Who Still Reads 1950s Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why are people still reading science fiction from the 1950s? I’m always leery to read science books more than a few years old, but crave science fiction written before NASA was created. I’m not alone in preferring moldy, aged SF, but I have no idea how many other fans are like me. I belong to an online book club, Classic Science Fiction, and many of the members prefer 1950s-1970s science fiction. But then, most of us collect social security too, so it might be nostalgia. There are a few younger members, and I’ve wondered how they got hooked on reading SF meant for their parents and grandparents. I’ve been updating “The Defining Science Fiction of the 1950s” with links to Amazon. Most of the books listed are still in print, although many are only available for the Kindle, or from Audible.com.

Are these books bought by old folks remembering, or new folks discovering?

Defining My Task

I know this essay will interest damn few people. I’m going to put a lot of time and effort into writing it, and few will read it. My hope is it will be a honeypot that will attract those folks who also love reading 1950s science fiction, so please leave a comment. My theory is science fiction from this era has distinctive qualities and appeals. My goal is to begin to define those attributes and attractions. I say begin, but I’ve tried this before. Like psychoanalysis, you can’t discover all self-knowledge in one session. I don’t know why I can’t let this past go. And I don’t know how much debugging it will take before my brain will be free.

New is Better

Personally, I believe the best science fiction books written in the last twenty-five years are better crafted than the best science fiction written in the 1950s. Now I’m talking about writing, storytelling, characterization, plotting, and all the mechanics of creating a book. With every decade I believe the skills of writers are evolving. I also believe the imagination and science that goes into science fiction has constantly progressed over the decades. So, why bother reading old science fiction at all? Few science fiction readers read science fiction from the 1920s and 1930s. It’s just too primitive. Most have stopped reading science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s. The 1960s seems to be the oldest science fiction that many modern readers discover, with books like Slaughterhouse Five, Dune, A Wrinkle in Time, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Man in the High Castle.

Time is hard on science fiction. It doesn’t age well. Reading science fiction is the most exciting when you’re under twenty-one. And since every generation has its own hope for the future, the science fiction they embrace is what’s new and exciting. By its very nature, science fiction tends to invalidate its past. Except…

Nostalgia for the Golden Age

If you remain a science fiction fan long enough you come back around to where you began. Most readers go through a science fiction reading phase, and eventually move on to other genres. Most people just dabble with science fiction. The kind of reader I’m trying to identify is different. Science fiction was their childhood religion, born again into faith in the future, like the theological have a faith in the past. Sometimes I feel my obsession with comprehending old science fiction is a kind of exorcism. I’m trying to deprogram myself. Other times I assume it’s just a dynamic of getting older, and I’m merely seeking comfort reads.

I worry as I get older, I’m being sucked into a black hole of nostalgia. I fight this by reading as many nonfiction books and novels published in the current year as I can, but all too often I discover myself returning to books from the 1950s and 1960s. Lately, I’ve been watching old episodes of Gunsmoke and Perry Mason, preferring the ones that came out in the 1950s. I even bought the first season of Gunsmoke from 1955. And I started listening to Gunsmoke’s radio show that came out in 1950. I don’t think that’s typical for folks of my age, since all my friends love new television shows, movies and books. I wonder if I have some kind of time disease that makes me want to travel to the past.

When I was growing up, the Golden Age of Science Fiction was considered 1938-1946,  mostly due to the editorship of Astounding Science Fiction by John W. Campbell. Certainly many of the classic science fiction short stories I read in the early 1960s were reprints from that era. Then Peter Graham said, “The Golden Age of science fiction is 12.” That felt so right that no other age has ever usurped it. The science fiction that imprinted on me at age 12 is the atomic clock by which I’ve measured all science fiction since.

My favorite SF novel in 2015 was Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. I admire it for great intellectual speculation. But, it’s no match emotionally for my favorite generation ship story, Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein. Orphans first appeared in book form in 1963, reprinting two novellas from 1941, “Universe” and “Common Sense” that were originally published in Astounding Science Fiction.  I turned 12 in 1963. Aurora is a much more ambitious and sophisticated novel than Orphans in the Sky. Aurora had more to say about science and science fiction, but it’s the Heinlein story that resonates with my heart.

Time out of Joint by Philip K. DickAll my favorite Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke books were published in the 1950s. I came of age in the 1960s, and my favorite science fiction writers from that decade are Delany, Dick and Zelazny. All their books are dated. They weren’t always enlightened when it comes to political correctness by today’s standards. And they were all men. Two were gay, but I didn’t know that at the time.

The real question is: Are these old science fiction books still readable, still lovable, by later generations who have no nostalgic ties to the past? Who still reads 1950s science fiction?

When Old Becomes Classic

I recently wrote “The Classics of Science Fiction in 12 Lists” over at Worlds Without End. It’s fascinating to see which science fiction books from the 1950s are still being remembered. Because some of these lists were from polls, I assume many of the voters were young. Studying the lists though, show more titles from the 1960s than any other decade. Does that mean 1950s science fiction is finally fading away? Some of the 1950s SF titles are books now taught in school like The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Of the thirteen lists, here are the 1950s books that were at the top of those lists. I note how many lists each were on.

Literary Recognition

Most of the 1950s science books that are available today are from a few publishers that specialize in reprinting old science fiction. Not always. I was surprised to see The Chrysalids by John Wyndham in print from New York Review Books Classics. Does that mean the literary elite are finally accepting the genre hoi polloi? They also publish Chocky, a 1968 book also by Wyndham. What really blew my mind, was NYRBC has a collection of Robert Sheckley stories, Store of the Worlds. And just when I thought I couldn’t be anymore amazed, I saw they have reprinted The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1973) by D. G. Compton. This is about as shocking as when Library of America began reprinting Philip K. Dick. But, we’re getting away from the 1950s. On the other hand, it suggests that some science fiction is being remembered by people other than old farts who grew up reading science fiction.

I should note that The Foundation Trilogy has been reprinted by the Everyman’s Library, which is a nice distinction too.

Remembering Old Books at the Movies

Of course, the main way modern people remember old books are when they are made into movies. Childhood’s End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke, was recently shown as a SyFy miniseries. The Ray Bradbury books mentioned above have movie and television versions. The Day of the Triffids (1951), again by Wyndham, has had many visual interpretations. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959), The Puppet Masters (1951) and “All You Zombies…” (1959) have film versions to remind young people to read his books. I, Robot (1950) by Isaac Asimov was remembered in film, but only in title. It would be great if someone would film the stories. And I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson and The Body Snatcher (1954) by Jack Finney are remembered for their horror and science fiction. Most of the science fiction we remember from the 1950s actually comes from the classic SF movies of the 1950s.

Collecting Pulp Magazines

Robert A Heinlein_Have Space Suit Will Travel F-SFCollectors might be a large segment of 1950s science fiction fans. They seek out old science fiction magazines, first editions from specialty presses like Gnome and Fantasy, or first editions of what’s now consider classic science fiction of the the 1950s. Some collectors go after hardbacks with dust jackets or paperbacks with wraps by artists they love.

By the the 1950s, the magazines had switched from pulp format to digest size. So true pulp collectors mine the 1940s and earlier for their collecting habit. Some of those digest magazines are showing up on the internet. A mostly complete run of If Magazine is available at Archive.org, part of its Pulp Magazine Archive. It’s a shame that some authors felt the need to request their stories be pulled. It’s like they have erased themselves from 1950s SF history. I wish the copyright laws made an exception for magazines, so that any periodical older than 25 years could be archive online if the entire issue was scanned as one document. I doubt authors would lose sales. Evidently many people wanted to read the old If Magazines. They have over a quarter-million views. From time to time I meet pulp magazine collectors. Lately they swap digital scans, but in the old days I knew guys who owned thousands of the original magazines, but those artifacts are disintegrating. It’s great pulps and digests are being preserved online, but it’s a shame copyright laws don’t support those efforts. Many of the novels we know from the 1950s first appeared in a 1940 pulp. Another favorite title, Galaxy Magazine, is showing up at the archive. I’m waiting for F&SF and Astounding, the top venues.

What Was Unique?

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. HeinleinUltimately, any novel is about the times in which it was written. Science fiction books from the 1950s were really about the 1950s, and not the future. For those people who didn’t grow up during that decade, what does 1950s science fiction convey about those years? I was born in 1951, so the 1950s were my childhood. My memories of the 1950s were of vast suburbs filled with tiny track houses, hordes of kids playing in the streets, wearing cowboy hats, six-guns, fake coon-skin hats, or space helmets, watching Saturday morning cartoons, or Saturday afternoon Tarzan flicks, hanging around at night observing the grown-ups smoking and drinking, begging for sips, while listening to them argue about divorces and shrinks, or kooky stuff like UFOs, Bridey Murphy and Edgar Cayce, or scary stuff like atomic bombs and fall-out shelters. My 1950s wasn’t Leave It to Beaver 1950s, but we loved watching those television shows that define the 1950s today. Even back then we knew life wasn’t like television, but we wanted it to be.

My life as a kid in the 1950s was a whole lot like Peanuts. The adults lived in their world, and we kids lived in ours. By today’s standards my parents would have been jailed. I walked to school starting in the first grade. When we lived in cities I ranged for blocks on my bike, when we lived in the country, I ranged for miles hiking the woods. I discovered science fiction in the 1950s via black and white television, with tales of space patrols, alien invaders, and monsters. Even though my mother forced me to go to church, I never got Christianity. I believed in rockets and space travel. And that’s probably why I keep returning to 1950s science fiction. It was my religion.

Strangely, the book the reminds me most of my 1950s is Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick. It was written in 1959, but not published until 1975. Most people were Beat back then, not just the Beatniks. Life was simpler, but it had an edge that doesn’t come through in the old TV shows. Maybe that’s why I like Gunsmoke today, it showed more of the grit of my childhood. Actually, all of the PKD’s literary novels remind me of the 1950s. But so does his science fiction novels. Those were about nuclear war, paranoia, invasions, and alienation. Americans in the 1950s worried that Russia was going to bomb us out of existence, and commies had infiltrated our friends and associations. The pod people of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers were a perfect stand-in for fear of communism. Ditto for Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. And those writers combined fear of communism with the UFO craze. Few today remember the wackiness of UFOs.The Body Snatcher by Jack Finney

1950s science fiction spent a great many words imagining the collapse of civilization. But it also imagined colonizing the solar system, and even other solar systems. 1950 began with children’s shows about space patrols, that many adults got hooked on. Long before 1966’s Star Trek we had 1956’s Forbidden Planet. 1950s science fiction often pictured a space patrol as another branch of the American military services. 1950s imagined World Governments, United Planets, and Federations of Star Systems. You have to wonder what happened to America when in 1977, the galaxy became an evil empire.

Another common theme in 1950s science fiction was psychic powers. Science fiction writers believed supermen and superwomen would evolve any day. Childhood’s End in 1953 imagined our replacements, Homo superior, doing away with Homo sapiens. Clarke recycled that theme in the psychedelic sixties with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Theodore Sturgeon and Zenna Henderson wrote about strange people that you wondered if they were mentally ill, gifted or psychic. And John W. Campbell went overboard at Astounding promoting Psi-powers. I don’t know why so many sci-fi stories in the fifties were goo-goo for the woo-woo, but maybe it was a wish for transcendence. In many ways it prefigured the New Age movement that emerged in the 1970s. But some Americans have been hung-up on psychics since 1848, and the Fox sisters.

That’s the thing about reading 1950s science fiction today, or even other novels from that decade. I came of age in the Psychedelic Sixties, and we thought we were unique. But the more I read from the 1950s, the more I realized everything that was going to happen in the 1960s began staging in the 1950s. Before Hippies there were Beats. Before Timothy Leary and LSD there was Aldous Huxley and The Doors of Perceptions (1954). Even though I didn’t discover Jack Kerouac until the late sixties, he became a substitute father-figure when my dad died in 1970. They were about the same age, and both were drunks dying months apart. I’ve been trying to grasp their 1950s ever since.

A harder thing to explain about 1950s science fiction is the humor. You’ve just got to read Robert Sheckley to understand what I mean. Or Fredric Brown. Or the satire of Vonnegut, Tenn, Pohl and Kornbluth. Or the bizarreness of Philip K. Dick. Both F&SF and Galaxy featured lots of humor and satire. I didn’t start buying these magazines until the mid-sixties, but I grew up devouring their old annual collections I found in libraries. I began unearthing the 1950s in 1962.

So many of the great science fiction stories of the 1950s were about the end of the world, or the collapse of civilization. Some of my all-time favorite novels are about the end of the world as we know it, like Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart, On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute, or Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank.

The 1950s were strange in that people thought civilization was coming to an end and hoped to expand civilization across the galaxy. What a schizoid dichotomy.  And I grasped that as a kid. Maybe that’s the trip that got laid on me that I’m trying to understand. To me, the absolutely best inheritance I received from the 1950s were the Heinlein juveniles I first discovered in 1964, when I was still twelve (the Golden Age of Science Fiction). In fact, all my reading of science fiction feels like it’s been downhill ever since I first read Have Space Suit-Will Travel, Tunnel in the Sky, Time for the Stars, The Rolling Stones, Red Planet, Starman Jones, Farmer in the Sky, Between Planets, Space Cadet, Citizen of the Galaxy, The Star Beast and Rocketship Galileo. There were other young adult SF from the 1950s that I loved; books by Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, Donald Wolheim, and the whole series from Winston Science Fiction. But the Heinlein twelve were always the pinnacle of SF for me.

All those kid SF books from the 1950s instilled a belief I’d grow up and live in space. That didn’t happen. Maybe its that promise of a future that never came to be that keeps me reading old science fiction. In some ways I feel like a person that’s died and learns there’s no heaven. Do those of us who read old science fiction do so because we’re trying to recapture the promises of the golden age? I’ve long known science fiction was my religion substitute growing up. Even though I became an atheist to SF long ago, it still haunts me. I just can’t deprogram myself. I will never go to Mars or Heaven. Which is funny, Ray Bradbury has a story called, “Mars is Heaven!”

This self-revelation came to me in 1967, when I read “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, in the February issue of Worlds of Tomorrow. It’s about the barriers we face in life, about understanding our limitations. Delany knew in 1966 he and I were never going into space, and his story is symbolic for all of us who dreamed those 1950s science fiction dreams, but who would never leave in our space ships.


p.s.  I know this is a bone I can’t stop gnawing. Anyone who has regularly read my blog, knows I’ve covered this territory before. I write these posts as a form of psychoanalysis. I usually come to two realizations. One, I’m disappointed that the future I imagined as a child, is not the future I found as an adult. Two, I was conditioned as a kid to love certain kinds of stories, and I can’t get away from that pleasure. I’m like an addict that says, “I can stop any time I want” but I don’t. Sometimes I rationalize reading old science fiction by telling myself that I’m studying it as an academic subject. But that’s not quite honest either. One thing I keep urging myself,  is to move forward in time. To relive the science fiction of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, etc.

114 thoughts on “Who Still Reads 1950s Science Fiction?”

  1. Jim, It’s really not amazing since we are close in age that my experiences and feelings match your’s so closely. As I moved down you post and noted the titles 1) I have read most of them 2) when I was 12 -15. I feel the same nostalgic feelings about these books. They bring back memories of what I was doing when I read them. In 2016, when I re read one or two of these oldies, I realize how poorly they were written, even for the time they were made. The Science, even by the standards of what was known in the 50’s is , well, Fiction. The Misogyny and American Jingoism of Heinlein is in stark contrast to, say, The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. Science Fiction has grown and expanded. Yes, even the best SF has a short shelf live in that new discoveries out date the assumptions made in the past. But as I get older, I too yearn for the nostalgic days of the past, which, like fine wine, get better with age. Come to think of it, I am alot happier now, then when I read the old SF books to escape from my life as a pre and post Teen.

    1. That’s true. I am much happier now than I was then. Science fiction was my escape from the stresses of growing up back then. I guess science fiction is my comfort food, and old science fiction books are just old friends.

  2. I’m 37 and female, I started consciously reading sci-fi when I was 15 with Dune. I was hooked. Libraries fed my addiction with all of the same authors you list above. Years later, and I still love 50’s sci-fi; it’s a thrill to find copies of books that I’ve never seen in person beforeand great then like old friends.

      1. I’m 41. Not so much. But then, catching the classics I’d missed was why I started the SF Masterworks reading challenge (I came over here from Worlds Without End.)

  3. Hey, Jim: as someone who grew up in the 1960s reading 1950s (and even 40s) SF, I can sympathise strongly with your standpoint. Little classics like Earth Abides and Alas, Babylon and Flowers for Algernon are most definitely still worth reading now, and my son’s generation seems to still be discovering Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series (albeit the extended one).

    However, and however: as the SF of the 1930s seems so dated now, so too will the fiction of the 1950s come to be something that only older people like. What us older people need to do is to temper that nostalgia with the new, powerful, very well-crafted fiction and TV that is increasingly coming our way.

    Like ANYTHING by Neal Asher, or Neal Stephenson, or Peter Hamilton (except that dead folk series), or Alastair Reynolds….

    Please keep on writing up the 1950s stuff; I think it’s a really valuable resource for younger folk wanting to dip their toes in the older waters, but not knowing where to start. Best,


    1. That true Ed.I try and split my science fiction reading time between old and new. Also, more women, people of color, and writers from distant countries are writing today, and that adds tremendously to the scope of science fiction.

  4. I’ve been reading a lot of 40s, 50s and 60s magazines recently and some of it holds up quite well, particularly the fantasy which dates less badly. As for the rest, you can occasionally. get something out of it if you approach the material sympathetically.
    The great thing about reading this period is discovering material you didn’t know about, which wasn’t reprinted or anthologised: Herbert Best’s The Twenty-Fifth Hour (abridged version in Famous Fantastic Mysteries), L. Sprague de Camp’s Johnny Black stories (Astounding), etc.
    Even before I started this I’ve reread older novels from time to time and found they still hold up well, e.g. Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.
    When I first started reading SF in the 60s/70s I found stories from the 1930s almost unreadable and I suspect the 1940s are viewed similarly today. But the fifties, with the wit, satire and increasing sophistication that period had, may have more longevity.

    1. Even though older books weren’t written as well, they often had exciting qualities that made them appealing. And like Jeroen points out, their size might have been a factor too.

      Paul, I agree that the writing changed enough in the 1950s to give those stories more lasting power. I suppose when pulp writers started writing for book publishers they tried harder to write prose that was up to contemporary standards. Some writers, like Wyndham and Nevil Shute, were just really good storytellers. Heinlein stood out right from the start in the 1940s because he was a better story teller than the average pulp writer. Asimov and Clarke, weren’t very good writers, but they had ideas that captivated. Cordwainer Smith and Alfred Bester were even stylists and experimenters.

      The trouble is the science fiction writers have to compete with books like The Lord of the Flies, Things Fall Apart, Invisible Man, A Separate Peace, Lord of the Rings, Catcher in the Rye and other famous books of the 1950s. Here’s how Goodreads voters remember the 1950s:


  5. I’ve read a lot of 50s SF and I got to know them through Gollancz’s SF Masterworks inprint. I especially like Arthur C Clarke and PKD. Their stories are not like today’s SF, but they still have their own unique voice as authors that I appreciate. I like how dramatic Clarke can be, and I like the confusion that PKD brings on. Often, 50s SF has simpler stories to tell that are clearly delineated in scope and not to mention word count, whereas today’s novels are more expansive and even come in trilogies. Sometimes I like a simple story.

    1. I should have discussed that. SF books from the 1950s were often around 200 pages, often less. Today’s books are huge. Having a story that’s easier to get into, and quicker to finish, might have its own unique appeal.

  6. I was 12 when I began reading SF, the German pulp PERRY RHODAN series and a lot of translations of American 1950s and 1960s SF because there wasn’t much German SF in that time. I read many of the books you mention when I was a youngster, and some of them are still available even in new translations. Many of them have a spirit different from modern novells, they touch your heart and mke you wonder.

  7. This is what appreciate about Classic SF. In addition to the rereading and discussing the Golden Oldies (often with new insight) I have been introduced to new authors that have been very very interesting. I also agree that the average page count has inflated over the years. It’s not necessarily making the works better.

  8. Great post James! As I’ve written elsewhere, I still read old SF in search for books that transcend their own time. I’m mostly disappointed, yes, but the search is worthwhile as it broadens my understanding of the genre. I was born in the late 1970s, and compared to you I have so much catching up to do it is simply impossible…

      1. I haven’t read that much of the fifties, but the Foundation Trilogy Does, I think. Of the 60ies that would be the Dune series and Left Hand Of Darkness. I do not think it is a coincidence these keep popping up in contemporary lists. And Frankenstein of the 19th century, I almost forgot…

  9. I really enjoyed this essay.

    I read a lot of ’50s SF, and write about it too, in reviews of old magazines (some at Black Gate), and reviews of Ace Doubles (at my home page, http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton, or at my blog, Strange at Ecbatan).

    I was born in 1959. Started seriously reading SF in 1972, and of course read Asimov and Clarke and (eventually, not right way) Heinlein, not to mention Nourse and Norton and J. T. M’Intosh! Perhaps some of the appeal is being the first to go somewhere, the first to treat an idea. Some is a sort of innocence. Some is coming from a different direction than we’d come nowadays.

    And some, you know, is the look and feel of the old magazines — the covers, the paper, the ads, the letter columns …

    1. I know who you are Rich, I’ve been buying your annual SF/F anthologies. Any chance of them coming to Audible.com? I wish more contemporary and classic SF short stories were available on audio.

  10. Hi James,

    Great post. It made me think more deeply about my reading habits. As a millennial I feel almost the same way as you. To the extent that I can. My mother raised me on Bradbury, Clarke, and the like. She was always a big sci-fi fan. She passed that on to me, but because I don’t have emotional ties to those past eras I jump happily back and forth between the decades. Lately as I move towards the ripe old age of 30 I’ve been investing more in the classics. Books from what I consider The Golden Age. It has this quality to it that you don’t find much anymore.

    Plus it is amazing to see their future come true. Look at New Horizons. Look at Juno. Kepler. We are on the verge of exploring space. Truly exploring it. I know I will never go in space, but watching some of the building blocks come together so that one day people will be able to is exciting.

    Thank you for giving me a bunch of suggestions for reading material. This was afterall a honeypot. I can assure you that people of all ages are into this stuff.

    1. Back in the 1960s we never imagined the amazing wealth of knowledge we’d be getting from robotic probes in the future. We thought people needed to go. Compared to what we knew about the planets back then and what we know now, it’s just astounding. In many ways space astronomy has been much more thrilling than manned spaced exploration.

  11. I began reading Science Fiction in the 1950s. I started with the Winston SF series from my school’s libraries. Then I graduated to Andre Norton (who I later learned was a woman). About that time I discovered ACE Doubles and loved the 2-books-in-one concept. In the early 1960s I started buying and collecting SF magazines. Loved GALAXY! Part of the attraction of Science Fiction for me during those decades was the great cover artwork. EMSH, Powers, Wally Wood, Kelly Freas, and others enhanced SF books and magazines for a kid like me.

    1. I also loved the covers. Often the covers were better than the stories. I loved the Winston SF series because of their dust jackets. And I also loved the Ace Doubles. I loved short novels. The better to consume them faster. Here’s one of my favorite Winston covers.

      Rocket to Limbo

    1. Wow, that’s very cool. I’ve always liked hearing about what collectors did with their collections. I often fear their wives will just call Goodwill when they pass.

  12. Sadly, you’re correct. Many book collections probably end up in a landfill. But, I’ve made arrangements for my collection. My daughter has claimed my Agatha Christie collection. My son wants my Library of America volumes. And, I keep making yearly donations of books and magazines to SUNY at Buffalo. I fear most of the books you and I are looking for will pretty much disappear in the next five years. Ebooks are the choice of my students. More used bookstores go out of business. Libraries and private collections will be the only places where paperbacks and hardcovers will be preserved. Thanks for jogging my memory with that cover of ROCKET JOCKEY. You don’t see that on the covers of books today!

  13. Hi James

    I enjoyed your post and spent some time thinking about my comments. I see it was popular by the number of responses. I many be repeating what others have said but so be it. This sparked many ideas for me so I have had to scale this back. I am about 5 years younger than you and my childhood included many of the same cultural landmarks. There is a photo of me in a cowboy suit (blush) and weekly trips to my grandparents involved watching Rawhide and Wagontrain. There was a walking metal astronaut with a dolls head and light up ray gun and a Marx style Cape Canaveral set among my toys. I would add Bradbury to the list of authors you supplied and I was happy to see you mention Wyndham as the Ontario School system I attended actually published their own editions of his works complete with questions for students. While he is often dismissed today The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos were two of the darker and more memorable SF books I read as a youth. I don’t think I felt quite the same fervor you did for SF as religion I think by that time it was clear space exploration would not be a Heinlein/Rolling Stone style romp but a thing of politicians and corporations, but I could still dream. I do think nostalgia plays a part, when I began collecting I bought pulps I had only seen in books with wonderful covers by Frank Paul and Virgil Finlay, but I also bought the hardcover Heinlein juveniles and Andre Norton books I remembered from the school/public library. An example of the nostalgia factor is the cost of the Winston Juveniles, which I would not buy (see ABE) because of the price. They where not great prose even for the day, but they did have great covers so it is must be the book as object that is the attraction. As you have said the early pulp sf has dated badly, although I still read the mammoth Conklin anthologies of the 1940’s for stories like Morrison Colladay’s Planetoid of Doom with its curious swimming T-Rex, but modern SF authors are certainly better craftspeople than most of even the best of the early writers, the books are certainly longer. While I do not know the age of the contributors SF Mistressworks shows people are still reading and writing about Moore, Brackett, and Norton among others. A couple of years ago I took a box of SF duplicates and such to work intending to give them to another old duffer. A young coworker with no prompting, detecting my intent and convinced me to give it to her, the twenties are of course an age with no funds, helping fuel the SF habit delighted me. Of the Hogan, Bova, Jeter that I remember of the contents it was a copy of Foundation that she identified as a book she really wanted to read. I do think people still read the best of the 1940’s and 1950’s because it is entertaining and possibly because they want to know where the field came from. People still read the best of Wells, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds while most do not bother with the Food of the Gods, Asimov is robots, Bester is the first wiff of the New Wave, Clarke is religion and transcendence and in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, a great reference, SF author Ken Macleod in his section on politics says “The central political voice in genre sf is that of Robert A. Heinlein. To recognize this is not necessarily to agree with his views. Sociology has been described as a dialogue with Marx; the political strand in sf can be described as a dialogue with Heinlein. “ I do think people read older SF when it is good, the Science Fiction Hall of Fame contains many wonderful though perhaps dated stories and when asked what single book I would recommend to a new SF reader it is the one I point to. Reading Twilight, or Scanners Live in Vain, Microcosmic God or Surface Tension for the first time is time well spent.

    Thanks for this

  14. Well now, I guess I’m not the only one then…
    Similar age, similar path, similar arc except for the collecting part. Well, at least not collecting with intent; I just hate to part with books. Of course, I didn’t start with the SF masters of the ’50s and early ’60s. I started with comic books – first DC and eventually even Marvel. Then I started with adventure books that involved history, adventure and imagination. The local public library had plenty to read like the Freddy the Pig books by Brooks and stories of young adventurers in early America by Altsheler (or Altschuler – my memory isn’t certain). And then I discovered Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton. That began my career in optical damage. Yup, reading under the covers with a flashlight. The Gods of Optometry owe me big time. Galaxy, F&SF, Astounding/Analog also magically appeared and found their way into my dwindling funds from mowing lawns.

    As for all the complex thoughts and discussion of the meaning of all of this, well it sounds fine to me and important to an understanding of why those works of fiction caught our attention. But what I remember most is the ignition of my imagination, the 3D Cosmotronic visuals that occurred in my brain while I was reading all of that stuff.

    After all these years that sense of wonder isn’t gone yet. I still get the same thrill when I read a new Neil
    Asher, Scalzi, Mieville, Stross and others. But it IS in a different context. I’m not young, shiny and barely marked by the world anymore.

    But it is still fun.

    1. Now I’m starting to wonder just how many of us are out there. A lot of the SF fans much older than us started with science fiction comic strips in the newspapers featuring Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.

      1. Thanks James for the essay and your reviews of early SF. The links are so useful!

        Only remember Flash at the Saturday morning Flickers. My era was Dan Dare and Journey into Space on BBC in parallel with Astounding; Galaxy et-alia.
        I’m sort-of regressing somewhat. Stopped reading when family and electronic R&D work came along. Then taught that discipline until I got sacked for being too old! Somehow, my drive turned to screenplays, SF. That’s when my problem started.

        One screenplay is derived from a short that sticks with me. I have to find who wrote it and get permission to use the theme. Been all-over, even had some of the ‘Masters’ reply to no avail. Google finds ‘my’ posts, not the source required.

        History: circa 1955-60? Short Sci-Fi story. Don’t think it was in Playboy, it was in Astounding et-alia? (Searched Playboy Archives. Playboy never replied to my questions.)
        Theme: Man dies today; consciousness transfers to a Playman in the future; woman there makes Playman from recycled organs; Playman mentally creates food at factory; travels by a ‘rolling-road;’ a ‘goad’ used to punish Playman – it invokes pain if used; if displeased for any reason woman may recycle Playman; Playman sleeps in a ‘bed’ with a compartment at the end for recycle purposes; terms, ‘lovemake’ and ‘creation-space;’ Playmen are somewhat effeminate, hairless and physically identical.
        Ending: deliberately alluring. (When I was 15 y-o!)

        Will use links you cited in case someone remembers. Thanks again.

  15. LOL. Me Too.

    Psi stuff? The Rhine institute was doing serious research into the subject. The Soviets were rumoured to have a program. It offered a new “science” that could be extrapolated. Campbell liked the idea.

  16. Me. All sorts of reasons. Full disclosure: I was born in 1954 – and yet, that’s not really it. That’s not the reason I love 1950s science fiction. I read little science fiction until this century. So despite being born in the 50s, I missed the whole thing.

    I think it’s more to do with the fact that I enjoy history and love reading about the great personalities and the great magazines of that era. You are in a position to judge historical perspective and lasting influence. Also, there’s nostalgia, and what’s wrong with nostalgia?

    50s science fiction was imbued with hope and the sense that colonised planets, trade with Mars, interstellar travel and contact with aliens could actually happen. Today, none of these things are in sight, so I miss that wide-eyed era where we could dream about fantastic things.

    In contemporary science fiction, I occasionally find stuff I like, but quite often the science is just too hard for me (I’m a humanities guy).

    By the way, don’t get me started on the Golden Age. The Golden Age was 1939 – 1950, and it doesn’t shift according to your point of view. OF COURSE the Golden Age was not the period of the best science fiction. Far from it. In fact, every decade since has given us better writing, better stories and better books. But it was golden in memory, golden in significance, and it serves as a historical marker.

  17. I do! Heinlein’s my favorite. I have a big collections of pulps & digests like Analog, and read the Winston juveniles when I can find them, many others.

  18. All fiction reflects the age it was written and that age’s view of the future. As a kid that grew up in the ’50s watching Space Patrol, Tom Corbet Etc on the B&W snowy TV of the era, reading Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and all the SF I could get my hands on, little wonder that as I’ve watched SF “mature” and change over the decades I still prefer the rosy colored lenses of the ’50s SF. Why Not? After all, I’ve worked on the Apollo missions, (only to see the Congress Nix the whole thing) and built electronics for the space Shuttle (only to see the Space Station take Decades of red tape changes) and watched while our country has turned from Opposing Socialism to embracing it. You’re right. This wasn’t the future I signed up for! And I’m going to keep fighting for …or at least remembering… the one it should have been! TANSTAAFL.
    PS: anyone who thinks Heinlein was Misogynistic and Jingoistic only shows how much Political Correctness has ruined people’s ability to think about morals. Heinlien loved both America and women with the values of his times, “When men were Men and Women were damn glad of it!”

    1. I’m guessing you’re ten or more years older than man. Space Patrol came out in 1950. It’s something I read about, rather than experienced. I went looking at your website, Rogers Rocketships. You’ve certainly lived the life of 1950s science fiction, both in fiction and fact. Thanks for stopping by.

    2. You pretty much covered what I wanted to say. One thing I learned by studying history was not to judge the people of one Era by the current standards. I believe every child should be required to read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in school. Not because I think people of those times were right, but rather to help understand what those times were like.

      I strongly recommend a Yahoo group who are dedicated to preserving our pulp heritage. Pulpscans@yahoo.groups offers thousands of high quality scans of periodicals from the mid 19th century to within 10 to 15 years ago. Obviously nothing that is available commercially is allowed and if an author or their heirs request something be removed it is. Many of the scans at Archive.org, project Guttenberg, and other repositories on the Web came from these amazing people. Can not recommend them highly enough.

      1. I’ve been getting into pulpscans lately. Thanks for mentioning that. It’s great to have a blast from the past on my iPhone to read when I get an idle moment. I wonder if any of the pulp publishers or writers ever imagined their work would be read in the 21st century on a tiny handheld computer.

  19. I’m about your age, but am not quite so nostalgic.
    However, what I believe defined the times and the SF was a sense of optimism that we could overcome all setbacks and still hold the great visions intact – for example, space travel. The can-do will-do conquer-all attitude of a society that was going places and doing Big Things – not because they are easy but because they are difficult.
    Today, the zeitgeist is We Are All Doomed and the Human species is a trivial pestilence on the planet. Might as well shoot ourselves now and save Nature (the trouble).
    Today we have the reality of the failure of the West.
    In contrast, although I do not read much Chinese SF I do occasionally see Chinese movies. They are an up and coming can-do civilisation, just like we were.

    1. Dirk, even though we’re trashing this planet faster than we can fix it, I do believe there’s a certain percentage of the population that has the know-how to fix things. We’re living in interesting times. There’s always a percentage of people who are gung-ho about the future, and a percentage who live with their heads stuck in the sand, with the largest percentage who are just surviving the best they can. I’d like to believe humanity with get its shit together, stop destroying everything, and fix what we’ve broken. We have the knowledge, it’s a matter of doing what needs to be done.

      1. The people who are “getting their shit together” is China. Run by scientists and engineers, as compared to the West, run by lawyers and accountants.

        1. Dirk, China is experiencing a kind of dynamic surge at the moment, but I wouldn’t count the west out yet. Robotic space exploration is in an exciting phase right now. And I hope successes in China will push us to compete again. We never would have gone to the Moon if it hadn’t been for the cold war with Russia.

      2. The space race was a disaster. Fifty years later and the USA cannot even loft a person into space, let alone go to the moon. If there had not been a race it would have been done properly, as envisaged in 50s SF. Semi or fully re-usable spaceplane, space station, then moon landings. Quite possibly with nuclear propulsion to go on to Mars. So, we got to the moon in 1969 instead of 1999 – but it cost the world dear.

        1. Now that’s a take on things I’ve never seen before. I need to think about it. I got to see Apollo 8 launch. I would hate to give up that memory. Going to the Moon in one decade proved we could accomplish a lot more than just going to the Moon. We could have gone to Mars in the next decade – but we didn’t, and that proved something too. The colonization of space is just not a high priority for most humans. To people like us, it is, but for most, it’s not. We could solve the whole global warming problem by 2030 if we applied ourselves, but we won’t. As individuals, and as a species, we lack discipline. We have tremendous potential, but little follow-through. We are not rational superior beings, but rationalizing animals. We’re very cunning at getting what we crave, but not very savvy about doing what we need.

  20. JWH, we have the same initials! 🙂 Anyway, I’m 50 and prefer Sci-Fi from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. The current stuff is all-to-often PC and there’s nothing more annoying than having to ‘read’ about someone elses politics through their work (especially a liberal). Heinlein is my favorite and I didn’t start reading his works until about 10 years ago. I can’t believe what I almost missed out on!

    1. Jim, that’s why I stopped reading Heinlein’s stuff written after 1960. He spent too much time promoting his politics. That’s why I love his Scribner novels from the 1950s. They were about pioneering the space frontier.

  21. I do! I love the books you listed, and just recently re-read most of them. When thinking about why I enjoy it and still find it attractive to read even now? The first thing that popped into my head was the sense of adventure, wonder, and excitement that comes though. Modern SciFi seems to be a bit more serious and sprawling, with a lot less left to the imagination.

    1. Jeremy, last night I was listening to “The Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick. It’s a 1953 novella, and I was surprised by how short and effective his sentences were. PKD said just what was needed to visualize the story and move it alone dramatically. I love modern science fiction, but I often avoid modern SF books because of their length. I’m a rather wordy bastard myself. But I’m thinking one of the appeals of older SF is it got the job done with fewer words.

  22. Thank you for this most informative article. I appreciate you knowledge and reflections. I was born in 1955 and read some science fiction for juveniles particularly at ages 11-14. However, I don’t remember titles or authors, just that they were shorter than “real” books. I also read a number of Jules Verne novels, re-reading Journey to the Center of the Earth several times. Maybe that is why I do not remember the outer space stories so well! I was born in 1955 and as a child I learned various procedures to repel nuclear fallout and participated in many civil defense drills. In those times I felt that the science fiction emphasis on travel to other planets was logical since earth would be unsafe for human habitation after the certain nuclear war took place. In college a roommate introduced me to Dune and the Dragonriders of Pern. I did not read as much of those books as I might have since I was too busy reading my English major assignments. I am inspired by your blog to go back and take a look at those 50s classics and see how they resonate today.

    1. Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Mysterious Island were among the first science fiction books I read. Be sure and let me know what happens with your re-exploration of old science fiction.

  23. In the early 1960’s I was a student volunteer in my junior high school library (we didn’t have “media centers” then) so I could be around when the new books came in. Ray Bradbury was my absolute favorite and I would eagerly grab the delivery boxes and scan the packing lists, which were in alphabetical order by last name (first names were not included). Imagine my gut-wrenching disappointment when after seeing that a new Bradbury was included in the shipment, it turned out more often than not to be FRANCES Bradbury, some dopey romance YA author.

    1. Thanks for reminding me. I wanted to go buy The Illustrated Man at the sale at Audible that ends tonight. I reread The Martian Chronicles not long ago and it still holds up great!

  24. I was 12 in 1957 so I was reading much the same a you. Remember the Ace doubles?
    Some stores age better than others. City and the Stars is still good. I was just rereading some H. Beam Piper from the 50s and the smoking was jarring along with on the buttons and dials on the machines. Poul Anderson provides a sense of wonder and grandeur that I can think any one matching.

    1. I loved the Ace doubles. I’ve gotten a few in recent years. Unfortunately, they’re very fragile now. My favorite was Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany. Another great one was Space Chanty by R. A. Lafferty.

  25. A very good piece. I’d like to add my point of view. I’m 39, so I was born years after the Golden Age. I always had a deep fascination with all things firing up imagination and I became an avid reader of fantasy, sci-fi and comic books (and then much more) since the age of 9 or 10, starting with First Men On The Moon (Wells) and The Martian Chronicles (Bradbury). Why is Golden Age SF so good? For me, it’s not a nostalgic thing at all: it’s good just because it is so. Well written, well exectued, full of imagination and grit – I’m especially fond of Robert Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, Alfred Bester. Those three are writers who came up with ideas AND literary skill, and of course their novels reflect the times they were written in, but that’s true for every novel ever written. Some like to point out that those novels imagine what people of the time’s thoughts on future, and things then went differently – a pointless argument in my opinion, because I don’t read a novel to have a catalogue of gadgets from the future. Gadgets may come and go, the way the writer imagines how these gadget, and in the end change (of social, technological, scientific), impacts human life, is still immensely powerful and trascends the time the book was written in, again. You mention one of my favorite books ever, “Oprhans Of The Sky”: simple, perfectly executed and written, fast paced, short and yet so rich of intuitions and concepts… that’s brilliance incarnated.
    I hope I didn’t make a mess of a comment – english is not my first language! 🙂

  26. I was a teenager during the turn of the century and 12 or so sounds about right for when I started reading science fiction. However, it was one genre among others. The only newish books I was reading were action adventures by Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy and Wilbur Smith. Aside from those there was every single Hardy Boy novel in the public library system, along with a sizable collection of Nancy Drew books when the Hardy Boy ones were on order. Every Phantom comic available in the secondhand bookstores cycled its way through my hands and was redeemed for credit. Every single one of those flimsy stapled westerns in the public library. Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome, Biggles and Tarzan. Lots of other things.

    I never went really hungry as a child, but books were a luxury for the home (Phantoms were shared, and could be redeemed for half credit), so they all came from the public library and the public library had thousands of books from what I thought of as the olden times before my father was even born. It is these books that took over from everything else and when I finally had money, it was science fiction that I brought. The first collection I created was every single novel and short story collection by Heinlein made up of $3 and $4 ratty paperbacks generally published between the 60s and 70s, aside from obviously, the later novels.

    New books were never really on the shelves to be seen, there wasn’t the internet for me to use to find out about newer books. I couldn’t afford a science fiction magazine of any sort and I had no friends that read books. I read by what was on the shelf, choosing by cover and sometimes blurb.

    But there were old science fiction and fantasy encycopedias, illustrated encyclopedias, reading guides and books of science fiction art in the library. There were also anthologies and omnibuses. Most of them were from the 70s. From these I learnt about the Grand Masters, The Deans, The Hugo Winners and the Fan Favourites.
    Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov. Bradbury and Bester. Pohl and Norton. van Vogt and Wyndham. Blish and Aldiss. Clement and Stapledon.

    And for me, to be read again and again. Phillip K. Dick. (Along with Heinlein of course)

    I didn’t know until I had access to the internet that not every science fiction fan had actually read everything by these authors, or even their major works. Let alone several dozens of anthologies and many of the other active authors from this period. Some of them said they never would. Some said they didn’t like them – with flimsy reasoning. Everything I read, even now, is filtered through them.

    I’m barely 30, this might be old to some and barely an adult to others. To me the 50s were never archaic. They were real, and the characters of the fiction of the time, despite the protests of critics were as real as the people around me.

    Science fiction without the 50s is meaningless. Everything since has been in response, and it still looms over everything, casting long shadows and filling the mind’s eye.

    I don’t know what the point of this long winded response it. But I felt I needed to say something like this.

    Some of us are relatively young, but through some chance or necessity our reading started not in modern times, but in far distant times. Since then, instead of reading forward and back from the contemporary era where we started reading, we are reading forward and back from an era of the past, much as if we lived in that era. Even to us, the fiction of the early 20th Century sets the grade that newer works must meet and they are often found wanting.

    (Even in general fiction – I had picked up a $2 hardback of collected short stories from Esquire Magazine, Printed 1959. Realised that the names on the cover weren’t long gone famous literary figures, but living authors, perhaps new and unknown to those who bought the book new. Was going to give away with other books when trying to clear some space, decided to read some first. Realised that these authors were considered the best of the mid-century because they actually were great to read.)

    I know that you feel that modern works are of higher quality. I have to disagree. In literary terms, in imagination, in creativity and in boldness, the past is barely equaled, let alone surpassed.

    You put at the end of your article that perhaps leaving behind some of the olden times and moving on is the answer. You might feel like you have less time, need to keep up or just can’t appreciate some of the older things.
    Don’t worry about it. Reach your reading further back, A. Merritt, Burroughs, Howard, C. A. Smith, Lovecraft. Lord Dunsany, “Doc” Smith. The Nightland (My Wife is reading this atm), Gormenghast, The Worm Ouroboros.

    Stretch back even further. It’s where they keep the real potent stuff.

    1. Robert, thanks for taking the time to tell your story. I don’t get to hear that many from younger people. And I’m sure other older readers coming to this essay will find it interested too. Your modern experience is much like my older experience. I read everything. Science fiction was just one genre of many that I pursued. But for some reason, it was the one that became the most important.

      By the way, I’m currently listening to volume 2 of the collected short stories of Philip K. Dick, and I’m amazed at how well they hold up.

  27. Hi,

    I came here through “Black Gate” and would like to say: GREAT!!!!!! Someone, taking the effort writing about the SF period I like thee most. I have not read it yet but this is what I like to find on the web! Good essays about (to me) the golden age of SF but also horror from before 1970, especially short stories. Some of my favorite SF writers: Heinlein, Wyndham, Harrison, Laumer, Matheson…. Anyway I am now going to enjoy your essay. Thanks!

      1. I think you really unlocked a memory vault for a lot of people – strength to your arm, and let’s see some more of this sort of thing! I took a look at my ~4 metres of up-to-1970 paperback SF the other day, and thought “Should I toss it?”. And then took some down and looked at the covers, and remembered when I’d read them (or how many times), and thought – nah.

        So the new stuff will just have to find another bookcase. Somewhere B-)

  28. First, I’d like to say I’ve followed your articles since I saw you on Signal SF and I’ve really enjoyed a number of them. You have really lent some insight to much of classic SF literature, for me.

    I am 37 and have been reading SF on and off since I was a kid. Most of the time I’ve been “off” is because I was working through undergrad and graduate school. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really come back around to SF in a big way and have no intention of going “off” again. My Uncle is the one who really got me into SF in the first place and, more specifically, classic SF. I’m pretty thankful for this because it really gives a lot of context and perspective for the recent SF I also enjoy. All of this being said, I’m also a student of literature (BA in English). So maybe that adds to my love and understanding of older literature.

    While many of the specifics in classic SF are out of date (no internet!! What!?), I don’t think many of the big ideas are. Take Childhood’s End, for example. The evolution of human beings is still a real concern. Consider the Transhumanist movement or, perhaps less dramatic, the recent research around continued human evolution. So maybe we won’t become “psychic” in the classic sense, but “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and if that technology is part of your body, who’s to say that isn’t a rapid form of evolution. Who’s to say this won’t happen in a generation as in Childhood’s End? So, I think value remains in these big ideas that newer SF has built on.

    I have to disagree that “the Golden Age of science fiction is 12”. In my experience, SF is popular with anyone who is willing to be imaginative, perhaps for many people that peaks around the age of 12. If so, I feel sorry for them. A friend of mine, a literature prof., recently told me SF is the only thing he can read anymore. It is the only genre that consistently generates new and interesting ideas. I know that is only one person, but I have several other friends of about the same age that have become SF fans later in life for similar reasons.

    Ultimately, the increasing popularity of SF (mostly via movies and TV) will increase the readership of the classics and will continue to increase as SF becomes more and more culturally and historically relevant. For one last example, this has become especially evident to me in the last few weeks as a fellow educator and I are proposing a course on Mars SF and Science to a major university and, so far, have had strong positive feedback from students and administrators who have initially vetted our idea. Though the course may not be through all the official hoops for months yet, we are trying hard to bolster to prove the relevance of all SF. Speaking of which, if you (or anyone) have any good suggestions for Mars based short stories we would appreciate the help (any period of SF, but especially from the 50s until now, except Martian Chronicles which is already being considered). 
    Anyway, thanks for the interesting articles.

  29. First, I’d like to say I’ve followed your articles since I saw you on Signal SF and I’ve really enjoyed a number of them. You have really lent some insight to much of classic SF literature, for me.

    I am 37 and have been reading SF on and off since I was a kid. Most of the time I’ve been “off” is because I was working through undergrad and graduate school. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really come back around to SF in a big way and have no intention of going “off” again. My Uncle is the one who really got me into SF in the first place and, more specifically, classic SF. I’m pretty thankful for this because it really gives a lot of context and perspective for the recent SF I also enjoy. All of this being said, I’m also a student of literature (BA in English). So maybe that adds to my love and understanding of older literature.

    While many of the specifics in classic SF are out of date (no internet!! What!?), I don’t think many of the big ideas are. Take Childhood’s End, for example. The evolution of human beings is still a real concern. Consider the Transhumanist movement or, perhaps less dramatic, the recent research around continued human evolution. So maybe we won’t become “psychic” in the classic sense, but “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and if that technology is part of your body, who’s to say that isn’t a rapid form of evolution. Who’s to say this won’t happen in a generation as in Childhood’s End? So, I think value remains in these big ideas that newer SF has built on.

    I have to disagree that “the Golden Age of science fiction is 12”. In my experience, SF is popular with anyone who is willing to be imaginative, perhaps for many people that peaks around the age of 12. If so, I feel sorry for them. A friend of mine, a literature prof., recently told me SF is the only thing he can read anymore. It is the only genre that consistently generates new and interesting ideas. I know that is only one person, but I have several other friends of about the same age that have become SF fans later in life for similar reasons.

    Ultimately, the increasing popularity of SF (mostly via movies and TV) will increase the readership of the classics and will continue to increase as SF becomes more and more culturally and historically relevant. For one last example, this has become especially evident to me in the last few weeks as a fellow educator and I are proposing a course on Mars SF and Science to a major university and, so far, have had strong positive feedback from students and administrators who have initially vetted our idea. Though the course may not be through all the official hoops for months yet, we are trying hard to bolster to prove the relevance of all SF. Speaking of which, if you (or anyone) have any good suggestions for Mars based short stories we would appreciate the help (any period of SF, but especially from the 50s until now, except Martian Chronicles which is already being considered). 

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting articles.

    1. I appreciate your comment. A lot of times I write essays and get no feedback. This one has gotten tons. I guess I hit a nerve with a lot of people.

      Regarding the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12. That just means that most people discover SF at 12, and the memory of that sticks with them. I have met other folks that didn’t get into SF until later. Sometimes I think it helps to be a bit naive when first reading science fiction. You don’t want to be too cynical. You want to be completely open to the possibilities. As we get older and more knowledgeable, we read with a greater critical eye.

      My sense of wonder was at its peak when I was twelve. I still feel I have a great sense of wonder, but it’s not like it was. When I was young I had so much hope for the future. Now I worry about the future. I worry that kids growing up today have a burdensome future hanging over their heads. But I’m not sure if they see that. It might be my hang-up because I know more about what’s going wrong than they do.

      I know of lots of novels about Mars, but I’m going to have to think hard about short stories. When you get the course going, be sure and let me know about your syllabus. I just found this at Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_in_fiction – an amazing list. Plus Dozois & George R. R. Martin recently had an anthology called Old Mars.

      1. I can understand what you mean about reading more cynically, I think that happens naturally, and maybe SF has grown up, in a way, since the 50s.

        Having young children, I’m definitely concerned for their future. Things do appear to be grim, but I maintain hope. What else can you do? Maybe Elon Musk will save us.

        Right now course the reading list is: Princess of Mars, Martian Chronicles (selected chapters), Packing for Mars (non-fiction), Red Mars, and The Martian. The novel I’m most unsure about is Red Mars because I’m least familiar with that time period in space oriented SF (the time period we want to represent is post-Mars Fly-by, pre-millennium) and the novel is rather lengthy. Maybe we will just do a bunch of shorts instead of Red Mars.

        Regarding the Old Mars Anthology, I was under the impression that was all newer material. Is that accurate?

        I’ll definitely send you a copy of the syllabus if the course gets approved. We are at the beginning of the process and have a long road ahead. Wish us luck.

        1. You might also consider Man Plus & Mars Plus by Pohl, about a human being adapted to live on Mars. Also Moving Mars by Greg Bear. Also, since you have Packing for Mars, you might want to include The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin and Mission to Mars by Buzz Aldrin. Both of these books offer insightful ways to get to Mars that I think have influenced recent science fiction.

      2. I suggest Farewell, Earth’s Bliss (1966) — my fav Mars novel and utterly different than all the ones listed by James. To quote my review: “Farewell, Earth’s Bliss is best described as a character study of a group of convicts sent to Mars and their attempts to integrate into an incredibly repressive and conservative society (derived in part to to the extreme dangers of the Martian environment) — in short, a piece of race and religion themed social science fiction. Be warned, there is little to no action. As with most of Compton’s works, near future environments are the perfect vehicle for societal ruminations by means of a variegated cast of characters. ”


      3. James, we have the second draft of the syllabus completed and we are about half-way through approvals. It’s pretty close to what it will be when/if the course is taught. How can I send the syllabus to you?

      4. One absolutely classic piece on Mars was an “Out of the Unknown” episode on BBC TV back in the 1960s: these were self-contained 1-hr episodes – a lot like The Outer Limits, but British – and often written by established SF authors. This opened with a little boat put-putting along a canal on Mars, with an asteroid belt overhead composed of what USED to be Earth. Very powerful.

    2. For the course you might want to consider ‘Better than we know’, William F. Temple, 1955. It’s a very short story, but a touching one, about how our meanest efforts might mean a lot more than we know. It is related to Mars, but in a different way than most stories you might find.

  30. One more thing: the attitude, back then, was “hey, we’re in deep trouble – let’s find a solution”. Trying to actively resolve a situation, in the end, is more difficult than the dystopian “hey, we’re in deep trouble and we’re gonna die miserably”, and also more exciting. Some would say it’s superficial, but I don’t believe it at all. Surprisely not, one of the greatest living writers, Neal Stephenson, is of the same advice.

  31. 12? so 1956-ish. That’d be close, or maybe it was a bit earlier, what with the BBC being a lot more friendly towards SF in the Fifties than many would expect…. ‘Day of the Triffids’ and ‘Journey into Space’ as radio serials and the Quatermass trilogy and ‘1984’ on TV. Plus Radio Luxemburg giving a nightly quarter-hour slot to ‘Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future’.

    Available books were mostly by home-grown authors, American books/magazines being hard to come by. Still, that meant John Wyndham in all his manifestations (favourite: ‘The Kraken Wakes’); Arthur Clarke (favourite character: Harry Purvis); Eric Frank Russell; A. Bertram Chandler (an Aussie, but we sort of adopted him), plus lots more that kept me going until the publishers became a bit more sensible in the 70s.

    I’d estimate that between 25% – 35% of my books are pre-70 titles and they do get re-read regularly. In fact…… it’s difficult to admit, but while I still buy new SF, a significant number of them don’t get finished. They get put down and never picked up again. Somehow they don’t give me the pleasure or entertainment that many older vols do. SF has changed, it always has changed, probably always will change, but much of the newer stuff isn’t to my taste. Not all, by any means, but a much higher proportion than before. Still, gives me an excuse to scour the charity and second-hand shops for unregarded gems.

  32. Wonderful comments here. I was born in 1946, have a big collection, read a very few current books, but find such works as the Heinlein juveniles and numerous others still hold up well. Although the cliché, “The Golden Age of science fiction is 12,” I still find works that give me a strong sense of wonder and awe (for example, “Rescue Party,” a short story by Clarke).

    Sure, older works are a product of their times (there’s apparently only one black character in Heinlein’s DOUBLE STAR), but you have to make allowances for that. Otherwise, we’d just sit around and mock *ALL* older works, like Mystery Science Theater 3000 did. Using cutting remarks, they ran down all older movies.

    I can see that happening with, say, “Forbidden Planet,” or “Casablanca,” or current attempts to say that Isaac Asimov had a horrible attitude toward women, so we should read none of his works. Foolish, irrational, just plain dumb.

  33. What a great in depth article.
    Im not that clued on sci fi but always love it when i read it and great to find some recommendations.
    PKD and Do Androids…? Is my current favourite and planning to read Asimov soon, maybe some more Bradbury.
    It always amazes me how fresh some of the writing is from the 20th century by American authors, although like you say in the sci fi genre it suffers due to progress.

  34. Terrific article!
    I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s and much of the SF I was exposed to was from copies of Galaxy, Astounding and IF from the 1950’s. I was hooked, swept up in the potential of humans expanding into space and what oddities we might encounter there. The wonderful thing about the era was that writers were largely unfettered by the mountains of scientific data that modern writers must incorporate. That may sound a little strange, since by definition, SF ought to be grounded in hard science, but I’ve always found the best SF is not about science, but about humanity, our place in the cosmos, and how confronting the improbable brings out hidden aspects in ourselves. I stopped reading SF in the 80’s, probably because the newer stuff seemed to be more about the science and less about the characters and the underlying themes. The stories out of the 50’s and 60’s may have been short on scientific realities, but the best of it always had something to say that was relevant. Ray Bradbury had no concept of the realities of what Mars was like, but his tales of the Red Planet are unforgettable. Of course, DUNE shines out as a masterpiece of humanistic SF, but I really rediscovered the virtues of older SF in the 90’s, via Henry Kuttner’s FURY (Astounding May 1947, as Lawrence Padgett, and co-authored by his wife, Catherine Moore). The art on the cover intrigued me, and having read that Kuttner had been something of a mentor to Bradbury, I was eager to read more of his work. That book is a forgotten gem from an author who, IMHO, would have been remembered as another Heinlein had he not died so tragically young.
    My love for the SF of the 50’s only increased when I discovered radio dramas from the era (X MINUS ONE, EXPLORING TOMORROW, DIMENSION X, 2000 PLUS, etc) and for a number of years I ran a website devoted to them (www.otrplotspot.com), doing my small part to spread the word that these old shows warranted a revival of interest – classic stories like Bradbury’s Mars is Heaven, Asimov’s Nightfall, James Blish’s Surface Tension, lifted off the page to come alive in the mind’s eye.
    It is gratifying to see that those shows have indeed found an audience on the internet in the 21st century. Let’s hope they can help people look a little more closely at more fiction from the era.
    Keep up the good fight!

      1. Yes, that’s the one! (got my pseudonyms mixed up, I see – Lewis Padgett and Lawrence O’Donnell were his most common ones).The Earth destroyed, Mankind has retreated to a stagnant existence in hive-like Keeps under the seas of Venus, and it is up to a misanthrope cheated out of his genetic inheritance to kickstart the race back into growing again. The book is available through Amazon. My copy is the hardcover reprint from Easton Press’ ‘Masterpieces of Science Fiction’ series, with an introduction by James Gunn. It’s $100 now, but there are paperbacks for a couple dollars available.
        I handed the website over to another Old Time Radio fan, who has faithfully kept it running for years.

        I only discovered your site today, and wanted to respond while the thread was fresh. I’m looking forward to diving in more deeply.

  35. Sci-fi from the fifties never gets old…Fhr 451 still one of my favourites…the list goes on…also the whole point of much of the stories is satire on current society (1950ish) and to tell tales that regular fiction would never consider to publish…The Martian Chronicles are timeless…my favourite sc-fi travels start back to H.G Wells and Jules Verne then on to the brilliant scripts written by Terry Nation for the Doctor back in the sixties….also on a side note: a lot of the folks who follow forever the adventures of 221-B Baker Street also LUV Science-Fiction….

  36. I was born in 1984 and I prefer classic science fiction myself although I never paid much attention to the publishing dates. I think one of the reasons I like the classics so much is the absence of gratuitous sexuality (which, for me, is a breath of fresh air) and the sense of wonder and optimism. I’m rereading “Fahrenheit 451” and I feel it’s more relevant now than it was in 1953, it was like Bradbury was predicting the present. I don’t recall reading any novels from the ’50s but I’ve read some very memorable novellas and short stories from the 30s and 40s like Harry Bate’s “Farewell to the Master” (which became the inspiration for “The Day The Earth Stood Still” – still hands down the best SF movie ever made) and “Shambleau” by C.L. Moore. From time to time, I like to listen to the ’50s radio show “X – Minus One”.

    1. Marshall, you are old before you times. I just reread “Shambleau.” I’ve been thinking about rereading Fahrenheit 451. I don’t care much for sex in stories anymore either. Sex always seems silly when described in words.

      1. Also, whenever I’m in a second-hand bookstore and I’m in the SF section and I see all the old pulp artwork, I get a warm and fuzzy feeling inside.

      2. If you have read 451 already, I would recommend reading the original novella ‘The Fireman’ published in Galaxy, February 1951. I think it is much better than the novel as well as having a slightly different focus.

  37. Oddly I encountered someone yesterday who said they had not read new book within the last 30 years 30 (30!) that did not disappoint. It was pretty sad really. I wrote a bit about at my John Carter site http://www.barsoomia.org. Despite ERB being even more old school than the 50’s my readers don’t seem to have such an affliction.

    1. I hear that sentiment too. I can’t believe it’s all nostalgia. I’ve read countless great new books, but I have to admit, most of the ones I loved most have been nonfiction.

  38. Curious. Of Zelazny, Dick and Delany, all of whom I’ve met at conventions (up w Delany drinking in Iquanacon con suite 1 night until 5am,) he’s the only one was sure is gay. Which of the other other 2 is, because I can’t see it…..

  39. I’m 47 and started reading science fiction when I was 9 or 10 years old. I loved the Heinlein juveniles when I was growing up and have reread them a number of times over the past few decades. I have also enjoyed many other books from that era and after by a variety of authors. I have visited many library book sales over the years and have acquired plenty of older science fiction hardcovers that were withdrawn from circulation.

    A few years ago, I made it a project to read or reread every novel and short story that Heinlein ever wrote. This got me to read his later work which I had never got around to reading and I enjoyed most of those books, though still much prefer his 1950s/1960s works. Asimov is another that has long been a favorite.

    I recently discovered the Winston Science Fiction series that I had somehow been unaware of previously. I own and had read a few books in the series, but didn’t know that they were part of a series. Through interlibrary loan and ebooks, I am now working my way through the books that previously had been unknown to me. It has been a lot of fun reading them.

    I’m sure that there are other 1950s science fiction novels that I will discover and enjoy in the course of time.

  40. Considering the release of Black Panther what is the significance of SF in the 50s and since then? Consider Star Surgeon by Alan E. Nourse and Black Man’s Burden by Mack Reynolds. Non-palefaces hardly existed b4 1960 in SF.

    Europeans are the invading aliens. LOL

  41. Holy crap! This is one of the most fascinating posts I’ve read on WordPress. Well done, James! That said, I do have some of my own thoughts. Let’s see if I can express them as eloquently as you.

    I was born in 1982 and I love 1950s science fiction. The first 1950s science fiction book I read was Fahrenheit 451 when I was in high school. That book would forever change me. It instilled in me a deeper love of reading than I thought possible. The next book I read was his Martian Chronicles, and again I loved it. Was it dated in areas? Sure. We can’t breathe on Mars. But the humanity behind the book was absolutely profound. Bradbury was always a master of writing about humanity and issues that touched the human heart. That’s not to say all of his scientific or technological ideas were dated. One only needs to read Fahrenheit 451 to see that people wore shells in their ears (blue tooths or headphones), and were swamped with interactive programs (certain video games very much fit this bill). Further his ideas on censorship and the banning of different ideas and a culture that values ignorance is I think even truer today that it even was in the 90s when I was growing up as a teenager and a youth.

    Of course, there was even harder science fiction written in the 1950s. Arthur C. Clark and Isac Asimov were two hard science fiction writers. The Foundation works of Asimov are still a masterpiece of literature and I can’t put down any short story written by Clark. Here’s the thing. Though the 50s had its share of goofy science fiction (one can watch Teenagers from Outer Space on MST3K to see what I mean) it also was a time of a lot of hard science fiction. In fact, I would go as far to say that it was a transformation of science fiction into something more serious than that from the 30s and 40s, but correct me if I’m wrong. I feel like the science fiction of today, which I also read, has its roots in the more serious science fiction of the 1950s.

    This brings up another point. I believe that there is a reason that 1950s literature, in general, and not just science fiction of the time, is still very popular. I see the 50s, and the 60s for that matter, as a literary renaissance. I believe that today’s literature owes a great debt to the literature and its writers of the 50s and 60s. Forget the music of that time period or the movies for a moment, look at how the literature of that time period has influenced the literature of today. That’s a topic for another day, though, and I think I’ll explore that on my blog.

    1. Jonathan, you’re helping me answer one of the questions I keep asking myself: Will younger readers like older science fiction? I tend to think there is a window of time in which young readers discover science fiction. They start with current, or near current science fiction because it speaks to their generation, and then they keep up with the science fiction that’s coming out until they get to a certain age, and finally, they will look back on their youthful reading as being the classic era.

      I think the majority of a generation cohort won’t read too far back in time before their era. You may be an exception. You are 31 years younger than me, but still older than the youngest SF fans now. I would have guessed you’d be fond of the 1970s and 1980s SF and see the 1990s SF in the same way I saw 1960s science fiction. But you have jumped back further in time.

      There is a wonderful site, http://youngpeoplereadoldsff.com/ – where young people read old SF and comment on it. These young critics are harsh. That’s the closest I’ve found in my quest to understand how young readers see older science fiction. I’m not sure it’s typical because your comments suggest there are readers who can read outside their generation.

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