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In 1963, when I was 12, science fiction began imprinting on my brain, so that science fiction from the 1950s is how I define the genre. All science fiction novels I’ve read in the succeeding fifty years are measured against those stories I first discovered in my early teens. That’s why I so completely understand the statement, “the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12.” Younger generations of science fiction fans have since imprinted on science fiction via television shows like Star Trek, or movies like Star Wars, and even later forms of the genre that I don’t even understand like comics and video games. Science fiction is very hard to pigeon-hole because its so radically different from generation to generation. For me, science fiction is defined by certain books I first read in 1963, 1964 and 1965, and most of those were first published in the 1950s. I discovered 1950s science fiction in libraries, as cheap paperbacks on wire racks, in dusty used bookstores, and most of all by joining the Science Fiction Book Club which often promoted the classic books from the 1950s.
Sad to say, many modern science fiction fans don’t know about the science fiction I point to when I think science fiction. That time is so far in the past that the Library of America has even published American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, a two-volume boxed set, edited by Gary K. Wolfe. The collection is almost an academic preservation of old, mostly forgotten, science fiction novels.
- The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
- More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
- The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
- The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson
- Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
- The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
- A Case of Conscience by James Blish
- Who? by Algis Budrys
- The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
To get a feel for capturing the science fiction novels of the 1950s, just take a gander at their companion website, especially their wonderful Timeline, and their short overview essays. And you can pick up even more details about the decade by reading Arthur D. Hlavaty’s review in The New York Review of Science Fiction, or visit the Library of America Science Fiction Facebook page for more reviews to read. Everyone remembers something different about the 1950s.
Now, here’s the funny thing, those nine novels aren’t the nine novels from the 1950s that would define my memory of 1950s science fiction. Not that I am saying Wolfe selection is a bad, it’s just not mine. Like the web site The Burning House, in which people take photos of their favorite possessions, the ones they would grab first while running out of their burning homes, my selection of 1950s science fiction novels would be different.
And there’s a further complication. For the last decade I’ve been rereading many of those Oldie-Goldie science fiction novels from mid-20th century by listening to them on audiobook, and most of them are disappointing to me now, even though I thought they were wonderful back then. Would a 12-year-old today discovering these books find them exciting, or would they seem dumb and quaint compared to all the modern books, television shows and movies of today?
In other words, if we are defining the classic SF novels of the 1950s do they have to succeed for Golden Age readers (age 12, remember) or for people of any age in any reading year? For example, The Foundation Trilogy was mind blowing for me at 13 in 1964, but I found unreadable clunky at 59. Conversely, I thought Asimov’s The Naked Sun was boring back then and page turning fascinating a few years ago.
So I have two views of 1950s science fiction in my mind, 1950s SF Classics from my 10s and 20s, and 1950s SF Classics from my 50s and 60s. If I had been hired by Library of America to collect books that represent American science fiction in the 1950s I’d be torn between collecting those books I nostalgically remembered, and those books I felt held up over time. But I’d also be troubled by collecting books I loved versus books I knew were well loved by others.
Ultimately such a collection is a burning house situation, you have to grab the ones you want to save, the ones you want people to remember, the ones you want young readers to discover. Gary K. Wolfe made a great selection, but here are my personal remembrance of 1950s SF if I had been an editor at LOA.
- Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
- City by Clifford Simak
- The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick
- The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
- Brain Wave by Poul Anderson
- Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
- Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement
I follow the precedent of only one book by any author, otherwise five of the books would be by Heinlein.
Twelve 1950s SF Books That Might Be Remembered in the 22nd Century
However, if I try to ignore my personal tastes, and reflect on what I’ve read about these books over the years, and from studying science fiction, these are the twelve science fiction books I think will be remembered most in the future. These are my predictions, too bad I won’t be around to find out if they come true.
- The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)
- The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)
- The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov (1951-1953)
- The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1952)
- Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
- More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon (1953)
- Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement (1954)
- A Case of Conscience by James Blish (1958)
- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1959)
- Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (1959)
- The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1959)
Even ardent bookworms will have trouble listing from memory a hundred classic novels from the 19th century, while most readers will only recall a handful at best. Most books fade away over time. Sure, literary scholars have better knowledge of what was read in the past, but few books last to maintain a presence in the eternal now. Think of how many 19th science fiction novels we still read today – only three come to mind: Frankenstein, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. I’m not sure any of the twelve books listed above will be remembered in the popular culture of the 22nd century. But I do believe, there will be readers like me, who love the genre and will mine the past for sense of wonder classics.
I previously felt there were zillions of great SF books from the 1950s, but when I did the research I found far fewer than my nostalgia remembers. Below is a list of SF books that are vivid in my memory still, and I constantly remember seeing at libraries, bookstores, garage sales, friend’s bookshelves, etc., when I first began looking for science fiction. Library of America only publishes American writers, but I’m including the British ones I remember too. The other thing I forgot is how many great 1950s science fiction books were collections of short stories. The Foundation Trilogy is really three volumes of short stories. Some books like City, A Case of Conscience or The Martian Chronicles, were called “fix-up” novels, but originally appeared as stories in the magazines.
So, here’s how I remember the 1950s, from my fading memories of the 1960s when I became addicted to science fiction.
Now, I don’t know how many of these books are worth reading today. I’m in an online book club for people who love classic science fiction, and many of the members prefer the old stuff, especially books from the 1950s and 1960s, but most of those members are like me, in their 50s and 60s, and when we all pass from reality, who will remember these books? I doubt many science fiction books from the 1950s will be taught in schools in the future, but who can tell today.
For me, remembering the science fiction books from the 1950s is a nostalgia trip. I tend to think the people who buy the Library Of America books will be people like me and my friends at the book club. They are marketing these books to us old farts who have fond memories of reading that far out Sci-Fi.
1950s SF: My Personal Favorites (links to Wikipedia)
JWH – 4/4/13 – Table of Contents