Posts Tagged ‘1950s Science Fiction’



(Gary K. Wolfe editor, Library of America, 2012)

reviewed by Chris Edwards

What novel best captures the ethos of the 1950s? Someone fresh from an American Lit survey course would likely reply, On the Road. But did Kerouac write anything which is still relevant to the structure of society today, anything that is now of more than literary interest? This is not to deride Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and the other Beat writers, but it is worth asking why they still tower over the 1950s in academia and literary circles.

To find a book which captures the spirit and environment of the ’50s, and is still relevant today, one can look to (or, in literary circles, look down on) The Space Merchants by Frederic Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, arguably the best science fiction novel of the 1950s. This is the first novel in the Library of America’s two-volume anthology, . Michael Dirda expounds on the book at the anthology’s web site, but his comments are off the mark.

The web site proclaims the book to be “Mad Men meets Phillip K. Dick,” which is not quite right. In regard to Dick, The Space Merchants is much lighter and much funnier than anything Dick ever wrote, and it deals with an external social reality (advertising and its influence) rather than the largely internal questions that obsessed Dick, such as the nature of self and the nature of perceived reality. In regard to Mad Men, The Space Merchants is about advertising, to be sure, but unlike Mad Men it doesn’t celebrate the 1950s as a lost paradise for white men. Instead, the novel freeze frames a crucial period in America where one’s identity came to be defined by what one consumes, and where people consumed garbage. The protagonist, Mitchell Courtenay, stands atop a powerful advertising agency, whose “creative types” and clients consider themselves to be both the pinnacle of evolutionary capitalism and the heirs to the poets of the Renaissance. (The old Marxist line about people associating wealth with intelligence or talent applies well here.)

The hierarchy is clear, and the advertisers pitch garbage to the lower classes. As the plot unfolds, Courtenay finds himself stripped of his identity and forced to maneuver amongst the slobs he spent his life manipulating. His subsequent rise, based purely on his talent, could have been penned by Ayn Rand if the authors did not slice so deftly at capitalism, and if they didn’t laud the “Consies,” an underground group of conservationists/communists organized in line with anarchist principles.

On the anthology’s web site, Dirda indicates that a major character, the astronaut and “little person” Jack O’Shea, becomes a sex symbol through the power of advertising. Not quite. This is science fiction and we should expect some science. The book has Jack O’Shea becoming famous because of physics; following the book’s premises, only someone a third of the size of a normal human could get to Venus on the small amount of resources allocated. Jack O’Shea is a clever construct, designed to solve a rather complicated problem the book posits about space travel. He just happens to get laid a lot because that’s how things are when a man gets famous, no matter how unattractive he is. (See Simmons, Gene.)

Unlike On the Road, The Space Merchants is still relevant. America is now largely populated by people who define themselves through their consumption. Grown men in leather chaps who ride Harleys, techies wearing and clutching gadgets, and Prius drivers who drink $4-a-cup free-trade coffee and chai tea all fit into the all-enveloping culture of consumerism. Kerouac missed it, but Pohl and Kornbluth got it. The futuristic world they created both reflected the 1950’s and foreshadowed the present.

The Space Merchants should stand as a major novel, not just a major science fiction novel.

(More on the other novels in American Science Fiction, Four Classic Novels: 1953-1956 in a future post.)

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Chris Edwards is the author of Spiritual Snake Oil. He is currently working on a science fiction novel concerning Holocaust denial.


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512XAamP04L._AA160_by Chris Edwards

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m not goingto write a better review of the classic science fiction novels found in The American Library’s American ScienceFiction: Classic Novels of the 1950’s anthology than those of the reviewers on the book’s web site < >. I don’t need the pressure of trying to compete with William Gibson and Neil Gaiman.

Here, we’ll briefly review James Blish’s A Case of Conscience and Fritz Lieber‘s The Big Time.

Blish’s novel features a Jesuit, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, who tags along with a UN team to an unspoiled planet inhabited by intelligent reptilians. Ruiz-Sanchez explains his presence on the trip to his uncomprehending colleagues by noting, quite correctly, that Jesuits always accompanied the grand explorations. Blish reportedly an agnostic, may be toying with Catholic sensibilities by having a priest try to convert reptiles, but the text reads as if the author was sincerely trying to imagine how incompatible ethical systems might clash.

Modern science fiction almost totally avoids questions of ethics, but A Case of Conscience puts forth an interesting ethical dilemma: what do you do when you encounter alien forms of ethics? Do you assert the superiority of your own or bow to the gods of multiculturalism? It’s easy to tell Catholics and fundamentalists to mind their own business when they attempt to impose their prudish sexual mores on others, but what about all of the child marriage and genital mutilation that takes place in the parts of the world the Enlightenment has yet to reach? Blish asks essentially the same question.

My favorite book in the second anthology–I’m saving the first anthology for a special time, which will be whenever I feel like reading it–however, was the last novel in it, The Big Time, a 1958 Hugo Award winner by Fritz Lieber, which reads at times as if it was written by a 12-year-old boy. It pits snakes versus spiders in a time-bending fight for stakes that are never made clear.

There’s no linear plot line in it. Instead,  there’s a stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative from a not-yet-thirty-year-old named Greta, who pops in and out of both historical events and romantic interludes with a variety of barely sketched characters. One needs to read Lieber’s novel  twice for it to make sense, and Gaiman’s essay on the web site is particularly helpful in this regard. Is the writing amateurish or does it deliberately depict the addled mind of someone who lives without the benefit of a timeline? Very probably the latter–of course time-travelers won’t think like you or I.

The novel is great fun, even with its depictions of baby-eating and Nazism. And how many times do you get to say that about anything?

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snakeoilcover Chris Edwards is the author of Spiritual Snake Oil and is hard at work on a science fiction novel about Holocaust denial.



(Gary K. Wolfe editor, The Library of America, 2012)

reviewed by Chris Edwards

The first volume of this two-volume set includes novels from 1953 to 1956, and the second includes novels from 1956-1958. This book is worth owning. The Library of America always publishes great looking volumes that can become collectors items, and the look and feel of its books enhance the reading experience. Gary K. Wolfe, or someone else at the publishing house, made the wise decision to leave the collection uncluttered by original covers and commentary, and instead outsourced this to The site features the original covers and commentary on the books from some of SF’s modern stars, such as Connie Willis and Neil Gaiman.

At this point; I’ve only read Volume II (because I’m the kind of guy who reads a two-volume science fiction anthology out of order with a pack of smokes rolled up in the sleeve of my white T-shirt). The volume includes Double Star, by Robert Heinlein, The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester, A Case of Conscience, by James Blish, Who, by Algis Budrys, and The Big Time, by Fritz Leiber.

Modern sci-fi fans will note a few major differences between these novels and more modern sci-fi novels. The first is how tight and concise the books are in comparison with the sprawling, seemingly unedited novels typical of most modern writers. Second, we all know that nobody but JFK got laid in the 1950s, so sex features not at all in any of this volume’s 803 pages. Compared to the sexual gymnastics one often finds in modern SF, this is quite a difference. Third, and most enjoyably, the early writers represented in this collection seemed to be free of the need to work esoteric physics into their stories. These works from the fifties tilt toward telling a good story rather than explicating science. (Since this is a general overview, I’ll say more about the novels themselves in future posts.)

Sci-fi fans rarely worry about whether or not the navel-gazing literary establishment takes science fiction seriously. Still, it’s nice to see the literary history of the genre receive serious treatment. The important thing about the Library of America’s anthology, and the complementary website’s solid treatment of the books, may be that at least some academics may finally be treating science fiction with the gravity it deserves.

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snakeoilcover (Chris Edwards is the author of Spiritual Snake Oil