The version of science fiction presented by Wolfe is one where new approaches and subjects are being tried out for the first time. Sometimes this experimentation is stylistic, as in Theodore Sturgeon’s “More than Human” (1953). Sturgeon was one of the first sf writers to aspire to something more than “transparent prose,” here centering his narrative around some remarkably intense streams of consciousness. His story of outcast humans building a new identity for themselves still carries an emotional punch. Algis Budrys’s “Who?” (1958) is also experimental, although in a different way. It’s a study in Cold War uncertainties: Is the masked man released by the Soviets the scientist Martino, injured in an accident and surgically rebuilt? In “A Case of Conscience” (1958), James Blish uses sf to create, of all things, a theological debate about innocence and the Fall. And Leigh Brackett’s “The Long Tomorrow” (1955) also tackles the anxieties of the age, in this case nuclear war.
At the same time, some of these authors are plainly intending to entertain. Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s “The Space Merchants” (1953) is a feisty satire of Madison Avenue advertising ethics that cuts even today. Heinlein’s “Double Star” (1956) shows that this author still had chutzpah to burn even after his astonishing emergence in the 1940s. Richard Matheson’s “The Shrinking Man” (1956) has the simplicity and drive of a nightmare. And Bester’s “The Stars My Destination” (1956) remains one of sf’s emblematic works: a gaudy, picaresque tour around the solar system that riffs on “The Count of Monte Cristo” while pushing at the boundaries of how style might embody content.
One could, of course, quibble with the selection. It will surprise many that Isaac Asimov is not represented here, especially since his finest single novel, “The End of Eternity,” falls in this period. The same could be said of Ray Bradbury, whose “Fahrenheit 451” first appeared in book form in 1953. I regret more the absence of Jack Finney’s “The Body Snatchers” (1955), which expresses the paranoias of the age even better than “Who?”
The only book Wolfe has included that I would have omitted is Leiber’s “The Big Time” (1958). Leiber was a major writer for more than five decades, and his attentiveness to the rhythms of language marked him out among his contemporaries. But this tale of a “Change War” fought by time travelers has always struck me as congested and slightly contrived: The plot depends on that old cliche, a bomb set to detonate but with a delay just long enough to defuse it. Leiber’s “The Wanderer” (1964) would be much more representative a selection if the LoA produces volumes covering later periods. The same could be said of any of a dozen Leiber short stories.
That brings up a larger point: A selection of novels can give only a partial picture of American science fiction in this period. This was a time when writers established themselves through short fiction and when novels (such as several of those included here) were first serialized in short-fiction magazines. Moreover, a number of major writers of this period did their best and most characteristic work at shorter lengths. So it is to be hoped that future LoA volumes will rectify this gap.
The year after Wolfe’s selection finishes, Philip K. Dick published his first major sf novel, “Time Out of Joint” (sadly omitted from the LoA’s three volumes devoted to him). Dick’s work brings with it a far more radical set of questions than these novels: How certain, for instance, is the reality that we appear to be living in? What if science cannot be trusted as a guide to truth? These quandaries played themselves out in the sf of the next decade, but that’s another story.
Sleight lives in London and is the managing editor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.