What Are The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of the 1950s?
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 1910s, The 10 Most Influential Science Fiction Stories of the 1920s, The Most Important, Visionary Science Fiction Stories of the 1930s, and What Were the Most Significant Science Fiction Stories of the 1940s?
Although the decade of the 1940s is rightly referred to as the golden age of science fiction, the 1950s were hardly less so given the heady mix of veteran authors and new writers of the next generation. Cordwainer Smith, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, A.E. Van Vogt, and Arthur C. Clark would all continue to produce new stories, each one it seemed, destined to be a classic in the field.
Meanwhile, new writers like Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick, John Brunner, Richard Matheson, Harry Harrison, and Brian Aldiss would all have their first stories published in the 1950s, many pointing away from the hard science that occupied the attention of their predecessors and toward the social sciences that would concern much of SF in the next decade.
But that was still years in the future. At the start of the 1950s, outer space and other planets and alien life forms were still the primary concern of science fiction with a surprising amount of it finding its way onto celluloid with impressive adaptations of stories like Joseph W. Campbell's “Who Goes There?” as The Thing From Another World and Harry Bates' “Farewell to the Master” as The Day the Earth Stood Still, both from 1951.
Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers, filmed as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956, and H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds came in 1953. Robert A. Heinlein's “Rocketship Galileo” filmed as Destination Moon arrived in 1950 and 1955 offered This Island Earth, based on the novel of the same name by Raymond F. Jones.
Then there were the films based on original treatments by established SF authors such as Heinlein's Project Moonbase and Bradbury's It Came From Outer Space.
Finally, such impressive films as Forbidden Planet, with no visible connection with any established science fiction writer, seemed to prove that Hollywood, if not the rest of the world outside the small pond of literary SF, was finally getting it.
The Demise of Pulp Magazines
At the same time, the seedbed of modern science fiction, the pulp magazine, was becoming a vanishing breed. Its demise was determined, at first with increased cancellations of such venerable magazines as Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories, and then their shrinking dimensions and page count, and finally the triumph of the paperback original that restored the primacy of the novel over the short story.
At first, SF writers began by collecting and interconnecting short stories or expanding serials they'd written for the magazines to fill out the pages needed for paperback publication, but, by the end of the decade, they were choosing to write original novels intended for first publication directly as paperbacks.
The trend would signal the end of the SF magazine's place at the center of the science fiction movement and eventually relegated them to backwater status. Established writers would soon dominate the limited page count in an ever-decreasing number of magazines leaving far less room than in previous years for new writers to establish themselves.
In the new world of paperback books, SF veteran A.E. Van Vogt led the charge in 1950 with The Voyage of the Space Beagle, a groundbreaking novel composed of four previously published short stories. It follows the adventures of a huge ship on a deep-space exploratory mission and the philosophical and political battles that take place among the crew.
The next year, John Wyndham's apocalyptic Day of the Triffids was released in the United States. It tells the tale of a world where everyone is blinded by a meteor shower while having to deal with rampaging carnivorous plants called triffids. Its end-of-the-world setting inspired a whole sub-genre of disaster stories dealing with everything from the earth falling into the sun to earthquakes to out of control grass!
Following in Van Vogt's footsteps, Ray Bradbury also took a number of previously published stories and debuted The Martian Chronicles in 1950 but it wasn't until 1953 that his first original novel appeared (and arguably the one that made him a household name): Fahrenheit 451. Based on a number of previously published stories, the novel was nevertheless a paperback original about a dystopian future in which books were banned and firemen were assigned to burn them wherever they were found.
Also published in 1953 was Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore. Influential as one of the first of the alternate history sub-genre that would become hugely popular in later decades, Moore's book is about Hodge Backmaker who lives in a world where the Confederacy won the Civil War. Managing to travel back in time, he revisits Gettysburg, the scene of the South's greatest victory. But in arriving in the past, Backmaker changes history and becomes stranded in the new timeline: our own!
After building a reputation as a short story writer, up-and-comer Richard Matheson broke through into novels early with 1954's I Am Legend. Adapted into film at least three times, and arguably the inspiration for the end of the world zombie fad that has swept movies and television, the book details a future in which everyone on Earth has turned into a vampire except Robert Neville. Eventually, Neville is captured by the vampires who are evolving into a new race who resent and fear him. Preparing for his death, Neville comes to the realization that as the last surviving human on Earth, he has become a legend to its inheritors.
Perhaps not strictly SF, the setting of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (published in 1957) takes place in the near future as America's industrialists are hounded from society by an oppressive government to wait within a secret sanctuary for the day when society falls apart and their talents for invention and organization are needed again.
Concurrent with science fiction's breakout into book publication, magazine SF was still a going concern through most of the 1950s even as many titles began to shrink to digest size towards the end of the decade. There, many of the authors who have since become giants in the field continued to hone their craft and offer their readers incredible worlds of imagination.
Among them was Alfred Bester whose “Demolished Man” was serialized in Galaxy Magazine in 1952. Again, hugely influential, its tale of murder in a world where the police can read minds was followed in 1956 by the author's next big entry, “The Stars My Destination.”
Also serialized, this time in 1955 issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, was Walter M. Miller's “A Canticle For Leibowitz,” a tale of an apocalyptic future wherein the monks of the Albertian Order of Liebowitz work to preserve knowledge of the past through a new Dark Age.
What all of these serials have in common is that they were eventually gathered into novel format as was true for Robert A. Heinlein's “Starship Soldier.” First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1959 and eventually gathered between covers as the better known Starship Troopers.
But all good things come to an end and the conclusion of classical SF was in sight as the 1960s dawned and a new breed of writers would emerge with different concerns than their elders from the golden age. They would set the stage for the eventual fragmentation, watering down, and dissolution of the field resulting in its being overrun by fantasy, television adaptations, endless book series, and space Marine warfare. With few exceptions, the great, mind-blowing ideas that had marked SF's rise in the 1940s and 50s would come less frequently and then eventually just come to a halt.