And our ongoing history of the key sf works takes a step backwards to the 1940s.
Two extraordinary events of 1939 had a profound effect on the science fiction of this decade. In the first instance, John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding. He didn’t just turn Astounding into the most important sf magazine of the period, but he encouraged a body of bright new writers, including Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, A.E. Van Vogt and many others, to follow his particular dictates about what constituted science fiction. This included the idea of the competent man, the insistence that humanity must always win out over other beings, and the adherence to scientific knowledge and the laws of the universe (except in matters like psi, which he championed). These new writers laid the groundwork for the hard sf that would become virtually the default form of science fiction for twenty years or more.
The other significant turning point from 1939 was, of course, the German invasion of Poland which began the Second World War. The war and its aftermath affected everything from the economics of publishing to the psychological effects upon those writers who were caught up in the conflict. Even after the end of the war in 1945, austerity in Britain where rationing, for example, lasted until the early 1950s, had a major effect upon how writers saw the world. While in America, in contrast, the post-war world saw an economic boom which resulted in much greater confidence in the future.
It is also worth noting that, especially in America, science fiction was now most at home in the magazines, the most significant work was often in the form of short stories. There were relatively few novels, and these often appeared originally as serialisations in the magazines (and in a number of cases it would be many years before they subsequently appeared in volume form). For this list we have still limited our choice to novels, so far as possible dating them according to their first volume publication.
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
We must never forget that, even at a time when American dominance of science fiction seemed absolute, the form was still being written elsewhere and in other languages. This short novel by a writer who was a lifelong friend and frequent collaborator of Jorge Luis Borges is unlike anything being written in English language sf at the time. A fugitive arrives on what he assumes is a deserted island where he plans to hide out, but before long he notices people wandering around the island in holiday clothes. Over time, he realises that they tend to turn up in the same places at the same time each day, and they do not appear to notice him. But he has fallen in love with one of the women before he discovers that they are a form of hologram, and then faces the problem of how to insert himself into their world so that he might be with the woman he loves. It is a novel that has had a tremendous influence, inspiring among others the haunting film Last Year at Marienbad.
Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp
This was not, as some have suggested, the first alternate history in science fiction, the form dates back to the late 19th century, but it was one of the most influential. After this, alternate history was established as a recognised and consistent part of science fiction. The story concerns a modern-day archaeologist who finds himself transported back to the 6th century, when the Ostrogoths have conquered Rome. Finding a way to survive, he starts to introduce modern innovations, including a printing press, newspapers, double-entry bookkeeping, and even a form of telegraph. Eventually, his influence spreads, and as a result of his interventions the Dark Ages never actually happen.
Other key works: The Aerodrome by Rex Warner
Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright
Okay, this isn’t exactly one of the great books of sf, though it is one of the great oddities. But then, 1942 wasn’t exactly one of the great years: it saw the original publication of Robert Heinlein’s novella, Waldo, and the war had now been going on long enough to see the emergence of books full of anxiety about what might happen if Hitler won, though examples of these, such as If We Should Fall by Marion White or Grand Canyon by Vita Sackville-West, tend not to be books that have stood the test of time. And none of them match the fabulous strangeness of Islandia. When Wright died in 1931 he left behind a massive manuscript about a utopian land called Islandia; his family worked for years to edit it down to publishable length, but even so this is a huge book. It has been compared to The Lord of the Rings in the scale and detail of the invention, describing a world that is antithetical to the business environment Wright had known, and in which women were as competent as men. It is one of the great, elaborate but eccentric inventions of sf.
The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse
Science fiction and the mainstream have never been as distinct as we sometimes like to think, and during the 1930s and 40s in particular there were lots of important books that hung somewhere between the two. This is one of the major examples of the phenomenon, a work on one level of futuristic science fiction that was instrumental in securing the Nobel Prize for Literature for the author. Set sometime in the 25th century, in a land called Castalia, a realm of austere intellectuals who devote their lives to the complex Glass Bead Game, which somehow brings all arts and sciences together. The novel tells the life story of one man who eventually rises to the position of Magister Ludi, but who simultaneously comes to question the nature of the society he inhabits, and whether it is right for intellectuals to divorce themselves from the problems of everyday life.
Sirius by Olaf Stapledon
The philosopher, Olaf Stapledon, wrote a series of complex novels in which characters struggle in different ways with the nature of their relationship to the universe, the failures of their spirituality, and the reality of their humanity. This is perhaps the most accessible and moving of them. It tells the story of Sirius, a dog who, as a result of experimental treatments, achieves a human level of intelligence and an ability to talk. This uplift, however, does not suit him for either a dog’s life or a life among humans. His quest for spirituality proves frustrating, and the more he exhibits human characteristics the more he is shunned by human society. At its heart, this is a love story involving the dog and the girl he was raised alongside, but even this proves incapable of withstanding the shock of his engagement with human society.
An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley
Inspired by the ideas of J.W. Dunne laid out in the monograph An Experiment with Time, which argued that all moments in time are ever-present but experienced serially, J.B. Priestley had, throughout the 1930s, written a series of what he called Time Plays. The last and best of these was An Inspector Calls, which was first performed in Moscow in 1945. The play involves a prosperous Edwardian family, the Birlings, who are visited one night by a man calling himself Inspector Goole. Goole tells them that a young woman has died that evening. The family say they know nothing about her, but by questioning them in turn Goole reveals that each member of the family not only knew her but had played a significant part in her downfall. When Goole leaves, the Birlings discover that there is no such police inspector, but just as they begin to relax they receive a phone call to tell them that a girl has indeed died and the real police are on their way.
Slan by A.E. Van Vogt
It is possible that no other novel has had as much of an impact on science fiction fandom as this one. Even recently there are still those who proclaim “fans are Slans”, a claim that represents the fannish notion that they are special, superior and persecuted. Slans are the next stage in human development, they are super strong, super intelligent and they are able to read minds. But they are also hated by most ordinary people. The novel tells the story of Jommy Cross, a slan whose mother was killed when he was a child and who must grow up in secret and on the run, but as an adult he becomes a super scientist who can save the world.
Away from the Here and Now by Clare Winger Harris
In American science fiction, the 1940s was a time when some women writers, like Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, Margaret St Clair and Judith Merril, were just beginning their careers. But there had been women writing sf before this, though they were already starting to fade from consciousness. One such was Clare Winger Harris, who had been the first woman to appear in the sf pulps. She had appeared regularly throughout the 1920s and 30s, with stories that, unusually for the period, often featured strong female protagonists. But by the time this, her only collection, was published she was forced to resort to a vanity press, though her work has been regularly republished since then. Containing such subtle and powerful stories as “The Fate of the Poseidonia”, “A Runaway World” and “The Ape Cycle”, this is a telling reminder of how much early science fiction owed to women writers, and how easily they could be written out of history.
Beyond This Horizon by Robert Heinlein
Heinlein’s first novel had been serialised in 1942. It’s set in a utopian future where, thanks to genetic engineering, everyone bar a few “control naturals” is near enough a superman. It’s a strange society in which most people carry arms, duelling is common, and production is so advanced that low quality goods are actually more expensive than high quality. The story concerns Hamilton Felix, the most advanced superman in existence, whose quest to continue his line and produce a son who is a genetically perfect human allows him to examine his society and discover why it is worth preserving.
Other key works: The World of Null-A by A.E. Van Vogt.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
George Orwell’s last novel, written during his final illness in 1948 (hence the title) and published not long before his death in January 1950, is probably the most famous dystopia in all of literature. Phrases from the book such as “Big Brother is Watching You” and “Newspeak”, “Room 101” and “doublethink” have entered the language and are widely used by people who probably have no idea where they come from. The story, which is inspired by Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We, which Orwell had reviewed in the 1920s, but which also draws on Orwell’s wartime experience at the BBC, concerns a lowly functionary, Winston Smith, whose job is to rewrite history depending on the ever-changing policies of the Party. His hatred for the Party comes out when he falls in love with Julia, but they are arrested and tortured, and Winston ends up loving the Party.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.