Sunday, September 9, 2012

P/review: 'American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s'

American Science Fiction: 
Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s 
Edited by Gary K. Wolfe
(Library of America)

Cover images from

     I'm still enough of a fan of science fiction, and irked by the contempt expressed for it by "serious" critics, that I get a thrill that the prestigious Library of America has elected to publish nine classic novels from the 1950s in two volumes due out this month. (They've already published three volumes devoted exclusively to Philip K. Dick).
     I haven't read all of these, but I've at least heard of them. Several were selected as the best science fiction novel of the year when first published. Others are regarded as the best work of the author(s), and some are nearly forgotten classics.

      The novels are:
Volume 1:
     The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth
     More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
     The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
     The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

Volume 2:  
     Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
     The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
     A Case of Conscience by James Blish
     Who? by Algis Budrys
     The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

    Naturally not everyone is going to agree on which nine novels from an entire decade are most worthy of selection, and the title doesn't claim these are the best novels, but I still quarrel with a couple of the choices because I don't feel they are even the best examples by the chosen authors.
     Alfred Bester is well-worthy to be in such a collection, but Wolfe has picked his novel The Stars My Destination (also, and more appropriately, known as Tiger, Tiger), which (in high-concept terms) is The Count of Monte Cristo redone as science fiction. Some people think this was Bester's best novel, and apparently Wolfe is one of them. I've never warmed to it however, and feel that his earlier novel, The Demolished Man -- in high concept terms, a science fiction detective novel -- would have been a far better choice. Not only is it my favorite novel of his, it also won the very first "Hugo" Award (named for pioneering science fiction magazine editor Hugo Gernsback) given out for best SF novel of the year by the members of the World Science Fiction Society (a fan organization) at its annual convention. 

     (Volume 2 is almost entirely made up of Hugo winners for best novel. The only exception: The Stars My Destination!)
     Demolished Man takes place in a future in which telepaths are almost a privileged class, dominating many professions, including the police. Their presence makes it almost impossible to commit a crime and/or get away with it. In the novel, a man tries. The penalty for trying is "demolition," a punishment much dreaded but which is not explained until the last chapter. It also uses some interesting typographical tricks to try to convey what a conversation among telepaths would seem like.

     I also object to James Blish's A Case of Conscience, which I think is half a good book -- the first half -- but I don't think works as a novel. I believe it was originally written as two separate stories, and I can't help but feel that Blish didn't know how to end it. It involves the discovery of a peaceful alien species which a Jesuit priest is convinced is a trap set by the devil. Is this religious mania and xenophobia, or is he right? And if he's right, what can/should he do? I don't find Blish's solution satisfactory or pleasing.
     Finally, The Shrinking Man is not the Richard Matheson novel I would have picked. I like it, but his I Am Legend is a much better novel, and a far better story than the recent Will Smith film. For one thing, instead of "fast zombies," the protagonist faces scientifically rationalized vampires who besiege his suburban home and include recognizable neighbors who call out his name.
      Perhaps Shrinking Man was chosen because it's more obscure; I Am Legend is available in several editions (some with Will Smith's picture on the cover, which must confuse those who read it expecting something like the plot of the movie). But The Demolished Man is at least as obscure now as The Stars My Destination (and harder to find in print).
     What of the other novels? 

     Space Merchants is a classic that many readers have heard of but never read, so I applaud its inclusion. It's about a future in which advertising agencies basically run the world (example: adding addictive chemicals to food products so you'll keep buying them is legal). The plot concerns selling the idea of colonizing Venus.
     Who? is a fine novel that I've read and am happy to own, about an American scientist who is injured in an explosion, captured or rescued by Soviets, then supposedly patched up and returned to the West. Or maybe not. His head is now made of metal, as is one of his arms. The other arm is so badly scarred at the the joint that it could have been grafted on. With no conventional means of identifying him, he could be a Soviet spy. How do you prove who he is?
     Of the ones I haven't read, Double Star is the most neglected of Heinlein's Hugo winners, sort of an SF version of The Prisoner of Zenda (or, more contemporarily and accurately, Moon Over Parador or Dave).  Big Time is another neglected Hugo winner, set against the background of a time travel war.
     Sturgeon is an author well-known by SF aficionados, but not the general public. And Leigh Brackett was one of the greatest of the "space opera" writers (and one of the authors of the screenplay for Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back) who isn't well-known now.
     I may purchase the set at some point, but I'm disappointed at the final selection.
     I hope a set of novels of the 1960s follows that I hope will include Algis Budrys' Rogue Moon, which I like even more than Who?
     For more about the history of 1950s science fiction, essays on each book by contemporary science fiction writers and the original covers, visit the Library of America website here.


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