American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-1956

I’ve become addicted to Library of America editions so I got pretty excited when their boxed set of classic science fiction novels from the 50s was announced. I grew up reading mid-century sf but with a few exceptions I haven’t revisited them since. This post covers the first volume.

The Space Merchants
Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth

After a few pages of this satire I quipped on Twitter that it was “Mad Men with rockets and assassins” but Pohl and Kornbluth’s overcrowded corporation-ruled 21st century makes the 60s look like paradise. It’s a snappy thriller: a bit light compared to the next two novels, but its vision of the future seems depressingly prophetic.

More Than Human
Theodore Sturgeon

I thought that I hadn’t read any of the novels in this volume, but a couple of phrases were so familiar that I suppose I must have read More Than Human. My childhood reaction to Sturgeon was that he was weird and dull, which translates from the 9-year-old as “too many veiled references that go over my head” and “not enough spaceships”. More Than Human is very good. Psychic powers are a sf trope that seems to have just petered out after the 70s and are, I suppose, thought of as the opposite of hard sf. I think telepathy is more scientifically plausible than FTL travel — but then if you ask me the whole hard/soft divide uses scientific realism as a proxy for literary differences: which is a subject for a whole essay. Anyway, Sturgeon’s fable of a group of misfits who develop a gestalt identity has a genuine sense of menace, and the woodland setting had me imagining it adapted in a Twin Peaks style by David Lynch, which, if done right, would be awesome and also terrifying.

The Long Tomorrow
Leigh Brackett

Not only had I not read The Long Tomorrow, I hadn’t even heard of it. This is a shame, because it’s great. A post-atomic-war story (a sub-genre which as a child I was both fascinated, repelled and bored by) which avoids most of the obvious clichés, has a solid and believable post-industrial society, and is even-handed enough to make both the pastoral simplicity of its world and the comforts of the world it replaced seem, at their best moments, equally idyllic. Worth the price of admission just by itself.

The Shrinking Man
Richard Matheson

This was also a pleasant surprise — I thought it would be fairly pulpy, since I was expecting something like the unrelated and idiotic TV show Land Of The Giants. But it was surprisingly tense and moving, given the absurd premise. The way in which the domestic settings — mostly, the cellar of the hero’s house — grow more and more abstract made me think of the nouveau roman, or at least of what I’ve read about the nouveau roman, and also to wish that I had actually read any Robbe-Grillet so that I could back that reference up with something. Sorry. Sticking to things I actually know about, I found it impossible not to imagine the hapless protagonist as Pete Campbell.

The LOA’s companion website to the set is really good but be warned, the essays on each novel have spoilers.


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