Two (or possibly seven) American classics came together through sheer serendipity for me. I was walking through the Strand bookstore in New York (can’t recall whether it was in the SF section or in the hardcover / special area near the checkout counter), and I found a copy of American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-58. from the Library of America.
I love these Library of America editions for many reasons: price, presentation and, most importantly of all, the fact that they select only the cream of the crop. Better still this copy, though pre-owned, didn’t appear to have been pre-read, so it was essentially like buying the book new.
But the important bit was the content. Like it says on the tin, this contained five novels from a truly fruitful era of science fiction, written by five different men. Here’s the list:
– Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (this was the only one of the five that I’d read before)
– The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
– A Case of Conscience by James Blish
– Who? by Algis Budrys
– The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
By far and away, the most memorable of these, if not necessarily the best or most enjoyable is the Bester. Some of this novel is extremely well done, and the parts that aren’t are, at least, laudable for attempting to do something different and audacious.
The main character is strikingly brutal, but then, the fifties were still an era where people understood the banal brutality of the common man, as opposed to what we do today which is to try to look for specific psychoses. It’s interesting to realize just how effective dumb aggression from a man too underprivileged to know any better, but, at the same time too dogged to give up can be. It’s also a reminder of why SF was more widely read back then than it is now – the heroes represented everyman, warts and all. The poor unprivileged main character didn’t need to have a heart of gold… he could just be a guy doing the best that he could.
The part that isn’t brilliantly done is the whole time travel / trippy / ESP bit. Of course, this was in vogue in the fifties, but it was not impressive sixty years later. Still, a big book in its day, and still a staple of “best SF novel” lists, and of books like this one.
Who? and A Case of Conscience are tied as the next most memorable. They are both deeply informed by the fears of the Cold War, and represent their time brilliantly, possibly even better than the Bester. Staple reading for SF cognoscenti, and decent novels in themselves.
The Big Time is classic Leiber in the sense that he plays with boundaries of the genre and its rules as well as with history and time travel. It is more fun than the others, and takes itself less seriously at the same time (which ends up making it a good book). I found it slightly half-baked… and I think Leiber would agree, as he later expanded this concept.
The best of the bunch is still the Heinlein, even though it isn’t one of his “major” works. Heinlein was just that good.
Most people who buy a book like this one will be general readers attracted to it by the fact that the works were selected by the Library of America. They will come away with a critic’s-eye-view of what SF meant in the 1950s, and of five sociologically important books of the era. Is it representative of what the public was reading? Possibly, but it goes a lot further than that, too.
I heartily recommend this one to my readers who are looking for a good primer on science fiction. If you share Margaret Atwood’s belief that science fiction is monsters and spaceships, you’ll be surprised by both the literary quality and the connection to the zeitgeist that this one displays.
And if you already like SF, chances are you may have overlooked these novels. They are definitely worth knowing.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is very much connected with the trends of the 21st century and explores the fears we have… or, at least, should have.