Author Jonathan Lethem has an apt description of science fiction in the 40’s and 50’s (PDF):
At the time [Philip Dick] entered the field, science fiction was preoccupied with genuine scientific developments, space exploration boosterism, and a super- rational cognition. Where everyone else was writing about extrapolation and thinking hard about real possibilities, Dick was attuned to the unconscious, the irrational, the paranoiac, the impulsive. His stories had a wildly hallucinatory nature that he treated as if it were rational.
Now, the stories of the other science fiction writers were not as rational as they claim. They were quite in the grip of a fabulating imagination or wish fulfillment. They were writing fairy tales more than they acknowledge. But Dick engaged in the most direct and distinctive way with the undertow of terror and the irrational in contemporary technological society. That’s why science fiction was important to begin with, because it addressed the fact that we were living in a technocratic age when traditional arts, literary and otherwise, didn’t have much to say on this and didn’t find a lot of vocabulary for acknowledging the increasing rate of change and what it did to the experience of ordinary life. Science fiction in its clumsy, mawkish, embarrassing way was taking the bull by the horns.
This is along the lines of what I was getting at in my post on John Wyndham.
I endorse what Lethem says about mainstream literature of the time – it’s very difficult to find literature (at least English literature that I’m familiar with) from the 1940’s and 50’s that deals directly with our post-WWII transformation into a technocratic society.
One fascinating theme from the sci-fi of the era stands out, one that could have provided extremely rich ground for mainstream writers. That theme is this: given the amazing power of physical science to manipulate human nature, what should we think of an equally powerful science of human nature, one that would allow us to organize society on rigorous scientific terms?
Most Golden Age sci-fi writers were optimistic that such a science of human nature was possible. Ray Bradbury was an exception, but Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Clifford Simak’s City and Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (think psychohistory) are prime examples of that optimism.
Personally I find that optimism stunningly naive, even for the 1950’s. Nevertheless, to their credit it was sci-fi authors who were almost exclusively dealing with science’s effects on society and how we view society, and with how scientific thinking can affect (in unpredictable ways) how we relate to each other.
Mainstream literature caught up later, but by then, the peculiar spirit of the 1950’s had passed, and disillusionment with institutions and establishments had set in to a much larger degree.