Culture

The Most Important, Visionary Science Fiction Stories of the 1930s

The 1930s was a decade in which older, established, non-science fiction specific novelists ran neck in neck with rising young pulpsters who, for the first time, began to challenge their elders in originality and seriousness.

In past decades, writers like Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H.G. Wells dominated the public consciousness with their novels of science and the fantastic. They proved to others that the nascent genre of science fiction could be used to good effect both to warn against social ills and the pitfalls of a rising scientific culture.

At the same time, a completely different set of readers, mostly young and whose view of the future and science was less gloomy and more optimistic than their elders, began to coalesce around the science fiction genre.

Isolated by an ocean or by the vast landscapes of the United States, some of those young people hunkered down at typewriters working long, lonely hours writing, their imaginations fueled by the early pulp magazines of the 1920s which brought science fiction for the first time to a mass audience.

Murray Leinster, Doc Smith, Edmond Hamilton, Ray Cummings, Stanton A. Coblentz, Harl Vincent, and Jack Williamson all made their first appearances in such magazines as Amazing Stories, Argosy, Weird Tales, and Air Wonder Stories.

Clearly, like interstellar gasses concentrating into stars, the genre of science fiction was coming together with increasing rapidity with the 1930s being the decade when it all finally seemed to come together. In no other decade did so many classic tales of SF appear and so many authors make their initial debuts in print: “The Red Plague” by P. Schuyler Miller and “Marooned on Andromeda” by Clark Ashton Smith in 1930; “The First Martian” by Eando Binder in 1932; “A Matter of Size” by Harry Bates in 1934; “The Faithful” by Lester Del Rey in 1938; “Marooned off Vesta” by Isaac Asimov, “Ether Breather” by Theodore Sturgeon, and “Lifeline” by Robert Heinlein all in 1939.

In addition, readers of science fiction began to organize themselves. Letters pages in the magazines brought them together and made them realize that living in their small towns or feeling isolated in big cities, they were not alone. The first fanzines were launched right at the very start of the decade which became known as First Fandom (the first of many fan “eras”), amateur magazines publishing their own fan fiction proliferated, and fan clubs such as the Los Angeles Science Fiction League Chapter and the Futurians would become breeding grounds for some of the biggest SF authors of the 1940s.

The first SF convention between New York and New Jersey fans was held in 1936.

But most of this activity was happening “underground” so to speak. The larger world of letters still mostly ignored science fiction, only taking notice when an established author used the genre as a platform to address larger philosophical concerns. The 1930s would be the last major effort by these kinds of writers. For decades afterward, SF would retreat further underground or be considered primarily as juvenile literature until being rediscovered by the mass media following the huge success of the Star Wars films in the 1970s.

But as things stood in 1930, the field was still considered ripe for exploration by serious writers such as Olaf Stapledon, a professor of philosophy whose first book, A Modern Theory of Ethics, lacked a popular audience. Hoping to reach a wider public Stapledon decided to use science fiction as his vehicle and ended up writing Last and First Men (1930).

In it, the author tells the history of mankind extending two billion years into the future. Nothing like its terrible sweep of time and history was ever attempted before and it caused a sensation in literary circles and especially SF fans whose vistas had been broadened. Stapledon followed up that first success with a number of other groundbreaking novels including Odd John in 1936 about a super-human’s attempt to live in a world of ordinary men and Star Maker, published in 1937, that goes far beyond even the scope of Last and First Men to tell the history of the whole universe while exploring themes of life, death, eternity, and God.

By comparison, peers such as Aldous Huxley covered very limited subjects though no less important and prophetic in Brave New World, his controversial novel published in 1932. In it, the author describes a future society of 2540, one governed by a politically correct world state that strictly limits personal freedoms while keeping the masses content with recreational drug use and sex.

In response to the secular humanist values explored in the work of such contemporaries as Stapledon and H.G. Wells, C.S. Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet. Published in 1938, it became the first in a celebrated trilogy that posited alien worlds where original sin never took place (Mars) or was still in an Edenic state (Venus).

Contemporaneous with the British writers, American Philip Wylie anticipated the concept of the super-hero with Gladiator, a novel published in 1930. In it, the author tells the tale of Hugo Danner who’s endowed with super-strength and invulnerability. Through a number of adventures, Danner seeks a purpose in life until, asking God for help, he’s struck down by lightning and killed!

Meanwhile, the rising stars on the American pulp scene concerned themselves mostly with less weighty subjects than the novelists, although John W. Campbell made the attempt with a dramatic shift in his writing style beginning with the 1934 short story “Twilight.” Writing under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart, the author assumes a somber yet elegiac style to tell the story of an Earth where mankind is dying out with machines preparing to take over and continue his legacy.

The same year that Campbell embarked on his new literary trajectory, Stanley G. Weinbaum was revolutionizing SF with “A Martian Odyssey.” It told the story of a man lost on Mars who befriends one of the natives, a birdlike creature named Tweel whom the author creates as a fully rounded personality with a completely alien perspective. It was the beginning of the end of the stereotypical Bug Eyed Monster of the kind popularized by Edmond Hamilton.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=souiBNaNA1M

Still riding high in the 1930s was E.E. Doc Smith who proved to fans that he still had what it took with the Galactic Patrol, published in 1937. In it, the author introduces the concept of the Lensmen, law enforcers armed with a device that gives them special powers to combat criminals who threatened the spaceways. Perhaps representative of an aspect of SF that was waning even as the story was being serialized in Astounding, it was influential on later iterations of space opera and in present day comic books.

Based on the outrageous theories of Charles Fort, Eric Frank Russell crafted the novel Sinister Barrier which first appeared in Unknown Worlds magazine in 1939. In it, Russell popularizes the concept that the Earth is the “property” of a race of beings that remain forever hidden behind a invisible, uncrossable barrier.

Taken together, the science fiction of the 1930s presented a vastly diverse field for a growing number of enthusiastic readers to explore. A field that would only grow more fantastic in the next decade, the so-called “golden age of science fiction,” when the serious novelists mostly disappeared and writers who began as fans took over, regularized the genre and matured it into a fascinating exploration of future possibilities.

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See the previous installments in this series:

The 10 Most Influential Science Fiction Stories of the 1910s

The 10 Most Influential Science Fiction Stories of the 1920s