You know, there are people out there who insist that you cannot write sf, or write about sf, until you have read everything. Yeah, I know: stupid! These days you can’t even read everything published in a year, so how are you supposed to read the thousands upon thousands of works from last year or the year before or …
Even so, sf has a brilliant history, and if you want to know science fiction you really should be familiar with some of it. So we’re going to start an irregular series picking out 10 key books from past decades that you really should read. Of course, this isn’t the whole story. There are some single years where there are more than 10 books that everyone should know. But it’s a start, and if you read all the books we list you’ll have a pretty damned awesome knowledge of the genre.
So, where do we start. We could probably pick any decade from the 1890s right up to the present, but let’s begin right in the middle: the 1950s. In the coming weeks and months we’ll dot forwards and backwards in time from this date, but this seems a good place to begin. After all, this was when the dominance of Astounding in the magazine market was being challenged by newcomers like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy, when the dominant mode of hard sf was being joined by a wider range of social science fiction. In other words, in America the so-called Golden Age was in full flower. Meanwhile in Britain the catastrophe story was producing a steady range of classics. In fact, if you were asked to name an archetypal work of science fiction off the top of your head, the chances are you’d pick something from the 50s.
So what should you read to get to know what was going on in sf during this tumultuous decade?
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury was never producing the same sort of work as his contemporaries, and most of his stuff tended towards horror or the fantastic, but every so often he would produce something that would electrify science fiction. The Martian Chronicles, a fix-up of short stories several of which had been previously published, was one such work. It’s an account of the human colonisation of Mars, but one that’s unlike anything you’ve ever read before.
For a start, there are shape-shifting Martians who gradually die out as the humans become established, but who still give an air of mystery and menace to the place. And the colonies that are established are exactly like small-town America of the 1950s, as if humanity is unable to leave their old world behind. Yet that old world is busy tearing itself apart. The Martian Chronicles is a bellwether for the change in tone and style of science fiction that is going to develop throughout the decade.
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Life in post-war Britain was still tough at this time; wartime rationing would continue for another three years, there was austerity, and even the weather seemed to be antagonistic with exceptionally harsh winters in the late-40s. Little surprise, then, that British science fiction of the period largely abandoned the optimistic, outward-looking American style for a pessimistic, inward turning mode dealing with ordinary people whose daily existence was turned upside down. Brian Aldiss has called this mode the “cosy catastrophe”, but in truth there was little that was cosy about it.
The epitome is The Day of the Triffids, with Britain hit by a double catastrophe: the majority of the population is rendered blind, and deadly ambulatory plants start to appear. If you want a sense of life in post-war Britain, this is the very best place to start.
Judgement Night by C.L. Moore
American science fiction in the 1940s and 50s was not exactly a welcoming place for women, but a handful of tough-minded women started to produce serious work that rivalled the best that the men could produce in this intensely masculine genre. Writers like Katherine MacLean, Margaret St Clair and Mildred Clingerman all emerged during this decade, but the best of them was probably C.L. Moore.
More produced a rich variety of work that ranged across Lovecraftian horror, fantasy and science fiction, sometimes in collaboration with her husband, Henry Kuttner (they tended to use the pseudonym Lewis Padgett). Although she did write the occasional novel, most of her very best work was as short stories, and five of the best of them were included in this collection, each displaying the rigorous thought and the colourful style that was typical of Moore.
The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth
1953 was an absolutely classic year for science fiction; just look at the other key works listed below, each of which is a masterpiece in its own right, but the one that has to stand out is The Space Merchants. When, at the end of the decade, Kingsley Amis was invited to give a series of lectures at Princeton, later published as New Maps of Hell, he took as his subject science fiction.
During the course of the lectures he introduced the term “comic inferno” as a way of representing the satire that he though sf did best, and to Amis the very finest comic inferno was The Space Merchants. The novel highlights the consumerism that was becoming such a big part of American society, and presents a world in which the advertising agencies rule. So many of today’s dystopias, in which business rules the world and profit outweighs morality, have their roots in this novel.
Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement
If writers like Bradbury and Wyndham and Pohl were indicative of a change of direction from the sf of the 1940s, we shouldn’t forget that hard sf was still going strong. Indeed, in some respects it was at its height. Both the archetypal hard sf short story (“The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin) and the classic hard sf novel (Mission of Gravity) were published in the same year, 1954.
Hal Clement didn’t believe in villains, nature represents enough of an enemy for any hero to overcome, and nothing shows that idea better than Mission of Gravity. The planet Mesklin has a gravity that varies from 3G at the equator to 700G at the poles, so when an expedition has to set out towards the pole to rescue a human probe, there are dangers enough all along the way. It makes for one of the most unforgettable novels in the entire history of the genre.
The Big Jump by Leigh Brackett
It wasn’t just hard sf that was alive and well in the 50s, space opera and the pulp tradition were still attracting a big readership, and nothing shows that better than this short novel by Leigh Brackett. The solar system is awaiting news of the first interstellar expedition to Barnard’s Star, but only one of the two astronauts comes back, and he is more dead than alive.
What did he find out in space, and can the missing crewman be rescued. Brackett’s approach to science fiction was always colourful, exotic and romantic (she was, of course, the screenwriter for The Empire Strikes Back), and this novel is high on drama if rather low on characterisation, but for a taste of the rich, exotic brew that was old fashioned sf, you won’t go far wrong with this novel.
Tiger! Tiger! by Alfred Bester
If we had to pick only one novel to represent the entire decade, it would have to be this one. It’s as bold and brash and freewheeling as the most extravagant pulp fictions that preceded it, and as wild and inventive as any of the science fictions that came after. It is, in other words, the hinge about which so much of 20th century science fiction turns.
Taking its plot from The Count of Monte Christo, the novel tells the story of Gully Foyle, abandoned to die in space he manages to survive to exact revenge on the people who left him to die. Along the way we get a tour of an extraordinarily colourful and vivid future filled with larger than life characters.
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
At first, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the atomic bomb was seen as a generally good thing that had ended the war. But as the 50s progressed, as more and more states acquired nuclear technology, the bomb began to be seen as the biggest threat faced by humankind. This dread permeated the fiction of the late 50s, and nowhere is it more dramatically expressed than in this novel.
Shute was not normally a science fiction writer, but here he essayed a bleak and hopeless glimpse of a near future. An atomic war has destroyed the northern hemisphere; in Australia, survivors gather, awaiting the inevitable fallout that spells their certain death. It’s a spare, haunting and powerful account of the very last days of humanity.
Who? by Algis Budrys
Coupled with the nuclear dread there was, of course, the threat of the cold war. Even without the ability to wipe all life off the face of the Earth, the unending and undeclared war between the United States and the Soviet Union threatened a dreadful future, with faceless spies and infiltrators making everyone a suspect. Films of the period, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, turned this fear into the idea that everyone will be turned into pod people.
Algis Budrys turned that notion into an extraordinarily powerful account of how the cold war engenders fear of the other. In this novel an American scientist working near the East German border is badly injured in an explosion. He is rescued by the Russians, but when they return him to the West he has a featureless metal head and no means of identification, and the story tells of the frustrating attempts to discover if he is who he claims to be.
The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
The 60s would be marked by a radical transformation of science fiction in the New Wave. If Tiger! Tiger! was an outlier for that change, this was the first hint of what was to come. The book is filled with all sorts of traditional science fiction elements, a war with Mars, the intervention of the alien Tralfamadorians, and so on. But they are presented in a way that is unlike anything science fiction had seen before.
There’s the “chrono-synclastic infundibulum”, where truth becomes like a quantum mechanical probability wave; there’s the way that both past and present are there at the same time; there’s the way that the entirety of human history has been shaped and manipulated to arrange for the delivery of a spare part to the Tralfamadorian who has been shipwrecked on Titan. Comic, iconoclastic, inventive, The Sirens of Titan is one of the novels that marks a sea change in the history of science fiction.
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.