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

Number One on the Runway

I am reminded of that great song title from Timbuk 3, “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.”  With economic chaos and skyrocketing oil prices, the future is looking a bit overcast – no need for shades now, huh, but what if that’s an illusion?  In China, the future is so bright that a billion people are putting on sunglasses.  I’ve read that there is more peace and prosperity now than anytime in the history of the world.  Global warming may only be the foot that kicks us in the ass and forces humanity to get its shit together.  A new President could clear those dark clouds on our horizon and brighten up U.S. prospects for decades to come.

We’re all on a jet that’s about to take off for the future, but who is in the cockpit, and what’s our destination?  My generation are all thinking about retirement and I’m wondering if we’re all flying down to Florida to play shuffleboard or dominos all day.  I can remember summer of 1968 like it was tomorrow.  We wanted the Vietnam war to end so we could start building a bright future.  We wanted a lot of change.  We lived on great expectations.  Many of the young felt like they were part of a movement, a movement for change.  Barack and all Democrats worked to sell the same sentiments forty years later.  Is this election the last chance for the Baby Boomers to get it right and achieve their dream?

Protestors used to chant “The Whole World is Watching” and I think our generation felt it was true, even though most of the world lived off the radar of mass communication when we were growing up.  During those mythical years of the 1960s our generation always felt we were number one on the runway taking off for the future, but now, we’re seen as being the generation number one on the runway to retire.  Is it now time for us to be quiet?  Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were both Baby Boomer Presidents.  We may get another boomer, with Barack Obama, or the Silent Generation may have its last chance to have their only President, with John McCain.

I was reminded of my Baby Boomer status when Piers Fawkes at PSFK tagged this site as 1 of 14 blogs he monitors for information about Baby Boomers.  Maybe the whole world is no longer watching us, but at least the marketing people are still keeping an eye on us.  For those who need a generational timeline, see below:

I find it tremendously hard to imagine the mindset of the generations that have come behind us.  First of all, they never demanded to be heard, and as a result of that, they never got the press the Baby Boomers did.  The Greatest Generation are famous for living in historically epic times and their generation was defined by the events they faced.  The Silent Generation made the world for the Baby Boomers and influenced them.  The Baby Boomers embraced rock and roll, but Elvis and the Beatles were from the Silent Generation – an odd nickname, huh?  And as resources such as oil become problematic, will we have a new Greatest Generation that solves those problems?

Signs are everywhere that the young are ready for the boomers to retire, for instance, read “TV Viewers’ Average Age Hits 50” over at Variety, where they whine that the damn people watching TV are too old for their precious 18-49 demographics.  What’s the matter, are the young TV execs afraid their whole industry is a Baby Boomer fad?  The whole world probably didn’t have their eyes on us, but we certainly had our eyes on TV.  Are the newer generations less mass-media oriented?  I’ve read males of certain ages have stopped watching TV altogether.

Is the Baby Boomer’s hour in the spotlight about over.  Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were both born in 1946, making them the two Baby Boomer Presidents.  Strangely, John McCain, born in 1936, a year after Elvis, is from the earlier Silent Generation, so that generation is still hanging in there, and suggests there’s time for the Baby Boomers to cling to the spotlight for another decade or two.  Barrack Obama was born in 1961, making him part of the rear end of the Baby Boomers.  We’ve now had a hippie President and jock President, so it would be great to have a minority President, and hopefully there will even be time for a female Boomer or even a gay Boomer in the White House.  Evidently, our time is not up until the overweight boomer sings.

I’m reading The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria, a tail end boomer himself, born in 1964.  Zakaria’s wise assessment of current world affairs suggests our generation can still have influence for years to come as political pundits.  The Baby Boomers might be moving into their retirement years, but we dominant politics, journalism and opinions, and probably will for awhile.  I can not recommend The Post-American World enough, because Zakaria puts us Baby Boomer Americans in our place by letting us know what the rest of the world was seeing when we thought they were watching.  Our self-centered perspective has blinded us to what was happening with the 95% of the Baby Boomers in the rest of the world.

When you read Variety’s listing of the average age for various TV shows, and see “How I Met Your Mother,” a show about people in their twenties, has an average viewer age of 45, then you start to wonder, where the hell are the young people?  You do see them.  The news is reported by a vast array of beautiful young people.  Movies and television shows are all about the young.  You see them standing behind Obama and McCain, they fight our wars, and they direct movies, write novels, create music, and they fill jobs all around us.  But what do they want?  Where are their spokespeople?

When Generation X taxis out on the runaway where are they going to take us?  When Generation X campaigns for the Presidency, what will be their issues?  You’d think they’d make Global Warming their issue.  Maybe their generation speaks loud and clear and I don’t hear them because I’m insulated by the thickness of my generation.

If Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Friedman are right, not only do we need to hear from Generation X and the Millennials, but we need to hear from their ranks from all over the world.  That old saying, “Think globally, act locally” is more important than ever.

I hate to say this, but maybe the numbers at Variety are more damning than they are suggesting.  If the average age of TV watchers is 50, then television is a has-been media.  What mass media has an average age of 25?  Video games?  Text-messaging?  FaceBook?  I’m sorry, but tuning into Playstation 3 or Xbox 360 seems like checking out of this world in the same way that Timothy Leary advocated dropping out.  Virtual worlds don’t count, only reality.

China and Dubai are growing at speeds and magnitudes that outpace any boom in U.S. history.  The whole world should be watching them instead of “How I Met Your Mother” or whatever equivalent show or video game you’re using to escape from reality at the moment.  Where is this generation’s Bob Dylan that’s writing “Because something is happening here, But you don’t know what it is, Do you, Mr. Jones?” or Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth?”

There’s heavy stuff going down, but where are the young protestors?  2008 is going to be an important election.  It is time for change, just like we thought back in 1968, but this time the biggest issues are more pressing than ever, and if we want a future where we need shades, we all need to be watching.  Whether our plane is taking off for retirement city, or the big city to start a new career, we’re all sailing on the same Spaceship Earth.  Whether you’re 15, 35, 55, 75 or 95 there are some shows on TV we should all be watching, but they ain’t escapist shows, but documentaries about what’s going on around the real world.

Jim