Any follower of mine knows I like science fiction. Astute followers will know that I have a specific love affair with science fiction books from the 1970s.
Somehow this decade produced the most mind-bending hippie feminist psychedelia, Soviet scientific satire, truly “epic” space opera, and examples of the coldest and most clinical hard sci-fi imaginable.
Norman Spinrad, an author who you will find on this list, credits weed for the ingenuity of his colleagues:
If there’s one gaping void in the story of American literary history in the second half of the twentieth century as currently promulgated, it’s the influence of grass and psychedelic drugs, not only on the lives of writers, but on the content of what’s been written, and on the form and style too. It’s hard to be critically or biographically courageous when so much creative work was done under the influences of jailable offenses.An Experiment in Autiobiographuy – Norman Spinrad
So in the spirit of long-lost art, roll up a blunt, throw on some Dead, and relax with some trippy classic SF.
The following are in alphabetic order because I hate ranking things, and are presented with only a modicum of self-aggrandizement in my own tastemaking.
DREAMSNAKE (1978) – Vonda McIntyre
I own a first edition copy of this book, so I am only listing it in hopes to raise its value. Just kidding.
When I mentioned “feminist hippie psychedelia” earlier, I was literally just describing this book. Dreamsnake follows our aptly named protagonist Snake as she traverses a post-apocalyptic wasteland with her cadre of medicinal, hallucination-inducing bio-engineered alien serpents.
I can just leave it at that right?
Vonda McIntyre will sadly be the only woman author on this list. Don’t blame me though, blame society and science-fiction’s infatuation with misogyny. (I would be robbing Ursula K. Le Guin of her due if I didn’t name-drop her as well, The Dispossessed therefore wins an honorable mention.)
Literarily the prose is a little shaky and almost too sparse, but by the end I kind of liked it.
Dreamsnake won the 1979 Hugo Award, the 1978 Nebula Award, and the 1979 Locus Award.
THE GODS THEMSELVES (1972) – Isaac Asimov
The Gods Themselves is a masterly crafted mind-blaster, an excellent case of science-fiction that deals not simply with technological what ifs?, but physical and dimensional thought-experiments as well.
Anecdotally the novel was conceived when Isaac Asimov was challenged with creating a story about a fantastical isotope: plutonium-186.
Opening in medias res, the novel uses an achronological timeline that fits well with the cross-dimensional/space-and-time thematic content. I don’t want to spoil the story here, but it essentially follows the life-cycle of a distinctively otherized alien species while concurrently relating bilateral relations between our Universe and the “para-Universe.”
In 1982 Asimov called it his favorite science-fiction novel, and who are you to argue with a godhead of sci-fi?
Asimov appreciators will find his writing reassuringly agile, and new readers should find it infinitely understandable and free of bloviating prose.
The Gods Themselves won the 1972 Nebula Award and the 1973 Hugo Award.
INVERTED WORLD (1974) – Christopher Priest
Another excellent what-if?, the novel opens with a famous line that will pique anyone’s interest. I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles…
The City of Earth traverses a strange land where the laws of space, time, and perspective twist and turn in psychosis-inducing ways, and the author keeps you well-engaged with a slow drip of information; as if you are the protagonist learning about this domain of alterity himself.
You’ll want to plow through this book to get to the payoff.
And while the payoff is not quite as good as you would like, the suspense and overarching narrative makes the book immensely satisfying.
Christopher Priest’s writing is wanting in character development, but overflowing with world-building and fast-paced, adventurous scenes of unimaginable physical abnormalities.
Inverted World won the 1974 British Science Fiction Association Award, and was nominated for the 1975 Hugo Award.
RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA (1973) – Arthur C. Clarke
Rendezvous with Rama is a perfect example of hard science fiction. Pages and pages of detailed mathematical minutiae, physics equations, and the realities of space travel.
It has some hits in the speculative imagining department (perhaps the first example of a generation ship), as well as some amusing misses (bio-hacked semi-sentient space chimps).
The story details an innately human band of astronauts and space monkeys making first contact with a seemingly derelict intergalactic vessel, and Arthur C. Clarke sells the speculative reality of the premise with ease.
Overall though there is nothing quite as mentally stimulating as an author doing detailed theoretical physics in a novel, and I can’t recommend this one enough for (hopefully) starting your descent into the “harder stuff.”
Rendezvous with Rama gathered a slew of accolades, including the 1973 Nebula Award, the 1974 Hugo Award, the 1973 British Science Fiction Association Award, the 1974 Locus Award, and the 1974 Jupiter Award.
RINGWORLD (1970) – Larry Niven
Ringworld is the soft science fiction Manichean opposite of Rendezvous with Rama. But let’s be honest, sometimes it’s more fun that way.
Ringworld is set in a universe where luck is an inheritable trait, extremely potent space drugs (that I wish existed) are commonplace, and there’s a giant Halo.
Wait, I have that backwards. In Halo there’s a giant Ringworld.
Yes, Larry Niven inspired everyone’s favorite 2000s FPS franchise. I mean, just look at the cover.
Ringworld is one of those vast space-operas that plays with the genre respectfully, but doesn’t shy from well-humored satire. (There is another that comes to mind, the more contemporary Deathstalker series by Simon R. Green.)
That is to say the novel is as funny as it is heady, as ridiculous as it is serious.
The sequels are just as good.
Ringworld won the 1970 Nebula Award, the 1971 Hugo Award, and the 1971 Locus Award.
THE STAR DIARIES (1976) – Stanisław Lem
Originally published in Polish as Dzienniki gwiazdowe, the 1976 English translation of Stanisław Lem’s best collection of short stories is literally the funniest book I have ever read.
Decidedly Soviet, (Phillip K. Dick thought Lem was an amalgamation of KGB agents and that his work was a communist psy-op), this collection satirizes incessant bureaucracy, globalized (intergalacticized) government, and the lives of cosmonauts with the finest of dry humor.
Chronicling the adventures of an incongruently hapless yet always victorious protagonist Ijon Tichy, each new chapter is a novel and intelligent exploration of scientific and social absurdity.
While Stanisław Lem never reached broad success in the United States, he was loved by critics and his fellow travelers east of the Wall. Time declared him the “Borges of scientific culture,” and The New York Times Book Review dubbed him a “major writer and one of the deep spirits of our age.”
I don’t think I can praise Lem’s literary prowess as well as Time does above. Borges!
To add to the greatness of this book, Lem even adds his own little doodles as illustrations. How cute.
THE IRON DREAM (1972) – Norman Spinrad
The Iron Dream is a maddening book-within-a-book that blisteringly condemns the fascistic undertones of popular pulp-fiction. Imagining a world where Adolph Hitler became a science fiction author instead of a genocidal despot, Norman Spinrad dares you to enjoy Hitler’s bestseller. It’s titled: Lord of the Swastika.
The fake novel works as a mirror back on the reader, or as Ursala K. Le Guin puts it:
“We are forced, insofar as we can continue to read the book seriously, to think, not about Adolf Hitler and his historic crimes—Hitler is simply the distancing medium—but to think about ourselves: our moral assumptions, our ideas of heroism, our desires to lead or to be led, our righteous wars.”
Briefly banned in Germany, the novel (and the author) has never been without threats of censorship and controversy. Perhaps some find the mirror too revealing. But Spinrad dutifully includes a critique of his own creation’s creation as an afterward to the main body of text, just to make sure everyone gets it.
A book certainly fitting for contemporary times; I think both the anti-fascists and neo-fascists would agree.
The Iron Dream was nominated for a 1972 Nebula Award. The book-within-the-book, Lord of the Swastika, fictionally wins a Hugo Award. (Creating a ponderous metajoke for sci-fi fans.)
BONUS: OUT OF THE MOUTH OF THE DRAGON (1969) – Mark S. Geston
This book just barely missed the date cut-off, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include it; Out of the Mouth of the Dragon is the most pessimistic and fatalistic science fiction I’ve yet read.
The title is a reference to Christian eschatology, specifically Revelation 16:13.
13 And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.
14 For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty.
15 Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame.
16 And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.
Revelation 16:13-16 KJV
Christian themes of (false) salvation and morality mesh well with the setting of the novel, a post-future world where nothing is left for humanity but the death drive for extinction.
The protaganist Amon VanRoark sets out to fight in the last, last battle: to a land called the Meadows that has seen nothing but constant ritualized warfare for thousands of years.
He is coming for the final act, the Armageddon… an Armageddon that has already been predicted several times the past millennium.
Technological gaps between armies create wonderfully mismatched encounters in a rousing, action-packed little work that has more depth than anyone but me will give Mark S. Geston credit for.
My scholarly opinion is that the book in someway influenced Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun. The paralleled religious themes, post-post-apocalyptic settings, scenes of asymmetric warfare, and world-building plot twists are too similar to ignore. (Update: Geston denied this in his later interview with NEEMblog.)
Out of the Mouth of the Dragon is a hidden gem of the genre that has gone too long unnoticed. It won no awards.
(Featured image credit Noriyoshi Ohrai.)