The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1950s

In 1963, when I was 12, science fiction began imprinting on my brain, so that science fiction from the 1950s is how I define the genre.  All science fiction novels I’ve read in the succeeding fifty years are measured against those stories I  first discovered in my early teens.  That’s why I so completely understand the statement, “the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12.”  Younger generations of science fiction fans have since imprinted on science fiction via television shows like Star Trek, or movies like Star Wars, and even later forms of the genre that I don’t even understand like comics and video games.  Science fiction is very hard to pigeon-hole because its so radically different from generation to generation.  For me, science fiction is defined by certain books I first read in 1963, 1964 and 1965, and most of those were first published in the 1950s.  I discovered 1950s science fiction in libraries, as cheap paperbacks on wire racks, in dusty used bookstores, and most of all by joining the Science Fiction Book Club which often promoted the classic books from the 1950s.

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Sad to say, many modern science fiction fans don’t know about the science fiction I point to when I think science fiction.  That time is so far in the past that the Library of America has even published American Science Fiction:  Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, a two-volume boxed set, edited by Gary K. Wolfe.  The collection is almost an academic preservation of old, mostly forgotten, science fiction novels.

  1. The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
  2. More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
  3. The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
  4. The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson
  5. Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
  6. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  7. A Case of Conscience by James Blish
  8. Who? by Algis Budrys
  9. The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

To get a feel for capturing the science fiction novels of the 1950s, just take a gander at their companion website, especially their wonderful Timeline, and their short overview essays.  And you can pick up even more details about the decade by reading Arthur D. Hlavaty’s review in The New York Review of Science Fiction, or visit the Library of America Science Fiction Facebook page for more reviews to read.  Everyone remembers something different about the 1950s.

Now, here’s the funny thing, those nine novels aren’t the nine novels from the 1950s that would define my memory of 1950s science fiction.  Not that I am saying Wolfe selection is a bad, it’s just not mine.  Like the web site The Burning House, in which people take photos of their favorite possessions, the ones they would grab first while running out of their burning homes, my selection of 1950s science fiction novels would be different.

And there’s a further complication.  For the last decade I’ve been rereading many of those Oldie-Goldie science fiction novels from mid-20th century by listening to them on audiobook, and most of them are disappointing to me now, even though I thought they were wonderful back then.  Would a 12-year-old today discovering these books find them exciting, or would they seem dumb and quaint compared to all the modern books, television shows and movies of today?

In other words, if we are defining the classic SF novels of the 1950s do they have to succeed for Golden Age readers (age 12, remember) or for people of any age in any reading year?  For example, The Foundation Trilogy was mind blowing for me at 13 in 1964, but I found unreadable clunky at 59.  Conversely, I thought Asimov’s The Naked Sun was boring back then and page turning fascinating a few years ago.

So I have two views of 1950s science fiction in my mind, 1950s SF Classics from my 10s and 20s, and 1950s SF Classics from my 50s and 60s.  If I had been hired by Library of America to collect books that represent American science fiction in the 1950s I’d be torn between collecting those books I nostalgically remembered, and those books I felt held up over time.  But I’d also be troubled by collecting books I loved versus books I knew were well loved by others.

Ultimately such a collection is a burning house situation, you have to grab the ones you want to save, the ones you want people to remember, the ones you want young readers to discover.  Gary K. Wolfe made a great selection, but here are mine.

  1. Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
  2. City by Clifford Simak
  3. The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
  4. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  5. Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick
  6. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
  7. Brain Wave by Poul Anderson
  8. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
  9. Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement

I follow the precedent of only one book by any author, otherwise five of the books would be by Heinlein.

I previously felt there were zillions of great SF books from the 1950s, but when I did the research I found far fewer than my nostalgia remembers.  Below is a list of SF books that are vivid in my memory still, and  I constantly remember seeing at libraries, bookstores, garage sales, friend’s bookshelves, etc., when I first began looking for science fiction.  Library of America only publishes American writers, but I’m including the British ones I remember too.  The other thing I forgot is how many great 1950s science fiction books were collections of short stories.  The Foundation Trilogy is really three volumes of short stories.  Some books like City, A Case of Conscience or The Martian Chronicles, were called “fix-up” novels, but originally appeared as stories in the magazines.

So, here’s how I remember the 1950s, from my fading memories of the 1960s when I became addicted to science fiction.

1950
tnMartianChronicles
  • Cosmic Engineers by Clifford Simak
  • Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
  • First Lensman by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  • Fury by Kuttner & Moore
  • Galactic Patrol by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
  • Needle by Hal Clement
  • Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov
  • Seetee Ship by Jack Williamson
  • The Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon
  • The Man Who Sold the Moon by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
  • The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. van Vogt
1951
stars-like-dust
  • Between Planets by Robert A. Heinlein
  • City at the World’s End by Edmond Hamilton
  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • Gray Lensman by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  • The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
  • The Disappearance by Philip Wylie
  • The Green Hills of Earth by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
  • The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Stars Like Dust by Isaac Asimov
  • The Weapon Shops of Isher by A. E. van Vogt
1952
City
  • City by Clifford Simak
  • Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov
  • Limbo by Bernard Wolfe
  • The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
  • The Rolling Stones by Robert A. Heinlein
  • This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones
  • Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  • Takeoff by C. M. Kornbluth
1953
aginst-the-fall-of-night
  • Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Iceworld by Hal Clement
  • More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
  • Revolt in 2100 by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Ring Around the Sun by Clifford Simak
  • Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • Second Stage Lensman by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  • Sentinels from Space by Eric Frank Russell
  • Starman Jones by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Black Star Passes by John W. Campbell
  • The Lights in the Sky Are Stars by Fredric Brown
  • The Space Merchants by Pohl & Kornbluth
  • West of the Sun by Edgar Pangborn
  • Wild Talent by Wilson Tucker
1954
brain-wave
  • A Mirror for Observers by Edgar Pangborn
  • Brain Wave by Poul Anderson
  • Children of the Lens by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
  • Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement
  • The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
  • The Forgotten Planet by Murray Leinster
  • The Star Beast by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Stars Are Ours! by Andre Norton
  • Trouble on Titan by Alan E. Nourse
  • Untouched By Human Hands by Robert Sheckley
1955
of-all-possible-worlds
  • Citizen in Space by Robert Sheckley
  • Earthlight by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Earthman, Come Home by James Blish
  • Gladiator-at-Law by Pohl & Kornbluth
  • Martians, Go Home by Fredric Brown
  • Men, Martians and Machines by Eric Frank Russell
  • Not This August by C. M. Kornbluth
  • Of All Possible Worlds by William Tenn
  • Sargasso of Space by Andre Norton
  • Solar Lottery by Philip K. Dick
  • The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
  • The Chrysalids/Re-Birth by John Wyndham
  • The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov
  • The Man Who Sold the Moon by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Martian Way and Other Stories by Isaac Asimov
  • The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
  • Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
1956
double-star
  • Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Nerves by Lester del Rey
  • The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Death of Grass by John Christopher
  • The Human Angle by William Tenn
  • The Incredible Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson
  • The Man Who Japed by Philip K. Dick
  • The Power by Frank M. Robinson
  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  • The World Jones Made by Philip K. Dick
  • They Shall Have Stars by James Blish
  • Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Under Pressure by Frank Herbert
1957
doomsday-morning
  • Big Planet by Jack Vance
  • Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Doomsday Morning by C. L. Moore
  • Eye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick
  • On the Beach by Nevil Shute
  • Pilgrimage to Earth by Robert Sheckley
  • Star Born by Andre Norton
  • The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle
  • The Cosmic Puppets by Philip K. Dick
  • The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wynham
  • The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
  • They’d Rather Be Right by Clifton & Riley
  • Wasp by Eric Frank Russell
1958
a-case-of-conscience
  • A Case of Conscience by James Blish
  • Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Methuselah’s Children by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Non-Stop by Brian W. Aldiss
  • The Cosmic Rape by Theodore Sturgeon
  • The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance
  • The Lincoln Hunters by Wilson Tucker
  • The Time Traders by Andre Norton
  • Who? by Algis Budrys
1959
A_Canticle_for_Leibowitz
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
  • Dorsai! by Gordon R. Dickson
  • Immortality, Inc. by Robert Sheckley
  • Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Enemy Stars by Poul Anderson
  • The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  • Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick
  • Wolfbane by Pohl & Kornbluth

Now, I don’t know how many of these books are worth reading today.  I’m in an online book club for people who love classic science fiction, and many of the members prefer the old stuff, especially books from the 1950s and 1960s, but most of those members are like me, in their 50s and 60s, and when we all pass from reality, who will remember these books?  I doubt many science fiction books from the 1950s will be taught in schools in the future, but who can tell today.

For me, remembering the science fiction books from the 1950s is a nostalgia trip.  I tend to think the people who buy the Library Of America books will be people like me and my friends at the book club.  They are marketing these books to us old farts who have fond memories of reading that far out Sci-Fi.

JWH – 4/4/13

Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is probably one of the most famous science fiction writers to ever live, but few people remember his name.  At least ten of his stories have been made into motion pictures, but few people who have seen those films took the time to read the stories the films were based on.  Philip K. Dick was the first science fiction author to be published by Library of America, which seeks to issue the best American writers in uniform, durable and authoritative editions.  But when I bring up the name Philip K. Dick among my bookworm friends, most ask, who?

Why isn’t PKD more famous?  The easy answer is writers seldom become famous, even though most writers hope for literary immortality.

Movie stars, music stars, sports stars become household names with the citizens of our pop culture, but few writers do, and especially not science fiction writers. Philip K. Dick knew this back in the 1950s when he began writing.  He wanted to be more than just a science fiction writer selling stories to pulp magazines for a half cent a word.

How do writers become famous?  Write an unforgettable novel!  What’s the formula for doing that?  Did Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott know that formula when they wrote Pride and Prejudice, A Christmas Carol and Little Women, stories so famous they get a new film adaptation every decade or two?  Philip K. Dick’s success with getting filmed should have made him more famous, but it hasn’t.

Fame is of little value itself, other than to draw attention to artistic work that might be worthy of our attention.  That’s what all artists really want, to create something worthy of fame.  Philip K. Dick didn’t figure his pulp writing was worthy of literary fame, so he wrote a series of mainstream novels in the 1950s hoping to prove his writing ability at observing real life in Marin County, California.  Only one of those novels was even published during his lifetime, Confessions of a Crap Artist.  Phil’s fame rest entirely on his science fiction, and among science fiction fans, PKD had the reputation for being weird even among the denizens of the geeky, nerdy world of science fiction fandom.  I think that’s a shame because Confessions of a Crap Artist is probably his best and most sane book.

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Here I am claiming that one of a minor writer’s least famous books is his best.  How can that be?  I’m claiming that Confessions of a Crap Artist is as least as good as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, another book about marital conflict I’ve recently read.  And although I admired Freedom a good bit, I think Dick reveals better writing techniques for getting inside his characters’ heads than Franzen.  Freedom is more contemporary, sophisticated, and larger in scope, and thus more suited to modern readers, but my life resonates with Confessions of a Crap Artist, so I loved it more.

To me, the goal of literary novels, as oppose to genre novels, is to observe a place and time, and get into the heads of people to chronicle their emotion conflicts and growth.  Most bookworms prefer made up fictional worlds that have complicated plots and exciting characters that offer a thrill ride for their readers.  Often genre fans find literary novels to be about nothing in particular, and fans of genre novels, even fans of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novels, may find Confessions of a Crap Artist boring.

Confessions of a Crap Artist is about Fay and Charley Hume’s marriage falling apart and how it’s observed by Fay’s brother. Jack Isidore, a rather oddball child man in his thirties who sees the world in a peculiar fashion.   Jack is a science fiction fan, flying saucer nut, believer in crackpot ideas, thinks the world is hollow,  that Mu and Atlantis existed, that people can receive telegraphic messages.  He think fiction offers just as much scientific evidence about reality as nonfiction.  Charley Hume calls Jack a crap artist for all his weird ideas.  Jack Isidore’s extremely literal view of reality, and his poor social skills, makes me wonder if Dick had known someone with Asperger’s.  That should appeal to modern readers.  There are end of the world cults and mad shooters in this story too, that might also appeal to modern readers.  There’s a lot to 1959 that’s very much like 2013, and that might be a selling point too.

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So why should you read this book?  If publishers didn’t want to publish Confessions of a Crap Artist when Dick wrote it back in 1959, why should you want to read it now?  Internet Science Fiction Database shows it’s had a dozen editions from 1975-2012.  Now that’s interesting.  And that’s not even counting the audiobook edition I just listened to or foreign editions with alternate titles.  What’s going on here?  I’ve heard that 99% of all books never have a second printing, much less a second edition.  Could Confessions of a Crap Artist be a minor underground classic?

I first read Confessions of a Crap Artist when it came out back in the mid-seventies, and was very impressed then.  I read a couple more of PKD’s mainstream novels and thought they captured the 1950s wonderfully, but then I forgot about them.  Recently many of PKD’s novels have been getting new uniform editions in book, ebook and audiobook formats and I bought several on sale from Audible.com.  I started listening to Confessions of a Crap Artist just before New Year and was mesmerized by the writing.  Peter Berkrot narration for the audiobook perfectly captured the first person inner thoughts of the four main characters, Jack Isidore, his sister Fay, her husband Charley, and Fay’s lover Nat Anteil.

The book also captured many wonderful details that I remember about the 1950s.

Why remember the year 1959?   You could read 1959: The Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan, a book I’ve read twice because it’s so fascinating.  You could read some of the books that came out in 1959 to try and capture the feel of that year, but if you look at the list I linked to at Wikipedia, many of the books that came out that year weren’t about 1959, they were science fiction books about the future, like Starship Troopers or The Sirens of Titan, or they were best sellers like Psycho and Goldfinger, which I hope aren’t the real 1959, or books like The Tin Drum or Hawaii, which are histories of earlier times.

I remember 1959, but just barely.  I was 7 until November 25th, when I turned 8.  I was living in New Jersey at the time.  But over in California, Philip K. Dick was living in Marin County, and he wrote a book about life in his place and time that captures 1959 better than anything I’ve ever read before.  So why would a science fiction writer back in 1959 want to write about suburban life?  Well, Philip K. Dick told his publisher that he was quitting science fiction to write mainstream novels.  He wrote several novels before giving up, and returned to writing science fiction.  When he did, he wrote is science fiction masterpiece, The Man in the High Castle, which won a Hugo Award.  I’m thinking 1959-1960 was a peak creative period for PKD.

So you might be wondering by now, why I would be trying to convince you to read a book that no publisher wanted when it was written, and was only published by a small press just seven years before the writer died in 1982, and is over 50 years old.  Shouldn’t it be lame and dated?  For some reason Confessions of a Crap Artist amazed me.  It has a 3.63 average rating over that GoodReads, so not everyone is impressed.

Why am I so impressed and others aren’t?  I hate to encourage you to go buy a book and that you read and think, “What is that Harris talking about?  This book stinks!”

I’ve been reading and rereading books by Philip K. Dick most of my life.  I’ve read biographies about him, read countless articles and interviews about and with him, listened to tapes of his conversations and I even visited his gravesite.   I now think Confessions of a Crap Artist is Philip K. Dick’s best book.  First published in 1975, but written in 1959, and in late 2012 appeared on audio from Brilliance Audio, running 8 hours and 13 minutes.

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This still doesn’t answer:  Why remember the year 1959?  I’m not talking about nostalgia.  When we read Pride and Prejudice, are we learning about 1813?  When we read The Great Gatsby are we exploring 1925?  When we read The New Testament, are we time traveling back to 70 AD?  Yes and no.  A photograph or film of 1925 or 1959 is more revealing of what reality was like than a novel or even a nonfiction book.  Books give us words and ideas from a writer long ago.  So Confessions of a Crap Artist is really a tour of the mind of Philip K. Dick in 1959.  PKD was a certain kind of reporter about a very specific place and time.

Now I’ve mentioned before Dick was a weird guy.  He has a reputation for being weird, but Confessions of a Crap Artist is vivid, exact and very sane.  It’s a sane book about how everyone is crazy to one degree or another.  At first you think Jack Isidore is the only Joker in the deck, but as you read on, and get into the heads of the characters, you realize there are no normal people in this story.  By the time you finish the book you might be thinking there are no normal people in this world.

This is the second time I’ve “read” Confessions of a Crap Artist, or more precisely, I listened to it this time, and the narrator Peter Berkrot made it come alive in a vivid dramatic reading that caught the four principal characters perfectly.  Confessions of a Crap Artist is told through four first person accounts in a round robin order, so the reader feels like they’re inside the heads of Jack Isidore, his sister Fay Hume, her husband Charley, and Fay’s lover Nat Anteil.  This works much better on audio I think, especially with Peter Berkrot’s reading, because you actually feel the different personalities.  PKD did a fantastic job of thinking in different POVs.

Philip K. Dick is famous for writing science fiction, but Confessions of a Crap Artist isn’t science fiction.  To the public outside of the science fiction community, Philip K. Dick is known for several movies based on his novels:  Blade Runner, Total Recall, Screamers, Minority Report, Impostor, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Radio Free Albemuth and The Adjustment BureauConfessions of a Crap Artist was filmed in France in 1992 as Confessions d’un Barjo.  It’s not available on Netflix and is out of print at Amazon, but some used VHS copies are available.

Charlie Hume calls his brother-in-law a crap artist because Jack Isidore collects facts about the world that most people consider nutty, stupid or insane.  Jack looks to his science fiction magazines for scientific validation of reality.  He’s involved with flying saucer cults, and hangs out with people who channel past lives and believes higher beings are preparing the end of the world for Earth.

I remember my uncles talking about Bridey Murphy, George Adamski, Edgar Cayce, and other writers who used to pray on crap artists of the 1950s.  I thought my uncles were nuts.  Most people think the 1960s was when times got wild, but the real 1950s wasn’t Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best, it was much closer to The Twilight Zone.

Of course, I was a science fiction fan back then, and that was considered pretty nutty too.  Another thing I remember from the late 1950s and early 1960s, was how everyone wanted to go to a psychiatrist.  Fay Hume goes to her analyst three times a week and brags about it.  Fay does not work, takes care of two little girls, but uses her charm, good looks, and manipulative ways, to get ahead.  On the outside Fay is a model wife, community organizer, and charming.  Charley, her husband thinks she’s a psychopath.  Nat, her lover thinks of her as childish and willful, but totally alluring.  Jack, her brother sees Fay in a particular strange analytical way.

Charley Hume was like a lot of men I remember from back then, he was obsessed about getting ahead, owning a big car and house, and having a beautiful wife and kids to show off.   Think Don Draper from Mad Men.  Finally, Nat Anteil, is the young college kid who could have been a beatnik.  He worked part time, him and his wife rode bikes, wore jeans, and wanted to be intellectuals.  In a few years they would become hippies probably.  Confessions of a Crap Artist reveals itself as an embryo of the 1960s.  The 1960s wasn’t that radically different from the 1950s if you knew where to look for the seeds of the sixties.

On the Road, which came out in 1957 has a reputation for being the bible of the Beats, and people remember it as one of the defining books about the 1950s.  But it was really about the 1940s.  Ditto for A Catcher in the Rye, another 1950s classics.  I think Confessions of a Crap Artist is a detail painting of 1959.

Maybe given enough time Philip K. Dick will be remembered for his literary efforts in the 1950s, not because he wrote about the future, but because he wrote about the moment, his life in 1959.  I’d love to know more about his life then and who the models were for Jack, Fay, Charley and Nat.

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JWH – 1/7/13

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