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.
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.
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:
- Fantasy Press (1947-1961)
- Gnome Press (1948-1961)
- Doubleday Science Fiction (1950-1987)
- Winston Science Fiction (1952-1961)
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:
- Ace Double (1953-1981)
- Paperback Library (1962-1974)
- Avon (1948- )
- Dell (1943- )
- Berkley Medalion (1958-1980)
- Ballantine Books (1953- )
- Signet (1951-1996)
- Bantam Books (1946- )
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.
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:
If you got a better name, propose it in the comments.
I wanted to use this photo from Getty Images, but it costs money. But isn’t it perfect?