- Solar Flares: Science Fiction in the 1970s by Andrew M. Butler
As Andrew Butler points out in the prologue to his new book, Solar Flares, studies of sf often tend to neglect the 1970s in favour of the loud and colourful controversies surrounding the New Wave and cyberpunk that historically bookend this decade. The 1970s tend to be seen either as the period when ‘1960s projects failed’ or else a time of stale tedium preceding the emergence of the mirrorshades crew (3). Yet as Butler shows, it was also an era of immense expansion during which the genre burgeoned across a range of media – especially film, thanks to the blockbuster success of Star Wars (Lucas US 1977) – and engaged forcefully with a range of social and ideological issues. Many important new writers, such as Octavia E. Butler and C.J. Cherryh, published their first works, while others – Joe Haldeman, Christopher Priest, James Tiptree, Jr (a.k.a. Alice Sheldon) – came forcefully into their own as major talents. Meanwhile, the academic study of sf blossomed with the appearance of new critical journals such as Science-Fiction Studies and Foundation and an explosion of college courses on the subject. As Solar Flares amply displays, the 1970s was far from being a mere doldrums sandwiched between two major storms.
Butler’s volume covers what he calls ‘the long 1970s’, extending from the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick US/UK) in 1968 to the appearance of the first Star Wars sequels in the early 1980s. As these examples make plain, the book – despite being dominated by discussions of literary texts – makes a significant place for sf in mass media and popular culture generally. A chapter on ‘Blockbusters’ canvasses the runaway success of George Lucas’s and Steven Spielberg’s sf films, while other chapters integrate treatments of television series such as UFO (UK 1969–73) and Blake’s 7 (UK 1978–81), musical groups such as Hawkwind and Parliament, and role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons (1974) into their thematic webs. There are 16 chapters in all, most organised around specific themes that cross-section the decade: this is thus a topical, not a chronological survey. The number of works covered is impressively large; clearly, a great deal of concentrated reading and research went into the production of this volume. Yet these strengths have corresponding [End Page 299] weaknesses: the thematic anatomy attenuates and dissipates any general argument, while the virtually encyclopaedic citation of texts militates against deeply analytical readings. Butler attempts to give the work a cohesive centre by deploying ‘the metaphor of the Invisible Enemy’ as a way to ‘describe the ideological battlegrounds of the 1970s’ (1), but this idea never really gels into a structural backbone for the chapters, which come across as mini-essays rather than discrete moments in an unfolding thesis.
This lack of an argumentative centre is not necessarily a bad thing since one of its chief effects is to communicate the extraordinary diversity of sf during the decade – indeed, virtually every chapter could sustain a book-length study of its own. Some of Butler’s early thematic chapters have a historical animus (e.g. scanning the legacy of the New Wave and the Apollo Moon landings), while others, such as those on the ‘Rise of Fantasy’ or on ‘Children’s Fiction’, focus on the consolidation of new forms; but the vast majority of chapters deal with sociopolitical concerns: Vietnam, Ecology, Race, Feminism, Gay Liberation. Clearly, the decade was one during which the genre was increasingly politicised, building on the New Wave’s demand that sf engage boldly with the contemporary world.
Each of the chapters begins with a brief summary of major sociopolitical developments relating to the topic, then proceeds to their reverberations within sf, usually in a way that suggests the genre was merely reflecting the prevailing social climate. Thus, the chapter on Ecology and Environmentalism opens with a paragraph discussing Earth Day, the Gaia Hypothesis and the work of Barry Commoner, moving to the treatment of ecological issues in...