Look back to the future with classic sci-fi

Is it possible that one of my favorite books of 2012 is actually a two-volume anthology of classic science fiction novels from the 1950s, compiled by sci-fi scholar Gary K. Wolfe? In the case of American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953–1956 (Library of America, $35) and American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956–1958 (Library of America, $35), the answer is yes. Both books are available separately, or in a handsome slipcase for $70.

The nine novels Wolfe selected represent some of the very best speculative fiction the era produced, although there are some surprises. Readers won’t find anything by Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury or British-born science-fiction master Arthur C. Clarke, but they aren’t exactly missed. What is here is superb—essential reading from Alfred Bester, Robert Heinlein, James Blish, Theodore Sturgeon, Richard Matheson and others.

The first volume contains four groundbreaking novels: The Space Merchants (1953), written by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, takes place in an overpopulated future where big corporations have taken over the government and advertising has become the highest-paying profession. This oddly prophetic satirical novel is filled with sly plot twists. Sturgeon’s More than Human (1953) is an ambitious novel in three parts, involving a telepath named Lone, a telekinetic 8-year-old and twins, Bobbie and Beanie, who can teleport. The results are powerful, and Sturgeon’s poetic prose shines. Fans will also swoon over Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955) and Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man (1956).

The second volume is even stronger, thanks to the inclusion of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956), an interstellar spin on The Count of Monte Cristo. Gully Foyle vows revenge on the Vorga after the spaceship refuses to rescue him. In time, Foyle amasses a huge fortune, a tattooed face and the ability to teleport anywhere he chooses. In Robert Heinlein’s Double Star (1956), an out-of-work actor assumes the identity of an ailing politician and is forced to continue the deception for an upcoming election. A Case of Conscience (1959) by James Blish concerns a Jesuit priest grappling with an alien race’s lack of religion. Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time (1957) and Algis Budrys’ Who? (1958) are equally essential reading.

Library of America has also created an online companion for the books, with introductions to each novel (from fans such as Neil Gaiman, William Gibson and Connie Willis); a portfolio of original cover art; essays on science fiction; and assorted audio and video treasures. While none of these writers accurately predicted our future, their insights about human nature are worth revisiting. ★★★★★