Gary K. Wolfe is a prolific reviewer, author, and editor who worked in the academic field teaching forms of fantastic literature. He is the recipient of several distinguished awards and is still very active in the science fiction and fantasy community. You can read Wolfe’s insightful reviews at Locus Online, which he has been writing since 1992, and listen to him speak about the SF/F field as the co-host, along with editor Jonathan Strahan, of The Coode Street Podcast.
In 2012, Wolfe edited the wonderful collection American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s (Library of America), a two-volume set that encapsulated the concerns of the postwar world through science fiction of that era. His latest project, American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s(Library of America, Nov. 5), is a two-volume follow-up to that collection. Each volume is available separately, or together in a handsome deluxe box set. The new collection gives readers a snapshot of that decade’s social revolutions through the literary lens of eight SF novels.
The first volume, covering 1960-1966, contains four classics: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson (1960), about the cultural impact of extraterrestrials landing in medieval England; Way Station by Clifford D. Simak (1963), in which a lonely Wisconsin farmer and Civil War veteran is granted immortality in exchange for running a way station for interplanetary travel; Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966), about a man with a low IQ whose intelligence is artificially increased to genius level; and …And Call Me Conrad,a serial released in novel form as This Immortal, by Roger Zelazny (1966), in which the Earth has been devastated by nuclear weapons and now serves as a tourist spot for aliens who govern the world.
The second volume, covering 1968-1969, also contains four works of classic SF: Past Master by R. A. Lafferty (1968), which recounts the attempts of a future Utopian society to prevent its decline by bringing Sir Thomas More to the year 2535; Picnic on Paradise by Joanna Russ (1968), in which a woman named Alyx, serving as an agent of the Trans-Temporal Authority, guides a group of ill-prepared vacationers across a hostile alien world; Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968), which combines a heroic space opera with a quest for the Holy Grail; and Emphyrio by Jack Vance (1969), about a young man who is poised to upend the social order of Halma, a world that bars the use of automation.
Editors don’t assemble collections and anthologies without some purpose in mind, so I emailed Wolfe about the goal of this new collection. “First of all, we wanted a selection of excellent novels that are still quite readable, that represent the variety of science fiction that readers in the 1960s encountered—both thematically and stylistically—and that trace the shifts that took place, sometimes pretty dramatically, during that decade,” he said. “I never really had in mind a ‘best novels of the decade’ approach, since that way lies madness, and since some classic novels of that decade are already available in other Library of America volumes of Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and Madeleine L’Engle.”
That still left the task of selecting which of the numerous novels from the 1960s should be included in the collection. “It wasn’t hard to compile a long list drawn from critical histories of the period, award nominees and winners, some personal favorites, and even those endless lists of ‘classic’ or ‘influential’ novels that appear all over the web,” Wolfe said. “The awards weren’t the most reliable guide, although I note now that six of the novels in the set were Hugo nominees, and two won. (The Nebula Awards didn’t begin until halfway through the decade.) Some had to be eliminated out of simple considerations of length, and others had to be dropped because of rights issues.
“After that, a number of guidelines seemed to emerge, although I certainly didn’t think of them as rigid principles,” Wolfe continued. “I knew I wanted to convey some of the changes that took place—how was reading science fiction at the end of the decade different from reading it at the beginning?—while also establishing a sense of continuity. So the collection includes established writers who began their careers in the 1940s (Jack Vance, Poul Anderson) or even the 1930s (Clifford Simak), along with writers who seemed to be offering something radically new (Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, Joanna Russ). Russ in particular presages the powerful feminist presence in science fiction that became much more evident in the 1970s and 1980s.”
Wolfe was getting closer to his final list, but more effort was required to whittle down the list even further. He said, “I was also interested in a balance between widely familiar ‘classics’ and less well-known novels. I expect most readers will already be familiar with Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, which is widely taught in schools and was the basis of two movies, while far fewer will be aware of Jack Vance’s Emphyrio.
“Finally, I wanted to represent a range of themes that science fiction explored, beyond the expected aliens and space operas,” Wolfe said. “For example, the genre’s fascination with history is reflected in The High Crusade and Past Master—both of which also demonstrate SF’s sometimes underappreciated capacity for comedy and satire—while Flowers for Algernon examines psychology and the nature of intelligence, and Emphyrio touches upon the arts. Picnic on Paradise begins like a traditional planetary adventure, but finally turns that old pulp tradition on its head. Delany’s Nova does something similar with space opera, while anticipating much of what later became cyberpunk.”
Editing two collections of science fiction representing two successive decades begs the question: How did science fiction evolve between the 1950s and the 1960s? Wolfe said, “One thing that became immediately apparent was that SF novels started getting quite a bit longer in the 1960s, with titles like Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and [Frank] Herbert’s Dune, neither of which we could fit in. I made the point with the 1950s volume (in an accompanying website, since there was no overall introduction to that set) that the 1950s really saw the beginning of the modern science fiction novel conceived as a novel, and not as a fix-up of earlier stories. That market clearly emerged in the early 1950s. But by the end of the 1960s, we could even think in terms of SF bestsellers, moving outside the market niche it had established in the 1950s. Sometimes these would be promoted as though they weren’t SF at all, as with Vonnegut, and sometimes they involved SF works reaching well beyond the usual genre readership, as with Heinlein and Herbert.”
Wolfe continued, “When I started rereading lots of novels from the 1960s, it became apparent that the first half of the decade looked a lot like the 1950s, but the last three years or so looked like something completely different, more stylistically adventurous (as with Delany, Zelazny, and Lafferty), with more nontraditional characters (Delany again, and Russ), and at times offering a pointed critique of the earlier genre, probably most notably with Russ.
“There is also a good deal of discussion these days about diversity in science fiction, and—even though the field still had a long way to go—I think in the 1960s we begin to get an early sense of that diversity,” Wolfe said. “The stereotypes of writers and readers were beginning to break down: You might encounter a wildly eccentric middle-aged Oklahoma Catholic followed by a brilliant young gay African-American and a Yale-educated feminist critic and writer. I also think the fact that both Delany and Russ were major critics as well as fiction writers is some indication that the field was taking itself more seriously as a form of literature.”
In the introduction to American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s, Wolfe writes that the volume is “necessarily incomplete.” I asked him, if he had the room and the rights, which other books he might have included? “Certainly Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land would have been considered were it not for length, though I’d make a stronger argument for Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which was unavailable for other reasons. Thomas M. Disch seemed to me to be one of the defining voices of the 1960s, but again the work was not available. Robert Silverberg had begun to produce important work by the end of the decade, but his best work seems to me to come a few years later. I’d very much like to have had more women, but Le Guin and L’Engle were off the table, and [Anne] McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sangwas really a series of stories. I would love to have had room to include Russ’ other Alyx stories, too.”
Wolfe is hard-pressed to choose a single title from these eight classics that he is most excited about reintroducing to modern audiences. He said, “I think some of the editors at the Library of America were most pleasantly surprised at discovering R.A. Lafferty, and I always love introducing his work to new readers, just because it’s so wildly idiosyncratic that he throws everyone off balance. Anyone who doesn’t know Russ’ Alyx is in for a treat with Picnic on Paradise, though they should also seek out the other Alyx stories as well; to me, Russ still sounds as new in 2019 as she did 50 years ago. Much the same might be said of Delany’s Nova, but my sense is that Nova, along with Way Station and Flowers for Algernon, have never really dropped below the radar. The surprises for most readers will be Vance’s Emphyrio, which I think is his best stand-alone novel, and maybe Anderson’s The High Crusade, which speaks to a lot of current interest in historical fantasy and SF.”
For the volumes, Library of America wanted art as iconic as that used on the previous collection. They scored a big win. “The folks at the Library of America contacted Paul Lehr’s daughter and discovered that we could get never before seen paintings.” Wolfe said. “Anyone with a collection of 1960s paperbacks will recognize the signature style. We’re enormously grateful to the estate.”
What does Wolfe hope readers will take away from this collection? “I expect different readers will take away different things,” he said. “The general reader will, I hope, get a good introduction to the variety of SF that was being written a half-century ago, and see how it still holds up today. More seasoned SF fans can revisit some classics, perhaps read at a younger age, while discovering some important titles they may have missed.
“But there’s another question I hope the collection will help illuminate,” he continued. “Lately there has been a fair amount of discussion about the extent to which younger SF readers and writers ought to engage with the fiction of the past, or whether they need to at all. I’ve never been among those who argue that familiarity with the ‘classics’ is a prerequisite to reading or writing today’s SF—the ‘entrance exam’ approach—and everyone deserves to make their own choices of what resonates with them. So I wouldn’t require anyone to read these novels, even though they might find bits of their own literary ancestry there. Those who haven’t read Delany or Vance or Lafferty or Russ have almost certainly read authors who were influenced by them—the list ranges from Neil Gaiman to Gene Wolfe and George R. R. Martin, and any number of others. Many of the shifts that took place in science fiction of the 1960s are still being felt today.”
Science fiction has a long and sordid history of being the victim of popular misconceptions. The inclusion of these science fiction classics in a boxed set by the prestigious Library of America can only help the genre’s image and acceptance. “With the possible exception of Flowers for Algernon, which became the popular film Charly in 1968, none of these novels received much attention outside the science fiction community when they were originally published,” Wolfe said. “Bringing them together in these gorgeous Library of America volumes not only recognizes the variety of SF during that decade, but acknowledges that the best SF, despite its long exile in the pulps and paperbacks, has become a vital part of American literature.”
I couldn’t agree more.