There was something in the air during the 1950s in America that bred an especially grand strain of science fiction whose like was never witnessed before and hasn’t been since. It was a heady concoction: postwar triumph and trauma, unprecedented technological advances, the true advent of mass media swamping the atmosphere, that psuedo-fascistic hum of nationalistic propaganda and blacklisting, and the incessant reminder that a mushroom cloud could end it all… like that.
Because our national memory consigns the decade to a cultural-studies netherworld of Eisenhower conformity whose only pinpricks of creative greatness could be found in the Beats’ scrappy secondhand Whitmanisms, the science fiction of the 1950s is somewhat neglected. Many anthologies and studies that cover the genre’s supposed “Golden Age” content themselves with the 1930s and 1940s, when the pulps were churning out stiff-jawed space operas and riffs on gleaming cities of the future. The science fiction of the 1960s, with its narrative-busting experimentations is seen as being more daringly au courant and thus worthier of critical attention. Somewhere between the spacesuited squares like E.E. Doc Smith and countercultural innovators like Harlan Ellison, though, lies a golden seam that contains some of the century’s most thoughtful, jazzy, and dazzling literature.
The new Library of America two-volume collection, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary K. Wolfe, dusts off nine lesser-known novels that illustrate the breadth and depth of what was happening in science fiction during that decade. With its crisply typeset cloth volumes totaling almost 3,000 pages, the sturdy box is a welcome reminder of past joys for some readers and a striking introduction to fresh futuristic wonders and Cold War chills for others.
What American Science Fiction first does right is tacking immediately to lesser-known waters. Note that the collection’s title and subtitle say nothing about the “Greatest” and just calls its material “Classic.” By removing himself from the need to quantify the cream of the era’s crop (like the Library’s near-definitive 2009 Jonathan Lethem-edited set of Philip K. Dick novels), Wolfe avoids putting together a decade’s greatest-hits package that would have made for phenomenal reading — Fahrenheit 451, Foundation, Time Out of Joint, Childhood’s End, and Canticle for Leibowitz, would be a few obvious inclusions — but held fewer surprises. This makes for a less-than-perfect set, with at least two of the nine novels (Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time and Algis Burdys’s Who?) not quite deserving classic status, fun as they are. Many of the others, though, are long-overdue for reappraisal.
The opening novel is Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953). It’s a spry satire on consumerist manias, groupthink, and advertising, in which an ad man working on the account to convince the people of Earth to emigrate to faraway Venus gets caught up in a plot that sees him stripped of his wealth and identity and plunged down the socioeconomic ladder (much more slippery in this starkly Malthusian future). The sly jabs at the inner workings of Madison Avenue feel spot-on due to Pohl’s work as an ad man after the war and could have been easily used in a non-genre novel of the time. But more ingeniously subversive is the book’s scabrous view of that unholy nexus of propaganda where consumerism almost becomes equated with patriotism; a dark shadow of the modern era that Pohl and Kornbluth could well see growing already in postwar America.
The only woman among these nine authors, Leigh Brackett was an anomaly in her field for other reasons. The classic image of the twentieth century science fiction writer is one barely removed from the Parisian garret, a writer churning out stories and novels that quickly disappear from print for extremely meager rewards. Brackett, however, was a respected Hollywood institution who knocked out scripts like Rio Bravo and The Long Goodbye when she wasn’t writing for the pulps. (The wit that she honed on films like The Big Sleep also showed up in her late-career work on The Empire Strikes Back.)
The characters in Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955) are far removed from her fast-talking smartass movie stars, though it contains many elements familiar from her Westerns. Interestingly the only post-apocalyptic novel in the collection, it’s set a couple generations after a nuclear war has decimated America and left behind a bone-deep aversion to technology. Her teenage protagonist Esau lives in a straight-laced Ohio village of the so-called New Mennonites, whose quasi-Amish ways had once been thought “quaint and queer because they held to the old simple handcraft ways” but proved an evolutionary success after the destruction. Because of fears that any technological progress or urbanization will put humanity back on the ladder to nuclear war, settlements over a certain size are prohibited. Young Esau is, of course, curious about the outside world, particularly the long-rumored Bartorstown, a secret city where pre-war technology is supposedly still used. Brackett uses Esau’s Western-style adventures away from his little village (complete with torch-wielding mobs, wagon trains, and threatening bands of wanderers on the high plains) as a kind of cautionary tale of a cautionary tale. Fear loops back in on itself in her story where dreams are systematically dashed and a perfectly logical cautionary principle turns quickly into stifling conformity and lynch-prone crowds. Society’s inherently contradictory impulses have rarely been more stark.
While Brackett put her humor on hold for more serious things, for the quick-witted Double Star (1956) Robert Heinlein shelved the half-baked philosophical ponderings that can make works like Stranger in a Strange Land such strenuous undertakings. The novel is a brisk adventure about a jumped-up actor (“The Great” Lorenzo Smythe) who gets hired by some mysterious operatives to pretend to be a famous politician. It’s all told from Smythe’s preening point-of-view, which veers from arrogance (“If a man walks in dressed like a hick and acting as if he owned the place, he’s a spaceman”) to the prideful reflections of a man who considers himself the next coming of John Barrymore. Although the story is set in a future where the solar system is ruled by a Moon-based parliament presided over by a ceremonial Emperor and includes a race of curious, Ent-like Martians, Heinlein’s more interested in snap-crackle-pop political comedy and thespian satire. Like most of the best science-fiction, he keeps the futurisms working in the background and lets his characters move the story. According to the editor’s notes, Heinlein had actually hoped the novel (originally titled Star Role) would “finally crack Collier’s, the Post, or some other adult and not-SF-specialized market.” It’s a sign of how cut off from mainstream literature science fiction was at the time that even a swift-paced story like this with such a rousing the-show-must-go-on vibe couldn’t vault the genre barrier.
A book that was more successful at breaking through into the mainstream market was Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man (1956). Later made into the film The Incredible Shrinking Man, and sometimes republished under that title, it takes a stupendously simple premise — a man named Scott starts shrinking one day; nothing the doctors do can stop it — and investigates all of its physical and emotional effects with precise and empathic acuity. Like many of the novels in this set, Matheson’s story focuses on people trying to adapt to impossible circumstances. Most of the novel is set in the basement of Scott’s house, where he has been lost ever since shrinking down to a few inches in height. While he battles each day to survive — trying to avoid drowning in tiny drops of water, nibbling on giant cracker crumbs, evading a monstrous spider — Matheson weaves in flashbacks about his descent from husband and father to curiosity, annoyance, and finally mystery. Matheson’s best work, like I Am Legend, has always had a depressive, existential quality to it, and this is no different. There’s very little of that stereotypical gee-whiz factor here that one would associate with science fiction of the era, and quite a bit more horror about losing one’s humanity.
The what-is-human? question gets gnawed over in a couple other novels here. The lesser of the two is Algis Burdys’s Who?. It’s a comparatively straightforward Cold War-styled story that translates Le Carre’s Smiley / Karla dialectic into a slightly futuristic setting where the worldwide conflict of stasis is being waged between the Allied Nations Government and Soviet Socialist Sphere. An Allied scientist, Lucas Martino, who was horribly wounded in a lab explosion and somehow ended up in Soviet hands, is returned to the Allies as a heavily metalized cyborg creation. Theoretically he’s Martino, but nobody quite buys it. There are plentiful possibilities for exploration here, but they’re hampered by some square-jawed dialogue (“Aren’t we all human beings?”) and a less-than-thrilling plot.
Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953) also digs into this investigative conundrum, but with many novels’ worth of imagination. With the care of the true master and the audacity of a magician, Sturgeon weaves together the stories of several young people who discover they have some form of telekinetic abilities and then merge into a unit that’s part-family and part post-homo sapiens multi-unit being. Together, the near-silent idiot savant, the developmentally disabled baby who can’t speak but mentally communicates like a genius, and the teleporting twins must both fight to survive in a threatening world and also understand the limits of their awesome powers. What thrills in the novel isn’t the wow factor of what they can do (teleportation and the like), it’s the dark chill of Sturgeon’s prose. It careens from gothic, Shelley-esque views of the monster-at-loose to the anguished Steinbeck-ian trauma of the outsider, cockeyed humor, fairytale wonder, and some potent examinations of morality (it’s easy here to see the influence the book must have had on Thomas Disch’s work), this is very simply a marvelously resonant and haunting work that can stand easily among the other great novels of the decade.
In A Case of Conscience (1958), James Blish also tackles themes as weighty as Sturgeon, but with much less impact. One of the few books here that spends any substantial time off-Earth, Blish’s novel has a scientific commission studying whether the distant planet of Lithia is good for colonization and whether its twelve-foot reptilian natives are safe for human contact. A potentially dynamic plot about the first Lithian coming to a crowded Earth — moved mostly underground after pollution and war — and fomenting revolution gets lost in knotty theological arguments put forward by a Jesuit member of the commission. It all ends in an anarchic and potentially xenocidic muddle, but Blish at least keeps his prose passionately engaged throughout.
More of a muddle is Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time (serialized 1958, published as novel 1961). One of his “Change War” stories about an epic conflict being waged across all time periods by two vaguely delineated groups (the Spiders and the Snakes), it takes place in a so-called “Recuperation Station” for soldiers returning from their hopscotch missions. Narrated by Greta, a former Chicago girl who works there as an entertainer, the novel begins with high promise:
Our Soldiers fight by going back to change the past, or even ahead to change the future, in ways to help our side win the final victory a billion or more years from now. A long killing business, believe me.
Leiber brings the fast-talking brio of his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tales to this high-concept piece, using Greta to give it a raggedly funny and sad voice. But as the story progresses, with concerns rising over the increasingly shredded fabric of time and the possibility of deeply cynical manipulations behind the scenes, Leiber’s volleying dialogue tends to spiral out of control and blur his already tangled narrative. There’s almost more vision here than Leiber know what to do with; there are worse problems.
The jewel of this collection is Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956). A rocketing fantasia alight with apocalyptic Blakean visions and flights of fancy (it was published in England as Tiger! Tiger!), it’s the “vengeful history” of one Gulliver Foyle. Sole survivor of an attack on his spaceship, he is spotted and then left for dead by another ship that happens to come by. Burning with supernova rage, he becomes a singleminded machine for revenge, a spaceshifting precursor to Donald E. Westlake’s Parker. Tearing through Bester’s kaleidoscopic vision of a future where now-commonplace teleporting, or “jaunting,” has fundamentally altered society (in one instance: nobody bothers building fences anymore), Foyle is one of the great science-fiction antiheros. Around him, Bester crafts one of science fiction’s most memorable worlds, a gilded time of corporate clans (Sherwin-Williams, Esso, Greyhound), disappearing racial differences (again, jaunting), and outlawed religion. It’s a baroque style unusual for science fiction of the time, but instead of weighing down the story, Bester’s decorative lines help it sing. His opening lines seem just as fresh now as then:
This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying… but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice … but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks, but nobody loved it.
At its best, science fiction is always considering history, where we stand in it, where it’s taking us, how we’re mangling or ignoring it. This is a collection that does all of that, and delivers some of the American century’s most sparkling fiction, to boot.