Defining Science Fiction By Decades

1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s

I’ve been reading science fiction for over five decades, and science fiction evolves with the times. Writers don’t say to themselves, “Hey, it’s a new decade, let’s write something different.” There are no hard and fast demarcations by decade. On the other hand, we do categorize other aspects of life by decade, so why not science fiction.

When I say “the defining science fiction by decade,” I mean the books we remember most, and the books that made the most impact when they came out. For example, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein will always be associated with the 1960s. We know it looking back, but we also knew it then the 1960s. Stranger in a Strange Land was just different from what was being written and read in the 1950s. There were lots of books that came out in the 1960s that we don’t remember, but they defined the times too, like Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock and The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd. Few people read those books today, but if they did, they’d pick up the 1960s vibes. More important though, when those books came out, they created buzz.

What I work towards is identifying those books we remember now, and discovered then, that defined the decade. I recently revised the 1990s list, deleting many titles. I realized some books I included because of great reviews or winning awards, have just never caught on, and are out of print. Defining books, whether though gaining popularity over time, or making an impact in their time, need to stay in print.

Some books find second lives eventually, as readers study the past. For example, Shadow of the Hearth by Judith Merril, from 1950. Because so many are looking at the works of women science fiction writers, this book is getting new attention. It is an early example of a post-atomic bomb apocalypse, and that’s definitely a way we remember the 1950s.

I’m still struggling how I want to select books for these decade lists. In the 1950s, small presses republished a lot content that was first printed in the 1930s and 1940s in the pulps. One example, is The Cosmic Engineers by Clifford Simak in 1950, a story he wrote in the 1930s. Does it define the 1950s? It probably felt dated even when it was first published. To the readers of the 1950s, this kind of super-science pulp fiction was common to read, and for the people who grew up reading it in the 1950s, that’s might be how they define 1950s science fiction. But for later readers, the story will feel like a 1930s story.

That’s why I’m thinking of refining my lists, but it’s going to cause big problems. The most memorable 1950s science fiction story today in current polls is The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. However, the original stories were first published in the pulps in the 1940s. The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun are better examples of 1950s science fiction, and better examples of Asimov’s writing for the 1950s.

This means I need to create lists for the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, and shift some of the titles in the current decades to these earlier ones. Thinking and studying the history of science fiction is one of my retirement hobbies. Working on the Classics of Science Fiction list is about identifying old science fiction books we’re worth reading. Working on the decades is about understanding the history of science fiction, and what people read way back when.