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Stranger in a Strange Land: John Wilson

American Science Fiction

In August of 1978, Ballantine Books, under their Del Rey imprint, published The Way the Future Was, a memoir by science-fiction writer and editor Frederik Pohl (who is still writing today, in his nineties). Here is the way it begins:

When I first encountered science fiction, Herbert Hoover was the President of the United States, a plump, perplexed man who never quite figured out what had gone wrong.
A boy of ten is not without intelligence. It seems to me that then I was about as educable and perceptive as I was ever going to be in my life. What I did lack was knowledge …. My father would be in one place, my mother in another, and me with some relative until they could get it together again. The name of the game was the Great Depression, but I didn't know I was playing it. And at some point in that year of 1930, I came across a magazine named Science Wonder Stories Quarterly, with a picture of a scaly green monster on the cover. I opened it up. The irremediable virus entered my veins.

I would have enjoyed Pohl's book whenever I came across it (and in fact I have read it again a couple of times over the decades since), but the timing of that first reading was particularly right for me. Like Pohl, I had encountered science fiction around the age of ten. For the next several years, I read immense quantities of it, along with many other things. But then there occurred a hiatus. It was as if a switch had been flipped in my teenage brain, and for years I read very little sci-fi.

In my late twenties, I began to read science fiction regularly again, though not nearly as intensively as before, and I had been doing so for a year or more when Pohl's book appeared. I was reading a mix of newly published sci-fi and writers I had missed altogether or hardly taken in the first time around (preeminently, Philip K. Dick) while catching up a bit with books published between the mid-1960s and the late '70s. Pohl sent me back to my first immersion.

I thought of The Way the Future Was when I got my hands on the gorgeous two-volume set published this fall by the Library of America, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary K. Wolfe. The first volume, covering 1953-1956, includes Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (the subject of a piece by Philip Jenkins in the January/February 2012 issue of Books & Culture), Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow, and Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man; the second volume, 1956-1958, includes Robert A. Heinlein's Double Star, Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, James Blish's A Case of Conscience, Algis Budrys' Who?, and Fritz Leiber's The Big Time. Except for Leigh Brackett's novel, I read all of these when I was young. The one that made the biggest impression on me, by far, was The Stars My Destination, followed by The Space Merchants. If I were putting together a similar selection, most of my choices would be different, but I can't fault Wolfe's list. (If you are interested in the set, there's a tasty array of supplemental material—images as well as words—at loa.org/sciencefiction, including brief new essays on the nine novels by Michael Dirda, Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Nicola Griffith, James Morrow, Tim Powers, Kit Reed, Peter Straub, and Connie Willis.)

How curious it is to contemplate this boxed set, taking its notional space in the Library of America alongside Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, and the endless volumes of Philip Roth. This is the way the future was in American science fiction c. 1953-1958. Now it is the past, an object of curatorial care but also inviting fresh attention. Frederik Pohl devotes some of his warmest pages to his stint as editor of Galaxy magazine. ("I stayed with Galaxy for just about a decade. The pay was miserable. The work was never-ending. It was the best job I ever had.") If Pohl could be summoned for a special-issue encore, it would be nice to have a gathering of essays comparing the way the future was in these nine novels and their contemporaries with the way the future is in a comparable range of sci-fi today.

Science fiction, the critic Darko Suvin has argued, is above all a literature of "cognitive estrangement." It's a resonant phrase, though of course it would also apply to a lot of writing outside sci-fi. We are all at home in this world and yet not at home. When I was a boy, growing up in churches where muted talk about "the end times" was routine though not obsessive, science fiction suggested the possibility that history was stranger than I had been led to believe, that rather than being near the end we might be only in the early chapters, that perhaps our God was too small: we had tried to make him fit in charts and schemes of our own devising.

We should consider this possibility, while not turning it into a warrant for smug certainty (the very thing we are supposed to be seeking to avoid) and an excuse to feel superior to others. Among its many benefits, science fiction—some if it, anyway—can help us to do that, even as it provides delicious escape. And by escaping now and then from the insistent demands of the real, we are better able to grasp the reality of our peculiar situation as strangers in a strange land.

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