Inside the 50’s science fiction bubble

“American SF by the mid-1950’s was a kind of jazz, stories built by riffing on stories. The conversation they formed might be forbiddingly hermetic, if it hadn’t been quickly incorporated by Rod Sterling and Marvel Comics and Steven Spielberg (among many others) to become one of the prime vocabularies of our age.”

So writes Jonathen Lethem in his introduction to The Selected Stories of Philip K Dick. If you’re looking for that sci-fi conversation at its most hermetic, go read the 1956 celebratory anthology, The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction, Fifth Series. The collection reads like a series of bad inside jokes, although three stories make it worth the $2.50 I paid for it at my favorite source of vintage sci-fi. (Check out the full listing of this anthology at isfdb.org.)

So where did this collection go wrong? Well, it was probably was difficult to not go wrong. Most 50’s pulp sci-fi writers pretty much sound the same: the same prose style, the same genre clichés, the same kinds of short stories that rely for their success exclusively on some clever twist. In a blind test, I wouldn’t be able to distinguish the writers in this collection from one another. To me, Frederick Brown, Charles Beaumont, Damon Knight, and L. Sprague de Camp sound exactly the same. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (each represented in this collection) are also in many ways like these second-tier writers, except that they are, thankfully, simply better. Clarke and Asimov use the same plot twists and clichés, but they handle them with more skill than the average writer. Clarke and Asimov stand out by virtue being the best at what everyone else is doing. Those American magazine science fiction writers of that era who developed much more unique and subversive voices, particularly Heinlein, Bester, Sheckley, and Dick are missing in this anthology.

Like I said, the anthology presents a series of inside jokes. The collection is padded with little poems and proems, and a little flash fiction (stunts that weren’t any more compelling then than they are today). Several of the stories are parodies of science fiction stories: Richard Matheson has a post-apocalyptic yarn about a science fiction writer who ekes out a living cranking out stories for pulp magazines that survived the bombs. Another story purposely tries to fit in every classic SF cliché into five pages. In the serious stories, you’ve got mutants, telepathy, time travel, and giant space freighters, all pretty much operating the way mutants, telepthy, time travel and space freighters typically operate.

There are a few winners. Alice Jones’ post-nuclear bomb story “Created He Them” tells of a strangely unhappy couple that is one of the few in their community able to produce healthy, non-mutant children. It turns out that this was a forced marriage because this couple is one of the few that “breeds true”, and so a marriage relationship is painfully reduced to only its most biological essentials. Asimov’s story, “The Singing Bell” is about an attempt to commit the perfect murder, somewhat reminiscent of The Demolished Man. The plot works remarkably well, until the resolution, when Asimov flubs it with a completely unpersuasive ending.

The best story in the book is, of course, Walter Miller’s “A Canticle For Leibowitz.” Bits of what would be Miller’s classic novel began appearing in magazines during the mid-50’s, and this collection has the story that eventually turned in to the first chapter of the book. Fans of the novel might be interested this earlier version.

Although science fiction was increasingly moving towards book-length forms, much of the best science fiction of the 50’s came in the form of short stories. But, as you’d expect in any literary genre, mediocrity was common, and it takes a little digging to find the best works because many of the annual ‘best of’ volumes were padded with mediocre filler.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

10 thoughts on “Inside the 50’s science fiction bubble”

  1. I have no idea why people consider Damon Knight one of the greats (apparently FOR those silly pulp sci-fi stories he wrote)… I’ve read one of his novels and it was trash — his most famous short story is in a collection I’ll read soon — Special Delivery. I don’t have high hopes.

    1. You really have to be selective with many of these authors, which is why I’ve been on the lookout lately for good anthologies. Damon Knight has got one story in Dangerous Visions (a volume I’ve been meaning to read for a long time). I’m guessing that might be better than the 50’s Knight stories I’ve read so far.

  2. Hmmm, but critics generally consider his 50s short Special delivery his best! that’s what confuses me…. But yeah, I haven’t read Dangerous Visions yet — I will, I will!

    1. There is also The Country of the Kind (1955), picked by Silverberg for The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, vol. 1, which I also haven’t read yet. To be fair to Knight, I haven’t yet read a single story that ended up in his ‘Best of Damon Knight’, so I suppose I haven’t read him at his strongest.

  3. And speaking of odd choices for who is considered one of the great 50’s SF writers, I think the contents of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame short story volume is extremely telling. No Philip Dick, no Robert Sheckley, both of whom wrote stories that are easily much better than Clarke Nine Billion Names of God, and both of whose best 50’s works have aged much better than most of the stuff on that list.

  4. Since you mentioned Damon Knight… I’ve always thought of him as a better critic than a writer (and when he was writing, his short stories were generally better than his novels). I have some anthologies and genre histories of his, and they’re all pretty good. I wish In Search of Wonder was easier to track down, because the sections I’ve read from it are fascinating.

    Anyways, it’s a sad statement on the era when everything’s so generic, as F&SF was the “literary” SF magazine. (Hence the poems, lack of interior art, etc.) Then again, ’50s “literary” SF was often just as formulaic as “mainstream” SF since the definition wasn’t very broad (usually “try and do what Bradbury/Sturgeon/Matheson are doing”).

    Also, ’50s magazine editors loved really inane satire stories—that Matheson tale sounds like too many stories I’ve read from Galaxy, which loved its social satire. Tastes have changed; I find those satires trite.

    1. Yeah, Knight’s influence on SF seems to stem more from his role as an editor and critic.

      Looking back from our current vantage point, I suppose it should be no surprise that in any given year, the annual Best of F & SF volume should have a lot of mediocre stuff, because of course very little of anything that is written in any genre has real staying power.

      But what really struck me about this volume was not just the mediocrity, but also the feel that these writers were writing for each other and the in-crowd of readers – those inane satires really only make sense to someone who is already immersed in sci-fi.

      1. I think you’re on to something there. One concept I’ve seen crop up now and then is that early-years science fiction was badly ghettoized, even more so than the perceived “genre fiction ghetto” of today. Authors writing for that little niche of serious fans, instead of for readers outside it, sold well and gave that “in the in-crowd” feeling. But it kept the genre insular and aloof.

        The preponderance of mediocrity certainly didn’t help the genre any.

        1. There was probably a positive feedback loop going there – the more ghettoized the writers felt, the more they wrote for each other, and the more hermetic the writing became…

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