Joachim Boaz has his excellent picks for the best 11 science fiction books of the 1960’s, and he’s looking for more opinions on favorite 60’s sci-fi.
Since I’ve spent the last six months focused almost exclusively on 50’s sci-fi, I’m not prepared to say much about the 60’s (but stay tuned). So here I present my picks for the best 11+ sci-fi novels of the 1950’s, with the caveat that I think most of the very best sci-fi of this decade came in the form of short stories, by Heinlein, C.M. Kornbluth, Robert Sheckley, Theodore Sturgeon, and a bunch of others. This means that when you’re browsing your favorite used book store for vintage sci-fi, don’t neglect the anthology section.
In chronological order:
The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury (1950) – A book of interlinked stories. Bradbury is the most poetic of 50’s sci-fi writers, and the highest praise I can give this book is to say that it is a Winesburg, Ohio, set on Mars.
The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (1951): A classic 50’s sci-fi horror story about a world overrun by carnivorous plants, this is one of the great examples of the excellent post-WWII British school of post-apocalyptic fiction. Wyndham writes with an understated clarity about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. And if you want more of this sort of thing, read Wyndham’s 1953 Kraken Wakes.
The Long Loud Silence, Wilson Tucker (1952) – I consider this The Road of the 1950’s – a brutal, graphic story of a survivor’s transformation into a monster as he struggles in a wasted, post-holocaust Eastern U.S.
Limbo, Bernard Wolfe (1952) – A proto-cyberpunk novel, set in a post-WWIII world of cyborgs. It’s an ambitious mash-up of Heinlein and Bester, disturbing in many ways, but hard to forget.
More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon (1953) – A fix-up novel of long short stories about a group of mutants who together form a new super-organism. One of the finest examples of the ‘next evolutionary step’ sub-genre, a genre which isn’t really grounded in any understanding of evolution, but which makes for great reading nonetheless. Sturgeon writes some of the most expressive prose in 50’s sci-fi.
I Am Legend, Richard Matheson (1954) – perhaps the very best zombie apocalypse novel, with a MacGuyveresque hero who is obsessed with the science of zombies.
The Chrysalids, John Wyndham (1955) – This is Wyndham doing an American frontier -style post-apocalyptic novel, involving next-evolutionary-step mutants in conflict with the religious fundamentalists of the frontier community. It’s focused on two key classic 50’s themes of tolerance vs. prejudice and the connection between technological and social progress.
No Blade of Grass, John Christopher (1956) – Perhaps the best entry by the next great member of the British post-WWII postapocalyptic sci-fi triumvirate (Wyndham, Christopher, Ballard). All grasses are dying off, which means many staple food crops are done for. A man and his family make the flight to safety as the British government turns on its citizens, the cultivated countryside becomes a hostile war zone, and once friendly fellow citizens become deadly enemies.
The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester (1956) – A sci-fi take on the Count of Monte Cristo story. Bester writes with a restless, rebellious cyberpunk sensibility that stands out from his more sedate 1950’s peers. Bester’s The Demolished Man (1952) is basically just as good.
Time Out of Joint Philip Dick (1958)- Even before his more famous 60’s novels, Dick was plowing his own ground outside the mainstream of sci-fi. This Truman-Show style story is much more psychologically focused than what you typically find in 50’s sci-fi.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller (1959) – A book in the epic tradition of post-apocalyptic novels (like Earth Abides). Monks preserve human knowledge over grand cycles of civilization’s rise and destruction. With its theme of preserving light and knowledge in the wilderness, Canticle is in some ways a fine sci-fi analog of Willa Cather’s beautiful Death Comes for The Archbishop.
Eden, Stanislaw Lem (1959) – This is written by the author who was just about to go on to write Solaris. Eden is a pulpy warmup for Solaris, and it shares the theme of the utter incomprehensibility of something alien. A rocket crash lands on an alien planet and the ship’s crew (consisting of a chemist, a physician, a physicist, a cyberneticist, etc.) try to figure out the meaning of the utterly bizarre alien civilization they encounter.
Runners up: I didn’t include those great novels that I would classify as more mainstream and less sci-fi: William Golding’s The Inheritors (1955), Pat Frank’s post-nuclear war Alas, Babylon, and Nevil Shute’s On The Beach. Also, I haven’t read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) yet, but this seems to be the key adult Heinlein novel to read of the 1950’s. I would also say that Clifford Simak’s City is worth reading, but I found that book extremely frustrating – it’s a book that captures both the worst and best traits of 1950’s pulp sci-fi. Check out my survey of post-apocalyptic fiction for more late 40’s and 50’s recommendations.