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American Science Fiction, Classic Novels of the 1950's

Science Fiction in the Fifties: The Real Golden Age

Robert Silverberg

Historians of science fiction often speak of the years 1939–1942 as "the golden age." But it was more like a false dawn. The real golden age arrived a decade later, and—what is not always true of golden ages—we knew what it was while it was happening.

That earlier golden age was centered entirely in a single magazine, John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction, and the war aborted it in mid-stride. Campbell steered a middle course between the heavy-handed science-oriented stories preferred by the pioneering sf magazine editors Hugo Gernsback and T. O'Conor Sloane and the cheerfully lowbrow adventure fiction favored by pulp editors Ray Palmer and Mort Weisinger. He wanted smoothly written fiction that seriously explored the future of science and technology for an audience of intelligent adult readers—and in the four years of that first golden age he found an extraordinary array of brilliant new writers (and re-energized some older ones) to give him what he wanted: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, A. E. van Vogt, Jack Williamson, Clifford D. Simak, L. Sprague de Camp, and many more.

The decade of the Fifties is often thought nowadays to have been a timid, conventional, strait-laced time, a boring and sluggish era that was swept away, thank heaven, by the free-wheeling, permissive, joyous Sixties. In some ways, that's true. For science fiction, no. The decade of the Fifties, staid as it may have been in matters of clothing, politics, and sexuality, was also a period that saw the first artificial space satellites placed in orbit around the Earth; the beginning of the end of legal racial segregation in the United States; and, in the small world of science fiction, a grand rush of creativity, a torrent of new magazines and new writers bringing new themes and fresh techniques that laid the foundation for the work of the four decades that followed. An exciting time for us, yes: truly a golden age.

The disruptions of the Second World War scattered Campbell's talented crew far and wide. Some, like Asimov, van Vogt, and Simak, managed to provide Campbell with an occasional story during the war years, as did some lesser figures of the first Campbell pantheon who now were reaching literary maturity—Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber, Eric Frank Russell. Others—Heinlein, Williamson, de Camp—vanished from science fiction "for the duration," as the phrase went then. They all came back after the war, and with their aid Campbell attempted, with moderate success, to restore Astounding. Somehow, though, the magazine never quite became the dazzling locus of excitement that it had been a decade earlier.

And then, suddenly, the Fifties arrived—and with the new decade came a host of new science fiction magazines and a legion of gifted new writers. The result was a spectacular outpouring of stories and novels that swiftly surpassed both in quantity and quality the considerable achievement of the Campbellian golden age.

Many of Campbell's original stars were still in their prime, indeed had much of their best work still ahead. But now there was the new generation of writers, most born between 1915 and 1928. They had been too young to have been major contributors to the pre-war Astounding; but now they came blossoming into literary maturity all at once. I mean such writers as Jack Vance, James Blish, Poul Anderson, Damon Knight, "William Tenn," Frederik Pohl, Arthur C. Clarke, C. M. Kornbluth, Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, and, a little later, Algis Budrys, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Philip K. Dick, Robert Sheckley, Philip José Farmer, Walter M. Miller Jr., James E. Gunn, and others.

Most of these newcomers had learned what they knew about science fiction by reading Campbell's magazine. Nearly all (Bradbury was the major exception) subscribed to Campbell's insistence that even the most speculative of science fiction stories ought to be founded on a clear understanding of real-world science and human psychology and his belief in the importance of employing a lucid, straightforward narrative style.

But most of these new writers did their best work for editors other than Campbell. That was a significant change. In the Forties, Campbell was the only market for serious science fiction; those who could not or would not write the relatively sophisticated sort of fiction that Campbell wanted to publish wrote simple, low-pay action-adventure stories for his gaudy-looking pulp-paper competitors, such magazines as Planet Stories, Super Science Stories, and Startling Stories.

As the Fifties dawned, two of the pulps, Startling and Thrilling Wonder Stories, were beginning to welcome science fiction of the more complex Campbellian kind under the editorship of Sam Merwin, Jr. But the basic task of most of them still was to supply simple adventure fiction to an audience made up of boys and half-educated young men.

The first harbinger of the new era was The Magazine of Fantasy, a dignified-looking magazine in the small "digest-format" that Astounding had adopted during the war. The first issue, on sale in the autumn of 1949, sold for the premier price of 35 cents a copy, ten cents more than Astounding, and contained a mixture of new short stories, more fantasy than science fiction, by such people as Theodore Sturgeon and Cleve Cartmill (the latter a minor Campbell writer), and classic reprints by British writers like Oliver Onions, Perceval Landon, and Fitz-James O'Brien, that gave the magazines a genteel, almost Victorian tone. But right at the back of the magazine was an astonishing, explosive science fiction story by the poet Winona McClintic: science fiction, yes, but nothing that John Campbell would ever have published, for it was profoundly anti-scientific in theme, and exceedingly literary in tone. It was closest in manner to the sort of fiction that Ray Bradbury had begun to publish in just about every American magazine from Weird Tales to Harper's, but never in Astounding.

The Magazine of Fantasy, by all appearances, was the sort of quiet little literary quarterly that would find a quiet little audience and expire after two or three issues. But its second issue, though still in the same elegant format, showed a notable transformation. The name of the magazine was now The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and—though there still were a couple of nineteenth-century reprints—most of the issue was science fiction. Not Campbellian science fiction, to be sure: nothing that explored and even extolled the coming high-tech future. Ray Bradbury himself was on hand, with a tale of hallucinatory spaceflight ("The Exiles"), and two of Campbell's regulars, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, with a funny little fantasy. Damon Knight and Margaret St. Clair, writers just beginning their careers, contributed stories which, though they fit almost anyone's definition of science fiction, Campbell would surely have rejected for their frivolity and their scientific irrelevance. The whole tone of the magazine was light, playful, experimental.

And yet one of Campbell's own regulars was in charge: Anthony Boucher, the author of a baker's dozen of stories for Astounding and its short-lived fantasy companion, Unknown Worlds, between 1942 and 1946. He and his co-editor, J. Francis McComas, were familiar with Campbell's objectives and were quite willing to concede the high-tech audience to him, staking out a position for themselves among readers whose orientation lay more in the direction of general literature, fantasy, even detective fiction, but who had a liking for the vivid concepts of science fiction as well.

F&SF, as the magazine came to be known, prospered and grew in the Fifties, quickly going from quarterly to bi-monthly publication, and then to monthly. Its pages were a home for scores of writers new and old who chafed at Campbell's messianic sense of the function of science and his growing literary dogmatism. Bradbury was a frequent contributor. So was Sturgeon. Alfred Bester, a peripheral figure in the Campbell Astounding, produced a group of remarkable short stories in a unique pyrotechnic style. Poul Anderson, a Campbell discovery in 1947 and a regular in his magazine ever since, gave Boucher and McComas dozens of stories that went beyond Campbell's ever-narrowing editorial limits. So did James Blish and C. M. Kornbluth, who had served their apprenticeships in the pre-war pulp magazines but whose talents were coming now into their real flowering. And for a multitude of new writers launching what would prove to be spectacular careers—Philip K. Dick, Robert Sheckley, Avram Davidson, Richard Matheson, J. T. McIntosh, and on and on and on—the amiable, sympathetic Boucher-McComas style of editing proved to be so congenial that they rarely if ever offered stories to Campbell at all.

While F&SF was hitting its stride in the first months of the new decade, another Campbell protégé was busily readying the first issue of his new science fiction magazine—one intended not to be a genteel literary adjunct to Campbell's Astounding, but as its direct and ferociously aggressive competitor. He was Horace L. Gold; his magazine was Galaxy Science Fiction, which became the dominant and shaping force of this decade of science fiction as Astounding had been for the last one.

Gold, a fiercely opinionated and furiously intelligent man, had begun writing science fiction professionally since his teens, publishing stories even before Campbell's ascent to the editorial chair in 1937, and had worked as associate editor for a pulp magazine chain just before the war. He had written some outstanding stories for Campbell in those years too; but then he went off to service, and when he returned it was with serious war-related psychological disabilities from which he was years in recovering.

By 1950, though, Gold was vigorous enough to want to make a head-on attack on Campbell's editorial supremacy: to edit a magazine that would emulate the older editor's visionary futuristic range while at the same time allowing its writers a deeper level of psychological insight that Campbell seemed comfortable with. His intention was to liberate Campbell's best writers from what was now widely felt to be a set of constrictive editorial policies, and to bring in the best of the new writers as well; and to this end his offered his writers a notably higher rate of pay than Astounding had been giving them.

The first issue of Galaxy, resplendent in a gleaming cover printed on heavy coated stock, was dated October, 1950. Its contents page featured five of Campbell's star authors—Clifford D. Simak, Isaac Asimov, Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, Frederic Brown—along with the already celebrated newcomers Richard Matheson and Katherine MacLean. The second issue added Damon Knight and Anthony Boucher to the roster; the third, another recent Campbell star, James H. Schmitz. A new Asimov novel was serialized in the fourth issue; the fifth had a long story by Ray Bradbury, "The Fireman," which would later become the nucleus of his novel Fahrenheit 451. And so it went all year, and for some years thereafter. The level of performance was astonishingly high. Every few months Galaxy brought its readers stories and novels destined for classic status: Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (called "Gravy Planet" in the magazine), Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, James Blish's "Surface Tension," Wyman Guin's "Beyond Bedlam," and dozens more. Though the obstreperous Gold was a difficult, well-nigh impossibly demanding editor to work with, he and his magazine generated so much excitement in the first half of the Fifties that any writer who thought at all of writing science fiction wanted to write for Galaxy.

Nor were Galaxy and F&SF the only new markets for the myriad of capable new writers. Suddenly it was science fiction time in American magazine publishing. Title after title came into being, until by 1953 there were nearly forty of them, whereas in the past there had never been more than eight or nine at once. The new magazines, some of which survived only two or three issues, included Other Worlds, Imagination, Fantastic Universe, Vortex, Cosmos, If, Science Fiction Adventures, and Space Science Fiction. Long-established pulp magazines like Startling Stories, Planet Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Stories upgraded their literary standards and drew outstanding contributions from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Vance, Henry Kuttner, Ray Bradbury, and Theodore Sturgeon. A trio of ephemeral pulps that had perished in the war-time paper shortage—Future Fiction, Science Fiction Stories, and Science Fiction Quarterly—were revived after an eight-year lapse.

It was a heady time, all right. The most active writers of the period—people like Sturgeon, Dick, Sheckley, Anderson, Farmer, Blish, Pohl—were in their twenties and thirties, an age that is usually a writer's most productive period, and with all those magazines eager for copy, there was little risk of rejection. In the earlier days when one editor had ruled the empire and a story he turned down might very well not find a home anywhere else, science fiction was too risky a proposition for a professional writer; but now, with twenty or thirty magazines going at a time, the established writers knew they could sell everything they produced, and most of them worked in a kind of white heat, happily turning out fiction with gloriously profligate productivity and, surprisingly, at a startlingly high level of quality as well.

You will note that so far I have spoken of science fiction entirely as a magazine-centered medium. Until the decade of the Fifties, there was essentially no market for science fiction books at all. The paperback revolution had not yet happened; the big hardcover houses seemed not to know that science fiction existed; and, though some of the great magazine serials of the earlier Campbell era, novels by Heinlein and Asimov and Leiber and De Camp, were finding their way occasionally into book form, the publishers were amateurs, lovers of science fiction who issued their books in editions of a few thousand copies and distributed them mainly by mail.

All that changed in the Fifties. The mighty house of Doubleday began to publish hardcover science fiction novels steadily, soon joined by Ballantine Books, an innovative new company that brought its books out in simultaneous hardcover and paperback editions. The sudden existence of willing publishers was all the encouragement the new writers needed: and suddenly we had dozens of splendid novels in print in book form, among them Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End, Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Sturgeon's More Than Human, and Asimov's Pebble in the Sky, along with hardcover reprints of recent magazine serials by Heinlein, Asimov, Leiber, and others.

A golden age, yes. Most of the classic anthologies of science fiction stories are heavily stocked with Fifties stories. Any basic library of science fiction novels would have to include a solid nucleus of Fifties books. And today's science fiction writers are deeply indebted to the dominant Fifties writers—Bester and Sturgeon and Dick and Sheckley and Pohl and Blish and the rest—for the fundamental body of ideas and technique with which they work today.

I know. I was there—very young, but with my eyes wide open—and I was savoring it as it happened. Most of the new writers who made the decade of the Fifties what it was in the history of science fiction were on the scene already as functional professional writers as the decade opened, or else were only a year or two away from launching their careers; but there were a few who were still only readers of science fiction then, and would not see print regularly with their own stories until mid-decade. I was one of those; so was Harlan Ellison, and John Brunner. (Our generation was a sparse one.) Though I was only an onlooker at first, and then just the youngest and greenest of the new writers of the era, I can testify to the crackling excitement of the period, the enormous creative ferment.

I don't think it's mere nostalgia that leads me to the view of the importance of that era. The stories in this book [Nebula Awards Showcase 2010, Bill Fawcett, ed. (New York: ROC, 2010)], surely, support my feeling that the Fifties were a time of powerful growth and evolution in science fiction.

Would that evolution ran in a straight upward line. But, alas, there are periods of retrogression in every trend. The glories of the Fifties were short-lived. By 1959, nearly all of the magazines that had been begun with such high hopes a few years before had vanished, the book market had been severely cut back, and many of the writers central to the decade had had to turn to other fields of enterprise. As the Fifties approached their end, Campbell and his Astounding still labored on, now into the third decade of his editorship, and despite the inroads of his new competitors he continued to publish some of the best science fiction. But his increasing preoccupation with pseudo-scientific fads had alienated many writers who had previously remained loyal to him, and the magazine grew steadily weaker all through the decade.

For the other surviving magazine, things were no better. Though the potent new magazines Galaxy and F&SF were among those that lasted, their editors did not; Anthony Boucher had resigned his editorial post in 1958; Horace Gold's continuing medical problems forced him to step down a year later. Without those two pivotal figures, and with Campbell increasingly remote and problematical, the spark seemed to go out of the science fiction field, and the fireworks and grand visionary dreams of 1951 and 1952 and 1953 gave way to the dull and gray late-Fifties doldrums of science fiction, a somber period destined to last seven or eight years. The golden age of the Fifties was over. Science fiction fans dreamed of a renaissance to come. And it would eventually arrive, bringing with it another rush of new writers, new literary glories, and a vast new audience whose conflicting preferences would transform the once insular little world of science fiction beyond all recognition.

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.