Culture

What Were the Most Significant Science Fiction Stories of the 1940s?

Editor’s Note: Check out the previous installments in Pierre’s series exploring the development of science fiction by decade: The 10 Most Influential Science Fiction Stories of the 1910sThe 10 Most Influential Science Fiction Stories of the 1920s, and The Most Important, Visionary Science Fiction Stories of the 1930s

After the passage of 65 years and the beginning of a new century, the decade of the 1940s seems all the more remarkable for the number of brilliant writers who were working at the time, the sheer variety of venues they had to choose from, and the fact that every other story seemed to reveal new vistas of imagination.

And though the 1930s had its share of first time writers breaking into the professional ranks, the 1940s introduced even more as Leigh Brackett, James Blish, C. W. Kornbluth, Frederick Pohl, Frederic Brown, Damon Knight, Ray Bradbury, Hal Clement, George O. Smith, Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clark, Poul Anderson, H. Beam Piper, and Judith Merril, all made their first sales.

In addition, writers who had debuted in the previous decade now began to establish themselves as major authors in the field making important contributions that would become cornerstones not only of their own work but of science fiction in general. Writers like Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and A. E. Van Vogt would lead the way, publishing one classic after another.

Both newcomers and established authors would prove their durability as they continued to contribute stories into the 1960s when their work would appear side by side with a new wave of young writers more interested in psycho-social subjects than traditional hard science.

The 1940s was an era that, despite a World War and resulting paper shortages, science fiction magazines proliferated with such venerable titles as Amazing Science Fiction, Thrilling Wonder Tales, and Startling Stories still on hand and a plethora of new ones such as Stirring Science Fiction Stories, Other Worlds, and Captain Future cropping up like mushrooms after a spring rain.

It was a decade during which John W. Campbell reigned as editor of Astounding Science Fiction, developing a stable of reliable young writers with whom he’d begin to transform the field from its perception as somewhat of a juvenile backwater to something with serious literary pretentions.

Furthermore, the insular world of SF fandom continued to evolve and expand with more amateur SF magazines such as Damon Knight’s Snide and Ray Bradbury’s Futuria Fantasia popping up, clubs forming, more and bigger conventions being held, and launches of the first small press book publishers such as Gnome Press.

Finally, first-rate Hollywood film adaptations of some of the classics of SF such as Campbell’s own “Who Goes There” (as The Thing From Another World) and Harry Bates’ “Who Goes There?” (as The Day the Earth Stood Still) were right around the corner.

The 1940s was a decade of transition in another sense as SF novels from the world of academia finally petered out and books based on popular short stories and novelettes written by rising pulp authors began to appear in a new mass market pocket book or paperback format.

Among the last outliers of academic writers was Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius, published in 1944. In this groundbreaking novel about a dog with human intelligence, Stapledon skirts the controversial and in places seems to refute the religious arguments raised by his contemporary C.S. Lewis as Sirius seeks God and in conversations with a local priest is disappointed in his search for meaning. He finds a measure of it in his love for Plaxy, the human daughter of the scientist who gave him his intelligence. Together, the two share a forbidden love that was doomed to fail.

The year before, in 1943, Lewis published the second volume in a series that began with Out of the Silent Planet. In Perelandra, Ransom, the protagonist of the first book, journeys to Venus and discovers an Edenic world complete with its own Eve named Tinidril who is seeking her Adam. They’ve been given free run of all the floating islands of the planet but have been forbidden from stepping upon fixed land. But an original sin-less paradise is threatened with the arrival of materialist scientist Weston and together, he and Ransom enter a series of philosophical debates intended to sway Tinidril either to obey or not to obey a divine commandment not to step onto fixed land.

Lewis would complete his trilogy with the publication of That Hideous Strength in 1945.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajWC_J-jgLc

A third entry in the academic novel sweepstakes was 1984 by George Orwell. Published in 1949, it tells the story of one man’s struggle for personal freedom in a totalitarian society. Ostensibly a rebuke of communism, the novel’s message speaks louder than ever in today’s world of creeping political correctness.

Meanwhile, Stapledon and Lewis’ pulp counterparts were busily writing stories that would themselves eventually be turned into novels. All of the most seminal, appearing in Astounding Science Fiction including Slan, published in 1940. In it, A. E. Van Vogt‘s story features young Jommy Cross as the last hope of his race of super humans. Jommy must find a way to save the Slans even as humans hunt them down to near extinction.

Astounding struck again in 1941 with not one but two important SF stories including “Microscopic God” by Theodore Sturgeon. In it, a scientist creates an artificial world of microscopic beings who live at an accelerated rate. Because of that, they quickly evolve and advance beyond human science so that their creator, who’s set himself up as their god, can eventually profit by their inventions.

Likewise, Robert A.  Heinlein‘s “Methuselah’s Children” spotlights the Howard family who have achieved extraordinary long lifespans through selective breeding. But others don’t believe it and when they insist that the Howards reveal their secret to long life, patriarch Lazarus Long suggests that the family leave the Earth to seek a world of their own.

Again from the pages of Astounding came two more important stories from up-and-coming authors. Mentored by Campbell, Isaac Asimov had become a mainstay of the magazine by the time “Foundation” appeared in 1942. A story that would eventually grow to a three volume series of novels (with more additions in later decades), it posits the creation of a group intended to preserve knowledge against the fall of the galactic empire. Afterwards, the Foundation would be there to assist the rise of a new civilization and hopefully to reduce the length of an intervening dark age.

Asimov contemporary Lester Del Rey struck home the same year with “Nerves,” one of the earliest tales, if not the earliest, dealing with an accident at a nuclear power plant.

Perhaps riffing off of Stapledon’s Sirius, Clifford Simak‘s City (1944) was the first of several stories eventually collected in a book of the same name dealing with a future Earth abandoned by humans and left to intelligent dogs. It is the dogs left behind that tell the stories of man’s abandonment of cities for a rural lifestyle and his eventual flight into space.

SF veteran Jack Williamson successfully made the leap from space opera to the new wave of more serious science fiction when his story “With Folded Hands” appeared in Astounding for 1947. The story tells the tale of robots called Humanoids invented to serve mankind but who eventually exceed their programming to make sure no human comes to harm by becoming their pitiless masters.

The 1940s would mark a peak period for science fiction allowing it to coast through the 1950s into the 1960s when the genre would find its momentum finally begin to slow. By the time the new century rolled around, the field would become a pale shadow of its once vibrant past adding increased luster to what in hindsight can now be confirmed as SF’s golden age.