American science fiction: Where to begin?

December 6, 2012

Why start here? That is the most obvious question prompted by these two handsome volumes from the Library of America. They represent the LoA’s first attempt to argue for a canon of science fiction, but they start in the middle, in the 1950s. American science fiction began — at least as a self-conscious written tradition — when Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories magazine in 1926 and filled it with what we now think of as pulp sf. Starting in 1937, John W. Campbell’s editorship of Astounding brought what he considered a more hardheaded realism to the field. The writers he championed, most obviously Robert A. Heinlein, came to represent a kind of default voice of American sf: savvy, up-to-date, impatient with mundane fools who might not find plausibility in the idea of humans traveling to the moon. But the monolithic influence of Astounding slowly waned. In the following decades, authors such as Alfred Bester and Fritz Leiber came to prominence, writing in metaphorical modes whose lack of focus on scientific certainties Campbell would not have found comfortable. Other magazines, such as Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction, began to flourish. The 1950s were when sf relaxed into pluralism.

It should be said straightaway that Gary K. Wolfe’s selection of these nine novels is very fine both in the quality of the works and their claim to be representative of the field. His editorial notes, too, are extremely thorough. He sticks to original texts, for instance, reserving some cutting words for the 1996 “restored” edition of Bester’s “The Stars My Destination.” And the book jackets and slipcase reproduce some evocative sf art of the era.

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.

AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION

Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s

Edited by Gary K. Wolfe

Library of America. 2 vols, 1,672 pp. $70

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