The State of the Project

I see this blog as a thinking aloud space, whilst I research and complete a book on 1970s sf. as such there is always going to be a bit of a trade off – if I include everything then why read the book, but I might want feedback on a key idea or two that shapes the book. Equally, it won’t go in, simply because it’s here.

I note this because of two thoughts I had yesterday. The first is the sausage to fortune, and the role that Doctor Who: The Invisible Enemy is likely to play in the introduction – both as a text in Paul Magrs’s Strange Boy, a coming of age novel set in the north east, and as I something I watched in my grandparents’ maisonette. I think that if I acknowledge that I am uncovering my own childhood I might be able to avoid the sense that somehow I am travelling into myself as I conduct the work. Especially as it is very much a text about interior travel.

(We pause and consider how little work I conducted today on the article about queer YA sff I need to write, in which Strange Boy has a central role.)

Secondly – and Invisible Enemy could almost become a subtitle to Solar Flares right now – I was reading the start of a book yesterday that has helped the theme of the book really come into focus. The book, incidentally, is Stephen Paul Miller’s The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance, and one sentence in particular leapt out and unfolded into bloom. Certainly it gives me a frame for a good half of the chapters. For now I will pass over the sentence in silence.

But I have for the first time the glimpse of the figures that Michelangelo was to free from the marble blocks.

Meanwhile, here are two things I wrote in my general blog, Mock Mocha Mocker (although it was called something different back then), which was the state of my thinking in April 2007.

‘SF has not been much fun of late. All forms of pop culture go through doldrums; they catch cold when society sneezes. If SF in the late Seventies was confused, self-involved, and stale, it was scarcely a cause for wonder’ [Bruce Sterling]

And yet, and yet – I’ve been thinking about seventies sf for a number of years now, and I’ve written articles on three neglected figures of the period: Coney, Cowper and Compton. I’ve always felt that there was a book in it somewhere but whether anyone is interested enough to read it remains to be seen.

But I’m being drawn to the decade again, and I’m looking at this large block of marble, prepared to make the first chip. I’m sure there’s a statue there somewhere, but where?

I’m thinking that the seventies was the period when sf first truly escaped from being the property of white, bourgeois boys – after civil rights, after women’s rights, after gay rights, Something Changed. Sf became a venue for new political visions. The New Wave(s) had refreshed its voice, but now it had something to talk about. After all, it could hardly be about going to the moon.

The last thing I want to write about is the death of sf. (‘It may not be the worst thing that ever happened to sf that it died.’) But certainly the dinosaurs of First Sf were sorry relics who had been out evolved. And with four or five blockbuster films (Star Wars, Star Trek, Close Encounters, Alien) there was sf around, even if it wasn’t the kind we were looking for or (and this is just me thinking aloud here) some of it was all too much like the First SF we told ourselves we’d outgrown. Sf writers weren’t competing for our beer money any more, but for the money we spent on lunchboxes.

What would a history of seventies sf look like, if these are indeed the parts of the statue in the marble? I don’t want to just write about exceptions. The mainstream stuff needs examining too. (‘Obviously the stuff I’m interested in is the radical subversive marginal stuff, because I’m a radical subversive margin.’ And so forth. Special cases don’t make a history, they make a special pleading.)

Is this sf as a postcolonial literature before the neo cons/roms returned in the 1980s?

So sf is dead, right, it’s in the doldrums by the seventies – after all, we’ve put a man (two men) on the Moon. (That’s where Aldiss and Wingrove begin their account, in Trillion Year Spree, with responses to the moon landing.) Agenda sf, if you will, is dead. But there are those writers of the Gernback-Campbell Continuum who are still writing (Campbell dies in the early 1970s – 1971): Heinlein gets flabby and oversexed, Asimov returns with a singleton before lapsing into silence until the late trilogies, Herbert adds to the Dune mythos, Clarke writes about Rama, one of many Big Dumb Objects of the period, and so on. Business as usual, just less frequently. Even Dick has slowed down.

The British New Wave crowd, faced with the entropy extending even to New Worlds’s circulation, have diversified into novels, which sometimes look less and less like sf as they deal with car crashes and traffic islands, and the alien planet is Earth. Even Doctor Who is Earthbound and paralysed. Meanwhile, a bandwagon is creaking into life: as Tolkien dies so the industry takes off, fueled by the growing role playing game craze and the first of many publications of material Tolkien himself would never have published. There is a fantasy boom – the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, Thomas Covenant, a book about rabbits and another about seagulls. Sf is dead, right?

Well, hardly. It’s not showing the hard sf concerns it once did to the same extent, but instead it takes on a political edge [Okay, yes: sf dealt with McCarthyism and the Cold War in the 1950s, and was hardly ignoring politics in the 1960s, but it takes on a more vital role post-1969 I’d argue.] as a barometer of the times. So, let’s see: the fag end of the Vietnam War, which lurches into genocide in Cambodia. The fall of Nixon. The oil crisis. Carter’s single term in the White House and the hostage crisis. In the UK, growing trouble in Northern Ireland and bombing campaign in England. The three day week. The winter of discontent. The election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister – which is followed by Reagan becoming president and a new twist in the Cold War. (I think I’m going to have to limit it to Anglophone sf – so Australia, Canada and New Zealand need a broadstroke history, too.)

The sf of the age will presumably have reflected these issues – somewhere along the line – and other concerns of the age, such as ecology and environmentalism. Also key to the period is the ongoing fight for equality for women, blacks and gays, with Tiptree, Butler and Delany being vital exemplars. Le Guin really comes of age, although Left Hand of Darkness is outside of the period proper, it only just is, and its ruminations on gender signal the confusions of the age. As do Heinlein’s genderbendings of I Will Fear No Evil and “The Number of the Breast”, for that matter.

At the same time, the iconography of Agenda Sf was being recycled (very green) in the imagery associated with various branches of popular music and, most visibly, the high concept, blockbuster movie of which Star Wars is the most prominent example, and The Empire Strikes Back forms a convenient bookend for the end of the decade (and a contrast with 2001: A Space Odyssey). The pessimism of the second film in the trilogy perhaps finds other echoes in Blake’s 7 and Battlestar Galactica. Meanwhile there were a whole raft of respected (and not so respected) raft of mainstream writers who were using sf tropes in their novels – Pynchon, Hoban, Burgess and so forth – leaving a sense that sf was going far beyond its fannish base.


Tags: ,

2 Responses to “The State of the Project”

  1. Stephen Paul Miller Says:

    Fascinating project! I’m curious. What was my sentence in THE SEVENTIES NOW? All best, Stephen Paul Miller. PS, I look forward to corresponding more.

    • flares Says:

      I’m tempted to be a little bit coy and say p.11, top, but that’s maybe silly. Equally I don’t want to reveal everything just yet.

      But at the risk of infringing copyright this is the bit that leapt out:

      “Blockbuster bestsellers and films like The Godfather, The Exorcist, and Jaws posited hidden, unified, and seemingly uncontrollable forces that are met and defeated.”

      Then you go on to note the skill of Spielberg and Lucas in recuperating the humane; I get the sense that many of my texts don’t have the forces defeated. I’ve yet to see what you do with the idea yet – as I say, I bought a copy of the book in about 2001, 2002, read a third and lent it out.

      I may well be in touch as I progress if that’s okay, and I’ll risk posting here as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: