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10 essential sf books of the 1930s

By / October 17, 2016 / no comments

Continuing our occasional history of science fiction, we drop back in time to the 1930s. In America, the pulp magazines were now going strong with a host of space operas by writers who are now often forgotten. It was only at the end of the decade, when John W. Campbell took over the editorship of Astounding, that science fiction began to take on the form that would be familiar for the rest of the century. But that is a story for the 1940s and onwards, for now science fiction was still work that still appeared largely in novel form. Science fiction short stories were still largely restricted to a specialist audience in the pulps; though it was during this decade that publishers responded to the early death of Stanley G. Weinbaum by bringing out a collection of his stories aimed specifically at that audience, so there is evidence that science fiction was becoming an economically viable genre.

Meanwhile, it was a dark decade in many respects. The stock market crash of 1929 had ushered in the Great Depression which, in America and throughout Europe, brought mass unemployment, homelessness, and incredible hardship. And this economic collapse itself helped to set the stage for the emergence of the Nazi Party in Germany, the repression of Stalin in the Soviet Union, the tightening of its grip on power of the fascist government in Italy, Japanese military adventures in Manchuria and China, and Civil War in Spain. With waves of unrest, political crises, and widespread crime waves in France, Britain and America, not forgetting the Dust Bowl in America’s central states, it was a time then the national psyche in just about every country in the world was scarred. And those circumstances inevitably found expression in the science fiction being written during the decade.


Last and First Men: A Story of the near and far futureLast and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

A dense, austere novel with no identifiable characters that starts in the devastation of the First World War and ends billions of years in the future with figures we could barely begin to recognise as human, and written by a philosopher, is hardly a recipe for a bestseller. But though Stapledon’s future history hardly had the verve or the mass popularity of Robert Heinlein’s later take on the idea, it was still a book that had a pretty instant impact, and has remained in print pretty steadily ever since. Moreover, the book had a tremendous influence on the history of science fiction, directly affecting the work of writers as varied as Arthur C. Clarke, Stanislaw Lem and Stephen Baxter. The novel is a bravura account of 18 distinct future races of humanity that rise and die out, spread across the solar system, change their nature, decline into forms that seem on the verge of extinction, and emerge triumphantly as something that seems completely alien. This vast and complex future history seems to encompass everything that science fiction imagined for decades to come.

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If it Had Happened OtherwiseIf It Had Happened Otherwise edited by J.C. Squire

Alternate histories, or counterfactuals as they are sometimes known, have always had an ambiguous relationship to science fiction. While they have long been a recognised part of science fiction, with examples dating back to the 1880s, they are also used by military colleges to examine ways that the outcomes of particular battles might have been changed (reputedly, whenever Waterloo is wargamed, Napoleon almost invariably wins), and they are also used by historians to examine other turning points in world affairs. There are now quite a lot of collections of alternate histories edited and largely written by historians, but this was probably the first. The names of the contributors is a pretty impressive list, G.K. Chesterton, Harold Nicolson, A.J.P. Taylor, G.M. Trevelyan, but perhaps the most intriguing item in the book is one of Winston Churchill’s rare forays into science fiction: “If Lee had not won the Battle of Gettysburg”. Incidentally, this is a book you probably want to seek out second hand.


Brave New WorldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley

This has to be one of the classic science fiction novels of the 1930s. It picks up on all sorts of contemporary fears about eugenics and mass production, unemployment and authoritarianism and state control of the individual, yet gives them all a twist such that it still feels relevant today. The World State appears to us to be a dystopia, but it is actually a benevolent dictatorship that has established stability, where the social and economic upsets of the mid-20th century no longer exist. Everyone is content, everyone has their place, everyone has perfect health. But when a “savage” is brought into this civilization, both the inherent strengths and the weaknesses of the society are revealed. Huxley later revised his ideas about this World State, which he expressed in his essay, Brave New World Revisited.

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When Worlds Collide (Bison Frontiers of Imagination)When Worlds Collide by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer

The world was heading for catastrophe, and from the mayhem of the world people saw around them stories of global disaster would emerge in works like the original Flash Gordon strip by Alex Raymond in 1934 as well as this novel; the atomic dread that followed the Second World War would see these ideas re-emerge in the films and novels of the 1950s, led, not entirely coincidentally, by the film version of this novel. When Worlds Collide begins with the discovery of two rogue planets entering the solar system. When they pass close to the earth on their inward journey they would bring immense destruction, but worse still, one of the planets would swing around the sun and return to destroy the earth. The only hope is to build a ship large enough to carry survivors to the second of the two planets, which coincidentally is capable of sustaining life. All around the world, governments engage in frantic efforts to build such ships, but since only a few thousand people at best can be rescued, the biggest obstacle to success proves to be the mass of humanity who are doomed to be left behind.

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Strange InvadersThe Strange Invaders by Alun Llewellyn

Alun Llewellyn was one of those strange characters who sometimes drift into the edges of science fiction for reasons of their own. He was a lawyer and poet and one-time parliamentary candidate, who also wrote political satires. This book, his one science fiction novel, continues the mood of doom and disaster that we have already seen in When Worlds Collide. Long after a final world war has wiped out most human life on earth, a small fragment of civilization survives in Russia behind the walls of an ancient technological structure whose function is no longer understood. In a distortion of Christianity, Marx, Lenin and Stalin have become the holy trinity. Meanwhile, outside the walls are the Tartars, whose violence is feared by all. But then the Tartars are themselves defeated by a new breed of giant lizards, and it becomes obvious that these strange invaders are due to inherit the earth.

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Land under EnglandLand Under England by Joseph O’Neill

By the middle years of the decade, Mussolini had been in power in Italy for over ten years, Hitler had now established a one-party state in Germany, and the fascist forces of General Franco were poised to invade Spain. The rise of totalitarianism across Europe seemed unstopable, and dread of such authoritarian states began to shape the fiction being written at the time. This odd subterranean tale is a powerful example of the type. In Northern England, a man finds a way to get under the Roman wall in a quest for remnants of Roman civilization; when the son sets out to seek his father, he discovers descendants of a Roman legion whose minds have been stripped by telepathic means. The journey becomes a nightmare in which the son’s individuality is pitted against the soulless totalitarianism of the Roman army.

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War with the NewtsWar with the Newts by Karel Capek

Capek, who had already given us the word “robot” in his play R.U.R., now produced an astonishing satire about the fragility of human civilization in the face of the totalitarian threats of the modern world. A new race of newts is discovered that are intelligent and able to communicate with humans. At first they are exploited, initially in harvesting pearls, later in a variety of underwater projects. But the newts, organised in the Salamander Syndicate, begin to demand payment for their work in the form of technology and even weapons. Thus humans are complicit in the growing power of the newts, who eventually announce that they must destroy much of the Earth’s landmass in order to create more living space for themselves. In the end, humanity will be reduced to a small body of people confined to a tiny remaining bit of land and working for their newt masters.

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Swastika NightSwastika Night by Katherine Burdekin

By the late 1930s, Hitler’s rise to power seemed uncontrollable, and his aggression made another war appear inevitable. Appeasement was still popular among politicians, but more and more people felt that war was approaching quickly. Moreover, it seemed likely that Hitler would be the victor. In the aftermath of the Second World War, there was a string of alternate histories presenting a world in which Hitler won, though behind them was always the comforting knowledge that in fact he had been defeated. In the run up to the war, there was no such comfort, but even so a few writers began to examine what might happen if he did indeed win. The best of these was by the feminist writer Katherine Burdekin, though it was published originally under her male pseudonym, Murray Constantine. Set seven centuries in the future, with the Nazi Empire controlling all of Europe and Africa, and the Japanese Empire controlling Asia and the Americas, Hitler is now seen as a gigantic blond Nordic god while the role of women has been reduced to little more than animals. An English visitor to the holy site of Germany begins to uncover some of the truths behind the Nazi myths, and so starts a new revolution.

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Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy (Paperback))Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Out of the Silent Planet, the first part of what would become the Cosmic Trilogy, was written in response to what Lewis saw as the dehumanising character of contemporary science fiction. Therefore, Lewis deliberately set out to write a book in which incorporates many of the familiar elements of science fiction, a journey through space, an alien world, encounters with alien beings, but all put at the service of a humane and by extension a Christian message. Ransom is kidnapped by Weston and Devine and taken to the planet Malacandra, which turns out to be Mars. He is intended as a sacrifice, but manages to escape and learn the Martian languages. As a result, he learns that Mars is more spiritually advanced than Earth, whose guardian spirit or Oyarsa has been restricted on the orders of the ruler of the universe. Through the greater knowledge and compassion of the Martian Oyarsa, the evil schemes of Weston and Devine are revealed and the three humans are returned safely to Earth.

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The New AdamThe New Adam by Stanley G. Weinbaum

Stanley G. Weinbaum was the great hope of American science fiction in the 1930s who died tragically young. His very first story was “A Martian Odyssey”, published in July 1934 and still recognised as one of the great classics of the genre, but less than a year and a half later he died of lung cancer. In that short period he wrote more than 20 stories and three sf novels; most of the stories and all of the novels were published posthumously. This was the first of the novels to appear, and probably the best of them. It’s a variation on a theme that was oddly popular in science fiction during the first half of the century, including Another World by J-H. Rosny aine, The Hampdenshire Wonder by J.D. Beresford, Odd John by Olaf Stapledon and Slan by A.E. Van Vogt, the story of a superior being who is isolated from humanity because of their superiority. Weinbaum’s New Adam is Edmond Hall, who is born with a double brain that allows him to compose beautiful poetry and consider Einsteinian physics at the same time. Despite making astonishing inventions he gets no pleasure from the pursuit of knowledge, he has no interest in either ruling or assisting humankind, and his love life comes down to a contest between a sexually attractive human and a plain but intellectually stimulating mutant. It’s an odd but powerful book, and a tantalising glimpse of what Weinbaum might have achieved had he lived.

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