expressing shades of meaning and concepts foreign to humanity.
Cherryh's most recent science fiction novels, The Faded Sun: Kesrith (Daw, 1978) and The Faded Sun: Shonjir (Daw, 1979) are part of a trilogy (the third book has not appeared as of this writing) set against the background of a conflict among humans and two alien species—the regul; and their mercenary warriors, the mri. Typically, most of what happens is seen from the viewpoint of Niun, one of the mri, whose species faces extinction after being betrayed by its regul paymasters.
All is not as simple as it seems from a brief description of the situation. The regul, for example, have a psychology peculiar in the extreme: their memories are eidetic (photographic), and they have no subconscious—not only do they never forget anything, but they are virtually incapable of lying. And, for that matter, of creating or inventing.
Regul social structure is equally peculiar. In the adult form, the regul are sessile (nonmobile) beings, who have to be constantly attended by younglings—otherwise considered of little value. There are clans of a sort, and political rivalries; but they have an entirely different biological basis from our own.
As for the mri, fighting is not only their way of life but (seemingly) part of their genetic heritage; it is hinted that perhaps they are actually parasites on other species in the biological sense. Although very humanlike in appearance (as contrasted to the gross regul), their physiology betrays subtle adaptations to the environment of their original homeworld. And their culture and clan structure is one decidedly alien: even sexual reproduction is impossible save in a carefully defined social relationship involving the she pan, a sort of clan mother.
At the heart of the continuing story of The Faded Sun trilogy is the developing relationship between Niun and Sten Duncan, a Terran diplomatic aide who is determined to try to understand—and even help—the mri, regardless of the indifference and hostility of the regul and his own superiors. This sort of psychological drama is one of the trademarks of Cherryh's sf but is especially compelling in The Faded Sun series—in the second book, it even borders on the tragic.
Cherryh's science fantasy adventure series, which began with her very first novel, Gate of Ivrel (1976) and continued with Well of Shiuan (1978), concluded this year with Fires of Azeroth (from Daw, like all of her books). Morgaine, the demonic heroine of the series, is engaged in a quest to close all the "gates" between worlds, works of an ancient race that had disrupted the fabric of space and time by establishing them. In her ruthless dedication to her quest, she has no interest in what happens to the people in the worlds she encounters along the way, who are only means to an end. Nhi Vanye, a native of one such world who unwittingly becomes honor-bound to her, faces a continuing struggle between honor and conscience as he attempts to influence her course.
Science fiction's new golden age has turned out to be even more the work of women writers than had been known, with the revelation of James Tiptree, Jr.'s identity. Tiptree, already a Hugo winner with two short-story collections to "his" credit, had been the subject of a number of scholarly articles and even personal interviews. One of "his" admirers, Robert Silverberg, had even written an introduction to "his" second collection, praising the "masculine" qualities of Tiptree's writing. Last year the word got out: "Tiptree" is a research psychologist named Alice Sheldon, who had also just begun to sell stories as "Raccoona Sheldon" (when some of those were rejected, letters of endorsement from "Tiptree" F finally won acceptances for them).
Her first novel, Up the Walls of the World (Berkley, Putnam's, 1979) was, like Cherryh's first Faded Sun novel, nominated for a Hugo this year. Although not as startlingly inventive as some of her short fiction, it is still a rich work. Up the Walls of the World brings together (1) the unwilling participants in a CIA sponsored study of paranormal powers, (2) the alien inhabitants of a gas giant planet who live out their lives in a natural environment of raging winds and can't imagine how anything could live on the ground of a planet in stillness, and (3) an intruding cosmic Mad Mind (a rather Stapledonian concept) bent on destroying life on every world it encounters. Tiptree creates a drama of moral and psychological conflict on several levels as the aliens debate the morality of saving their own lives by taking over the bodies of Earthmen, and both species find themselves engaged in a seemingly hopeless struggle to influence the Mad Mind.
Vonda N. McIntyre
On a more low-key level is yet another Hugo winner, Vonda N. McIntyre's Dreamsnake (Houghton Mifflin, 1978), which also won a Nebula from the Science Fiction Writers of America (the Hugos are voted by fans). Set in a post-holocaust future of "primitive" yet generally benevolent cultures, it is the story of a Healer who uses mutated poisonous snakes (which can manufacture serums and vaccines) in her work—but loses her dreamsnake, which brings comfort to the dying, and has to set out to find a new one.
McIntyre's world and its peoples unfold gradually; at first, there seems nothing particularly remarkable about them apart from the "gimmick" of snakes being used in medical treatment, but it later becomes clear that there has been a subtle yet far-reaching change in human psychology and culture. The most basic changes—in sexual roles and relations—are certainly part of McIntyre's own philosophy, but she never gets preachy about them, and the story line is never artificial or contrived.
Marion Zimmer Bradley
The newer writers in science fiction have been generating a good deal of excitement, but even the older ones have been producing a lot of surprises. Marion Zimmer Bradley was known in the late 1950s and the '60s as a writer of interplanetary adventure novels that were published as parts of Ace Doubles—a cheap line of paperbacks with an equally cheap reputation.
Most of her "novels" (some of which were hardly long enough to qualify as such) had as their setting the world of Darkover, where "psi" powers had been developed to a high art and where conflict had emerged between the native culture and that of a Terran federation that had rediscovered and was attempting to dominate the long-lost human colony. The conflict was generally handled on an entertaining but seemingly routine action-adventure level.
But since founding Daw, former Ace editor Donald A. Wollheim has turned Bradley loose to do what she really wants: long, complex novels like The Heritage of Hastur (1975) and The Shattered Chain (1976) that deal with "touchy" subjects like homosexuality and radical feminism—but still in the context of her invented world of Darkover, which has taken on a richness and depth that was never evident in the Ace Double novels (one of which, The Bloody Sun, originally 1964, was extensively rewritten and expanded for a new edition this year).
Her latest is Stormqueen (1978), set in a period before the coming of the Terrans, when the Darkovans were breeding for "psi" powers—with disastrous results. Skeptics about such phenomena should know that Bradley, like other good sf writers, is not a gullible follower of the Uri Gellers or a believer in "paranormal" powers as a magical solution to human problems: if such exist, they would create as many problems as they solved, and human responsibilities in dealing with them would be serious indeed.
Other old hands in science fiction have been developing in new directions. Frederik Pohl, back in the 1950s, was known primarily as a satirist, for both his own works ("The Tunnel under the World") and those in collaboration with the late Cyril Kornbluth (The Space Merchants). But in recent years he has shown a strong talent for hard-science sf and world creation in works like "The Merchants of Venus" (1972) and Gateway (1977, a Hugo winner).
Jem (St. Martin's, 1979), Pohl's most recent novel, combines world creation with his acid satire: earth is going to pot, as usual, with the rival Food, Fuel, and People blocs (political alignments rather different from today's, but no less hostile) jockeying for position as resources diminish and the environment degenerates.
N-OA Bes Bes Geminorum, the "Jem" of the title, is a newly discovered planet orbiting a quasi-stellar object—a "star" so dim that its world is bathed only in a soft red light. But the climate is favorable, and Jem is blessed with abundant natural resources and three intelligent races to exploit. Naturally, the blocs waste no time in doing so; and Danny Dalehouse, one of the few men of conscience in the Food Bloc mission to Jem, becomes a witness and a largely ineffective opponent to the ravaging of a wondrous, innocent world and its peoples. Pohl's satirical vision is edged with a special blend of bitterness and stoicism in Jem.
Arthur C. Clarke
Another of science fiction's old hands, Arthur C. Clarke, has written what he insists is his last sf novel with The Fountains of Paradise (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979). This is a hard science fiction engineering novel of the old school, in which the hero sets out to revolutionize space travel by building an "elevator" from Sri Lanka to a synchronous satellite—and accomplishes his goal, although he does not attain quite the sort of "immortality" he had hoped for. Clarke develops historical-religious parallels between the elevator project and that of an early Sri Lanka king for a mountaintop temple-palace; and as in all Clarke novels, there is an underlying philosophical theme on the nature and destiny of man.
What could be the harbinger of a new school of libertarian sf comes in J. Neil Schulman's Alongside Night (reviewed elsewhere in this issue). It has already drawn an endorsement from no less than Anthony (A Clockwork Orange) Burgess.
Recent translations of Soviet science fiction, published by Macmillan, reveal a strikingly humanistic and—to the extent this is possible at all—even implicitly libertarian attitude. Most of the translated works were originally published during Soviet sf's golden age of the 1960s; sf publishing has been considerably curtailed in this decade and its themes restricted, but the earlier classics are still helping to keep humane values alive in a society where dogmatic puritanism otherwise prevails.
Of course, the authors have to frame their arguments carefully. In World Soul, for example, Mikhail Emtsev and Eremei Parnov threaten the world with the "biotosis"—an experiment in a self-reproducing biological polymer that acquires a "consciousness" of its own and begins to bind all mankind into a collective, telepathic communion. Supposedly, this would be the physical expression of the ideas of communism. But no, the heroes of the novel argue with the proponents of such a viewpoint: men must choose to work together for the common good, not become mere cogs in a biological automaton. And they lead a struggle for people to learn to control their own wills and overcome the "biotosis."
Several novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, including Prisoners of Power (originally titled Inhabited Island) are now available from Macmillan. Prisoners is perhaps the most significant, with its story of a precocious "superman" trying to influence events on a world that has gone through an atomic war and is ruled by a bureaucratic elite vaguely (and necessarily so!) resembling that of the Communist Party. It is the Strugatskys' best effort at world creation (the atmosphere is so dense that the horizon seems to curve up, and the natives believe they live on the inside of the only world that exists), and the plot is entertaining and adventurous, with a deliciously ironic twist at the end.
All these are but a few of the recent works that make science fiction worth reading now more than ever before. Science fiction today is a literature that is entertaining and exciting—and significant.
John J. Pierce recently finished a stint as editor of Galaxy magazine and is now assistant editor of a trade magazine in the food industry. For several years he contributed an sf column to REASON.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Science Fiction Comes of Age".