I’ve worked in a library somewhere in the United States for most of the past thirty-five years. Some of those libraries were in an academic setting and the others were public libraries in Washington, Vermont and North Carolina. I mention this because it relates to the insights on reading trends I’ve had during that time. While there is obviously different reasons for people reading the books they do, my observations are in regard to what people read for pleasure. Some genres seem to remain popular through war, peace and pandemics; Democratic and Republican presidents and economic depressions and booms. Among those genres are crime fiction, true crime, romance (both Harlequin and other formats), horror,and history. Other genres seem to fluctuate. Among these latter is science fiction. When I took my first library job in 1987, science fiction checkouts were moribund. Indeed, it was quite the rarity that any sci-fi at all was borrowed by a patron. If it was, the title was usually Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a book from Ursula K. Leguin’s Earthsea series, or a book by Isaac Asimov. Usually, when I tried to engage the borrower in a conversation about other authors in the genre I had favored in the 1960s and 1970s, the names I mentioned drew a blank.
Among those authors were Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, Poul Anderson, Harlan Ellison, John Brunner, Ursula K. Leguin and Robert Heinlein—all of whom had sold hundreds of thousands of their works in those decades. By the end of the 1980s, it seemed the genre was going the way of the guitar in rock music. Just like the synth was replacing electric guitar in popular music, fantasy fiction was replacing science fiction in popular fiction. I suppose part of this transition could be attributed to the overall growth in book sales and the advertising business’s new trend towards what they called niche marketing. As almost any cognizant person who lived in the US at the time might recall, the ability to focus capitalism’s consumer goods at particular audiences was rapidly taking over the marketplace by 1990. This would become the case even more so when the world wide web advanced technologically to the point where advertisers could literally send an ad to a very select group of people based on their use of the internet. What this often meant was that products could be sold to those most likely to buy them. That was the theory, at least. Ultimately, this type of marketing means that what people with more specific tastes are exposed to is ever more limited to those tastes. If you never read sci-fi, the internet is unlikely to try and sell you scifi.
As an occasional reader of science fiction, I am happy to say that the genre seems to be experiencing n uptick in popularity. New authors like N.K. Jemison and Liu Cixin are quite popular, but so are many of those who were popular a few decades ago. Those who think about these things speculate that some of this popularity is due to a common human desire to escape. This is certainly true. However, I think another reason is a desire to try and understand the future we are living in. Given that so much of the genre’s literature is dystopian—and our present has been described as such—this makes sense. However, there is also the possibility that the futures presented in science fiction provide the reader with some potential hope.
Whatever the case may be, PM Press recently published the third in their series of books examining popular fiction of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It is titled Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction 1950-1985. Like its predecessors, which looked at books attempting to represent youth cultures and radical politics, the text is a delight to look at. The hundreds of color photos of book covers are a psychedelic pleasure. It’s as if a used book store had displayed all of its mass market paperbacks facing outward for the customer to consider.
The essays in his collection reflect on sci-fi’s rather conservative, even right-wing political and cultural slant that prevailed in the 1950s. It continues, discussing the loosening of sexual depictions and descriptions that occurred throughout US culture in the 1960s. Primarily heterosexual and male-oriented at first, by the mid-1970s a trend towards alternative sexualities and accompanying practices was making a mark in the genre. Likewise, mind and mood modifiers began to appear in the stories, sometimes as a dangerous threat and sometimes as a hopeful means to change the world. My favorite novel expressing the latter is Haight Ashbury resident Chester Anderson’s charming fiction featuring a pill that creates butterflies when ingested, The Butterfly Kid. Of course, the most dangerous drug discussed is the one Aldous Huxley called soma in his dystopian fiction Brave New World.
In June 1968, the sci-fi magazine Galaxy published two advertisements regarding the US war in Vietnam. One ad, signed by numerous authors including Marion Zimmer Bradley and Robert Heinlein, supported the US presence, while the other, signed by luminaries of what is known as the New Wave in sci-fi such as Harlan Ellison and Ursula K. LeGuin, opposed it. The advertisements represented the split present throughout US and western society. It was both political and cultural and its effects continue to this day. The ad represented both the division and an acknowledgment by the old guard that it was the New Wave writers that were the future. Ultimately, this would mean that the new wave would exist as an equal to the old guard—at least for a short time. Themes centered around the effects of consumerism, authoritarianism and corporate control, feminism, Black liberation and ecological devastation seemed to dominate the genre. Writers included Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, Marge Piercy, Mick Farren, Michael Moorcock, J. G. Ballard and the aforementioned Ursula K. Leguin. Their novels expressed both a dystopian vision and an almost absurdist acceptance of the future their fiction described.
If the reader previously dismissed science fiction as juvenile or foolish, this introductory survey of its radical possibilities is heartily recommended. It could easily change your mind. If the reader is already familiar with this genre, this text will come as an intelligent and inspired discussion of the genre during one of its most creative and fertile periods. Visually delightful and intellectually astute, it should provide each and every reader with a list of books to add to their to-read queue.