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March/April 2013
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

Current Issue • Departments • Bibliography

by James Sallis

American Science Fiction Novels of the Fifties, ed. Gary K. Wolfe, Library of America, 2012, boxed set, $70.

Volume One, 1953-56: The Space Merchants, More Than Human, The Long Tomorrow, The Shrinking Man

Volume 2, 1956-1958: Double Star, The Stars My Destination, A Case of Conscience, Who?, The Big Time

THOSE among us who have looked up and around of late may suspect that there's a willful co-opting of genre underway. Celebrated mainstream writers without apology squeezing out science fiction, fantasy, and crime novels. Tussles online and off. Social-networking writers declaring that "literary" is simply another genre rife with its own blind spots and conventions. Or my favorite by far: Colson Whitehead admitting he'd rather "shoot himself in the face" than suffer through another literary vs. genre discussion.

So let's just clear our throat and move along. Nothing to see here.

Except. In the fifty-plus years science fiction has been an integral part of my life, I've watched waves lap in and recede, and I've walked among shoals of fish gasping on the strand. It has always seemed to me—a notion brought up repeatedly in my criticism—that a periodic return to science fiction's origins has been essential to restoking its fires. The same is true, I think, of the crime novel. That something muscular, primitive, even a bit shabby lies at their heart and accounts in part for their impact and power.

And now, it appears, the rest of the tribe's got onto us.

Previous Library of America volumes include historical anthologies of science fiction and fantastic tales, books from Shirley Jackson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H. P. Lovecraft, three collections devoted to Philip K. Dick and two to Kurt Vonnegut. This latest entry celebrates the golden age of the science-fiction novel, a time in which signature idioms were being established and the field's ambition—its reach—rose like flood waters. These novels for which many of us paid thirty-five cents or a dollar in drugstores and bus stations and used bookshops have traded in their overalls and worn jeans and got dressed up to go into town.

It's a beautifully designed, beautifully produced set. Attractive box, comfortably sized volumes with some heft to them, great repro covers, good paper. And with Gary Wolfe editing, one can be sure of taste, knowledge, and discernment.

Beware though, aged children, of nostalgia rolling in like a wind across the plains. Many reading this column will have little need of plot summaries or reminders because these stories have become a part of who we are. I can remember where I was when I read each of these books the first time, the specific light, the sounds of traffic or insects or birdcalls around me, the clip-clop of rain on a roof.

Many too, I suspect, may find themselves of two minds regarding this enterprise, pleased with our little plot of land's having gained such recognition (See, we knew all along!) yet feeling at the same time a tug of loss for what has been so resolutely and privately ours.

As condiment for the novels themselves there's a great deal of ancillary material at the Library of America website ( This includes personal introductions for each novel by current writers such as Tim Powers, Neil Gaiman, and William Gibson, an introduction and two other brief pieces ("Historical Context" and "Why the 1950s?") by editor Wolfe, and a reprint of Robert Silverberg's essay "Science Fiction in the Fifties: The Real Golden Age."

Citing this very magazine's debut in 1949 as "the first harbinger of the new era" along with Galaxy's advent the following year, Silverberg reminds us that:


"Until the Fifties there was essentially no market for science fiction books at all. The paperback revolution had not yet happened; the big hardcover houses seemed not to know that science fiction existed…. All that changed in the Fifties. The mighty house of Doubleday began to publish hardcover science-fiction novels steadily, soon joined by Ballantine Books, an innovative company that brought its books out in simultaneous hardcover and paperback editions. The sudden existence of willing publishers was all the encouragement the new writers needed: and suddenly we had dozens of splendid novels in print in book form."


All today's science-fiction writers are deeply indebted to the dominant Fifties writers, Bob insists, to Bester and Sturgeon and Sheckley and Pohl and the rest, "for the fundamental body of ideas and technique with which they work today," a thesis well served by the nine novels selected here.

What may surprise is how well these novels hold up. Witnessing corporate artful dodger Mitch Courtenay prepare for battle—"As I dressed that morning I ran over in my mind the long list of statistics, evasions, and exaggerations that they would expect in my report"—it occurs to us that Pohl's and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants isn't showing its sixty years much at all. English 101's verisimilitude and Aristotle's recognitions right there on the page. And its teeth are still good.

The wondrous voice and language of Theodore Sturgeon gleam untarnished in More Than Human:


"The idiot lived in a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear. His clothes were old and many-windowed. Here peeped a shinbone, sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers of a fist. He was tall and flat. His eyes were calm and his face was dead."


Leigh Brackett's bildungsroman still grabs you from the first sentence, The Long Tomorrow, a template by which we measure hundreds of tales of social repression and relapsed civilizations. Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man, diminished to less than a pinpoint, gains vision of the world's true vastness and possibilities:


"He stood in speechless awe looking at the new world with its vivid splashes of vegetation, its scintillant hills, its towering trees, its sky of shifting hues…Scott Carey ran into his new world, searching."


The Chilean poet Vincente Huidobros wrote: Invent new worlds & be careful what you say.



And that's just the first volume. We move then from social satire, shrinking men, shriveled civilizations and inchoate superbeings, to dramatized theology, political intrigues, the nature of identity, and individuals suspended in wars so all-embracing as to be the only existence they can ever know.

Talking about books that changed one's life is right up there with "making a difference" and "giving something back" on my list of blathermouth cliches. But two of these novels proved of tremendous importance to me. More Than Human, along with much of Sturgeon's work, first stirred within me the urge to write, and first brought me to consider that such might be possible. When years later, an earnest poet, I turned back to the science fiction I'd loved as a child, it was this novel and Bester's The Stars My Destination that I read and read again. Breathing them in, getting them in my blood.

"Bester strips the dross from classic mechanisms of fiction," William Gibson writes on the LoA website. "It made most of the rest of its assumed genre look hick."

And of More Than Human, Kit Reed remarks:


"It's still risky, exciting and fresh.… He showed me how to open [my stories] up.… He uses timing, cadence, selection, everything at hand to shape his story so organically that there's no separating the story from the telling."


This is about imagination and story. We mature, we create ourselves as human, by mimicking those around us, form gradually becoming content. We attain civilization by identifying with other individuals of our group. And we compose our own individuality, our selves, by patching together the stories we find around us: structures upon which we will superimpose our lives.

The stories we choose, or allow to be chosen for us, are important.

And that does often seem a central theme in these novels. Father Ruiz of James Blish's A Case of Conscience struggles to reconcile the stories by which he's led his life with the new reality he sees around him. Bester's Gully Foyle rewrites the given narrative of his life. The problematic robot of Algis Budrys's Who? is patently a revision, perhaps a whole new edition, of Lucas Martino. Robert Heinlein's Double Star with its spitballing actor is about becoming what we pretend to be, as a person and as a society. In The Big Time, Fritz Leiber's characters try to see one another and selves in the fog of stories that seem all event, with no glue, no true narrative, to hold those events together.

Leigh Brackett's juvenile protagonist in The Long Tomorrow speaks for all of us forever reaching, hoping to lay hands on the story that will keep us afloat: "Oh God, you make the ones like Brother James who never question, and you make the ones like Esau who never believe, and why do you have to make the in-between ones like me?"

Not to say that, for all this collection's fine representation of the period and the excellence of the novels, there are no flaws or faultlines. The legs work great, but as with all of us so grandly aging, there's the occasional limp and stagger. And sometimes, for a sentence or two, we kinda, you know, forget what we were going to say?

So, yeah, The Space Merchants's loose-jointed structure may creak in the wind a bit and leave readers at times wanting. Stereotypical Fifties male attitudes therein may rankle others. Here and elsewhere, the humor is often broad and can fall flat. A pervasive Cold War presence tends to anchor the Budrys to the past, as do strains of Freudian psychology in Bester and Sturgeon, while, by contrast, the very ungrounded nature of the war and of existence itself in Leiber's novel, along with the demands it makes on the reader, may frustrate. Admittedly, too, the language does upon occasion cluck and sputter. But for the most part—though they do occur—this literature is not about great prose and beautiful sentences. This is about story: stories that strive to find their way into recesses of mind that harbor our great myths, right up there alongside Jung's archetypes, and to remain.

Tim Powers says of Who? that "Algis Budrys was one of the handful of literary geniuses who have found that science fiction is the field most open to the exploration of their deepest personal convictions." These novels were written to sell, yes, and to be read; but there is to each a sense beyond the commercial, a sense of necessity, of an individual leaning close to tell us what matters.

I tell my students that science fiction, arealist fiction of every sort, puts a frame around mankind's existence, the same thing that all literature does, but then pulls back, well outside the frame, to have another look. In an unassuming, natural, story-based manner, science fiction can ask the big questions. What are we? Where do we come from, where will we go? What is identity and can we buy some? Must I live the life dealt me, or can I trade up? How do I learn? Is what I see real?

In one of my first published stories, disguised as an aged, world-weary poet, I wrote, "I suppose when I was a young man I cared nothing for history of any sort." All literature builds on what came before, of course, but not in a progressive manner. The arts never reach some pinnacle of activity and achievement; instead, they forever circle back, loop and reboot, repeat themselves, put on new hats, reinvent themselves. Every journey is as much from as it is to. I was fortunate enough to read these novels fresh off the tree, and eventually to meet several of the writers. Many of those writers are gone. The books remain. Perhaps it's important that today's readers and writers, cruising faultless interstates, glance in their rear view mirrors at the county roads we have so recently left?

Collections such as this from The Library of America bring us to consider anew what we've perhaps passed by too quickly, or what we've too long taken for granted. Connie Willis's comments on Double Star speaks to all these novels: "Heinlein's novels of the 1940s and '50s shaped every single science fiction writer of my generation and everyone currently writing science fiction."

Damon Knight said that as writers we're magpies, stealing shiny things from other nests. Lots of shine here. Gold we are still mining.

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