< Library of America
American Science Fiction, Classic Novels of the 1950's

The Fifties

Barry N. Malzberg

Harry Harrison, who himself only got really going at the end, called the decade the false spring of science fiction, and Robert Sheckley, whose active early career corresponded almost exactly with the decade, shook his head when we talked about it in 1973 and said, "Well, I squeezed a couple of happy years at the beginning, anyway." James Gunn got a portion of his master's thesis into one of the fifty magazines that were published at some point during those years and at least twenty science fiction writers, it might have been forty, were making an accountant's wage from their trade. By 1960 it was all gone and it was five bleak years and another country before science fiction began to look hopeful again. Now, although some of the writers are still puttering around (and some like Fred Pohl, A. J. Budrys, and Alfred Bester are having significant new careers) it all seems at a great remove—surely as frozen in time, as historical to the younger writers of this day, as the early Gernsback era seemed to my generation. And most of the work, most of the writers, need rediscovery. Many will surely never achieve it.

What happened? A lot happened. The historical theory of synchronicity was demonstrated at the end of the decade as never elsewhere before the era of the assassinations began. When it happens, it all happens together, in short. The massive American News Service (ANS), responsible for magazine distribution, was ruled a monopoly and into forced divestiture. Twenty magazines perished in 1958, and the sales of the leaders were halved. These magazines could not reach the newsstands in sufficient numbers. The audience could not find them. But the audience had already diminished; it had never been large enough to support more than a few successful magazines, a few continuing book lines, and Sputnik in 1957 had made science fiction appear, to the fringe audience, bizarre, arcane, irrelevant. There were dangerous matters going on now in near space but the sophisticated, rather decadent form which genre science fiction had become had little connection with satellites in close orbit.

And other things. Henry Kuttner and Cyril M. Kornbluth died within a month of each other in early 1958. Kuttner, one of the five major figures of the previous decade,1 had left science fiction but was constantly reprinted and was only forty-four. Kornbluth, a decade younger, was indisputably at the top rank. These sudden, shattering deaths—one from a heart attack in sleep, the other from a stroke or heart attack—made a number of their contemporaries question the very sense of their careers. What had all of this gotten Kuttner and Kornbluth? "I was only twenty-three, then," Silverberg said, "but I somehow realized right away that these two men had literally died from writing science fiction and I was afraid that I was going to die too. I had some bad months." Dead, these writers, after ten or twenty years in the word-rate-on-acceptance mills.

By 1959, Anthony Boucher, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, had decided to join his founding coeditor, J. Francis McComas, in the semiretirement of freelancing and H. L. Gold was getting out too. Gold, editor of Galaxy, had been literally paralyzed by war-induced agoraphobia; unable to leave his apartment or carry on the semblance of a normal social life, he had been deteriorating for many years, and a period of hospitalization (on a rare, terrified sally out of doors he was struck by a car) convinced him that he could continue editing no longer. Fred Pohl had already been running the magazine ex officio; he took over the title too. And by 1959 only a few steady book markets for science fiction remained. Unplanned, imitative overproduction for an audience imagined larger than it was, the curse of science fiction publishing then as now, had resulted in many publishing catastrophes and only Ace, Doubleday, and Ballantine remained as steady outlets for all but the very few writers such as Heinlein and Clarke who had broken out of the category.

John W. Campbell at Astounding had wandered from Dianetics to the Hieronymus Machine to the finagle factor and was just beginning to topple into Norman Dean's Drive, meanwhile running stories by a few writers functioning under innumerable pseudonyms with virtually the same plot, conception, characters, and outcome. Only Rick Raphael (who was gone by 1965) seemed to be able to break into and sell interesting work to ASF in those years; Campbell had no other new writers of any visible promise.

An unhappy, airless time. An end of time for many. So emphatically hopeless that when science fiction began to pick up once more in the mid-sixties, first with the British New Worlds and then with the fusion of new writers, new approaches in the barbarous colonies themselves, a new audience was unaware of what had been accomplished in the fifties and talked of the field's "new literary merit," "new relevance," "new excitement," "new standards of contemporaneity" as if nothing innovative had occurred before Ballard or Silverberg. Yet, as that second and less significant false spring of the late sixties and seventies also ebbs, the true dimensions of the fifties reappear, however distantly, across the murky waters. Time to reconsider.

Some historical background: at the end of the nineteen-forties, science fiction accounted for perhaps fifty books, hardcover and paperback, published commercially in a year. The field supported perhaps seven magazines, only one of which, Astounding, paid decent word rates (two cents a word on acceptance) or was read by other than a juvenile audience. Five years later, there were forty magazines fighting for space on the various newsstands, hardcover and paperback novels and collections were coming out at the rate of two to three hundred a year, and one book editor, Donald A. Wollheim at Ace, was publishing more science fiction in a month than had appeared in all of 1943. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, appearing first in late 1949 and Galaxy, the first issue dated October 1950, were well-financed, carefully edited projects intended to offer Astounding serious competition, and by the inclusion of a wider range of style and thematic approach they sought an expansion of the audience itself. They succeeded at once—Galaxy was to outsell Astounding almost from its inception through the next five years; Fantasy and Science Fiction, beginning as a quarterly Magazine of Fantasy, went bimonthly and added sf within a year and then, as its natural audience found it, became a monthly in early 1952—and behind them, entrepreneurs picking up the scent, came a clutch of magazines. Some, like Cosmos, Space, or Rocket Stories, lasted only a few issues, others like Worlds of If or Science Fiction Adventures held through various ownerships for longer, but through 1958 although magazines would collapse, new ones would spring. The growth of the field in a spectral minute was remarkable. In 1953 there were forty or fifty times the outlets for science fiction that had existed five years earlier.

Writers who had struggled with varying degrees of success through the bleak, building years—Sturgeon, Blish, Simak—found to their astonishment that they could almost make a living. A new generation of writers who had grown up under the influence of the Campbell decade were able to leap from late adolescence into full-time freelance writing careers: Budrys, Sheckley, Dick, Gunn, Knight. The enormous expansion of the market was further signified by the fact that the three most prolific writers of the forties, Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard, and van Vogt, backed away from science fiction to go into other careers2 and that Heinlein, working on a long series of successful quasijuveniles for Scribner, abandoned short stories entirely as did L. Sprague de Camp, who concentrated on nonfiction.

It was a pretty good time for Francis E. Walter, General Motors, Mitch Miller's Columbia Records popular division and science fiction alike. Some of the field's historians (notably Fred Pohl in a 1975 essay, "Golden Ages Gone Away") do not see these factors as unrelated; Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction were among the very few mass markets where, sufficiently masked, an antiauthoritarian statement could be published. There are rumors of professors and engineers trapped in the academies or industry who turned to the science fiction magazines and both read and wrote for them (pseudonymously) avidly as absolutely the only medium where the policies and procedures of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy were explicated fully and mocked. Cyril M. Kornbluth in a 1957 symposium spoke of the hundreds of people in advertising who had thanked him and Fred Pohl in desperation for publishing the only novel, The Space Merchants, that told the truth about their industry and what it wanted the world to be. (Kornbluth added characteristically that of course, for all these thanks and testimonials, the novel had not changed its target medium to the slightest degree: advertising was exactly what it had been and so, to be sure, was Cyril Kornbluth.)

One has to continue, however, by discussing what kind of work was being done to occupy the space that the publishers in their enthusiasm or simple greed had created. Say this at the outset: there has only been a trickle of novels through the fifty-five-year history of science fiction that have been consensually accepted as masterpieces, absolute examples of what the field can be at its best. With no exception that I can glimpse, all of them were published in the fifties. The jury on the seventies is, by definition, still out (it looks as if Dying Inside, The Dispossessed, perhaps 334 and Shadrach in the Furnace and The Ocean of Night may make it), but there is virtually no novel of the sixties, however acclaimed in its time, which does not have a substantial and influential claque in opposition, as it did then.3 Forties novels of significance: Slan, Final Blackout, Sixth Column, World/Players of Null-A, Fury look archaic now: primitive and unfulfilled. They have fallen out of print; the most recently reissued of them, the Kuttner's Fury, has not appeared since 1973. (That non-novel, The Martian Chronicles, does have a good in-print record, but Bradbury has had for decades access to the audience outside the genre and the television production has been a spur.)

Consider, though, the fifties. A Canticle for Leibowitz, More Than Human, Double Star, Rogue Moon, The Space Merchants, Gladiator-at-Law, The Demolished Man, The Stars My Destination, A Case of Conscience, Bring the Jubilee. (All are currently in print except for Gladiator-at-Law.) Rogue Moon won no awards; Canticle was published in its year. Kornbluth's The Syndic copped no honors; More Than Human in that year. To consider that The Demolished Man, The Space Merchants, and Baby Is Three (the central section of More Than Human from which the fore and aft of the novel were flung) all appeared in Galaxy within a nine-month period in 1952 is to be awed.

Novels, of course, collect the attention, the reissues, and occasionally the money (The Space Merchants, despite recent enormous advances to Silverberg, Heinlein, and Gregory Benford, may still be, over its twenty-nine-year life, the most remunerative of all genre science fiction novels) but science fiction, unlike any other category of literature, lives in the short forms. The short story or novelette seem perfectly available to the articulation and enactment of a single speculative conceit which, one could insist, is the task for which science fiction itself is most suited. The level of short-story writing during the decade in technical expertise and inventiveness has never been equaled nor have any short stories published within the last fifteen years had the impact upon the field and its audience of what was appearing routinely in the best-of-the-year anthologies or magazine anthologies. Until the advent of John Varley in 1975, no short story writer in two decades sprang upon science fiction as did Mark Clifton through Astounding.

There is probably no way in which to teach a young audience (eighty percent of science fiction readers are under twenty) that Mark Clifton, dead a long time and virtually out of print, was for a period of four years the most controversial and influential writer in the magazines. No way to teach them that Floyd L. Wallace, Galaxy's Clifton who published novelettes of increasing inventiveness and technical clarity, also virtually unreprinted although alive, taught at least one writer what the conceptual limits of the science fiction novelette might be. No way to teach them that the short stories of Damon Knight and Alfred Bester, in their technical ease and ambition, struck not only readers but professionals of their own and the previous generation as miraculous—miraculous that such work could be both recognizably genre science fiction and of indisputable artistic quality. (Knight and Bester collections are available; between them, however, they have not published a dozen new stories in as many years.)

One of the hazards, not to say horrors, of age is the reconsideration of our youthful selves, the vision of subsequent heartbreak superimposed, the memory of what we became shading inexorably what we took ourselves to be. The conclusion must come that we were fools and it is this, perhaps, which has left the fifties almost bereft of significant critical reevaluation and comment. Those suited lived through the time and still feel the pain. They were naive. They wrote themselves a bill of goods and hawked it and bought it, every rotten, self-delusory item. Sure they know it now. They knew it by 1959 and it destroyed some of them. But the bill of goods seemed reasonable.

It really did. It appeared possible to remake the field. By the end of the forties, Campbell and his contributors had put the technical equipment of the modern short story, the rigors of scientific extrapolation into the hands of those ready to begin where the rest, through struggle, had finally peaked. Hiroshima and television, the cold war and the mass market had delivered unto the new writers and editors what appeared to be an enormous audience for a kind of fiction that would truly come to terms with the potential changes in lives caused by new and virtually controllable technology.

Horace Gold earnestly believed that Galaxy could eventually appeal to as many people as The Saturday Evening Post. Boucher and McComas, world-weary types, had less evangelistic obsession and more cynicism, but saw no reason why the audience for literate science fiction should be any smaller than that for fiction itself.4 These major editors and John W. Campbell who was, at his worst, not impervious to good writing (a story would not, at least, be rejected for literary quality if it did not lack more immediate Campbellian virtues) gathered about them fifty to a hundred writers who, demoniacally inspired, were willing to try to take the field to the limit of their abilities, knowing that whatever they did they would not be rejected for trying too hard. These writers could not, of course, sell the major editors everything, but they could write passionately and often and the overflow, much of high quality, was being laid off to those thirty or forty magazines which appeared and disappeared like Flying Dutchmen.

(A few magazines such as Infinity or Venture or, at the beginning of the decade, Worlds Beyond, were created for the specific purpose of publishing a more literate and stylistically ambitious, thematically uncomfortable kind of science fiction, and these magazines were not publishing rejects so much as working on direct commission. They all failed, and except for Infinity failed quickly, but who in 1960 or 1981 would consider for the mass market a magazine devoted to the publication of non-mass-market fiction?)

It was a period which had never before occurred in mass-market fiction, perhaps in fiction of any kind. There was a wide market and one of exceeding range; work of quality was as readily acceptable within the confines of the genre as less ambitious science fiction. Black Mask and some of the other detective pulp magazines of the thirties had had no prejudice against art and had published Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Cornell Woolrich, but there were many more science fiction magazines and (pace Pronzini) more genuinely gifted science fiction writers in the fifties than mystery writers in the thirties. But almost any writer who had a decent reading knowledge of the genre and could reproduce it to minimum standard could find a market. Thirty magazines times eight stories a month times twelve meant close to three thousand science fiction stories published a year, to say nothing of the original anthologies: Star Science Fiction, Star Short Novels, and New Tales of Space and Time. (Today magazines and original anthologies together accommodate perhaps three hundred new stories a year.) In 1955 there were in the United States and England perhaps two or three hundred writers who had managed some degree of professionalism. (Today there are over a thousand.) And the book market was not negligible. Wollheim was at Ace, Doubleday had begun a small program, Simon & Schuster were committed to a dozen titles a year, Signet, Avon, and Pocket Books were toe in the water and Ballantine, beginning a flourishing program in 1953 with The Space Merchants, started by offering advances of five thousand dollars.

Magazine rates were about what they are now. The top magazines paid three to five cents a word, the middle range one and a half to two, the bottom rarely less than a penny. In New York (or anywhere) at that time it was possible for a family to live with passable adequacy on five thousand dollars a year, comfortably on twelve. One without a family could get by on half that. It was not at all difficult to make five hundred dollars a month writing science fiction.

Five hundred dollars a month was, perhaps figuring in the rejects and aborted stories, twenty-eight thousand words for a professional, and twenty-eight thousand words a month is a thousand a day with most Sundays off. A thousand words a day fall on three typewritten pages: some bleed more than others, of course, but three pages are nevertheless three pages (and no true professional will ever admit to an editor or even his peers how very quickly they can be done, particularly under pressure). There was more than enough time for bull sessions conspiring on plans for the field, drinking sessions ditto, club meetings, travel, conferences, parties, and the exchanging of wives. (These were not wife swappers, the male writers, they were wife exchangers. They would divorce and remarry. Members of this generation were perhaps the last to bend to the so-called new morality; they would rather marry than burn.)

The feeling in this rather insulated and socially peripheral circle of writers and their editors was that piece by piece they were remaking not so much the world (Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dresden, Hiroshima, Joseph McCarthy had proved exactly what effect the seers and poets would have on the political and social reality of their time) but the field, that science fiction was being at last reconstructed toward that idealized form it might have attained a long time ago if Hugo Gernsback had not, for cynical publishers' reasons, slammed it into a format of bizarre adventures or marvelous inventions for kids and potential engineers.

Certainly the best of the magazine work was equal technically to the best of American fiction.5 Kornbluth's "The Altar at Midnight," Bester's "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed," "Fondly Fahrenheit," "Hobson's Choice," "They Don't Make Life Like They Used To," Wallace's "Delay in Transit," Clifton's "Clerical Error," Pohl's "The Knights of Arthur" or "The Tunnel Under the World" and Sheckley's "Warm" (these titles are plucked virtually at random, sheer stream-of-consciousness; there are hundreds at this level, many by writers less well-known) were as accomplished and moving as "The Country Husband," "For Esme with Love and Squalor," "In the Zoo," "Among the Dangs," "Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time," or "The Man Who Studied Yoga."6

There was, however, a tiny little problem.

Neither these stories nor the novels were recognized outside of the field at all. They made no impression. Outside of genre science fiction they did not, in fact, exist.

This failure of science fiction to reach outside its immediate audience was not of itself among the factors which blew away the false spring, but it might have been the factor that underlay everything. Science fiction remained small. It remained a small field. The audience upon which it could draw was perhaps half a million souls who were being asked to support their forty magazines and three hundred books, and with all their dedication they were too limited in numbers and too strapped for funds to do it. Most of them, after all, were kids. On allowances.

This core audience which perceives science fiction as important and to some degree necessary to their lives has never really increased from this half a million since the late forties. This is the central reason for the boom and bust phenomenon, as overextension inevitably hit the wall imposed by a readership which would not expand. The only difference between the fifties and the present, perhaps, is that the fringe audience—those who can be induced to buy two or three given titles a year through word of mouth, movie publicity, or intense promotion—has expanded to several million. No science fiction novel in the fifties sold more than a hundred thousand paperback copies. Science fiction itself was regarded with disinterest or contempt outside the walls. Its very audience was an unorganized constituency; they were not in the main evangelical (in fact, like many of the academics, they were secretive), and those who were simply fed the popular perception of science fiction as a strange field: bizarre, endlessly incestuous and utterly defensive.

The genre made no impression upon the academic-literary nexus which controls critical perception (and eventually for serious writers may even create a large audience) in this country. Only two stories from the decade were reprinted in Martha Foley's Best American Short Stories annual: Sturgeon's "The Man Who Lost the Sea" and Judith Merril's "Dead Center." (Both from Fantasy and Science Fiction.) None ever appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories. Not a story from Galaxy, Astounding, Worlds of If, Worlds Beyond, Venture, or Infinity achieved even the thin gruel of the Foley roll of honor. (Some writers at the fringes of the field who published work in the quarterlies did make the Foley or O. Henry volumes, increasing the sense of injustice for the committed science fiction writers.)

No science fiction writer other than Ray Bradbury, that non-science fiction writer, appeared in textbooks. No science fiction novels other than Bradbury's were reviewed outside the genre departments of the press, gray caverns of brief notation. Most were ignored. The Demolished Man was published in hardcover by Shasta, a semiprofessional house operated by thieves, presumably because no reputable publisher wanted it.7 The Space Merchants stayed in print but Gladiator-at-Law and Wolfbane did not.

By 1958, death and divestiture rolled around; the genre had been gutted. Many of its best writers were burnt-out cases. Aware of the anonymity of their work and lives outside of the small enclosure, aware of the necessity to go on and on just as they had simply to make an ever more difficult living, most either could or would write no longer. Probably if ANS had not been torn apart or Horace Gold had stayed together the field would have collapsed anyway. An entire generation of writers had been used up in the struggle to make science fiction a reputable literary medium. They had won—the evidence is there—and they had learned that for all the world cared they might not have bothered at all. They had made a living but an equivalent effort in insurance or the universities would have paid more and extracted less and the money was all gone anyway. Some of these writers have done no work for decades now. Others have done no good work. A couple have reemerged as if from behind barricades, hurled a couple of stories into the editorial mills, and run for their lives again (often cut down by flying rejections).

A very, very few, Pohl, Bester, and Budrys being the best examples, have returned to do outstanding work but only after a sabbatical of many years, and then at a slow rate. Between Rogue Moon (1959) and Michaelmas (1978) Budrys published one minor novel and a couple of short stories. He might have been the best of them; he certainly had the most profound, subtle mind, the best insight, the darkest perspective.

Gone, then. All gone away. After the energy of the late sixties to early seventies there came another slack period, a return to traditional themes and approaches, editorial hostility toward or bewilderment at stylistic or thematic innovation. Not to complain particularly: Varley has gotten through and Benford and Tiptree did or are doing major work. One can postulate that things will turn around eventually: new writers, new publishers, new editors . . . maybe a different politic and of course a new audience.

But virtually all the great innovators of the decade will carry on their work, careers, and lives as if the fifties generation had never written. They will not know the work. That work may live in the undertext of the field, influence piled atop work influenced by the canon, but these writers will not know to whom they owe what. That decade, already done for for more than twenty years, will for most intents and purposes appear to have been for naught.

Was it?

Each generation, Donald Wollheim once said, has its own tragedy, must learn again on its own what every generation had had to learn and can never teach. Betrayal, circumstance, defeat. The Loyalists, the Cold War. Vietnam. And end broken in silence. There is no answer to any of this.

But pace, Gertrude, we may take up the question. Yes. I think it was for naught.

1977/1980: New Jersey


  1. The others, for the record, were Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, A. E. van Vogt, and L. Sprague de Camp.
  2. Asimov continued to appear in the magazines with diminishing frequency through the first half of the decade, but even the five or six serialized novels and fifty short stories represented a sharp cutback and the stunning expansion of the market diffused his proportionate impact. "Editors missed me a bit," he wrote laconically about the period.
  3. Bug Jack Barron, Stand on Zanzibar, Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, Black Easter, Thorns, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Camp Concentration; case rests.
  4. The payoff which Boucher, perhaps fortunately, did not live to see is that there is now in mass-market terms almost no audience for quality fiction at all, a fact not unnoted by science fiction editors—not, on balance, a dumb group.
  5. And it is important to point out that science fiction in the fifties was a magazine field: almost everything originated there. The book publishers fed off what had been and was running in the periodicals, and only the bottom-line houses, like Monarch, much nonmagazine material and that simply because these books were too weak to have achieved serial sale. The fifties novels mentioned earlier had all appeared originally in the magazines and most of them were commissioned and directed by the editors.
  6. This is not quite fair. Although "Among the Dangs" appeared first in Esquire, it was a science fiction story which was reprinted in Fantasy and Science Fiction and several genre anthologies. But if it had appeared first in F&SF it surely would not have won second (or even 980th) prize in the 1959 O. Henry Awards.
  7. Bester confirms this speculation in a 1980 essay for Galaxy: 30 Years of Innovative Science Fiction, published by Playboy Press.
More from 50's SF Authors

Gary Wolfe

Gary Wolfe

Robert Silverberg—Science Fiction in the Fifties: The Real Golden Age

Here is SF writer Robert Silverberg's fascinating account—first published in 2010—of the ways in which the writing and publishing of science fiction changed, in the U.S., after World War II. For Silverberg, it's the 1950s, rather than any earlier or later era, that ought to be called the "golden age" of the genre.

Barry N. Malzberg—"The Fifties"

In this essay from his collection The Engines of the Night (1982), Barry N. Malzberg offered a pioneering reassessment of the American science fiction of the 1950s.