Gary K. Wolfe’s Eight Classic Science Fiction Novels of the 1960s

The Library of America’s Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s is another impressive feat by editor Gary K. Wolfe. As he explains in his introductions, stories in this two volume slipcase set were chosen both for quality and impact. In addition, he includes information about the selection process to avoid including volumes that appear elsewhere in the Library of America collection. Of those included, two are very worthy of note.

The Way Station is Clifford Simak’s story of a near immortal man in an extremely unusual situation. The story represents a fascinating reversal of expected interplanetary science fiction that in many ways holds up to this day. Rather than detailing the journey of one man through the universe over time, The Way Station deals with Enoch, a union civil war veteran who finds himself with partially stalled aging as he becomes the caretaker for an interplanetary stopping off point for travelers of all sorts — which happens to be a version of his childhood home in rural Wisconsin.

In the process of performing his duties, Enoch learns a great deal about the universe, its people, and their sciences. While he is not an expert in any particular field, even in the nineteenth century, he understands the good his endeavor might do for humanity.  The book can be read as in no small part a reverse travelogue. That alone makes the volume interesting, but the relatively deep look at this one man, and how he views the universe, is even more so. He continually encounters new types of people who prove interesting and accepting of his ways.

Themes in this story include handling multiple unpleasant options and choosing that which will do the least harm, even at a personal cost. Indeed, from the time the reader meets him, Enoch knows that his status manning the way station has placed him separate from humanity, and there is a certain melancholy to the story as a result. An entire species suffers what they consider a great shame and hurt in private because they know the political reality would be damaged if they took the matter public. The suffering of a young girl causes Enoch to risk any positive outcome for himself simply because what her father has done to her is wrong. There are other themes of course. These include the political realities rarely being what one wants, and having a sense of justice over law.

Part of the plot has to do with a certain object having disappeared from the universe for all intents and purposes, and the socio-political situation steadily deteriorating because of it. However it is made clear by those who understand the matter that improper use of this device, translated as “Talisman”, has led to the situation deteriorating even before it disappeared. The idea of power and resources need to be put in the right hands is not a new one, and the question of who can best wield them simultaneously brings up interesting thoughts on marginalized groups and fears relating to divine rights. Ultimately, the fact that the Talisman is not assigned in a way that makes its user a ruler or autocrat helps quite a bit with negating the latter.

Joanna Russ’ Picnic on Paradise features a small group of people travelling, led by a woman named Alyx, through a place called Paradise. Both the planet, and the journey can be seen as very ironically titled.

Alyx has severe gaps in her knowledge of the language being spoken around her. While some of this is due to having the information implanted into her mind suddenly, she suspect other terms were deliberately left out of her lexicon. The result is a bit of an author’s trick to avoid dialogue at times, summarizing merely that she could not understand what people were talking about, or leaving large gaps in statements.

She forms a brief romantic connection with a man called Machine, who has his own view of the situation, the combat he has to endure and an odd way of trying to romance a woman. While he is uncomfortably insistent that the two will eventually have sex, he proves both uncomfortable with the idea of love, and better than most men in the 1960’s about taking no for an answer. He seeks clarification, makes somewhat suggestive comments, and makes it clear later he still thinks it is going to happen. This is worlds more acceptable than the behavior of the characters like James Bond in the same era. This is not to say that such behavior is necessarily good, or would be entirely comfortable for every reader, just that Joanna Russ was clearly ahead of her time in this depiction. 

An element that could be seen as significantly more retrograde occurs when one of the travelers dies, and her daughter suffers a severe breakdown. Nuns traveling with the group attempt to medicate the girl, named Iris, and Alyx reacts to this extremely badly and repeatedly threatens their lives. They later succeed in medicating the girl, and she get a little high as a result, with Alyx going back to her threats even as the nuns assure that over time she will even out in her mood. Later she attempts to mitigate the effects on Iris, who seems grateful, and uses the pills herself, which is depicted as extremely negative.

While the abuse of mood-altering substances is of course a bad thing, this narrative treats the use of these substances as a great evil. While there is something fascinating about seeing this done in a novel written during an era of such heavy drug experimentation, it is nonetheless an overall troubling message. While over-medication is certainly an issue, the idea that severe panic and anxiety should never be dealt with pharmaceutically is one that may bother many who have experienced such things in the past.

This is the only novel by a woman in the whole collection, but it is a fascinating choice and a good read. Like the way-station this story is in many ways a travel log, and it also represents an interesting artifact to connoisseurs of video games. As our lead has to deal with moving a group of people under dangerous conditions a long distance, interspersed with combat and idiotic decisions on the part of those around her, this book resembles nothing so much as an escort mission.

The slipcase for the set and corresponding book covers utilize wonderful art by Paul Lehr. Each one reflects the period’s views on science fiction well, being broad and expansive without assigning themselves to any one novel in the collection. Short biographical pieces on each author are included, as are many detailed notes upon the texts themselves and their contents. This is a wealth of useful information for the discerning reader or those with scholarly interest.

This collection puts together some absolute classic science fiction. In addition to the two novels detailed above, the collection includes The High Crusade by Poul Anderson; Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes; Roger Zelazny’s . . . And Call Me Conrad [This Immortal]; Past Master, R. A. Lafferty; Nova by Samuel R. Delany, and Jack Vance’s Emphyrio. The extra material is impressive, and the package it all comes in delightful. This set is easy to recommend to anyone who wants to look at this decade of Science Fiction.

(Library of America, 2019)

About Warner Holme

Born in the mid-south and keeps getting dragged back there. Warner Holme is well studied in fantastical and mysterious fiction.