Trends in Genre Fiction — The ’50s, or: “Omg Rockets”

Back when I was in college, I once attended a neat little speech about the history of horror films — okay, it was titled as “The History of Vampires” or some such, but that was just a marketing ploy to get the impressionable freshmen to attend. It was awesome! One of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard, and I wish that it was on Youtube or TED or something so that I could link to it. The gist of it was this: Each decade of horror films has reflected what our society was most afraid of at that time. In the 50s, there were tons of scary films about alien invasion — because invasion was what we were afraid of, post-WW2. In the 60s, the effects of radiation were beginning to be discovered in the survivors of the atomic bombs, and people were terrified of what radiation would do. The scary movies were all about giant bugs and similar things. And so on, and so on… The years after 9/11 showed a swath of thriller/horror movies set on or concerning airplanes (anyone remember Snakes on a Plane? Redeye?)

As I began making significant headway into the Epic Reading Project, I began to notice similar trends — so much of what scifi concerns itself with reflects what we as a society were excited about in those days. As I complete each decade of reviews, I plan on including one of these Trends in Genre Fiction posts as a retrospective.

The Epic Reading Project begins in the 50s with the founding of the Hugo Awards — of the awards I’m reading, the next to be founded was the Nebula Award in 1966.

The award winning books of this decade were:

  • Alfred Bester, THE DEMOLISHED MAN
  • Robert Heinlein, DOUBLE STAR
  • Fritz Lieber, THE BIG TIME
  • Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, THE FOREVER MACHINE
  • James Blish, A CASE OF CONSCIENCE

(The two strikethroughs indicate books that I was given permission to skip. THE FOREVER MACHINE (aka THEY’D RATHER BE RIGHT) seems to be commonly known as “the worst book to ever win the Hugo”. Not the most promising recommendation, is it? Also, I have not included the non-award winning books from this decade, on the grounds that I would have to continue doing it for each subsequent decade, and then I’d get to the 2000s… And I’ll be reading FIFTEEN books from the year 2003 alone, never mind the rest! It would muddy the waters too much. I’ll go by award-winners only for these discussions.)

The first thing to note is that these authors are all men. I’m just going to point that out. Just gonna let you mull on that for a bit. Just a thing to notice! I’m not seeing a whole lot of ethnic diversity here either.

So what have we got here? Telepaths, interplanetary travel, Martian aliens, politics, time travel, more aliens. For the two books I didn’t read, I cheated and read their Wikipedia pages: A cybernetic brain and aliens vs religion.

There are no fantasy books on this list, but that’s not too much of a surprise. The Hugo remained fairly skewed towards scifi for many years. The preoccupation with technology is also not much of a surprise, since, y’know, that’s kinda what scifi do.  My primary impression of this decade’s theme was: “omg ROCKETS.” There’s a lot of underlying excitement about rockets.

Not just rockets, of course, but what rockets mean: Exploration! Advancement! The final frontier! Maybe contact with extraterrestrials! The scifi of this decade (and of the 60s, but I’ll talk more about that later) shares this undercurrent of glee. There’s no pessimistic, apocalyptic attitude that the technology is what is going to give us the means to destroy ourselves. Fifties scifi is about looking up at the stars with awe and wonder and delight.  THE DEMOLISHED MAN, for example, could have been a really serious diatribe about the terrible things telepaths would be able to do to each other and society (and it brushes past that a little bit), but behind the scenes, Bester’s clasping his hands and bouncing a little bit and going, “Telepaths are so neat, right? Think of all the neat stuff they could do!”

The Neat Quotient in this decade far outweighs the social commentary.

Also: omg rockets.

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One thought on “Trends in Genre Fiction — The ’50s, or: “Omg Rockets”

  1. […] (Check out the first of this series, The ’50s: Or, “Omg Rockets”, for an explanati… […]

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