The Observatory: Was 1953 the Best Year in SF History?

(Childhood’s End. Cover by Richard Powers. Ballantine Books, 1953.)

Are we halfway through the first month of the year already? Aw geez, that means I gotta write something. I always have a few editorial ideas swimming around, but the question is always: When should I write these? A topic can be timeless, or it could benefit from being discussed at just the right moment. The right person in the right place can make all the difference, and the same goes for articles, even ones I’m not getting paid for. It’s January 15, 2023, which means two things: it’s a Sunday, and it’s also Robert Silverberg’s 88th birthday. Hopefully we can get a dozen more out of him.

I don’t consider myself a big Silverberg fan, at least not yet, but I do see his place as a constant in SF history as indispensable. I can’t think of anyone alive now aside from maybe Samuel R. Delany whom I would like to sit down with and interview for an hour more than Silverberg, for the simple reason that Silverberg has a nigh-endless supply of stories to tell—not stories as in fiction, mind you, but life stories, stories within SF fandom, stories about all the times he got rejected by editors and, naturally, the subsequent acceptances. This is a man who traded words with John W. Campbell, Anthony Boucher, H. L. Gold, Frederik Pohl, Ben Bova, etc., and lived to tell the tale. This man has attended every Hugo ceremony since its inception in 1953, since he was just old enough to be able to attend the Hugos, and that alone would make his memory a precious thing to back up on some hypothetical external hard drive for people’s memories, which are essentially their beings anyway.

And speaking of 1953…

I have a lot of anthologies on my shelves. I’m young and amateur, but still I think I have a good number. One of those is Silverberg’s Science Fiction: 101, which is a curious mixture of fiction anthology, writing advice, and memoir. I don’t think it’s in print anymore, sadly, but I do recommend finding a copy, as, regardless of how one may feel about Silverberg as a person, the fiction selected is of quite a high standard—some certified classics with a few deeper cuts thrown into the equation. Something I couldn’t help but notice, though, even if Silverberg didn’t bring it up himself, is that focus on ’50s SF in the anthology, and more specifically on a certain year. Of the thirteen stories included, five are from 1953, which one might think to be a little much, especially given that there are only two stories from the ’40s (C. L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” and Cordwainer Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain”). Yet 1953 is undoubtedly framed as a Big Year™ for Silverberg, which makes sense; he was just then starting to write SF in earnest, having lurked around long enough as a fan and now readying to make his mark on the field.

Science Fiction: 101 shows off short SF that meant a lot to Silverberg personally, mostly stuff published during a period in his life when he was making the jump from fan to professional. The slant towards 1953, however, only hints at just how prolific and remarkably high in quality that year was for a lot of people active in the field then. On multiple fronts, the field was rolling ahead at full speed, with the growing accessibility of paperbacks meeting halfway with a magazine market which was at the very height of a bubble—a bubble that, mind you, was about to burst, but in the moment it was at a point of critical mass, which meant a diverse market for writers who otherwise might struggle to get published in Astounding or Galaxy. In the US along there were well over a dozen SF magazines active in ’53, including Amazing Stories, Fantastic, Future Science Fiction, Science Fiction Quarterly, Worlds of If, Universe Science Fiction, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Planet Stories, Space Science Fiction, and frankly almost too many more to count. We would not see this saturated an SF magazine market again until, well, now, but I’ll come back to that at the end.

There was something for everyone. If you wanted “literary” thinking man’s SF then Galaxy and F&SF scratched that itch tremendously; if you’re stubborn and like to read macho SF about psi powers then Astounding has your back; if you’re into planetary romance and generally adventure SF then there are a few options; if you like certain authors but wish you could buy even more of what they’re selling, then good news, those authors have probably sold to more magazines than you existed. And of course, if you’re one of those few sad fantasy readers in that weird point in time that’s post-Chronicles of Narnia but pre-Lord of the Rings then you’ll be pleased to know there’s a new fantasy magazine on the market: Beyond Fantasy Fiction, helmed by Galaxy‘s own H. L. Gold. And if that’s not enough, especially if you’re an avid book reader, the paperback market for SF is opening up big time, and that door will only open wider.

1953 was a great year to be Philip K. Dick, Robert Sheckley, Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clarke, and quite a few others. Dick and Sheckley had debuted the previous year, but 1953 saw these one-man writing factories pull out all the stops; you could probably make a top 10 list of your favorite Robert Sheckley stories from 1953 alone. It was also the year that Arthur C. Clarke, who had appeared from time to time in the American market previously, made his first big splash with American readers here, not just with the publication of Childhood’s End but also a slew of short stories that are still highly regarded, the most famous being “The Nine Billion Names of God.” Poul Anderson, who had been active for some years but had not made much impact, invoked F&SF‘s first serial with Three Hearts and Three Lions, forcing editors Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas to backpedal on their “no serials” policy.

When it came time for Hugo voters back in 2004 to partake in the Retro Hugos, all the aforementioned authors got at least one nomination, not to mention others getting in as well. I understand that the Retro Hugos are a controversial topic (Worldcon doesn’t even do them anymore, at least for now), but I find the idea admirable, and at the very least we get some deep cuts that deserve to be rediscovered on top of the usual suspects. The “1954” Retro Hugos, covering the best stuff to come out of 1953, might have, across all its fiction categories, the strongest of any Retro Hugo lineup. You’re probably thinking, “Voters are biased, they always pick either already-famous works or minor works by famous authors,” and that is basically true. For one I’m pretty sure the people who gave Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man” the Retro Hugo for Best Short Story were thinking about the justly famous Twilight Zone adaptation and had not actually read Knight’s story; if they did they would deem it as minor. I’m also pretty sure Ray Bradbury was not the best fan writer of 1938, just call it a hunch.

(Cover by Ed Emshwiller. F&SF, October 1953.)

What makes the 1954 Retro Hugos different, however, is that the shortlists (never mind the winners) for fiction, regardless of category, are all but unimpeachable. Let’s take Best Novel as an example, because this really is a golden set of nominees. We have Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, and the winner with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. While not my personal favorite, Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most famous novels in all of SF; people continue to read it, it’s still being discussed quite actively, and it’s even taught in schools; it’s a stone-cold classic of the field and its win is deserved. With that said, you could literally pick any of these other novels and you wouldn’t really be wrong to do so. The Caves of Steel is arguably Asimov’s single best novel; Childhood’s End is a career highlight for Clarke, not to mention one of his most influential; More Than Human sees Sturgeon in rare good form as a novelist; and even the most obscure of the bunch, Mission of Gravity (Clement is one of those authors begging to be rediscovered), is a foundational example of hard SF.

All killer, no filler. You can’t say that with the Best Novel shortlist for any other Retro Hugo year, either because of nominees that are justly forgotten or because of nominees that don’t hold up to modern scrutiny. Yet the near-uniform excellence of the nominees here, as the best of 1953, tells me that it was a very good year indeed. A lot of people were active in the field at the time, but just as importantly, a lot of those people were producing damn good work that still holds up. There was filler, and there was retrograde SF that would’ve been considered old-timey in fashion even in 1953, but there was also so much treasure from so many different voices that the sheer level of quantity and quality is hard to ignore. It was even a good time to be a lady author, what with women like C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Margaret St. Clair, Andre Norton, Judith Merril, and others who have been sadly forgotten producing good work; we would not see this many women contributing to SF again until at least the ’70s.

Now, I admit, I have a ’50s bias. When I started reading short SF in earnest some years ago I mostly stuck to the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, with that middle decade especially getting attention. I have a real soft spot for SF from the ’50s, but not because it’s idyllic or puritanical or old-fashioned—it’s because the SF of that period is often not any of those things. The first serial I reviewed for my site was Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, a sleazy novel about cold-blooded murder, prostitution, incest, and generally the dark side of a world where telepaths are the top 1%. A little more intense than what you’d expect for a novel published in 1952, and yet when the inaugural Hugos were held the following year Bester’s novel was honored with the first Hugo for Best Novel. Clearly writers and readers alike (at least enough of them) were daring enough in 1953 to think that a novel about the aforementioned cold-blooded murder, prostitution, incest, etc., was not only welcomed in SF spaces but could be considered a great work of literature. People seventy years ago were not as naïve as we like to pretend.

But that was, after all, seventy years ago, and of course 1953 is not the best year in SF history; there really cannot be a “best year” for a genre lauded for its capacity to change and adapt over time. The best year for SF hopefully has not happened yet. Yet certainly 1953 is emblematic of a specific point in time for the genre’s history, a time when the magazine market was booming, book publishing was on the rise, and we even get a few major “sci-fi” films that would help determine the genre’s cinematic power for the coming decade; more specifically I’m thinking of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The War of the Worlds, by no means perfect movies but ones which set a standard for the genre on the silver screen. The variety of voices writing SF in 1953 would also not be outdone for many years, and if we’re talking about short SF alone, we would not see such diversity again until the current era, what with several online magazines publishing works by people who would not have been heard even in that wonderland of ’53, whether because of their race, sexual orientation, or political leanings.

The future should always look better, and if it doesn’t then we should try to make sure that it does. There’ve been think pieces and discussions recently about the need for utopian SF, and why not? SF writers aren’t supposed to predict the future, but it’s possible to offer a blueprint for how people might be able to make a world wherein future generations will want to live. First, however, you need SF that’s thriving with quality works by quality people, and you can’t have that if the market has narrowed, where only so many outlets can only take so many voices. I shudder to think of a time when short SF has been basically locked out of discussion by virtue of so few short stories being published, which is why it’s such a good thing that the market is doing very well right now, and why such a level of diversity that we now see is to be treasured. If 1953 for SF represents anything it’s the same thing that 2023 for SF ought to represent: the promise of a good future.


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