Review of Classic Novels of the 1950s by Gary K. Wolfe

Title: American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950’s

Editor: Gary K. Wolfe


Publisher: Library of America

Format: e-Galley


One of my most recent purchases was a beautiful Philip K Dick collection, published by The Library of America. It is a 3-volume hardcover set containing thirteen of Dick’s greatest novels. Considering that he is one of my favorite authors, this set has become a cherished treasure.

Over the past six months or so, I’ve been trying to catch up on some of the classics of science fiction. I had just read a couple of Isaac Asimov titles and Joe Haldeman’s, The Forever War, when I came across a new collection of science fiction stories from the 1950’s. Not being well-versed in the era, I was uncertain what to expect. After all, science fiction is one of those genres that can become easily dated.

I saw that Library of America was making an e-galley available to reviewers and I snagged the opportunity to read some of the collection. There was not a single title I had read before (and I call myself a science fiction reviewer — how embarrassing). I loved Richard Mattheson’s short stories and I am Legend and thoroughly enjoyed reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Both of these authors have a novel in this collection. Alfred Bester’s, The Stars My Destination, also made the list — a novel I had been dying to read for quite some time. The collection can be summarized as follows:

Book 1 (Four Classic Novels: 1953-1956)

  • Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants
  • Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human
  • Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow
  • Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man

Book 2 (Five Classic Novels: 1956-1958)

  • Robert A. Heinlein’s Double Star
  • Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination
  • James Blish’s A Case of Conscience
  • Algis Budrys’ Who?
  • Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time

After reading through Alfred Bester’s and Theodore Sturgeon’s novels, I could tell that this really was a special collection. It is not really a “top nine” novels of the fifties, but rather a diverse collection of what the era had to offer in the way of science fiction. There’s space opera, dystopian futures, proto-cyberpunk, and general weirdness in the selected novels. Each author and theme is different. For those who want to learn a little more about the selection process, I recommend listening to Gary K Wolfe on Episode 89 of the Coode Street Podcast. The Library of America has also developed a nice science fiction page that has articles written about the novels by many of the popular genre authors today.

I have not yet seen the physical hardcover books to judge the physical quality of the collection, but I would expect it to be comparable to the high quality of their other books. The covers are fantastic — a clear throwback to the artwork of the fifties. I’m sure there are some folks who will argue some of the books that were omitted from the collection, but understanding the diversity Wolfe was trying to promote, it is difficult to argue with the selection. The novels (and authors) I was surprised to see missing were Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke and Foundation or I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. One could easily add a third volume of short stories to the mix, much like the Library of America boxed set of American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to Now, edited by Peter Straub. Short stories were a definitive part of the Golden Age. In fact, a similar case could be made to add a short story collection to the Philip K Dick set.

If I were to summarize my impressions of this collection, I would say that I am pleasantly surprised — it is truly wonderful. There was a lot of thought that went into selecting the titles and they are still very readable by today’s standards. I look forward to getting my hands on the physical copies, putting one of the books on the shelf next to my Philip K Dick collection, and holding the other in my hands as I read through some of the best stories that the greats of science fiction wrote over a half-century ago.

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