Things I Learned From 1950s Science Fiction


If I’ve learned anything from 1950s science fiction it was entirely my own doing. Back then science fiction was a literature of ideas, not this wishy-washy learning stuff. There’s no place in learning for ideas, and who wants to come out of a story having figured out something about people or situations or stuff like that? I don’t mean to sound defensive here, I just want to warn serious science fiction fans that I know this is all on me, not on the genre. By “serious science fiction fans” I mean “people who know Robert Heinlein’s middle name and will work it in at least once out of every four times they try to complete a sentence”.

Anyway, I like the science fiction of the 1950s for its many charms, such as that bunches of it got turned into radio shows you can listen to without the inconvenience of reading.

The most important is about plotting. If I’m ever stuck for getting a story started, now I know what to do. Start out with a stuffy scientist type. Then introduce the kind of character that gets called a tough. He should sound kind of like what you get from listening to a radio show adaptation of a Damon Runyon story. The tough can then talk slang in front of the professor. The professor will put that as talking “slang” in front of him. And the scenes just write themselves. The professor type can view the “slang” in the same way he might examine an exotic insect that turned up in his lunch. His lunch comprises 375 grams of iceberg lettuce pressed flat and cut into regular hexagons, and a dessert of melting ice served with vitamin pills, surely sufficient for all nutritional demands. As a bonus the story can end when the tough or the scientist double-crosses the other and then finds out he’s helpless, which is a good punchy conclusion.

Then there’s characters. Interstellar spaceship crews on voyages of discovery are a neat bunch, since they’re all grumbling and surly and none of them want to know a thing about where they’re going. Get one out in front of a wonder of the universe and they’ll only look up if it’s got that hook you use to pry open a beer. They’ll do their best exploratory work around a hotel room’s bathroom sink.

Computers make for good characters. They’re surly genies who don’t bother talking down to you because that might break their uniform line reads. I like to think in text this means they write in all-caps. Maybe the newer, more human, ones just capitalize the start of every word. (At the risk of peeking ahead: in the 60s they become relentlessly chipper, helpful genies. In the 70s they become mopey and introspective genies, while in the 80s they split between being comic pals and Seven of Nine.)

The tough and the scientist are good to have around, of course. A woman can be a nice character in 50s science fiction, although if she already knows things that’s because she’s waiting for a man to be submissive to. I guess she might get through the whole story knowing stuff as long as there’s the promise she’s going to find one soon. It’s great to have an advertising executive and a tycoon around, because they can yell into telephones and demand that money be put into stuff without having to think about where it comes from or why. Advertising executives are really good to have because they’ll never ever wonder why they’re taking the “alien invasion of Earth” contract.

Then there’s some things about scenarios. For example, if you’ve got a time machine cluttering up your story you might be worried about the contingencies of the universe and whether your grandfather has enough existence insurance. Turns out there’s no time-travel method known that can alter the course of history. This is because of a rule put in place by the people who’re on top of history and don’t see any reason that needs to change.

Wherever a character is and whatever he’s doing, if he needs a weapon, he just needs to reach into any drawer anywhere to pull out a loaded revolver. I don’t know who’s putting them there. The evidence suggests the Space Gideons have gone somewhat awry.

Every rocket, including the little bitty one used to ferry people from Jersey City to the Port Authority in Manhattan, has enough fuel to break the speed of light and go rocketing past the universe if someone just accidentally leaves their foot on the accelerator pedal.

If you’re part of a colonial force there might be natives on the planet and the characters are expected to be total jerkfaces to them. That’s all right. The natives have ways of turning the characters into space cows, so it all balances out.

It turns out there’s no problem a man can have — poor job prospects caused by the aliens’ invasion ad campaign, an annoying mother-in-law, getting stuck on an interplanetary spaceship in a different century — that can’t be solved by the man standing up to his wife. If he doesn’t have a wife he should go looking for the nearest woman who knows stuff. She’ll be about ready to be stood up to.

People say “robot” any way except correctly.

I’m sure I learned other things, but I forgot to jot down just what.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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