Science Fiction: 1951

We like to think we live in the present, interacting with the now, but how much of our conscious awareness is influenced by the past?  Much of Christian thought can be tied to the year 1611, when the first edition of the King James Bible was published.  But the stories in that book go back to the dawn of civilization.  Last year when I was listening to the Old Testament on my iPod I realized I was listening to thoughts that were thousands of years old.  Wouldn’t it be fun when recalling a thought if we also visualized its inception dates?

Every external idea in our mind originated sometime in the past, and for many big ideas we could probably date their origin, like the heliocentric hypothesis of Copernicus from 1514.  Actually, there can be two dates for each idea, the first, for when it was created and the second, for when we acquired the idea ourselves.  I didn’t hear about Copernicus’ revolutionary insight until grade school in the 1950s.

H. G. Wells invented the time machine in 1895, but when did you discover it?  Wells’ idea came to me via the classic movie in 1962.  Our minds are filled with ideas of all sizes, from tiny fleeting thoughts about reorganizing the kitchen cabinet, to magnificent giants like evolution.  They can be scientific, religious, political, philosophical, personal and so on.  And ideas are hard to transmit, often coming to us in fragments and distorted.  For those people who reject Darwin’s brilliant vision into how mother nature works, it could be because they never experienced the thousands of ideas that Darwin discovered before he formulated his hypothesis.  Nor have they experienced the millions of ideas  scientists have explored to verify that evolution is far from theoretical.

Let’s pretend I want to write the most brilliant science fiction novel for the year 2011.  This is a much smaller ambition than understanding evolution, but still quite complex, so let’s also pretend that lazy-ass me is willing to to do some major research.  I could start with the year 1818, for when Mary Shelley created Frankenstein, and try to make a list of all the great breakthrough science fictional ideas that were put forth since then.  After doing this research I’d have a good genealogy of the science fictional tree of knowledge and whatever branch I followed to place my novel, I should be in good shape for imagining the next bud.

Well, I’m not going to actually do that, I don’t have the time, but it would be a wonderfully fun project.  Instead, I’m going to test the idea out on 1951, the year I was born, and build a list of science fiction books that were published in 1951 that I consider major, and are still remembered today, and add to that list any major story that appeared in a SF magazine in 1951 that’s I’ve read or can research, and finally ice the cake with important science fiction movies from the same year.


I’m a science fiction addict, which explains why I’m intrigued with the idea of dating all the great science fictional ideas, but you could do this too with your own favorite subject area.  Hell, this idea itself popped into my mind when I noticed that the book I’m reading, The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, came out in 1951, the year I was born.  This got me to thinking about the state of science fiction that year.  Bradbury is a cautionary writer, so his science fiction seems afraid of the future, but then again Heinlein’s The Puppet Master didn’t paint a rosy picture either.  Nor could you find upbeat escapism by going to the movies and watching The Day the Earth Stood Still, When Worlds Collide and The Thing From Another World.

How in the world did I grow up thinking science fiction paved the way for exciting futures?  The most famous science fiction novels of the 20th century to the world at large are Brave New World, 1984, A Clockwork Orange and Slaughterhouse Five.  When did the future become a Disney destination – well certainly not in 1951.  Or maybe all the gosh-wow sense of wonder stories of 1951 where not the big public movies, but the cherished stories that only the fans embraced.

All around the world in 1951, but mainly in the U.S. and Great Britain, science fiction writers were creating their visions of the future.  Few people took them seriously.  Some of their tales are still in print today, The Illustrated Man is set for its second movie production, and a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still came out last year.  Why is science fiction from 1951 still being read and seen today?

I’ll work with these books:

And consider these anthologized stories from the magazines:

And use these memorable movies:

We stand 57 years into their future and know what will happen.  We can judge the hopes and fears of the people of 1951 and psychoanalyze their paranoia.  The opening story in The Illustrated Man, “The Veldt” is about a high tech nursery that is a lot like the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Bradbury’s story worries that technology will change the children of his times.  How do you interpret a story where the kids kill the parents with their futuristic nursery?  But wasn’t Bradbury right?  The innocent minds of 1951 don’t exist anymore.  If Ray Bradbury could have known what the Internet shows the children of today wouldn’t he have written an even scarier story?

Juveniles delinquency was one of the major problems people feared in the 1950s, so what if Bradbury could have foretold the Columbine massacre?  I include Catcher in the Rye in my list because it was probably the best literary novel of the year, and decade, but it also represented the same kind of fears about children changing that Bradbury was writing about.  Children were rejecting innocence, turning against the status quo and their parents and this scared the bejesus out of the conservatives of the times.

What we have to do is imagine what it would be like to be an average Dick or Jane in 1951 encountering these stories for the first time.  My father and mother, George and Virginia, didn’t have a clue about science fiction, but let’s imagine them going to see The Day the Earth Stood Still.  How many Americans, much less citizens of the world, really believed in aliens from other planets?  The UFO craze started in the late 1940s, so the idea was in the news for people to ponder.  Of course there had been the 1938 scare when Orson Welles broadcast H. G. Wells story of The War of the Worlds that terrified millions.  Even my parents told me about that when I was little.

By 1951, anyone in the U.S. that wasn’t too poor to have a radio or TV set had been exposed to the idea of aliens from other planets.  Another popular movie of the year was The Thing From Another World.  With two movies, three major science fictional concepts were inserted into the public mind:  interstellar flight, wise powerful beings not mentioned in the Bible, and intelligent robots.  Science fiction readers had known about these concepts for decades, but in 1951 the number of SF readers were very small.

Because of the atomic bomb in 1945, the idea of a man-made end of the world event had also been introduced to the public.  That idea was more powerful than alien visitors, because Klaatu and Gort’s real purpose was to warn us not to wipe ourselves out.  Then George Pal produces When Worlds Collide to let us know there were other ways for life on Earth to end, and John Wyndham gave readers yet another idea of how human life could be threatened.  Heinlein even combined the fear of Reds with the fear of aliens.

Many of the SF books and movies that came out after 1951 were about the end of civilization, or the end of mankind, or the end of the world.  The paranoia of the 1950s is very hard to top, but occasionally a writer will try, and Cormac McCarthy recently succeeded vividly with The Road.

Fritz Leiber’s classic a “A Pail of Air” reminds me of the film When Worlds Collide, because they each have a roaming astronomical body coming into our solar system and changing life on Earth.  In Leiber’s story, a dark star pulls Earth out past the orbit of Pluto, and in When Worlds Collide, a movie based on the 1933 book by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, two planets from outside our system get captured by the Sun, and one destroys the Earth.  Ever since I’ve been reading science fiction as a kid I’ve been living with hundreds of ideas on how our world might be destroyed.  I guess that’s no big deal because before science fiction, religious people lived with the idea that God would stomp our world.  Maybe science fiction end of the world stories are just variations on biblically inspired end of the world tales.  However, to me, rogue stars and atomic wars seemed far more real than the wrath of God.

Science fiction is never very far from religion.  In “The Quest for Saint Aquin” Anthony Boucher, the legendary founding co-editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, pictures a future where religion is threatened.  This story promotes the great science fictional idea of machine intelligence, and even suggests if pure AI thinking can believe in God, then why shouldn’t humans.

Now here’s an original SF idea that has not been carried forward to the present and evolved?  I guess people don’t believe that AI and robots will also believe in God?  I’ve never thought they would, but what if they did?  Here’s a potential story idea.  However, this reminds me of a famous joke from the 1950s.  Scientists wanted to know if there was a God, so they built a giant IBM machine and fed it all knowledge and typed in the question:  Is there a God?  They got back:  There is now.

1951 was a long time before most people thought that space travel could be real.  Most of the public when they thought of rocketships to the Moon and Mars pictured them from what they learned in the Sunday comics reading Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon.  They didn’t know they were just six years from the Russians orbiting a satellite and a decade before the Russians put a man into orbit.  The future was closing in far faster than anyone knew, except for Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov.  These men ruled 1950s science fiction as a triumvirate.

Heinlein’s 1950 classic film Destination Moon helped the public to realistically picture the first mission to the Moon.  Clarke and Heinlein wrote stories and books about early space explorers to nearby destinations.  Asimov thought huge and promoted the major SF idea of a galactic civilization, much like the Roman Empire, but spread across thousands of star systems.  Asimov’s vision wouldn’t attain wide public recognition until Stars Wars in 1977, with a good bump from Star Trek in 1966.

By 1951 Heinlein and Clarke were writing stories that realistically tried to show astronauts working on the Moon and Mars.  In the tiny world of science fiction fans, these ideas were ancient, but I think Heinlein and Clarke felt if a fictional idea was ever to give birth to reality they needed to promote space travel to millions.

How does someone born in 1966, the year of Star Trek, and 1977, the year of Star Wars, feel when they discover these ancient ideas for the first time?  1951 is Darwin voyaging on the Beagle, while 1969′s Armstrong’s giant step for mankind is science fiction’s 1859′s On the Origin of Species publication.   It’s the time between a few thinking about an idea till when the idea hits the public in a big way.

If you turn on Turner Classic Movies and eventually watch every movie from 1951 except for a handful of SF films, you will begin to get the idea of just how little that world of 1951 thought about the great ideas of science fiction.  In 2009 you can’t escape these ideas unless you live in that proverbial cave like a fundamentalist Muslim, and I bet even cave dwelling terrorists have thought about aliens from other worlds, space travel, and intelligent robots.

The question is, will in 2051, or 2151. how many of the great science fictional ideas of the 20th century will still be around?  How many will have come true and how many will be thought of as quaint fantasies of ignorant people of the past, like the Oneida Community?

And what if I continued my research, could I show how 1911, 1921, 1931, 1941 and 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991 where different from 1951 regarding the evolution of science fictional ideas?  It would take a lot of work, but I think the answer is a definite yes.  Could I write a novel to be published in 2011 that would stand out with radically new evolutionary science fictional traits?  I don’t know if I can do it, but I’m hoping someone will.

JWH – 2/14/9

8 Responses

  1. “a famous joke from the 1950s”: That’s Fredrik Brown’s flash fiction piece “Answer“. I might have misspelled author’s first name.

  2. After I finished WHO SHAPED SF, i seriously considered doing a follow-up book which would be a year-by-year look at sf, starting with the year Mary Shelley wrote FRANKENSTEIN. I took notes on the book for awhile, eventually putting it aside for the Nanking book, and never getting back to it.

    But it’s still a possibility after retirement when I have more time for it.

  3. Tinkoo, I didn’ know I was remembering an actual science fiction story. In my mind it was joke told in a magazine with a cartoon. Maybe others have stolen Brown’s idea.

    Bob, I hope you do get to work on the project because it will save me a lot of work. I tried to get my online Classics of Science Fiction book club to do it as a joint effort but it didn’t generate much interest. This would be a great collaborative project like Wikipedia. Maybe the two of us could set up a wiki and Tom Sawyer some others into working on the idea.

  4. Excellent post, Jim, but note that science fiction IS fiction. SF authors aren’t attempting to predict the future, and a SF idea is only part of a book (in some cases, the least important part). Authors are trying to write a good story, and so they look at ideas from that perspective.

    Everything you said is true, and ideas ARE a big part of science fiction, but I hate to see SF reduced to ideas alone. First and foremost, it is fiction. If you want to look at ideas alone, you’d be better off looking at science (as you did with Copernicus), don’t you think?

    And if you really wanted to write “the most brilliant science fiction novel for the year 2011,” I doubt if making a list of past SF ideas would help much. You might indeed come up with the most brilliant new SF idea of 2011, but that would not guarantee you even a good book, let alone a great one.

    I very much like your idea of looking at science fiction of the past, and even just the great SF ideas of the past. And I completely agree that science fiction – all literature, probably – reflects its time. But it’s easy to exaggerate that. There are many, many ideas always percolating through our society, and frequently, they are the timeless questions of life, love, happiness, morality, justice, etc.

    And the primary goal of any science fiction author is just to write a good story. That’s why we read it. IMHO, we look back at classic science fiction from 1951 not just because of some unique idea or because it popularized some scientific concept, but because it was a darn good read.

  5. Oh I agree Bill completely, that the most important aspect of fiction is to tell a human story, and science fiction must do this as well as be far out. But within the science fiction community if you want to stand out I think you have to invent a cool idea. Usually, it’s just a twist on an old idea, but SF readers love a good gimmick to go along with the story.

    I think one reason so many SF writers repeat old ideas is because their ideas are actually new to them. They don’t know the field. You can write some stunning stories with old ideas though, for instance Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Hyperion is creative by containing so many ideas in one story. But if you want to write a brilliant SF novel, you have to think up something like Neuromancer or Snowcrash or like Heinlein did in 1941 with “Universe” and “Common Sense.”

  6. The best sf novel of 2011 should be one that starts a new branch, ideally. Hard to predict, yes?

    And quality of story/writing/characters is not going to be the defining element of a great science fiction story. Sure, it should have them, just as all fiction should have them, but then why make such a thing science fiction? It had better have a great idea and show us something new about ourselves in its reflection, or the story might as well be any other genre.

  7. I don’t know. Authors borrow ideas, themes, plots, etc. all the time. How many of even the great science fiction ideas have really been invented by that author?

    I do agree that ideas are more important in science fiction than in other genres of fiction, but I don’t believe the idea itself makes great science fiction. It’s only the starting point. And an author can take an old idea but look at it differently or investigate the implications more fully.

    Some science fiction is idea-heavy, some isn’t. Some is character-based, some examines age-old themes in new settings. I don’t want to limit science fiction too narrowly, because some of my favorite science fiction contains no new SF ideas. And I’ve read science fiction that was full of scientific concepts and interesting ideas, but just wasn’t very good.

  8. [...] fiction reference book together.  We wondered if would be fun to write the book I imagine in Science Fiction: 1951.  Then I got to thinking, when is it better to write a stand-alone book compared to when [...]

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