How Will We Remember the 1960s?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/16/21

Anyone who knows me, or reads my blog, knows I’m obsessed with memory. Even before my memory access speeds began declining I’ve always felt a desperation to hang onto what I learned even though I know most of it slips naturally away. I guess all those tests in school gave me a complex about poor recall.

Memory has many fascinating aspects, especially all the ways our memories fool us. We believe things are true because our memories tell us they’re true. Even when confronted with conclusive evidence, we often prefer what our memories tell us to external facts. All through my sixties I’ve been examining what I thought I remembered from growing up in the 1960s. Too often, the impressions I’ve maintained have proved wrong.

Because of an online discussion about science fiction in the 1960s my instant recall told me there must have been several hundred great science fiction novels published during that decade. However, as the discussion progressed my memory had trouble dredging up all those great titles.

My memory gave me the illusion there were enough wonderful science fiction novels published in the 1960s to fill a huge bookcase. Where did that impression come from? I assumed because my memories told me I read hundreds of science fiction novels I loved while growing up. Were those memories true? Thinking about it now I realized there are a number of ways to double check my brain’s records:

  • Look up the actual number of successful SF books published in the 1960s
  • Recall and list all the books I remember reading in the 1960s
  • Recall and list all the SF books from the 1960s I read in later decades
  • Research the memories of my contemporizes about what they read
  • Find out what books young science fiction fans read today from the 1960s
  • Read what literary scholars studying the 1960s consider the best SF books

I realized that my initial reaction to the online discussion was I wanted young people to replicated what I found great in the 1960s. That’s a typical old person hope, but it’s completely unrealistic. Newer generations are busy consuming all the books coming out in their own decade. What they read from past decades is always very minimal.

In other words, younger generations and scholars get a distillation of the past. Not only that, but they are going to interpret the past by current day mindsets. The chances of them experiencing what I remember is very small. So why do geezers want their cherished past persevered? Is it to validate their own memories? Is it the hope of keeping the things they loved alive across time?

For whatever reason, I want the essential aspects of the 1960s remembered accurately by history. The trouble is I’m not sure I correctly remember the 1960s myself. I’m probably not. Maybe what I’m doing is trying to write my own correct history now that I’m older and working on my wisdom skills.

For the purpose of this essay I’m using science fiction novels as one tiny test case of remembering the 1960s. I have a model in my head built from memories of what the 1960s were like. I’m interested in the mental models people are constructing today about that decade. Even focusing on this one microscopic piece of pop culture leaves many problems regarding memory to consider.

Is my white male American viewpoint of the 1960s science fiction too limiting? Do my contemporaries who were women and minorities remember 1960s science fiction differently? Bookworms growing up in Russia, China, Brazil, Vietnam, etc. will have experienced a much different decade than I did. For the purpose of this essay, I’ll focus on the U.S., however Great Britain plays a large role in my memory too. I also read fanzines back then where readers from around the world, including countries where English wasn’t the standard language, reviewed books. But this only provided hints of what science fiction was being published in foreign countries.

The online discussion I mentioned above got started because we read a link to “An Uneven Showcase of 1960s SF,” a 2019 review from The Los Angeles Review of Books covering The Library of America’s two volume set American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s, which remembers these eight novels:

  • Poul Anderson, The High Crusade (1960)
  • Clifford D. Simak, Way Station (1963)
  • Roger Zelazny, … And Call Me Conrad (This Immortal) (1965)
  • Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (1966)
  • R. A. Lafferty, Past Master (1968)
  • Joanna Russ, Picnic on Paradise (1968)
  • Samuel R. Delany, Nova (1968)
  • Jack Vance, Emphyrio (1969)

Our group was asking: Are these books really how literary history will remember 1960s science fiction? Personally, I don’t believe any of them will make it to the long term pop culture memory of 2050. However, Library of America does give us a clue with their other published science fiction books. That’s because their famous uniform volumes focus on authors and not works. So far they have published sets on these SF writers:

PKD also produced significant work in the 1950s and 1970s, but it seems his 1960s novels are the most remembered. Le Guin’s career covered decades but her most famous science fiction came out in the 1960s and 1970s. Vonnegut is also mostly remembered for his 1960s novels. Bradbury was mainly famous for his work in the 1950s, and Butler for work in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Library of America will not be the sole arbiter of who remembers science fiction from the 1960s, but I do believe they have made good guesses so far, at least for American Sci-Fi. But using Library of America and the SF authors they favor, are these then the science fiction novels future readers will remember 1960s science fiction by:

  • The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick
  • A Wrinkle in Time (1962) Madeleine L’Engle
  • Cat’s Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Martian Time-Slip (1964) by Philip K. Dick
  • Rocannon’s World (1966) Ursula K. Le Guin
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick
  • Planet of Exile (1966) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • City of Illusions (1967) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K. Dick
  • The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Ubik (1969) by Philip K. Dick

Of course this leaves out works by the most famous science fiction writers working in the 1960s, the so called Big Three of SF:

  • A Fall of Moondust (1961) by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Fantastic Voyage (1966) by Isaac Asimov
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke

Actually, The Big Three of SF writers were more famous for their work in the 1950s. Probably the single most remembered work of science fiction from the 1960s is Dune by Frank Herbert, and that’s because of all the movie versions. But growing up in the 1960s the two most famous new writers were Delany and Zelazny. Will any of their most famous novels be remembered? They each got an entry in the LoA set, but what about their other 1960s novels?

  • The Dream Master (1966) by Roger Zelazny
  • Empire Star (1966) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Babel-17 (1966) by Samuel R. Delany
  • The Einstein Intersection (1967) by Samuel R. Delany
  • Lord of Light (1967) by Roger Zelazny
  • Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny

There were many novels I loved or remember reading great reviews from back in the 1960s that were missed by the Library of America set. I’m not sure how famous they are today, or if they are still worthy of reading:

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) by Walter M. Miller Jr.
  • Flesh (1960) by Philip Jose Farmer
  • Rogue Moon (1960) by Algis Budrys
  • Venus Plus X (1960) by Theodore Sturgeon
  • Catseye (1961) by Andre Norton
  • Dark Universe (1961) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • Time is the Simplest Thing (1961) by Clifford Simak
  • Little Fuzzy (1962) by H. Beam Piper
  • The Dragon Masters (1963) by Jack Vance
  • Lords of the Psychon (1963) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) by Walter Tevis
  • Davy (1964) by Edgar Pangborn
  • Simulacron-3 (1964) by Daniel F. Galouye
  • The Wanderer (1964) by Fritz Leiber
  • All Flesh is Grass (1965) by Clifford Simak
  • Bill, the Galactic Hero (1965) by Harry Harrison
  • Destination: Void (1965) by Frank Herbert
  • The Genocides (1965) by Thomas M. Disch
  • The Age of the Pussyfoot (1966) by Frederik Pohl
  • Earthblood (1966) by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown
  • Make Room, Make Room (1966) by Harry Harrison
  • Mindswap (1966) by Robert Sheckley
  • The Witches of Karres (1966) by James H. Schmitz
  • The World of the Ptavvs (1966) by Larry Niven
  • The Butterfly Kid (1967) by Chester Anderson
  • Camp Concentration (1967) by Thomas M. Disch
  • Chthon (1967) by Piers Anthony
  • Lords of the Starship (1967) by Mark S. Geston
  • Restoree (1967) by Anne McCaffrey
  • Soldier, Ask Not (1967) by Gordon R. Dickson
  • Those Who Watch (1967) by Robert Silverberg
  • Why Call Them Back From Heaven? (1967) by Clifford Simak
  • Dimension of Miracles (1968) by Robert Sheckley
  • Dragonflight (1968) by Anne McCaffrey
  • Hawksbill Station (1968) by Robert Silverberg
  • The Last Starship From Earth (1968) by John Boyd
  • The Masks of Time (1968) by Robert Silverberg
  • Of Men and Monsters (1968) by William Tenn
  • Past Master (1968) by R. A. Lafferty
  • Rite of Passage (1968) by Alexei Panshin
  • The Andromeda Strain (1969) by Michael Crichton
  • Bug Jack Barron (1969) by Norman Spinrad
  • Fourth Mansions (1969) by R. A. Lafferty
  • Macroscope (1969) by Piers Anthony
  • The Pollinators of Eden (1969) by John Boyd
  • The Ship Who Sang (1969) by Anne McCaffrey
  • A Specter is Haunting Texas (1969) by Fritz Leiber
  • Up the Line (1969) by Robert Silverberg

And what about British invasion SF writers who made such a big impact on the genre in the 1960s:

  • The Trouble with Lichen (1960) by John Wyndham
  • The Wind from Nowhere (1961) by J. G. Ballard
  • A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess
  • The Drowned World (1962) by J. G. Ballard
  • Hothouse (1962) by Brian Aldiss
  • Greybeard (1964) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Dark Light Years (1964) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Whole Man (1964) by John Brunner
  • The Squares of the City (1965) by John Brunner
  • Colossus (1966) D. F. Jones
  • The Crystal World (1966) by J. G. Ballard
  • Earthworks (1966) by Brian Aldiss
  • The Watch Below (1966) by James White
  • Chocky (1968) by John Wyndham
  • The Final Programme (1968) by Michael Moorcock
  • Pavane (1968) by Keith Roberts
  • Report on Probability A (1968) by Brian Aldiss
  • Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner
  • Barefoot in the Head (1969) by Brian Aldiss
  • Behold the Man (1969) Michael Morecock
  • The Jagged Orbit (1969) by John Brunner

Or from the rest of the world

  • Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem
  • Planet of the Apes (1963) by Pierre Boulle
  • Hard to Be a God (1964) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  • The Second Invasion from Mars (1967) by Arkady and Boris Strgatsky
  • His Master’s Voice (1968) by Stanislaw Lem

If you were born after the 1960s, especially after the year 2000, how many of these novels have you read, or have even heard about? Years ago, I wrote an essay about what I thought might be the defining science fiction novels of the 1960s. At the time I guessed these dozen would be remembered:

  1. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (1961)
  2. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (1961)
  3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
  4. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)
  5. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963)
  6. Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
  7. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966)
  8. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (1966)
  9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
  10. Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (1968)
  11. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1969)
  12. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

I stand by these twelve for now, but I believe in the long run, only a few, if any, will be remembered by the reading public in the 2060s. Dune has the best chance of being remembered, but will it really go the distance? It was #35 on PBS’s The Great American Read, the only 1960s SF novel on the list, so that’s one indicator.

Do we remember the pop culture of the past because of the artists or their works? We remember books by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen from the 1800s, but did their stories stick to us first, or was it something about Dickens and Austen that make us read their work? I believe “Eleanor Rigby” survives because we can’t forget The Beatles. That Baby Boomers love of The Beatles was passed on to their children and grand children.

Even with one hit wonders like Little Women (#8 on the PBS list), I believe Louisa May Alcott is why we remember her book. Somehow her powerful personality anchored her in time. Ditto for literature of the 1920s. Don’t we really remember the novels of the 1920s because of our fascination with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lawrence, and Joyce? Or do their biographical reputations grow as more readers consume their books?

My guess is the current public’s sense of 1960s science fiction comes down to Philip K. Dick and all the biographical attention he’s getting, and because so many of his stories have been filmed. Back in the 1960s, Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were the Big Three of SF, mainly because of their successes in the 1950s. Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are still remembered today, getting special editions and new readers, but my hunch is Heinlein’s appeal is fading, and as a teenager in the 1960s he was my J. K. Rowling. In other words, my cherish memories will not be how literary historians remembers science fiction the 1960s.

I just don’t see modern bookworms hanging onto to most 1960s SF writers today. In terms of literary cults, I’d say Ray Bradbury might be next after PKD, and possibly Ursula K. Le Guin. Dune is the major SF novel from the 1960s, but there seems to be little interest in Frank Herbert. Look how Tolkien has become legendary as a figure of literary interest. I consider that a clue to future literary remembrances. If the public doesn’t also take an interest in an author, I think it’s less likely their books will be remembered.

At the last World Con a Hugo award was given to a speech that’s erasing John W. Campbell’s reputation. Will Heinlein and Asimov be next? As much as my memories tell me that Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were great, I’m not sure the collective pop culture memory feels the same way. This makes me sad, but I’ve got to come to terms with it.

When I take the time to think about what I actually remember, and compare those memories to external data, I realized I did read hundreds of SF during the 1960s, but the vast majority of them were first published in the 1950s. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club in March of 1967 and often got its two main selections. At best that could have been 60 new titles, but sometimes the main selections were 1950s reprints, so I figure the number was smaller, and I didn’t read every book. Thinking about things, I read many 1960s SF novels after the 1960s, in fact I’m still reading for the first time SF books from the 1960s. But even with all them, I could not assemble a list of hundreds of great SF books from the 1960s.

My memory was mostly wrong. I was able to find just under a hundred titles for this essay. I’d bet that between 1,000-2,000 SF novels were published during the 1960s, which sounds like an impossible lot, but it takes only two years nowadays to publish that many SF titles.

Memory has always been a distillation process. Each night we forget most of what happened the previous day. I don’t think the Library of America picked the most memorable eight SF novels to remember the 1960s. But then every science fiction fan who lived through the sixties will recall a different eight titles. And it would be unfair for me to want my eight favorites to be the ones remembered. However, I’d really love to know what eight SF novels from the 1960s will be remembered and read in the 2060s. Who will be the Jules Verne and H. G. Wells of the 20th century?

Update: 5/25/21

Because of a comment below by my old friend Jim Connell I realized asking a 15-year-old SF fan today about 1960s is like asking me back in 1965 what I thought about science fiction from the 1910s. At the time I had not even read A Princess of Mars or Tarzan of the Apes, or even The Skylark of Space. Over the next fifty-five years I would eventually read several novels, both literary and science fiction from the 1910s, but I can’t say I’m intimate with the pop culture of that decade. I’ve read 9 of the 70 books listed here for the 1910s, and know of several more from movies and reading about them.

Thus my memory of science fiction from the 1910s gives me roughly an idea of what younger people might know about science fiction from the 1960s.


15 thoughts on “How Will We Remember the 1960s?”

  1. I enjoyed James’ essay, as always, and I’m also fascinated by questions of memory when it comes to literature. Nevertheless, I wonder about this passage: “Newer generations are busy consuming all the books coming out in their own decade. What they read from past decades is always very minimal.” My own experience may be atypical, but during my personal “Golden Age” (from the mid-seventies to the early eighties), much of the science fiction I read and discovered was from earlier eras: H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick. Of course, some of the stories by Dick and Ellison I read may have been written not too long before, and I also subscribed to Omni and discovered Orson Scott Card, Spider Robinson and George R.R. Martin. Nevertheless, at least half, if not more, of the SF I read was written several years, and sometimes decades, earlier.

    1. My experience was like yours, in the 1960s I mainly read books from the 1950s. But that’s because I grew up with libraries and used bookstores. I’m not so sure young readers today get their books that way. Because of the internet, there is an emphasis on what’s new. Now seems much more important than when we were growing up. Writers and readers are more connected, and book promotion often comes from social media. Plus many readers buy their books on the Kindle, and even from self-publishing authors. Then there is the trend to read book series, which also promotes reading just published books.

      1. Hi James: like you, I grew up in second-hand book stores or swap shops, getting my fix of SF mags and those slim paperbacks that seem so short these days. I also went from juvenile books (Hardy Boys) to mainstream SF quite abruptly – partly due to a schoolteacher friend of my mother’s, who had a modest collection. That I read ALL of. I memorialised this here:

        I see that my favourite of the lot was Spectrum III – which contained stories from the 1940s and 50s, despite the book coming from the mid-60s, so I am with you on thinking of 60s SF while meaning 50s or even earlier.

        Books that DID come from the 60s, however, were Zelazny’s Lord of Light and This Immortal – and Heinlein’s Stranger, and of course Dune. Brian Aldiss was also active; so too Michael Moorcock…there was a lot of good SF published then, and remember, this was the era of New Worlds in SF and of the New Wave of Harlan Ellison, PJ Farmer et al.

        Will it be remembered? Yes. Because we’re telling people B-)

        1. I read your blog post and got to the bottom and discovered I had read it before, back in 2014. I have many of those books, but with different covers. It’s rather fascinating that after all these years, I’m discovering people from around the world that discovered SF somewhat like I did.

      2. Hello (and thanks for interesting blog).

        I think there is some truth to this, but it is possible to look at the big easily noticeable differences that are so large and miss the other ways they change things.

        Libraries are still around, and where I live, they make a point of trying to get the new and interesting titles in their shelves, where it will sit next to the old and interesting. If the old stuff is competitive and worth reading, it will hopefully get read.

        For context, I was born in the early 1990s, so I got to see some ways internet was changing things then as a grew up. As far as my SF reading habits were concerned, it made easier to get all kinds of books, both old and new, but most importantly it was easy to get obscure stuff that was not to be found in either of the two bookstores, the one second-hand shop, nor one library system in my provincial home town. (If I were a character in a Russian novel or a Cekhov play, it would be prosaically called “N.” or something else similarly prosaic.)

        For example, it was easier and cheaper for my dad to buy second hand scifi books from internet. But also finding specific books from my library became easier each year they got better internet service. I remember that searching if they had some specific books was much easier with the computer we had at home than going to the desk to talk to a librarian, and the search the library provides today is much better than the clunky search of 00s. Making requests to other libraries is also easier, and I think the library systems / networks are wider now. Both old and new and new reprints of old (if they happen) are easy to get from internet.

        The people who end up reading a lot of books for enjoyment have always been a bit weird crowd. As long as there is something worthwhile to be found in old books, that crowd will probably navigate to them. Maybe not so much as previously, but I am uncertain.

        I’d wager one really major difference is that there are many 16 year old watch YouTube / listen to podcasts and play computer games. What I do not know is, how many of those people would “in previous times” had read books instead. It is possible because we have more ways to have fun, there is less time to read books and thus less books read in total, and 16 years bookish kids read less books and even less old books.

        A related point: audiobooks are getting bigger and bigger thing every year, because getting them via internet is also cheaper and easier than previously. I got some CDs in 00s, and it was a bit of novelty and quite expensive, mostly because we were traveling in a big city where there was a shop selling them. The same audio is now available on internet as a digital file at a fraction of the original price I remember paying (or rather, what I remember my mother paying).

        1. That is true that people have far more choices in entertainment today. And they have more choices in how to get works to consume. I’m surprised by how many audiobooks are available for free on YouTube. But also, services like offer a huge library of ebooks and audiobooks for just $8.99 a month. Audible is now offering a library rental mode too.

          Libraries do save old books, but they also discard many old books. They keep what people check out regularly, and discard ignored books. Many of the titles I mentioned will no longer be available in libraries. Some were paperback originals.

  2. Does anyone remember a book from the 60’s (or maybe the 50″s) that was about a man who was a member of a group that kept tabs on the human race by dipping in and out of our time line? They had “way stations” in time and they would pop in and out at various centuries. I remember one statement in the book where they made the comment that it was one of the few centuries where people had the habit of smoking. (I think I remember that because I was a teenager and my mother was trying to quit) I would love to reread it – 55 years after the first time!

  3. Hi James,
    Great essay! Memory is such an elusive essence, I love how you pursue it on your blog.
    In particular, when you brought up the specific task of ‘remembering’ the sf books of the 1960s, I immediately thought of a few other projects you might enjoy. One of them is an ongoing live-role-playing sort of mental exercise that goes by the name of Galactic Journey. They are ‘living’ in the ‘present’ fifty-five years ago. [ ] And then there is a project Young People Read Old SFF, where the participants are asked to rate particular books being offered to them by another James (James Davis Niccol) [ ] .
    And then there is another kettle of fish, the amazing bibliographic web collected by the late R. T. Gault, called Absolute Elsewhere. Gault was a very interesting and eccentric independent scholar who amassed a long ‘memory palace’ of the books that he thought were important mileposts in his web of ‘fantastic, visionary, and esoteric’ literature.
    It’s chronological, so you can explore each year of the 1960s and rediscover the books (and their period specific covers). I love browsing through Gault’s selections, and reading his terse comments. They all fit together into some kind of network of emerging memes.
    I should add that I starting reading SFF (in large doses) around 1972. So the 1960s to me were all new to me, along with the crazy reprints from earlier periods. My experience was perhaps the same eclectic gulping of un-mixable flavors that others had. Edmond Hamilton’s Starwolf with E. E. Smith’s Lensman, washed down with Princes of Amber, The Instrumentality of Mankind, Shockwave Rider, Alyx. I remember reading through the entire volume of Again Dangerous Visions (which I joined the SF book club to get my hands on) straight through the last story and getting the biggest jolt from that final story: Tiptree’s The Milk of Paradise. Who can remember it all? It jolted my mind into the multiverse, and unlike Doctor Strange, there wasn’t any Old One to reel me in.

  4. Love all your Sixties lists! I read many of the titles you cite as they were being published. I was buying ACE Doubles and SF books from Ballantine Books, Lancer Books, Pyramid Books, and several other publishers that are no longer with us. You make good points about Philip K. Dick. I suspect the upcoming DUNE movie might trigger a run on Frank Herbert titles. I also enjoyed the music of the Sixties and still listen to it today. By the way, I just bought a new ROTEL 11 CD player. Marvelous!

  5. Because we’re 70 years old we have a skewed outlook on time… Imagine 1965 that would be 55 years ago and you’re a kid at a library and some old man walks up to you and says “hey kid 55 years ago they wrote great science fiction. …” and the kid says ” that was 1910″ does anybody remember 1910….

    1. Good point, but in 1965 there were old guys who collected Dime novels and SF works like the Great Marvel series from that era. There were books from that time period that weren’t called science fiction, but old guys fondly remembered them. One modern guy has labeled those years, the Radium Age of Science Fiction.

  6. Science fiction I read in the 1960s:
    Biggle, Lloyd. 1966. All the colours of darkness
    Butler, Samuel. 1954 [1872] Erewhon.
    Cooper, Susan. Mandrake.
    Lewis, C.S. 1952. Out of the silent planet.
    Lewis, C.S. That hideous strength.
    Miller, Walter. 1959. A Canticle for Leuibowitz
    Wyndham, John. 1955. The Chrysalids.
    Wyndham, John. 1960. The kraken wakes.
    Wyndham, John. 1961. The Midwich Cuckoos.
    Wyndham, John. 1971 [1956] The seeds of time.

    And most of it was published in the 1940s and 1950s.And most of my sf reading was done in the 1950s, in the 1960s I was more into things like the Beat Generation.
    And perhaps you might find this interesting, in view of your interest in memory: 1968 in retrospect.

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