Welcome to The Sixties!
Vive la révolution! The sixties have arrived and with them a long list of cultural and national revolutions that will reshape the world – and science fiction and fantasy.
“The thing the sixties did was to show us the possibilities and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn't the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.” (John Lennon)
In the West, the younger generation is ready for change, and they’re doing a pretty good job in bringing it about. People are fed up with the conservative, consumerist establishment that is sending them off to die in foreign wars, while suppressing every dissenting idea and discriminating against minorities. It’s time to change, and oh does society change!
The rights movements do more than fight for formal rights though. They introduce a new paradigm change – pride. Instead of arguing that minorities are no different than anyone else, they hammer forth the point that Blacks, Hispanics and LGBT have a right to be different and work to actively foster pride in their identity.
But it’s more than just pride that is firing people’s hearts. A new dynamic subculture that celebrates experimentation is evolving and we get to see a rise in alternative lifestyles, such as hippie culture which celebrates free love, experimental drugs, tie-die clothes, wearing flowers in their hair, and being happy.
New subcultures need new music, and those of the sixties are no different. Bob Dylan and Harry Belafonte introduce an American folk music revival. Other popular genres include girl groups, surf music, Motown, and novelty songs. Meanwhile rock and roll is kept alive by the Beatles who play raucous music and wear leather jackets. In 1964, after an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, they will infect the United States with Beatlemania, and make mop-top haircuts a thing.
The new era brings with it new possibilities and hope for a better world – in the West. However, in the rest of the world, the wars and revolutions are still there. They never really had a chance to go away.
“The sixties were characterized by a heady belief in instantaneous solutions.” (Audre Lorde)
The world experiences some very significant national revolutions and wars and they begin pretty much immediately when on May 27, 1960 in Turkey Cemal Gürsel and Cemal Madanoğlu overthrow the government of Adnan Menderes. They’re followed by:
1967 – In Greece, a bunch of colonels decide that they want a military dictatorship.
1967 – Israel wins the Six-day war gaining control of its historic heartland and a hostile Palestinian population.
1969 – Muammar Gadaffi overthrows the monarchy in Libya and establishes a fake republic.
Other important events include the Cultural Revolution in China and the acceleration of the Decolonization movement. The Cultural Revolution is Mao Zedong’s purge of everyone who disagrees with him from Chinese society, which results in quite a few massacres and cannibalism, and does a pretty good job of sending the country back to the stone age. In Africa, 32 more countries gain independence before descending into anarchy, kleptocracy, dictatorships, and/or civil war – issues that plague the continent to this day.
All of these events, the counterculture movements and trends of the West, as well as the wars and revolutions of the rest of the world are faithfully recorded in the period’s art, literature, television and movies – including science fiction and fantasy.
“The sixties in science fiction were an exciting period for both established and new writers and readers. All the doors seemed to be opening.” (Ursula K. Le Guin)
The Sixties do not skip over science fiction. During this era, the New Wave, the genre is characterized by a large amount of experimentation in both form and content, and the focus shifts from hard science fiction to soft science fiction. This means that we got to see a lot more works that explore social sciences, such as sociology and psychology, and that the requirement that stories be scientifically accurate or plausible is relaxed.
New Worlds magazine, edited by Michael Moorcock, is the biggest source of New Wave science fiction. Moorcock wants to define a new role for the genre. He feels it lacks “passion, subtlety, irony, original characterization, original and good style, a sense of involvement in human affairs, colour, density, depth, and, on the whole, real feeling from the writer.” His stories and those of many others are less inspired by their predecessors and more a reaction against them.
The New Wave also introduces a greater variety of voices into science fiction, such as Samuel R. Delany, one of the earliest black science fiction authors. There is also a rise in the number of female writers, and we now get to read Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree Jr. Much of the work produced by these authors will end up winning well-deserved Hugos and Nebulas, providing mainstream recognition to the shift in the genre’s direction.
The changes brought about by the New Wave also affect the subjects the stories are focusing on. There is now a lot less galactic wars and aliens and a lot more drugs and bedroom encounters. Experiences are now just as important as discoveries.
Some good examples of these stories are:
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick, which is set in a future where Martian miners become addicted to a drug that allows them to share the experiences of female characters in simulated realities
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin about a man whose dreams can alter reality and how comes under the sway of a charismatic psychiatrist.
Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock about a man who travels back to the time of Christ only to end up disappointed.
When it comes to fantasy, I don’t think there is anything that characterizes the genre as a whole. Except that there is now more of it, although it is still largely aimed at children and young adult audiences.
However, even in this genre, we can still feel the mark of the Sixties. For example, in A Wizard of Earthsea Ursula K. Le Guin deliberately makes Ged, the protagonist, brown-skinned, and his friend, Vetch, Black. Meanwhile, the Kargish villains are white.
All-in all, there is a lot to look forward to in the next decade, and I’ve got a line of amazing books I can’t wait to read by a host of amazing authors.