Sunday, November 27, 2011

sleepless thoughts

Let's just say I'm up this early because I'm not feeling too well, and trying to put myself to sleep reading The New Yorker, where on page 46 of the 11/28 issue, in the middle of George Packer's profile of Peter Thiel, we find the venture capitalist's diagnosis of when "the collapse of the idea of the future" began. He dates it to the oil shock of 1973, and says you can measure it in "the collapse of science fiction." He says that before then it was all sweetness and light. He says - I can hardly believe I'm typing this - "the anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, 'Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,'" whereas now it's all full of depression and danger.

Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon?

I'm looking at a list of the Hugo and Nebula nominated SF published in 1969 (awards given in 1970) and 1970, and while some of them are reasonably positive stories - including a couple of award-winning novels which might, if you're willing to be misleading, be summarized as "Me and my friend the androgyne went for a walk on the glacial field" and "Me and my friend the Pierson's Puppeteer went for a walk on the Ringworld" - it also includes such cheerful charmers as Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Wilson Tucker's The Year of the Quiet Sun (in which racism wins out), Joanna Russ's And Chaos Died, Robert Silverberg's "Passengers" (in which homosexuality is the ultimate horror), James Tiptree's "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain" (in which everybody dies, literally), and last but not least Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog" (oy).

If we want an anthology with a slightly wider chronological view, it so happens that 1970 was the year of publication of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, volume 1, SFWA's choice of the all-time greatest pre-1965 SF short stories and novelettes. And yes, while some of the 26 stories, like Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" and Murray Leinster's "First Contact" (in both of which humans meet aliens and make peace), even - if you look at it that way - Fred Brown's "Arena" (the interstellar war does stop, doesn't it?), are fairly positive stories about a beckoning future, it also contains Asimov's "Nightfall", Judy Merril's "That Only a Mother", Kornbluth's "The Little Black Bag", and then, in a consecutive five-puncher near the end of the book, Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" which is almost the essence of an SF horror story, Tom Godwin's infamous "The Cold Equations", Bester's virtuosically nasty "Fondly Fahrenheit" (me and my friend the robot share a psychopathic breakdown), Damon Knight's hiddenly cruel "The Country of the Kind", and Daniel Keyes' brilliant tearjerker "Flowers for Algernon", the cumulative effect of which could send you suicidal, and which certainly shook me up when I read them all for the first time in a lump on encountering this book a couple of years later.

Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon. GMAFB, Mr. Thiel. You know as little of SF as the article shows you knowing about politics or humor.

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