American classic novels
In brilliantly curating these two essential, mind-blasting, soul-satisfying, critic and editor Gary K. Wolfe has driven the final nail into the coffin lid of the myth that the 1940s represented the true Golden Age of science fiction. Admittedly, the writers who did their groundbreaking work in the 1940s — mostly under the guiding hand of genius editor John W. Campbell — were brave and bold pioneers, forging new visions and new tools that had never previously been seen nor utilized, with little monetary reward and few accolades. Without the seminal work of Asimov, de Camp, van Vogt, and many others, the novels Wolfe assembles here would never have been written. They rest upon the shoulders of giants.
But if a Golden Age signifies the mature efflorescence of a Platonic ideal, the impeccable embodiment of a perfected art form, then it is indeed the 1950s that qualifies as the true Eden. No savvy reader, finishing these two volumes, will feel inclined, I believe, to dispute that.
You can read this argument in Wolfe’s introductory essay — but not in the physical books. The Library of America has cleverly conceived of offloading the bulk of the rich supporting material to a website. (Notes remain in the hardcover editions, but each novel also gets its own insightful essay online by a famous SF writer of modern times.) This gives the books themselves a purity of form that only enhances the reading experience.
The standard classy treatment accorded by the LoA to titans of naturalistic literature consorts remarkably well with these pulp-derived texts. Anyone such as myself, whose original memories of these books involves tattered mass-market paperbacks or small-press hardcovers or digest magazines will be surprised and distinctly chuffed to see how nobly they comport themselves on acid-free paper. In fact, the whole package, from the luxe two-volume slipcased presentation to the choice of perfect vintage illustrations, does immense and loving honor to the material. It signals a longed-for level of literary respect that many older fans thought would never arrive.
Wolfe kicks off in high gear with The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth. Depressingly — or exhilaratingly; take your pick — this relentless work of satire reads as if composed just yesterday. So many venal sins of Western society and the modern consumerist lifestyle are mercilessly and wittily excoriated that the reader emerges stunned with disbelief that such a shoddy rapacious edifice as we all inhabit doesn’t collapse at once. (And of course, the 2008 global financial meltdown casts the book in an even more relevant light.)
Advertising copywriter Mitch Courtenay, seeking to promote the colonization of Venus from an Earth whose resources are being steadily drained by insane consumerism and population growth, finds himself fighting for his life, as various factions — rival ad agencies, “Consie” saboteurs — strive for dominance. Pohl and Kornbluth — who wrote a handful of fine books together, but none greater than this one — plunge the reader up to her neck in the future, with no hand-holding or infodumps, just total immersion in their cohesive madhouse, full of eyekicks (the Maidenform bra wing of the Met) and prophecies (omnipresent flat-screen displays). While the book shares the ambiance of such near-contemporaries as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and The Sweet Smell of Success, it also exudes an eternal Wordsworthian lament: “The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers….”
As if to confound all readerly expectations and to illustrate the broad dynamic of what was possible and being undertaken by the ambitious writers in the genre at the time, the next offering, Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, concerns itself with the small but deep human heart rather than large but shallow human systems: the microcosm, not the macrocosm. Whereas Pohl and Kornbluth’s book was almost journalistic and very hard-nosed, all shiny surfaces and Realpolitik, the Sturgeon tale is poetic and empathetic, all interiors and psychology: inner space. Sturgeon knows damn well how the world works, maybe even better than Kornbluth and Pohl, but chooses to affirm that the soul trumps commerce and civic duty every time.
With Faulknerian bravura, Sturgeon tells the story of the first specimen of Homo Gestalt, the fabulous biography of a composite sport. Five individuals, all “defective” misfits — metaphorical “occupants of a slag dump at the edge of mankind” — learn how to “blesh.” Using complementary paranormal talents, an adult “idiot” named Lone forms a functioning super-organism with three kids and a Down syndrome baby. When Lone is no longer available, a “juvenile delinquent” named Gerry slots into his role. But the symbiotic creature lacks one essential component: a superego. Channeling his own childhood anguish and adult inquisitiveness, Sturgeon fashions a Jungian evolutionary mythology. Full of Kerouackian beat wisdom and countercultural impulses, this novel forms one of the seeds of the New Wave of the 1960s.
Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow asks a large, familiar question: What is the proper role of mankind in relation to the universe? Blind instinctual obedience to natural forces, or exploration and mastery of same? What is hubris, and what is Promethean glory, and are the two even separable? Using an adolescent protagonist and set in a post-apocalyptic venue, this book looms like the template of everything from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. It even comes close to limning the currently fashionable “resurgent Depression” future identified by critic Gary Westfahl in a recent review of the movie Looper.
Two young cousins, Len (who provides the favored perspective) and Esau Colter, live in the New Mennonite town of Piper’s Run, where all learning is harshly circumscribed, in deference to beliefs about the eighty-years-past Destruction that crashed the planet. But the boys long for knowledge of technology, and soon they are exiled, on the road for the fabled Bartorstown, the last redoubt of science. But the road is long and dangerous, and the destination not what they envisioned.
Using plainspoken yet biblical cadences, Brackett — the lone female writer represented here, out of sheer canonical contingencies — evokes an ambiance akin to The Red Pony or Shane, with an overlay of Shirley Jackson creepiness. In the advice from Len’s mentor Hostetter — “You have to live in the world. You can’t get away from it” — we hear the perpetual debate about ivory tower versus the proletariat that rages even today.