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Library of America Releases “American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s”

American Science fiction--slipcase

In recent years, the Library of America has begun to turn its attention to science fiction and fantasy. They’ve released the two-volume Peter Straub-edited American Fantastic Tales, the work of Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick, and fiction from Edgar Rice Burroughs: Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars. Now they’ve come out with the two-volume American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary K. Wolfe and including work by Frederick Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth, Theodore Sturgeon, Leigh Brackett, Richard Matheson, Robert Heinlein, Alfred Bester, James Blish, Algis Budrys, and Fritz Leiber. Wolfe is a well-known literary critic in genre circles. His most recent book, Evaporating Genres, won the Locus Award.

Editing a set of previously published novels seemed to us to be a vastly different undertaking from either selecting new material or editing a magazine or anthology. So we interviewed Wolfe via email to get some insight into the process.

For example, how much material did he have to read through to reach final selections? “Quite a bit,” Wolfe said, “but it would only be a guess to estimate the number of novels I looked at and re-read. The Library of America staff had already identified major award-winning novels, and I added to this from various chronologies and histories, such as the ones in John Clute's Science Fiction: The llustrated Encyclopedia. That gave us a pretty long list, and I started reading and re-reading, as did the Library of America editorial staff after I gave them my suggestions.”

Making some selections were by default easier for Wolfe than others. For Sturgeon, “The Dreaming Jewels was the only other one I looked at, but it's far less important than More Than Human. The Cosmic Rape is fairly minor, and Venus Plus X had a publication date of 1960. WGary k wolfee were really looking at novels only from 1950-1959.”

Part of the editing process also included research on variant texts, some of which are “included in the notes at the back of each volume—for example, three chapters from the original Galaxy appearance of Gravy Planet [The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth] that were excluded from the book version, or introductions or forewords added to later editions of The Shrinking Man, The Big Time, and A Case of Conscience. There were some texts that were more difficult than others to establish as authoritative, such as The Stars My Destination, but we didn't want to stray too far from the texts that were the most widely read by contemporary readers in the 1950s. I can't take credit for establishing the texts except in an advisory capacity; most of the research was done by a very talented and meticulous researcher for the Library of America named Matt Parr, and you can get a sense of his meticulousness by the detailed lists even of corrected errata and typos, such as the one in the "Note on the Texts" for The Big Time.”

Two considerations in choosing the novels were that they be genuinely from the 1950s “conceived as novels, rather than what Van Vogt called "fix-ups" of stories originally published in the 1940s” (which left out Asimov’s Foundation series and Clifford Simak’s City) and also that they “should reflect some of the concerns and culture of the 1950s, while still being enjoyable to a modern audience.”

The second consideration expresses itself in different ways throughout the two-volume set. “We have essentially a Cold War novel in Budrys's Who?, a nuclear-fear novel in Brackett's The Long Tomorrow, a consumerist satire in Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, and so on. There's even a connection to the SF-movie boom of the 50s with The Shrinking Man, for which Matheson wrote his own screenplay (a rarity for any SF author). My sense in reading all these and other novels, and trying to place them in context with several timelines that are on the website, was that the 1950s was an odd combination of optimism, prosperity, and sheer terror, with some notable evidence of highly volatile issues—civil rights, the role of women, the beginnings of the computer revolution—bubbling near the surface, getting ready to erupt into the 60s and 70s.”

As might be expected, not every great novel fitting the focus and constraints of American Science Fiction could be included in the two-volume set. “The Library of America wanted four or five novels in each volume, and so some obvious titles like Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz were simply too long to fit the format. There was at least one title we couldn't get permission for, and some that seemed to cover ground too similar to others already [in the set]…Some of the titles I regret not being able to include, all classics, are Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, C.L. Moore's Doomsday Morning, Edgar Pangborn's A Mirror for Observers, possibly Asimov's The End of Eternity—I could go on. My hope is that the interest shown in this set will encourage other publishers to bring some of these and others back into print.”

Then, of course, some novels just didn’t stand up to the test of time, in Wolfe’s opinion. “I felt I should at least take a look at Hugo nominees and winners, and while some held up pretty well, others like Mark Clifton and Frank Riley's They'd Rather Be Right didn't. Asimov is possibly a glaring omission, but things like The Currents of Space or The Stars Like Dust now look awkward, and the robot novels are as much mysteries as SF. Much as I enjoyed these growing up, I ended up believing Asimov's major impact came from the Foundation and Robot short stories and novellas, while an interesting novel like The Gods Themselves came much later. As I mentioned, though, The End of Eternity was a reasonable candidate.”

In many ways editing American Science Fiction struck us as a wonderful adventure, so we asked Wolfe about his greatest pleasure in taking on the project. “I suppose the snarky answer is getting back at those teachers who disapproved of my reading these novels when I was a kid in the 1950s, but that's not entirely a joke. Science fiction has been a very energetic part of American culture for nearly a century now, yet it's still largely unacknowledged outside its own networks of writers and supporters; just look at the ‘no science fiction’ rules still arbitrarily imposed by many creative writing programs. Reprints of classic novels, even in paperback, aren't as common as they used to be, and some of these works were in danger of disappearing altogether. So I feel that with these books, along with earlier volumes of Dick and Lovecraft, the American hardboiled and noir volumes, etc., something is going on that's akin to the American Film Institute's film preservation project. It's really gratifying to be part of something like that.”

American SF--cover 1 (2)

The two-volume set hasn’t just been lovingly put together in terms of the content: the packaging, with a stunning slipcase, also shows evidence of extreme care and thought—with art by Richard Powers and Ralph Brillhart. Wolfe considers these choices to be “crucial” to American Science Fiction’s reception by readers. “It was because of Powers's distinctive semi-abstract covers that, as a kid, I first learned to distinguish one paperback publisher from another—I don't think I'd given any thought to publishers before that…Powers, with his allusions to Tanguy and surrealism, seemed to represent SF that didn't want to be pulp and wasn't trying to look mainstream—it was as though his aspirations in trying to create a new kind of science fiction art paralleled the aspirations of the writers of the time.”

In support of American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, Library of America has outdone itself by supplying an associated website with essays, audio interviews, cover galleries, even audio and video files of radio and TV adaptations, “along with bonuses such as five additional Fritz Leiber "Change War" stories.”

Highly recommended even if you’re not a devoted science fiction reader, this sumptuous and beautiful collection is definitely worth your time.


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I find it good that Science Fiction can cover so many sub-genres

Thank you so much, I've been waiting for this collectible edition for eons ;-) Godspeed!

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