American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s

Over the last few years, the Library of America publishing project has broadened its definition of “the best and most significant American writing” to include crime fiction (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, David Goodis), horror (H.P. Lovecraft, AMERICAN FANTASTIC TALES) and science fiction (Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut). Now, using its earlier AMERICAN NOIR set as a model, Library of America presents AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION, a two-volume collection of nine novels from the 1950s.

Why the 1950s? As editor Gary K. Wolfe observes in his introductory essay, included in the excellent website accompanying the collection, the decade was a time of notable growth and maturity for the genre. Science-fiction publishing moved beyond the pulp magazine into original novels.

That, along with the appearance of new monthlies devoted to contemporary work, encouraged many active authors to take on more challenging, relevant themes and experiment with different narrative techniques and styles. So much so that Robert Silverberg, reflecting on the decade (in an essay also included on the collection’s website) called the 1940s — the era commonly thought of as the genre’s golden age — a “false dawn,” and declared the 1950s as the true golden age of science fiction.
The most notable characteristic of the earlier of the two volumes, FOUR CLASSIC NOVELS: 1953-1956, is how the authors take concerns and anxieties of the decade and creatively extrapolate them into either futuristic or unexpected settings. From 1953, THE SPACE MERCHANTS by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth satirically presents a world dominated by multinational advertising agencies in a story of an executive assigned with promoting the attractions of an uninhabitable planet.

From the same year, Theodore Sturgeon’s MORE THAN HUMAN, in three interconnected sections, follows a group of young, damaged misfits who eventually find each other, discover a strange fulfillment in their convergence, and challenge the next stage of evolution.

1955’s THE LONG TOMORROW, by Leigh Brackett, one of the few women sci-fi authors of the period, takes place in a post-nuclear holocaust future where civilization has retreated into technophobic, Mennonite-like tribes, and a young man discovers a hidden cult secretly honoring and reviving the teachings of science.

And Richard Matheson’s THE SHRINKING MAN from 1956 tells the story of a man exposed to a strange cloud who then suffers both humiliation and dangers as he becomes physically smaller. Matheson’s alternating chapter structure provides a deeper and richer experience than the popular movie adaptation, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, especially in the surprisingly uplifting conclusion.
In the companion volume, FIVE CLASSIC NOVELS: 1956-1958, both the themes and styles become more internal and experimental. In 1956’s DOUBLE STAR, Robert A. Heinlein — whose body of work would help define contemporary sci-fi — applies the familiar idea of the double (used by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and many others) in a story of an actor recruited to impersonate a diplomat and carry on the campaign to forge bonds between Earthlings and Martians.

Alfred Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION is a brutal and memorable 1956 story of revenge in a nightmarish future, utilizing techniques that would forecast the stylistic pyrotechnics of science fiction’s “New Wave” of the 1960s.

In James Blish’s A CASE OF CONSCIENCE from 1958, humanity is challenged by the ultra-logical and seemingly god-less morality of an alien civilization. In the same year’s WHO?, Algis Budrys escalates Cold War anxieties as a noted American physicist suffers a near-fatal accident and is returned from the Soviet Bloc completely rebuilt and encased in steel. Is he a disguised spy or the real scientist?

Finally Fritz Leiber introduces his dizzying and dazzling concept of the Change War, where soldiers and warriors step in and out of history in an endless series of battles, in 1958’s THE BIG TIME, which takes place in a combination bar and bordello known as “the Place,” where the weary soldiers enjoy a little rest and recuperation.
In any such retrospective collection, especially where works are suddenly declared “classics,” there will inevitably be debate about inclusions and omissions. Few, for example, would argue highlighting the specific works by Pohl/Kornbluth, Sturgeon and Bester featured here. Devoted Heinlein fans, on the other hand, might wonder why DOUBLE STAR got the nod over other works from that same period. Still others would argue if authors such as Brackett and Matheson even deserve the same merit as the others gathered here. And there are those who would insist that Leiber was more a fantasist than a science-fiction author.
If nothing else, such debates prove how prolific and influential the 1950s were to sci-fi, and how many of the works first published in that decade set the stage for most everything that would follow — right up to the current day. Then, too, it’s a delight to have all these novels, many of which have been out-of-print and unavailable for several years, available again in such sturdy and attractive editions.
The two volumes can be purchased separately or together as a handsome boxed set. The aforementioned website includes biography and bibliographies of the authors, interviews and introductions included in later published editions, appreciations by such notable contemporary authors as Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Tim Powers and Peter Straub, and many other informative and entertaining extras.
They may seem like a hefty investment ($35 separately; $70 boxed), but as is usually the case with Library of America editions, the detail devoted to their compilation and printing make them well worth the investment. To say nothing of the hours of entertainment, fascination and possibly even nostalgic recollection these essential and unreservedly recommended sets provide. —Alan Cranis

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Comment by Peter
2012-10-15 10:29:19

This is a great collection – it is becoming more clear, at least in the minds of academic science fiction critics – that the 1950s were the true golden age of science fiction, particularly for novels. The 1930s and 1940s saw many excellent short stories, but also an increadible amount of unreadable hack work.

Gary Wolfe is one of the better science fiction academics around and writes a review column for Locus Magazine ( Well worth reading.

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Comment by Tony Ungawa
2012-10-15 10:31:38

No question Doublestar is one of the weakest novels Heinlein wrote in that decade.

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Comment by Peter
2012-10-15 10:36:17

You are right – there were better Heinlein novels. Wolfe said that he did not choose works written by Heinlein in the 1950s that were just a series of 1940s short stories mashed together. That is why Asimov is not in the set and it precluded some of Heinlein’s 1950s works.

Comment by Richard R.
2012-10-15 18:41:34

I’m hoping they go ahead and do another set of the 1960s! I have, and have read all these in paperback, but this is tempting anyway, just as I have all the Hammett, Chandler and so on in those sets. Just too good to pass up.

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