Friday, 20 May 2016

Science Fiction in 1966 – US: Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick


This particularly fertile year saw the publication of works by a trio of arguably the most influential science fiction authors of the second half of the twentieth century: J.G. Ballard (The Crystal World and The Impossible Man); Ray Bradbury (S is for Space); and the even more prolific Philip K. Dick (Now Wait for Last Year, The Crack in Space and The Unteleported Man). Jon Savage’s study of ‘the year that the decade exploded’ considers that among the opportunities 1966 offered was the freedom “to envision what the future might be”; with it, the scope for science fiction was growing. It is probably no coincidence that on either side of the Atlantic, both Ballard and Dick began to emerge as the definitive writers of their era – even if only acknowledged retrospectively.

To look back half a century, for this short study of science fiction in 1966, suggests the difficulty of ‘envisioning the future’ and imagining the world even a relatively short distance into the future, a skill mastered by few artists or thinkers in any field; who knows what those looking back in 2066 will make of 2016, let alone 1966?

Part Two

By 1966 Ray Bradbury was one of the best-known and most successful of American science fiction writers, a position confirmed by the release that year of Fahrenheit 451, adapted from his 1953 novel by the celebrated French director François Truffaut in a big-budget production starring Julie Christie and Oskar Werner. Depicting a future society in which books are banned and indeed burned – the title refers to the temperature at which they burn – the film’s success cemented Bradbury’s status. A documentary made earlier that decade captures him close to the peak of his powers, discussing his inspirations and working methods, a portrait of a confident and contented artist. Born in 1920, a man steeped in the ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction magazines and pulp publishing, and a masterful exponent of the genre’s staple mid-century themes of alien contact, space exploration and time travel, Bradbury’s profile grew post-War, with numerous adaptations of his stories for radio, cinema and television helping him to reach an ever-broader audience. By the time of his death in 2012, he had amassed a large and impressive body of work, and remains a revered figure in science fiction’s gradual journey to literary acceptance.

Philip K. Dick, a close contemporary of Bradbury’s, who had also been born in Illinois before moving to California (and likewise largely self-educated), was neither acclaimed nor particularly well-known in 1966, beyond a small group of enthusiastic admirers. He was prolific however, and in that calendar year saw the publication of three novels – Now Wait for Last Year, The Crack in Space and The Unteleported Man – showcasing his wide-ranging interests in literature, philosophy and religion, which he often struggled to fit within the constraints of genre publishing. In addition, he wrote the novel Ubik (not published until 1969) and the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, later very loosely adapted as the film Total Recall, in 1966. Though all of these, like the majority of his books from the 1960s onward, are concerned with artificial states of mind, communication and language, the individual’s place within society, and often raise complex questions on the nature of reality, their packaging reflects the limitations which American SF authors still worked under. Startlingly at odds with the imaginative content, their cover artwork relies on a tired formula of ray-guns and rocket-ships which bear little or no relation to Dick’s thematic preoccupations. It was not until 1982, when his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (itself begun in 1966) was filmed as Blade Runner, that the sophisticated nature of his fiction began to be recognised outside science fiction circles. Sadly, he died shortly before the film’s release (though, having been shown the opening twenty minutes of footage, he was quoted by Paul Sammon as saying, “it was my own interior world. They caught it perfectly.”) The years since have seen a proliferation of further film adaptations of his work, in tandem with a steady re-appraisal of his career, to the point where he is arguably regarded as the genre’s pre-eminent writer, a status Bradbury once popularly enjoyed.


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