New York: Library of America, 2012; $70.00 hc;
1750 pages in two volumes
reviewed by Arthur D. Hlavaty
The word venerable has two meanings: in the original sense it denotes the ability to inspire a feeling somewhere between admiration and worship, but it is also used to mean old, as if mere age brought worthiness. This process of automatic veneration is now overtaking the allegedly trashy amusements of my youth. In music, it had already happened; in fact, the sounds I grew up with and still love are several decades before the oxymoronic Classic Rock. Television and comics have likewise gained venerability, and the Buck Rogers stuff is joining them.
The Library of America was created to be that very canon from whose barrel the power comes. It began with the traditional Greats (Mark Twain, Henry James), the minority writers who were belatedly and deservedly added (Frederick Douglass, Edith Wharton), and of course some of the work that brings Required Reading into disrepute (James Fenimore Cooper). The series grew, approached the present (Saul Bellow, Philip Roth), and then, in defiance of the wishes of its late founding father Edmund Wilson, expanded to the less reputable neighborhoods. When the literary Brahmins do outreach to the labeled categories, they start out with mysteries, and Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were soon welcomed aboard. After a collection of H. P. Lovecraft’s work achieved popularity, the series turned to science fiction, with Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, failed and successful crossover artists respectively.
Now the Library has published a two-volume anthology of nine of the best science fiction novels of the 1950s, and they have done an excellent job of it. It has been remarked that “historical importance” can be a euphemism for works that have no other kind, works that we read only for the foretaste of books built upon them that are worth reading for their own sake. I would maintain, however, that this selection brings us works that are enjoyable on their own as well as pointing the way to much of what we enjoy in contemporary sf.
Since the proverbial age of wonder is twelve, I can be expected to consider the ’50s the golden age, but I will now propose an argument intended to convince others.
Science fiction as that which is called “science fiction” (Norman Spinrad’s recursive definition) was created by Hugo Gernsback in 1926. Within a few years, audiences were growing blasé about sf as education (characters lecturing each other about how nifty it is to live in the future) and sf as spectacle (chases and crashes on a galactic scale). When John W. Campbell Jr. took over the editorship of Astounding, he suggested the next step, a view of sf as the mainstream writing of the future: sf should be as well written as the Saturday Evening Post. He found a cohort of writers to meet his specifications, and the field prospered.
For all Campbell accomplished, his influence was limited by his technological orientation and by a contrarianism that would harden into crankery. More qualities were needed, and while most of the magazines made no advances on Gernsback and Campbell, two new publications brought new approaches: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction emphasized the mainstream values of prose and character, and Galaxy saw the field as an opportunity for social, as well as scientific and technical, speculation.
Many critics have noted that science fiction purports to be about the future but is really about the present. One can point to any number of works where vaulting speculation in some areas combines with unquestioning acceptance of supposed eternal verities (sexual and domestic arrangements are two obvious examples) that will have been obsolete long before the date in which the work is set. The ’50s could be seen as the time when science fiction began doing it on purpose, with conscious satires of matters such as McCarthyism and segregation that more mimetic writers dared not utter in uncoded form.
The field was in many respects slightly braver than the mainstream and in some ways less. Science fiction tended to include at least one person of color per book, not too wincingly described even by today’s standards, and I fear that it was thus ahead of the curve. Sex, on the other hand, was even more in its infancy in sf, with copulation occurring in between paragraphs or chapters, indicated by the proverbial row of asterisks or a swift change of scene after a suggestive remark. (That would soon change.)
There is a sense in which science fiction works have grown like giant chicken hearts. The magazines were made for shorter works (with occasional serializations). Then came book publishing, and the serials were joined by fix-ups of shorter works set in a common background and eventually short novels actually written as books. (Ace would bind two of them of together.) The books then grew longer (John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar in 1968 was a milestone) and led to trilogies, series, braided meganovels, and franchises. In the ’50s, 160 pages seemed like a good length for a book, and the writers learned to write within that boundary.
At the end of the decade, there was a first step to respectability. Invited in 1959 to discourse at Princeton on a literary topic of his choice, Kingsley Amis delivered a series of lectures introducing his august audience to science fiction. (It would be published the following year as New Maps of Hell.) It was a balanced and judicious look; the lurid covers were scorned, the all-too-obvious Freudian subtexts of the worst work were brought out, and such follies as the translation machine were mocked, but there was also the recognition that the best of it offered “a peculiar interest, related to but different from ordinary literary interest,” and Amis praised and elucidated some of the best examples with particular note of sf’s unique capacity for social relevance and satire. It could be argued that Amis was an ambiguous figure in transition out of academe to professional writing and considered a troublemaker and iconoclast, perhaps beyond the facts. (One of his characters said, “Filthy Mozart,” and the author was reported to have uttered the phrase in propria persona.) Still, the wall was breached.
The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth is very much what Amis is talking about. Indeed, he begins the first lecture with a quote from it, along with a better-known one from The War of the Worlds, as examples of the “peculiar interest.” The example is a futuristic office briefing that is not too heavy-handedly briefing the reader.
One can see why Amis selected this, as it is excellent of its kind. In 150 pages, it includes imaginative speculation and satire, a dramatic plot, a love story, and a Hero Who Learns Better. It deals with one of the pressing issues of the time, what Vance Packard called The Hidden Persuaders, a diabolical plot by the Mad Men of Mad Ave to brainwash the American people into buying whatever was advertised by means of the irresistible techniques of Freudian science. (It now appears that the whole thing gave Freudian science an empirical test and it failed, but we didn’t know that then.) The book often gets cited as an example of the predictive powers of sf. Ubiquitous advertising: check. Overpopulation: check. World run by multinational corporations: check. Interplanetary exploration: well, you can’t have everything.
It also appeared in and helped define two of the main sf institutions of the decade. Serialized in three issues of Galaxy, it then became the twenty-first Ballantine Book, published simultaneously as a 35¢ paperback and a more prestigious $1.50 hardcover with a front-matter and back-cover note assuring the reader that it was “an original novel—not a reprint.”
Kornbluth, alas, did not have long to live. In World War II, he had contracted an ailment with the remarkably evocative name of essential malignant hypertension. He was never really healthy thereafter, and in 1958 he died of a heart attack after shoveling the snow out of his driveway. He had written three further sf novels with Pohl and three by himself. He is probably best known for “The Marching Morons,” a cynical tale that tender-minded readers consider essentially malignant; but a more thorough look at his work, such as “Gomez,” shows the basic love of humanity that helps produce the best cynics.
Pohl, on the other hand, has flourished. Having contributed much fiction to Galaxy, he became its editor late in the ’50s, and in the ’70s he moved on to Bantam Books, where Dhalgren and The Female Man, among others, were published as Frederik Pohl Selections. He has kept writing fiction; Gateway (1977) won the Hugo and led off the highly successful Heechee series. He is now in his nineties; he had a new novel, All the Lives He Led, published in 2011, and at the time of this writing, he was blogging about a science fiction convention he had just attended.
Teachers have told me that when they include Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human in a science fiction course, the reaction tends to be distributed bimodally: “Why can’t it all be like that?” and “This is what I read sf to get away from.”
One can tell from the first sentence of the book that Sturgeon was doing something different. Most ’50s sf writers prided themselves on the transparency of their writing; i.e., it did not obstruct our view of the Good Stuff. As Molière might put it, they wrote prose because the only alternative was poetry. Sturgeon, however, begins his story with “The idiot lived in a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear.” He kept doing things like that, and it worked significantly more often than not.
The form, however, was less controversial than the content. Unprecedentedly in the field, More Than Human was a book about feelings and relationships. It introduced the concept of Homo gestalt, a small group of seemingly deficient people who come together to be much more than the sum of their parts. It takes a harrowing journey to get them there. Sturgeon looked unflinchingly at the cruelty and madness at the heart of many American families and towns, and he described it unsparingly; his characters suffer and sometimes are driven to inflict pain and even death. At the end, though, they turn out to be a literal example of the often euphemistic phrase “differently abled,” having psi powers that they can coordinate when they team up. They dream up antigravity, but that’s not what the story is about; the Gestalt is the point. In the next decade, More Than Human would become a popular text among those seeking alternative family arrangements.
Even the book’s construction was unusual: Sturgeon wrote the middle story (“Baby Is Three”) and placed it in Galaxy. Then, when Ballantine asked him for a novel, he added a beginning and an end. Sturgeon kept asking questions others were unwilling to. In 1953, he wrote a story called “The World Well Lost.” Today its treatment of the then-taboo issue of homosexuality seems condescending, but then it may have been actually scary. Sturgeon reported that one editor not only rejected it but warned all his colleagues to do likewise.
Sturgeon’s stories, many of them brilliant, have been collected in thirteen substantial volumes, but he is widely thought of as not having written enough, perhaps because he never wrote the Big Novel he was thought capable of. His remarkable stylistic tour de force Godbody was published posthumously, perhaps because he never figured out how to end it well.
The ’50s were a time when we all lived under the shadow of the Bomb, and sf and other fiction reflected the fear. Alexei and Cory Panshin say that science fiction, having predicted the Bomb, went into a tailspin and did not recover for years. There is something to be said for that, as there was at that point a plausible possibility that there would be no future, or at least not the kind science fiction had been dreaming of.
There had of course been speculations about that sort of thing even before the Bomb, notably Stephen Vincent Benét’s “By the Waters of Babylon,” and the possibilities included tales of resignation, never-say-die rebirth, and of course satire. Leigh Brackett wrote The Long Tomorrow, in which America has been devastated and the survivors have turned in revulsion from science and cities and other parts of civilization, bringing back a version of the technophobic faith of the Amish. Of course the old ways have not been entirely suppressed, and our protagonist sets out on a quest. . . .
It is a good tale, well told, but I have to admit that for some readers, including me, this sort of thing is just technically science fiction. It feels like the past, albeit a past we have moved forward to, and if I want to read about the past, I will read about the real past. The Collapse is, however, a continually important trope in the field. It has flourished in England, where it mirrors the fall of Empire and, as Jo Walton has suggested, can appeal to racist and other unpleasant forms of nostalgia. In any event, it is where John Wyndham and J. G. Ballard meet. Here in the States, it has been utilized by writers as diverse as Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy, and Jerry Pournelle, and the addition of zombies can make it even more fun for those so inclined.
The Long Tomorrow was an exemplar of that new (to sf) novelistic life-form that emerged full-formed between hard covers (Doubleday) without prior magazine publication. Leigh Brackett was an established figure in the field by the time of the book, known for the space-operatic tales of Eric John Stark. She was also (or primarily) successful as a screenwriter; in perhaps an unprecedented meeting of subcultures, she had collaborated with William Faulkner on the screenplay of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. She went on to contribute to The Empire Strikes Back. Many believe that she is responsible for most of the good parts of that film and perhaps even of the whole Star Wars series.
Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man did not fall under the rubric of “that which is called ‘science fiction.’” At that time, “horror” was not a marketing category, and the cover on the first edition called it “the most powerful tale of horror you will ever read.” It looked no less respectable than most of the paperback fiction of that time. (This was when Signet prospered by making William Faulkner books look like Erskine Caldwell books.)
Like so many protagonists in ’50s scary stuff, Scott Carey runs afoul of Evil Radiation, made worse by accidental exposure to insecticide. Unfortunately, he winds up with the size, rather than the abilities, of a spider. In fact, that scary cover shows him battling a spider of approximately equal dimensions, and it would appear to be a very good thing that he is armed with a pin.
It was not published as science fiction, but it thought like science fiction. The spider size is merely a stage in a gradual process of continuing diminishment, and in true sf fashion, Matheson explores the complexities of each new size. We see no end to the decrease, but rather than expecting to disappear, Carey has a science-fictional vision of the wonders of the microcosm he is about to enter.
The Shrinking Man is often discussed as an allegory of the horrors of suburban domesticity. It has been made into a movie twice, in 1957 as The Incredible Shrinking Man, when it was seen as demonstrating the symbolic emasculation of being forced into the domestic role, and in 1981 as The Incredible Shrinking Woman, after we had begun to notice that women have to live like that all the time.
The Shrinking Man first appeared in Gold Medal Books, a paperback original line best known as John D. MacDonald’s publisher. Matheson has always ranged among the genres, with successful science fiction, horror, and supernatural romance, as well as less known mysteries, war novels, and westerns. He has been extremely successful in getting his work into other media. Indeed, I Am Legend, his effort to give a scientific rationale to the vampire legend, beat The Shrinking Man’s record by being filmed three times, and he is also known for the films Somewhere in Time and Hell House and more than a dozen episodes of The Twilight Zone, including most famously “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
I had remembered Robert A. Heinlein’s Double Star with pleasure. Rereading it for this review, I liked it even more. It is not of course the sort of thing the Library of America was originally intended to enshrine, but it is excellent at what it sets out to do.
Lorenzo Smythe, an actor who is good but not as good as he thinks he is, is the Heinlein protagonist par excellence: witty, competent, opinionated but able to back up his opinions, with a few flaws whose repair will constitute a significant plot element. The tale is set in a Solar System in which other planets have been found to be inhabited, and the book’s main issue is dealing with a Martian race that is biologically and culturally different from the Terrans but unquestionably sentient. (A subtext that occasionally becomes overt is that the barbarous forerunners of the human spacefarers despised one another on the trivial basis of pigmentation.) Required to impersonate a political leader, Smythe grows into his role and learns to serve something bigger than his ego. The plot is cleverly constructed, the characters are well defined, and Smythe is a most enjoyable narrator.
Double Star was published in hardcover by Doubleday in 1956 and reprinted in paperback the next year by Signet. It won Heinlein the first of his four Best Novel Hugo awards. By this time, Heinlein was already referred to as the Dean of Science Fiction and not just by his publisher. He had pioneered the techniques of slipping exposition into description and dialogue that made Astounding a quantum leap above its predecessors. He had designed and executed a major Future History. He was in the midst of the series of “juveniles” (which would now be called YAs) that recruited a generation of readers.
Many consider Double Star the peak of Heinlein’s career; it is probably his most uncontroversially praised work. Thereafter, there was more debate: Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress appealed to widely differing audiences, though the author insisted they represented a single consistent worldview. Later works convinced many that whom the Gods would destroy, they first allow to write what they really want to. Still, Heinlein remains a towering presence in the field.
Alfred Bester begins The Stars My Destination in the way one must never begin a science fiction novel: with a lecture on the book’s main Nifty New Thing, a form of teleportation called jaunting. He gets away with it (as least with me) partly because his unnamed omniscient narrator is as much fun to listen to as Lorenzo Smythe. The whole book is like that: a tightrope walk over many pitfalls with the author simultaneously racing and pirouetting and never completely falling off. Randall Jarrell famously remarked that a novel is a lengthy work of fiction that has something wrong with it, but Bester abuses the privilege.
To wit: It is no secret that substantial elements of the book are lifted from The Count of Monte Cristo. (Defenders might say that Bester owes no more to Alexandre Dumas than Shakespeare did to Raphael Holinshed.) Gully Foyle, the protagonist, is intended to be a monster of revenge, but he goes beyond that. In one confrontation, the reader may infer that a rape has occurred between paragraphs. The world he lives in and many of the people he meets are as nasty as he is, and one plot element is the quest for something beyond ordinary torture. There are scientific botches; Damon Knight cruelly mocked the character who can somehow see all but the visible wavelengths. One could go and on.
And yet there is so much to like along the way. In an early story, Bester had a character recommend a strategy of “dazzlement and enchantment,” and it has become almost mandatory for critics to cite that phrase as a description of Bester’s writing approach. Here he dazzles and enchants over and over again. There is the strange and charming tribe of Scientific People. On a smaller scale, there is a delightful exchange of ritualistic insults when two characters discover that they are descended from rivals in ancient China. (“With all courtesy I shave your ill-formed eyebrows.” “Most respectfully I singe your snaggle teeth.”) There are a few enjoyable pages of typographic tricks invoking synesthesia, but not too many. The wild ride concludes with a giant ambiguity that could be either the greatest empowerment dream ever or the horrific prelude to a tale that can consist only of the words “Everything blew up.”
The Stars My Destination was also serialized in Galaxy, then published in paperback by Signet. Bester had already written The Demolished Man, a comparable work of flawed brilliance. Around that time he also produced a dozen or so remarkable short stories such as “5,217,009” and “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed.” In the ’60s he went off to the greener pastures of mainstream magazines as editor of Holiday. He returned in the ’70s, old, sick, and almost blind, and failed to add much to the luster of his early works.
Just as science fiction is frequently used for thought experiments in science, so imagined alien worlds can offer alternatives that shed light on religious issues. James Blish, though an unbeliever, was fascinated by questions of Catholic theology. In A Case of Conscience, he put a Jesuit on a spaceship to face new evidence on one vexed question: Suppose we encounter a world on which there appears to be no Original Sin. Could that mean the doctrine is false? Could it apply only to Terran humanity but not to others? Could it be . . . Satan?
A Case of Conscience started out as a novella of that name intended as part of one of the first efforts at a shared-world anthology, set on the planet Lithia. When that book failed, he placed the story in If magazine. He added a concluding episode, set on Earth, and the book was published by Ballantine. He later treated the book as part of a “thematic trilogy” on moral issues about the quest for knowledge, along with Doctor Mirabilis, a historical novel about Roger Bacon, and a diptych comprising Black Easter and The Day after Judgment, in which Satan is summoned.
Blish was a complex figure in the field. A Joycean scholar (one plot element in A Case of Conscience deals with Finnegans Wake), he joined Damon Knight to create a body of criticism that would treat science fiction as neither above nor beneath the methods by which mimetic fiction can be judged, and he was unsparing in his treatment of works that failed by his standards. Yet he is perhaps best known for his work in the déclassé area of media novelization. In his case, it might be called short-storyization, as he turned the episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series into twelve volumes of stories that were pretty much direct transcriptions of the shows. He also wrote an original Star Trek novel, Spock Must Die!, which is more highly regarded among appreciators of the subsubgenre. Along with A Case of Conscience, he is remembered for the inventive Cities in Flight quartet.
Who? by Algis Budrys, dealt with one of the major issues of the ’50s: the division of the world into American and Soviet blocs. That was a particularly important issue to Budrys, whose father was an official in the Lithuanian government-in-exile. The book has more lasting importance because of the philosophical questions it raises about personal identity.
Lucas Martino, an American scientist, is involved in a horrific accident and falls into Russian hands. They return him, or say they have done so, but what they return is a man in an ovoid metal mask that covers his entire head. There obviously is someone inside, but no one can be sure if it is Martino. The character of Martino and the question of how much of a human being can be replaced were well done, but time has not been kind to the book. There is no Soviet bloc anymore, and Martino’s identity could now be instantly determined from DNA evidence.
Who? was published as a paperback original in 1958 by Pyramid. It was reprinted several times in America and the United Kingdom, and at least twice it had an arresting cover: the man in the mask sitting down, smoking a cigarette, with wisps of smoke drifting out through the interstices in the mask. It could be seen as iconic of all too much science fiction: the gleaming metal future with the stupidity of the present seeping out through the holes.
Budrys also wrote Rogue Moon, an even more fascinating philosophical look at identity, this time via matter transmission, and the underappreciated Michaelmas and Hard Landing. He further contributed to the field with a series of thoughtful reviews in Galaxy and later The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The latter are now being brought back into print by Dave Langford’s Ansible Editions.
Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time was one of the first major looks at the concept of time travel and its use in the creation of alternate worlds. Paradoxically enough, this tale of influencing all times and spaces obeys the classical dramatic unities, taking place in a single room over the course of a few hours. (Some believe that Leiber, who came from a theatrical background, originally conceived the book as a stage play.)
The Spiders and the Snakes, two powerful forces about which we know little besides that they oppose each other, conscript humans from all times and places (thus giving the author a chance to create an elegant variety of voices) for the Change War, and the soldiers meet in The Place (outside ordinary time and space) for Rest & Recreation. (The sexual nature of some of the recreation is more openly hinted at than was common at the time. Cf. Miss Kitty’s house in the contemporaneous Gunsmoke.) They discuss the issues, and then someone sets up a time bomb . . . .
The Big Time was serialized in two parts in Galaxy in 1958, and it won the Hugo for best novel of that year. It was then reprinted as an Ace Double with a small collection of Leiber stories (also set in the Change War) on the flip side. The cover of The Big Time is particularly bizarre even by ’50s paperback sf standards. A curious-looking woman in a two-piece bathing suit with an unsheathed ax swinging from the waist is wielding an apparent Heathkit device that emits visible waves, which in turn cause a satyr and two more traditionally humanoid men to collapse.
Leiber is perhaps best remembered for his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales, landmarks of sword & sorcery, but he also gave us a great variety of graceful and eloquent tales covering such areas as science vs. religion (Gather, Darkness), future publishing (The Silver Eggheads), and academe (Conjure Wife).
A selection of this sort, being finite, inspires arguments about inclusion and exclusion. I could quibble about some of those included, but I see no disasters. Presumably, Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut were left out because they have their own Library of America books. Fahrenheit 451 would be a natural, but I conjecture that Ray Bradbury is likewise about to get his own book. In fact, I’m surprised that he doesn’t have one already. He was considered a credit to his genre in the ’50s, and his work from then is still appreciated. Robert Sheckley had not yet reached his prime as a novelist. (I am pleased to note, however, that his delightful short fiction has gained another form of mainstream acceptance. The book-publishing arm of the other New York Review has issued Store of the Worlds, a collection of 26 of his stories. I recommend it to anyone who does not yet have a Sheckley collection.) The elephant in the room (or not in the room) is Isaac Asimov, and I would recommend The Caves of Steel. It is important for its almost unprecedented successful combination of science fiction and formal mystery; it is still fun to read and I wish they’d found room for it.
If this set were nothing more than the nine novels in clean, well-edited editions on archivally acceptable paper at a reasonable price, it would be a good deal, but there’s more. The Library of America prides itself on its scholarly apparatus. They chose Gary K. Wolfe, who is best known for keeping us all up to date on the new science fiction books in his Locus columns, and is also a regular at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts and the author of Evaporating Genres and other excellent critical works. He has handled the job with thoroughness and aplomb.
For instance: The last time Alfred Bester was revived (by Vintage Books), readers noticed that The Stars My Destination’s famous phrase, “Vorga, I kill you filthy!” was replaced by the plonking “Vorga, I kill you deadly!” Here we learn that a British publisher had made that change, along with others (including an effort to reduce Americanisms) and the phrase was picked up by Vintage. The original text was, of course, restored here, and in general textual emendations are carefully made and noted.
The set also offers biographical essays on the authors and publication history of the novels as well as an extensive Notes section explaining obscure references from Adlai E. Stevenson to Gadzooks! and reprinting supplementary material such as the three chapters Galaxy editor H. L. Gold had Pohl and Kornbluth tack on to the end of The Space Merchants when he had more pages to fill, Blish’s explanation of relevant Catholic dogma and how he expected it to change (his one failed prophecy was that the rite of exorcism would be all but forgotten), and introductions to later editions of the books by Matheson and Leiber.
The Library of America has added further value outside the books. I direct your attention to the web site, which includes a gallery of covers for the books and the magazines from which they came, reprinted essays on the science fiction of the time by Robert Silverberg and Barry Malzberg, and appreciations of each of the books written by such intellectual descendants as Connie Willis, Neil Gaiman, and Kit Reed.
I thoroughly enjoyed this particular example of the Serious Literary World dragging science fiction out of the gutter.
Arthur D. Hlavaty lives in Yonkers, New York.