SF Landmarks

Despite recessions in publishing and the rigours of the paper shortage, a vast amount of science-fiction appeared in 1974-5. Most of it will be swiftly forgotten, just as most other published fiction is forgotten; but the five books discussed below, I think it's safe to say, will survive. Covering as they do a broad spectrum, these books illustrate the difficulty of judging SF as a whole. They are, in alphabetical order of author:

Dhalgren falls into the category defined by the late great James Blish as "What-is-it?" It is set in the impossible city of Bellona in, improbably, the present day: a city where mysterious fires burn and inexplicable suns fill the sky, a city inhabited by just a few hundred people who choose to remain there. Despite occasional knotty passages, the course of the action is clear until the final section (where everything breaks down and the ghost of James Joyce stalks the narrative's ruins): what is wholly absent is the interpretation of events. The book's strengths are the insights into characters and their relationships – which are described with healthy lack of inhibition – and the genuinely original style and descriptions.

Its weakness is plot. After 879 pages, there is a slowly growing impression that Delany is trying to tell us something, perhaps several things. I wonder what.

Flow My Tears ... is the slightest of these books, just as it is the shortest. The typical Dick approach – of poking fingers into reality to locate weaknesses – is present, but with a stronger cast and better writing than ever before. Against this background the hoarier cliches stand out in hideous detail.

In the beginning, the hero is a video star; without warning he is pitchforked into a nightmare world where, in the surroundings of his own familiar police-state society, nobody remembers him. Dick takes off in several directions from here; the "policeman" of the title is the book's best character, so well-drawn as to weaken the hero's position. But after much genuine suspense, the surprise ending – which I don't intend to reveal – backslides into a well-worn, hackneyed concept. Tut-tut.

There is no word for The Dispossessed but magnificent. Its category and subtitle is "Utopian novel"; it proposes a new form of ideal society on the planet Anarres, and brilliantly explores its strength and weaknesses ... not dully, but through the eyes of Shevek, a physicist who in the course of the book (it's practically his biography) is to make an important discovery. That sounds like a cliche, yet it isn't: the invention – which I don't intend to describe – is mistaken by everyone else for something much more useful, worth fighting for, rather than the subtle, philosophical thing which it is. Physics, sociology, politics, psychology – all are convincingly handled in The Dispossessed.

The book has a weakness, though, a weakness which for many writers would be a strength: understatement. No one rants or rages overtly; the greatest act of violence is kept firmly off-stage. There is excitement, yes, but the author is not going to throw it at you.

The Dispossessed, incidentally, won the Hugo and Nebula awards for the best SF novel of 1974-5.

"Too much of the intellectual stuff," are you muttering? Let's move to The Mote in God's Eye, which is unashamedly space-opera, buckling swashes in all directions from the very first chapter. There is a threat to all of humanity; there is a race of fantastically superior aliens; the ships' force-screens change colour and give way beneath the lash of frightful energies – and the fate of the galaxy is decided in true SF fashion, by acrimonious debate at the council to end all councils. On the other hand:

The aliens – "Moties" – are among the best, and the chapters describing them are fascinating. They are essentially friendly and reasonable, you see, though oddly-shaped; however, they have a freakish, tragic racial problem – ha ha! I shall not reveal it – which, if they escape the confines of their own solar system, dooms them to spread limitlessly and, despite themselves, wipe us out.

The story is well told, alternating between human and alien viewpoints; starting slowly, it accelerates and grows in tension until the shattering (not altogether unpredictable) solution is reached.

Characters? With all this spine-tingling action, who cares about the characters?

It's nice to see a British author make good in the States as well as locally, which is what Christopher Priest has done with Inverted World – deservedly. Though denied Hugos and Nebulas, this one did pick up the British SF Association Award.

It is set on a strange world, perhaps the most strange ever depicted in SF. There is a pleasant irony: remember how, usually, the natives think the world is flat while you and the book's hero know for sure that it is round? Here the hero knows it's round, and it isn't. Nor is it flat. Nor any shape you are likely to imagine while sober.

The first section tells of the City, which is winching itself across the world at 0.1 miles per day. Should it stop for long, something fearful will occur. Mountains, valleys, rivers, eventually the sea; nothing can be allowed to block the City. The reasons for this emerge slowly in Part Two, as the hero journeys and learns something about this incredible world. Though the geometry is fantastic, the writing continues quiet and calm.

Revelation of the world's nature is not the last shock of the book. New mysteries open out in the final section, posing the old Berkeleyan question of whether reality is merely a function of perception. As Priest cheerfully admits, the physics of the world has a big enough hole in it to drive the City through ... I'm not complaining.

(By the way, look out for the American editions of this one, which are superbly illustrated by Andrew Stephenson. The NEL edition, though illustrated by the same artist, has different, cruder drawings owing to the demands of NEL's crude reproduction process and nasty paper).

Five books, then, which will not be forgotten quickly. The ostentatious and annoying way in which I've suppressed certain startling revelations in each book (except Dhalgren, which has none) is an attempt to avoid spoiling your enjoyment, should you actually read them.

I hope you will.