The Fatalistic Fifties

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[image from ISFDB.com]

Especially over the past year, I’ve found myself reading a lot of 1950s gSF.  Authors from this period doesn’t get as much attention as they deserve, I think.  Part of it is because they’re sandwiched between the idealistic “social science fiction” of John Campbell’s “Golden Age” of science fiction (c. 1939 to c. 1945) and the “New Wave” that started in the mid 1960s (think Ellison’s Dangerous Visions).  It’s not just that there are some great narratives (Clarke’s Childhood’s End (see BELOW), Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949) Brackett’s wonderful The Long Tomorrow (1955), etc.); it’s the schemas embedded in these narratives.  Regarding my favorite schema, much of it is very “Golden Age”:  there’s still a recurring belief that technological progress is inevitable, a strong association with the scientists and engineers generating this progress, and a typical assumption that religion and science are opposed and conflicted.  However, this is no longer seen as necessarily positive:  progress in technology can now lead to the Bomb; to extinction, not evolution.  Regarding religion, there’s an almost whimsical desire that one could “believe” … but, of course, one can’t.  If I had to pick a single word to characterize this period, it would be “fatalistic.”

The April/May 1953 issue of Amazing, pictured above, is rather ironic.  The artwork seems better suited to the space-opera-and-ray-guns sort of gSF stereotypical of Gernsback’s magazine before the “Golden Age.”  The contents, however, were decidedly post WWII.  If one wants a quick sample of what I mean by the Fatalistic Fifties, one story is a great example:  Richard Matheson’s “The Last Day.”

The plot is simple.  We’re all going to die. The protagonist wakes up on the morning before the Earth is to be consumed in fire, after a night of nihilistic debauchery.  We learn that he’s been more-or-less estranged from his mother, due in part to her strong religious beliefs.  In their last hours, he decides to visit her anyway.  The end — of the story, the protagonist, and the human race.

One of the reasons I love gSF is its capacity to explore human nature, and its critical focus on change.  Heinlein, speaking at Chicago a few years later argued:  “Change…change…endless change—that is the keynote of our times, whether we face it or run away from it. The mature speculative novel is the only form of fiction which stands even a chance of interpreting the spirit of our times” (see complete text HERE).  At gSF’s best, this isn’t just (as Asimov later stated) human reactions to technological change, but any and all changes we may be faced with, including changes to our own nature — and occasionally our failure to evolve.

In the 1950s, more so than earlier or later gSF, the individual and/or society as a whole are powerless to prevent dramatic, fundamental changes, up to and including the “end of the world.”  A 1954 anthology collects Matheson’s story, along with similarly fatalistic stories like McIntosh’s “One in Three Hundred” (originally F&SF, Feb. 1953) and Miller’s “Crucifixus Etiam” (orig. Astounding, Feb. 1953).  The editor highlights the new developments:

“[These stories] demonstrate the distance that science-fiction has travelled since the days when world-destruction, when practiced upon someone else, was considered the goal of all science-fiction; and when attempted upon us, was evaded by shifting planets millions of miles.  Messrs. Matheson and McIntosh are more realistic, and also more idealistic:  they deal in such matters and human values; indeed, if the term isn’t too vague, with the eternal verities of life:  love and understanding … [Miller’s story], too, is a story of hope and sacrifice” (Bleiler and Dikty 1954: 11).

I suspect that by 1954 Everett Bleiler had already read more science fiction than I ever will, but its difficult to recognize either of these stories in this descriptions.  Not all examples of fatalism in 1950s gSF are purely pessimistic …  “One in Three Hundred,” also in which Earth’s incineration is immanent, contains at least the hope of survival for a lucky few.  The acceptance of one’s fate (exile from Earth) in “Crucifixus Etiam” is literally constructive (ISFDB.org notes it was later collected under the title “The Sower Does Not Reap”).  Elsewhere, the inability to control or even significantly direct societal developments in Stewart’s Earth Abides is downright comforting.

However, to call “The Last Day” “hopeful” just isn’t right.  We see humanity facing its final curtain with a rather staggering lack of grace:  drugs and sex, murder, rape, and suicide.  (Even, bizarrely, looting.)  The protagonist is distinctive only in that he doesn’t sink quite as low as some others, and sobers up in the morning.

He considers driving home to see his mother one last time.  Initially, he decides against it:

“How can I go home and have her try to make me pray?  Try to make me read from the Bible, spend these last hours in a muddle of religious absorption?

“He said it again for himself.  ‘No’ “ (ibid. p. 178).

Then he relents, and during the drive with a friend to her house witnesses example after example of humanity’s darkest side.  The only exception:

“They passed churches.  People were packed inside them.  They overflowed out onto the steps.

‘Poor fools,’ Richard muttered, his hands still shaking.

Norman took a deep breath.  ‘I wish I was a poor fool,’ he said.  ‘A poor fool who could believe in something.’

‘Maybe,’ Richard said.  Then he added, ‘I’d rather spend the last day believing what I think is true’ “ (ibid. p. 182).

He expects to find his mother “praying, exhorting invisible powers to succor her as the world prepared to fry itself” (ibid. p. 183) and “dread[s] the thought of arguing with his mother on this last day.  Of disputing with her abut her God and her conviction” (ibid. pp. 184-5).  I refuse to spoil the ending completely.  (In fact, I strongly recommend you stop reading right now, and run down to your local library … )

For my current purposes, it’s enough to say that his mother is able to meet her end with remarkable dignity, and does not try to Save him in his last hours, and seems to accept that he will never be religious.  “I’ll believe for both of us” (ibid. p. 189).  Similarly, “Richard” (is it significant that protagonist and author share a name) remains committed to a scientific perspective, but he does comes accept her religiousness as a source of strength from which he can draw.  That, more than anything, characterizes gSF’s schema of religion in the 1950s:  it’s still “other,” and remains incomprehensible, but a grudging respect has emerged.

I think it would be unwise to limit our interpretation of this story as promoting an acceptance of scientifically minded people for the more religious people in our society.  There is a strong suggestion that religion is part of the past:  my partner saw a strongly Freudian element — a return to the comforts of the maternal womb — and I think she’s right.  If so, religious belief, in the schemas of this era’s gSF, isn’t just part of our historical past; it’s also believed to be an element of childish dependency which we must regrettably outgrow.

 

 

Bleiler, E.F., & Dikty, T.E.  (1954).  The best science fiction stories:  1954.  New York:  Frederick Fell, Inc.

Heinlein, R.A.  (1957/2012).  “Science fiction:  Its nature, faults and virtues.”  Accessed 19 October, 2014, at:  http://www.loa.org/sciencefiction/biographies/heinlein_science.jsp

 

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