Baby Boomer Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 17, 2017

For a small group of aficionados of old black and white movies, there’s a tiny sub-genre called “Pre-Code Hollywood” that has a passionate following. I’m fond of a certain era of science fiction which I’m currently calling Baby Boomer Science Fiction. I feel it’s slowly being recognized as a distinct sub-genre, but it doesn’t have a name yet. I’m guessing it has about as many fans as Pre-Code Hollywood.

I got hooked on science fiction in the 1950s by watching old science fiction movies on television. I found books to read with similar themes in 1962. Then in 1964, I discovered there was a genre called science fiction. I began pursuing it with a passion. At the time, science fiction was a lonely, but exciting love. It wasn’t until 1967 that I found a friend who read science fiction. I discovered fandom in 1971, thinking I had finally found my tribe. And that’s when I first met women who read science fiction. In 1977 I met my wife and went to work at my last job. My wife had read Dune and loved J. R. R. Tolkien, but wasn’t a fan. Except for couple close friends, science fiction became mostly a solitary pursuit again.

IF - Jan53

In 2002 I joined Audible.com. I discovered I loved listening to the old science fiction I first read during 1962-1975. Because of the internet, I found other people like myself who were nostalgic for science fiction from the 1950s and 1960s. I joined a small online book club at Yahoo Groups, Classic Science Fiction about ten years ago, where many of the members remembered reading the same kind of science fiction I did when they were growing up.

And there were several women in the group. Back in the 1960s, I didn’t think women read science fiction. I used to pray my atheist prayers for a girlfriend who read science fiction. I now realize there were male and female science fiction fans all around me in school and I never knew it.

I figure all across the country there are folks my age, and a few from younger generations, who love a particular kind of science fiction. It’s science fiction that was mostly published in the 1950s and 1960s, but some from the 1970s. I’ve decided to call stories of this kind, Baby Boomer Science Fiction (BB-SF). It’s not a great name like the Lost Generation or the Beats, but it’s a useful enough tag.

There are two ways to explain my label. First, people might think of baby boomers who wrote science fiction, but that’s not where I’m going, although that could be another essay. No, I categorizing these stories by the science fiction old baby boomers are nostalgic for now. I’m wondering if every generation has science fiction fans who love a particular kind of science fiction. Growing up I met older guys who gushed about the science fiction from the 1920s and 1930s, but I found their science fiction distinctively different, even quaint and dated. I wonder if young readers today find my science fiction on the moldy side?

There are no official names or dates for generations, but I like those defined in “The Six Living Generations In America.” Other sources give other date ranges. Wikipedia has even different date ranges and names. I bet there’s science fiction sub-genre for every one of these generations.

  • The Lost Generation (1883-1900)
  • GI Generation/Greatest Generation (1901-1926) (1901-1924)
  • The Silent Generation (1927-1945) (1925-1941)
  • Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
  • Generation X (1965-1980) (1965-1976)
  • Millennials (1981-2000) (1977-1995)
  • Generation Z/Boomlets/Centennials/iGen (2001- ) (1996- )

It has been said that The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12. (Before that I heard 1939-1949.) For my purposes, I’m looking at baby boomers who turned twelve during 1958-1976 and got hooked on science fiction. I turned twelve three days after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. 1958-1976 roughly coincides with Sputnik (1957) to Apollo 11 (1969), which also happens to be my 1st-12th-grade years. So Sci-Fi Baby Boomers grew up with NASA and science fiction.

Even is we discount space travel and science fiction, those years were far out times, with memorable concurrent influences that felt just as radical as science fiction, such as classic rock, the Civil Rights movement, second wave feminism, the early Gay Liberation movement, the beginning of the computer age, and the Beats/Hippies/New Age counter-cultures. Really, a lot more. The 1960s would have been science fictional if written in a novel in the 1950s.

On the internet, the kind of “classic science fiction” I’m talking about has almost become a tiny meme. I frequently stumble across websites devoted to BB-SF, but without any consistent label. I used to call it 1950s & 1960s science fiction, but once I applied the Baby Boomer generation label, I realized it stretched a few years earlier and later. I thought of calling it Space Race Science Fiction because its fans grew up with Sputnik, Project Mercury, Project Gemini and Project Apollo. It was also the science fiction that was siblings to rock music, but “Rock and Roll Sci-Fi” doesn’t work. The earlier era of science fiction centered around pulp magazines and the heart of this era’s science fiction were the digest SF magazines. “Digest SF” doesn’t work either. So I’m going with Baby Boomer Science Fiction.

Even though all the members of my science fiction book club have decidedly different personalities, we tend to prefer science fiction published in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. We all dabble in newer SF, but with no consistent preferences showing up for later SF. You can see the club’s reading history here. Nor do we all share the same favorite novels from the Baby Boomer era.

What we do share is a wistful fondness for the Baby Boomer Science Fiction we grew up reading and watching. In that era, Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were considered The Big Three of SF. Those guys were from the GI Generation. From the Silent Generation, we got Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, and Samuel R. Delaney. Those writers felt young, fresh, daring, and revolutionary when we first read their stories in the digests.

The BB-SF I’m talking about, the stuff we’re nostalgic for, was first discovered by Baby Boomers in four stages. Old books in libraries, cheap paperbacks, the Science Fiction Book Club, and the science fiction digest magazines.

Hardbacks

Before 1950 there was little science fiction published in hardback. Starting in the late 1940s a few small presses began publishing hardback SF which turned into a boom in the 1950s. These were the old books baby boomers discovered in libraries in the sixties that define science fiction for them for the rest of their lives.

Links are to sources where you can see titles and covers, and hopefully, trigger your nostalgia. The main publishers I remember were:

Paperbacks

Almost concurrent with the hardback boom, was a boom in paperback science fiction. Great reads could be bought with lunch money. I remember living in small towns in the 1960s, with a wire rack in a drugstore my only source of science fiction. Many baby boomers love to collect these paperbacks today. Others nostalgically remember their covers. The main publishers I remember were:

Science Fiction Book Club

The Science Fiction Book Club began in 1953. I joined it in 1967. That’s when I started reading new SF books the year they came out. The SFBC editions were not as well made as the publisher’s editions, but they still felt like owning a hardback. Looking at their publications schedules (Doubleday, Putnam) is a trip down memory lane, and probably a fairly accurate key to when I first read many BB-SF books.

I don’t think most fans of BB-SF books today were members of the SFBC. I don’t often read nostalgic blog essays about being in the club. I think most people who love BB-SF do so because of the books they found in libraries or the paperbacks they bought.

Digest Magazines

I discovered the digest magazines around 1965 and immediately began searching for back issues in used bookstores. I think very few BB-SF readers today got into the digests. They’ve never had a huge circulation, although for a while Publishers Clearing House pushed Analog, and I believe Asimov’s to over 100,000. I think their current circulations run 10-23k. If the digests even had that circulation in the 1960s, then the current population who might be nostalgic for BB-SF could potentially be around that size. I tend to think it’s in the hundreds, not thousands. But I’m not sure.

Another indicator of interest is websites devoted to pulp scans. IF Magazine was recently reprinted on Internet Archives. The most popular issues have had a few thousand people look at them.

I believe the definitive digest SF magazines for Baby Boomers were:

There were dozens of other titles, but most were short-lived. I subscribed to all of these at different times. Letters in Ted White’s Amazing got me into fandom. I collected F&SF, which was my favorite. I enjoyed Galaxy and IF a lot more than Analog.

Are You a Fan of BB-SF?

I believe younger science fiction readers prefer newer books. Science fiction should be cutting edge and old science fiction often feels dated, and sadly, alarmingly sexist. But science fiction from the Baby Boomer years does feel original in a way modern science fiction can’t. That’s because contemporary science fiction often feels like rewritten BB-SF. Newer SF stories are often better told, longer, and sometimes feel Baroque with details. At the online book club, many agree that we loved science fiction novels when they were around 200 pages long, and new science fiction runs several times that length, and usually the books are part of an endless series.

Plus with newer books, you seldom see little gems of weird speculation like Brainwave by Poul Anderson,  The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd, Space Chantey by R. A. Lafferty,  or Mindswap by Robert Sheckley.

Here are the books I remember:

p.s.

If you got a better name, propose it in the comments.

p.s.s.

I wanted to use this photo from Getty Images, but it costs money. But isn’t it perfect?

JWH

30 thoughts on “Baby Boomer Science Fiction”

  1. No baby boomer here — but you already know that! (The historian in my + a fascination with the social movements of the period + the space race + structural and conceptual experimentation + soft science = the reason I like SF from that era, especially the 60s/70s)

  2. Years ago, I thought up a historical scheme for a “reading science fiction through history” program I had in mind (nothing came of it). It’s reproduced below.

    But in answer to your facebook questions: Yes, and yes. My main problem is that I’m not scientifically inclined, so there’s a lot of SF in which I can’t really follow the concepts or technology any more.

    For me, the sweet spot in history is 1951 to 1980, just like you.

    *********************************************************************************

    Historical Periods of Science Fiction

    I Before the Golden Age (Pre- 1939)

    II The Golden Age (1939 – 1950)

    III The Platinum Age: 1951 – 1964

    IV The New Wave and the Seventies: 1965 – 1980

    V Cyberpunk and the Eighties: 1981 – 1990

    VI The Nineties: 1991 – 2000

    VII The Twenty-First Century: 2001 and Beyond

    1. I guess calling it the Platinum Age solves the problem of having yet another Golden Age. It’s interesting Piet, you divide the era in two. SF from 1951-1964 does seem different from science fiction from 1965-1980. Well, not quite 1980. I think science fiction was changing again by the time Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine appeared in 1977.

      We could divide the times by the dominant annual anthologist of the times.

      • T. E. Tikty (1949-1958)
      • Judith Merril (1956-1970)
      • Donald Wollheim (1965-1990)
      • Terry Carr (1972-1987)
      • Gardner Dozois (1984- )
  3. I was born in 1970, yet I share your opinion completely. Though this isn’t a better term than you came up with, I’d call the works of Asimov, et al “extroverted sci-fi”. What I mean by that is much of today’s sci-fi, whether it be novels or movies or TV, is very insular. We become our computers, our computers communicate with us, our computers create our physical reality (The Matrix, the works of Philip K. Dick, etc.). No flying cars, no robot overlords, precious little space travel. It reflects how insular our society has become. Having read the classic works of sci-fi as a kid, I’m still disappointed that I don’t own a jet pack.

      1. The Atomic Age/Baby Boom/Mid-century Modern era…maybe Mid-century Atomic Boom? Followed by New Wave?

    1. I don’t really understand your chronology here — PKD was writing in the 50s…. so…. those threads are co-existing in Asimov’s time. And especially by the late 60s!

      1. Ah, hm…. his first novel Solar Lottery was published in 1955 and his first SF short Beyond Lies the Wub in 1952.

        Chronology is very important because this divide is far from as stark as you seem to be implying.

      2. No no, there is vailidity in the claim — I would push the date earlier… but then we run into issues with all the reflective, interior, non-spaceship/adventure/hard science SF from “outside” genre — like Brave New World, Bend Sinister, We, etc.

      3. Joachim, maybe a generation is too long for a science fiction period. Much of the 1970s science fiction you like is from a much shorter phase. I wonder how long it takes for reactive science fiction to respond to a current phase? If you just look at John Brunner and Robert Silverberg from 1968-1975, they tried all kinds of experiments.

      4. Of course, but they are also responding (and I would argue, “participating in”) to the contemporary experiments in mainstream literature — and readership (and some presses + magazines) was open to it at the moment. Not sue it was all “reactive.” “Formative” as well…

      5. I think PKD had several writing periods where each felt different. He was a very good hack writer in the 1950s, and mostly unrecognized. Then he spent the later part of the 1950s writing several mainstream novels that all got rejected. I think he was trying to impress is 2nd wife (maybe 3rd). Then he went back to science fiction in the 1960s and wrote some very strange, but outstanding novels. I think those are the ones most people remember. Then in the 1970s, he had a religious experience, and his last three novels kept trying to explain it. Those are very fine, but not always liked by science fiction fans.

        It’s really hard to define science fiction by time periods. There are no good definitive dividing lines.

  4. Like Bob Dylan, Philip K. Dick did his best work in the 1960s. Books like DR. BLOODMONEY, MARTIAN TIME-SLIP, and THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRICH shocked me decades ago. It’s easier to identify dividing lines in the career of a particular author than it is to trace “movements” in a genre.

  5. Good post, James, at least for us codgers.

    I myself turned 12 in 1964, but was reading some kind of SF pretty much since I began reading. In the second or third grade, it was mostly stuff like the Mushroom Planet books or The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree, though it was also at that time that I read my first “grown-up” SF – Heinlein’s The Star Beast.

    “The 1960s would have been science fictional if written in a novel in the 1950s.”

    Yes, that’s exactly what the sixties were, and the conservative reaction is well illustrated by the Larry Niven short story Cloak of Anarchy (1972). To wit: that without some good old Law n’ Order, all that Liberation would spontaneously devolve into anarchy and “Nature, red in tooth and claw”. ( Read it online here – http://www.larryniven.net/stories/cloak_of_anarchy.shtml )

    “It’s science fiction that was mostly published in the 1950s and 1960s, but some from the 1970s.”

    Yes, although as you say, a good bit of it was actually written for the pulps in the 1940’s and reprinted in the hardbacks and anthologies we found at the Library. Paperbacks were all over the place chronologically – the first pb I remember owning was one of the Ballantine Tarzan reprints but another vivid memory was my first Harry Harrison book, purchased off one of those wire racks, natch. I feel compelled to point out too, that contrary to popular third-wave feminist belief, there was a solid contingent of talented female writers being published back then. I know because I read them. As late as high school, though, I was only aware of a couple of other SF readers in my personal orbit, neither of them female.

    I wouldn’t know about the reach of the SF Book Club and the digest mags. I was certainly aware of them but couldn’t afford either.

    Speaking of Sputnik thru Apollo, James, have you watched the lovely Tom Hanks/HBO series From the Earth to the Moon. I’m not sure any other drama has captured the spirit of those years as well.

    1. PJ, I was a late bloomer when it came to reading. I started on books in the 4th grade, but mostly nonfiction. In the 5th grade, I discovered the Oz books, Tom Swift, Jr., Danny Dunny, Hardy Boys, etc. I got a little science fiction there. In the 6th and 7th grades, I was groping around trying to find science fiction books without knowing they had a label. I found Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and When Worlds Collide/After Worlds Collide.

      Yes, I loved From the Earth to the Moon and I even own a copy.

      1. Ah, speaking of Danny Dunn, nobody has mentioned the Scholastic Book Club. For me, that was like waiting for the ice cream truck to come around. Or when I was visiting in backwoods Lousiana, the Public Library Bookmobile. Good times.

  6. Hi James

    I enjoyed your post, it looks like you put a lot of work into it which I appreciate. I will be following up on the links you provided. I am definitely boomer in age although I like to drift in time a bit like Billy Pilgrim, reading Gernsback or Edgar Rice Burroughs one day and Aliette de Bodard or Vandana Singh the next but my heart and comfort level does lie with the stories of the 1940’s – 1970’s. This Island Earth is my favourite SF movie which tells you something ( what wonderful sets ) and I really want an Interocitor. I also agree with many codgers that a book should run about 200 pages and I don’t need them to be part of an enormous series. I joined the SFBC as a teenager but really had no money as a child so the library and later used book stores were my source of reading, this kept me out of comics as well. This does mean that now I can find lots of stuff I should have read earlier, more Poul Anderson springs to mind, but missed in my initial sweep. I loved the discussion of Dick, I am setting up a reading plan for the summer and was looking at some of his most important books, but I read his Vulcan’s Hammer a few months ago and decided instead to read or reread his first four ACE titles Solar Lottery (1955), The Man Who Japed (1956), The World Jones Made (1956) and Eye in the Sky (1957). I also dug out my old copy of Planet Stories with Beyond Lies the Wub 1952 to celebrate his pulpish origins. A lot of SF writers came out of the pulps or Ace Doubles to become great writers Brunner and Silverberg spring to mind but I really wanted to start by looking at Dick. Sorry this is going on a bit but one last observation about time and SF. As part of my summer reading plan I wanted to reread two SF novels which I know I bought new and enjoyed about the same time. Outpost by Scott MacKay and Cavalcade by Alison Sinclair which are obviously two of the most memorable things about 1998 for me, where did those 19 years go, sigh!

    Happy Reading
    Guy

    1. I LOVED! This Island Earth as a kid. It really was ahead of its time.

      Also, I’ve been listening to Philip K. Dick. Audible.com has a sale on them and I snarfed up almost everything he wrote that I didn’t already own. I even bought new editions of some of the books I did own. Listening to 1950s PKD reveals what a good writer he was. Even his earliest stories in the digests had a dramatic nature that was captivating. They were still trashy pulp sci-fi, but he could tell a story in a very vivid, and often unique way.

  7. Interesting how Jim’s description of Philip K. Dick’s career arc parallels that of Robert Silverberg almost exactly. The 1950s hack work, non-SF novels that were rejected (or in RS’s case, unsuccessful), the return to SF in the 60s with increased experimentation, and the sea change in the 1970s (in PKD’s case, a religious experience; in RS’s case exhaustion).

    I suspect that there are other writers who went through career stages at about the same times.

    1. If there are other writers, maybe there’s a reason they follow that path. Heinlein tried to break out of the small pond of science fiction into the larger ocean of literature. In the forties, he wrote for the slick magazines. Then when he wrote Stranger in a Strange Land I got the feeling he was aiming much bigger, maybe even copying Atlas Shrugged.

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