Science Fiction Before NASA

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Did average Americans in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s believe that life, including intelligent beings, thrived on Venus and Mars, and maybe even the moons of Jupiter and Saturn? Folks of all ages read science fiction in the pulp magazines. Kids mostly enjoyed science fiction in newspaper strips and comic books, or watched science fiction serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon at the movies. The 1950s began with several television shows aimed at kids about space patrols which adults enjoyed too. And in the late 1940s, America went nuts for flying saucers. I would assume science fictional ideas were quite popular, and people did believe life existed throughout the solar system. Most science fiction stories assumed Venus was a steamy jungle world, and Mars a cold arid desert world.

Planet Stories 1939

However, in all the classic MGM and Warner Brothers movies from those decades, and all the classic TV shows from the 1950s, I don’t ever remember any character talking about science fiction or life on other planets. It’s as if science fiction existed as a small subculture totally isolated from the rest of American pop culture.

I wonder if Americans in the decades before NASA really believe there was life on other worlds because science fiction from that era took it for granted there was. I doubt astronomers and other scientists encouraged those ideas. For 2018 I’ve been reading the best science fiction from each year starting with 1939. I’m currently on 1943 in my systematic reading, but I’ve been jumping ahead occasionally in my random reading. There is a sharp difference between science fiction written before NASA and after. We now know all the other planets and moons in our solar system should only interest geologists. There are a few biologists hoping they will have something to research on a few moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

The robotic spacecraft Mariner IV flew by Mars on July 14, 1965, around 8pm EST. I have a memory of this event, but I don’t know the exact sequence of time, or if what I remembered was played out over days. I recall watching a special CBS news broadcast that interrupted regular television to show the flyby and first close-up photos of Mars. The grainy black and white pictures were devasting to my science fictional dreams because Mars looked just like the Moon, full of lifeless craters. There was no Old Ones living there (I had just read Stranger in a Strange Land and Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein).

Mariner IV

NASA had been established in 1958 but it was awhile before it began influencing science fiction. Sputnik (10/4/1957) and Explorer 1 (1/31/1958), the first satellites by Russia and the United States had made a tremendous cultural impact around the world. The Space Age had begun but it took a few years to begin gathering real data. Then in the early sixties, both countries sent up a series of space capsules. They were hardly the spaceships of science fiction. They were about the size of a VW Beetle, just large enough to cram one not-so-tall man inside.

I was 13 at the time of the Mariner IV flyby. I read a lot of science fiction, and I built Estes model rockets. I had been following NASA since Alan Shepard’s Project Mercury Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961. I grew up with a fantasy of space flight and the early reality.

Looking back now I can see how science fiction was changed by NASA. Before NASA science fiction fans, and maybe the public at large hoped the solar system was teaming with life. After NASA’s explorations in the 20th century, the solar system beyond Earth became a sterile bunch of rocks.

I now believe the pre-NASA science fiction era ran from April 1926 with the first issue of Amazing Stories and ended with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny in the November 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Although Zelazny’s story of Mars with intelligent beings wasn’t the last story to imagine such life on Mars, it’s how I like to remember pre-NASA science fiction ending. As the sixties progressed a New Wave of science fiction changed the genre. At the time we thought there was one new wave, but now I’m seeing two.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny cover for FSF November 1963

Yesterday I read “The Halfling” by Leigh Brackett in The Great SF Stories 5 (1943) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. “The Halfling” first appeared in Astonishing Stories February 1943 and sadly had no interior illustrations even though the tale was extremely colorful and dramatic. It read like it should have appeared in Planet Stories because the story was about an interplanetary circus full of exotic animals from all over the system, with geeks who were hybrids of humans and intelligent creatures from Mars, Venus, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn running the show. It’s strange that readers could accept so much diversity in space but not on Earth.

When I read old science fiction stories now, with the solar system teeming with lifeforms, it feels sad we’re all alone. I don’t know if the old science fiction writers invented all that colorful life because their plots needed it, or if they actually assumed life existed everywhere. I don’t think most folks want the NASA solar system. They want a Star Wars galaxy.

I often ask myself why do I keep reading the old science fiction? Hasn’t NASA invalidated those stories? I realize I’m like the faithful who hope for heaven living in a scientific world. Is waiting for The Day the Earth Stood Still to come true pretty much like waiting for The New Testament to come true? What if our respective dudes never show up?

I always choke up when I reread “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” because I still wish Mars had been like Edgar Rice Burroughs, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Roger Zelazny imagined.

While I read old pre-NASA science fiction I admire the creative imaginations of the writers. I like to think they were speculating and extrapolating, but maybe all they were doing is playing at make-believe. Most classical art is representative. Modern art invented what nature never produced. For a while, we thought science fiction worked to be representational of possible futures. Now it seems science fiction has been modern art all along, and NASA is now making the art of science fiction realistic again.

But I have to consider another angle. Pre-NASA science fiction covered the Depression, WWII, and the Cold War. These were stressful times. I read science fiction in my teens because it was a refuge from alcoholic parents that fought constantly and dragged my sister and I all over the country constantly changing our schools.

NASA space probes today bring back dazzling views of the solar system. They might not have found alien life, but those planetary vistas are gorgeous. The Milky Way galaxy in 2018 is a far more happening place than in pre-NASA science fiction.

I’m enjoying a nostalgic visit to pre-NASA science fiction. Maybe it’s a refuge from Donald Trump, climate change, mass shootings, polarized politics, environmental collapse, and the sixth mass extinction. And that’s okay.



24 thoughts on “Science Fiction Before NASA”

  1. I guess you could say that pre-NASA science fiction was romantic, in the broadest sense, certainly when it dealt with space. There were relatively few writers who anticipated space exploration as a bleak, dangerous and largely grim venture, rather than a cosmic playground for colorful adventures. But the exceptions are interesting—I give you Walter M. Miller’s “Crucifixus Etiam” and Edmond Hamilton’s “What’s It Like Out There?” as the only examples I can think of right away. Right now, these writers look as if they may have been prescient. Space in 2018 doesn’t offer the prospect of much fun.

  2. You’ll find the two stories I mentioned in volumes 15 and 14 (respectively) of the series you’re following.

  3. I’m not entirely sure if I can be objective about your post.Was the purpose of writing about the tropes of SF only to imagine what they could be like,or was there a larger,more subtle reason for doing so?

    1. Richard, I’m never sure what I’m saying. I get an inspiration. In this case, wondering what Americans in 1943 thought about science fiction, the year “The Halfling” was published. Then I start thinking about things. It occurred to me that people’s perception of science fiction might have been different before NASA. Then I started thinking about how all the stories so full of alien life. Why did people love aliens so much? What’s the attraction? Like Piet says above, maybe it’s romantic. Like I suggested, maybe it’s escapist. Maybe it’s existential loneliness. Maybe we don’t want to be alone in the universe.

      I’m wishing now I had quoted “The Halfling” to convey some of its color and romance.

      I also feel the need to justify my reading. I often feel guilty reading science fiction because it has very little relationship to real life. Also, I want to justify science fiction as a unique art form.

      But in the end, Richard, I’m letting my subconscious mind dump out my thoughts and feelings and hope they have at least a thread of logic.

      1. As I’ve said before,SF has an extremely old legacy.The modern genre has developed from widely differing sources,that has made it what it is.There hasn’t been a single directive saying what it should be.I also don’t see why you should feel guilty about reading SF,because much of it does contain very serious real life themes,even some of the Mars novels and short pieces as you wanted it to be within SF.Philip K. Dick’s “Martian Time-Slip” is a particularly strong example in this case.

  4. Isaac Asimov addressed this topic in his Introduction to the reprints of his LUCKY STAR novels. Asimov regretted he wrote these novels in the 1950s and then new scientific information completely made the settings Asimov asserted in the books bogus. Facts tend to restrict so it’s fun to read SF from a time when the facts about space travel and the planets in the Solar System were sketchy…or unknown.

  5. In the weekly German pulp series PERRY RHODAN (since 1961, #3000 will be published in Feb 2019), Venus was used as a location for the first time in 1961: a moist, warm jungle planet with a breathable atmosphere and big, dinosaur-like animals. That was a widespread, very popular assumption of that time. (see “Venus in fiction” on Wikipedia, But it was no longer the current state of scientific knowledge. Since the mid-1950s it was known that the atmosphere consisted mainly of carbondioxyd and the surface temperatur was about 400° C. Absolutely hostile to life.
    Anyway, even when Mariner 1 and other probes visited Venus and the true conditions on Venus became known to a wide public, the editors of PERRY RHODAN didn’t change Venus, but decided to keep the original environmental conditions. This was to preserve continuity because Venus played an important role in the plot.
    So Venus is a completely different planet in the so called Perryversum than in our world. The same applies to other planets and the rest of the Milky Way. In a sense, the Perryversum is astrophysically simpler. Only for some years, current astronomical findings are restrainedly included in the series.

    1. Columbus, thanks for that link to stories set on Venus. I’ve always been a Mars guy myself, but it’s great to see that so many stories were set on Venus. I like how they divide the stories into Old Venus and New Venus.

      Lately, I’ve been philosophically struggling with my love of fiction and how it competes with the beauty of reality. I seem to prefer the world of words over the world of molecules. When I think about it that way, does it matter if the world of words matches the world of molecules?

        1. But I divide literature into two kinds – that which says something about reality and that which doesn’t.

          You know how Plato said our apparent reality is a reflection of the real reality. That we’re just seeing shadows on the wall?

          I believe the apparent reality is the real reality. I like literature that is a reflection off of real reality. I prefer to interact with life by living within the abstractions about life. Now I wonder if I mistook what Plato was saying and he was talking about the world of abstractions, and he meant the real reality is the external reality we see with our senses?

          I guess I’m going PKDish.

  6. One of the attractions of Science Fiction is to project “What If” into the Future. Fantasy can ignore facts and logic and just do anything. One of the reasons I read and enjoyed Asimov’s LUCKY STARR series and Robert Heinlein’s juvenile SF novels was the strictures science placed upon their fictions.

    1. George, that’s the kind of science fiction I like, where characters struggle against the limits of what we know. But I’m learning that many, if not most people, read science fiction in the same way people read fantasy, as fun stories about make-believe people existing in a fantastic situation.

  7. I think one of the reasons so many people enjoyed reading Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN and seeing the movie of the same name was the struggle to use science to survive and escape Mars. Sure, it’s fun to watch movies like SOLO and read books like The Robots of Gotham by Todd McAulty, but science doesn’t really play much of a role in them.

  8. I have not been as systematic in my reading of earlier SF, taking it year by year. But I do read earlier authors and compare them with contemporary authors.

    The pre-NASA pubs seem to focus more on story and wonder and less on tendentious political themes and inevitable dystopian futures. In current science, Mars, Venus, and Ganymede may not host sentient beings, but many of those stories could go interstellar. I am amazed at how many early SF commenters seem never to have seen “Forbidden Planet,” which used FTL drive, AI, and far advanced interstellar aliens whose technology did them in.

    1. I’ve been wondering what our world would have been like if we had discovered all that life on Venus, Mars and the outer moons so that all those 1940s and 1950s science fiction stories had come true. NASA has its own sense of wonder, but it’s not as colorful as Planet Stories.

  9. You should go back to believing your pre-NASA ideas about our solar system and the galaxy in general. Both have their share of animals, plants and intelligent beings (usually further along in their development than are we). It’s just important to remember that—like Project Blue Book of the Air Force—don’t expect to get anything like truth from NASA. Presumably its mission is to dull the public’s ideas of what space travel can be and our so-called limitations. There is a private version of NASA where all the real work gets done and I’m not talking about Elon Musk.

  10. Nice piece and discussion.

    If you’ll forgive me a slight commercial, I’d like to point out a book I edited that reprints a lot of science fiction stories about going to Mars, FOURTH PLANET FROM THE SUN. It includes Zelazny’s “Ecclesiastes” and another Brackett story, “Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon.” In the book, I tried to provide some context and history for the evolving visions of Mars. Here’s a link to the Amazon page for the book:

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