Lesson 7: Alternate Worlds: 1950 - 1965

Lesson 7: Alternate Worlds: 1950 - 1965

Created by James Gunn and Thomas Seay

This course is available for online enrollment as ENGL 506 through the Continuing Education department of the University of Kansas. To take this course for academic credit, click here.

Lesson Objectives

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Explain how a variety of editorial viewpoints surfaced in science fiction magazines during the 1950s;
  • Identify the major editorial focuses of several major magazines of this era, including Astounding, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Galaxy; and
  • Describe the protocols of reading science fiction.


"Sail On! Sail On!" by Philip José Farmer
The Road to Science Fiction #3, pp. 164-75

"Slow Tuesday Night," by R.A. Lafferty
The Road to Science Fiction #3, pp. 345-54

"Flowers for Algernon," by Daniel Keyes
The Road to Science Fiction #4, pp. 86-115

"The Light of Other Days," by Bob Shaw
The Road to Science Fiction #4, pp. 185-95

"The Protocols of Science Fiction," by James Gunn


In 1949 the highway of science fiction, constructed by Hugo Gernsback in 1926 with the creation of Amazing Stories and resurfaced and broadened by John Campbell when he became editor of Astounding Stories, arrived at an intersection in time and space from which three main routes and a number of smaller byways extended into the future, through unknown countrysides, and into strange lands.

For twenty-three years science fiction had been held together by a remarkable unity created out of a fraternity of the elect among readers and writers alike, build with the cumulative effects of one concept developing out of another and forming new layers. Now, as the 1950s began, as science fiction expanded, its significant characteristic became its growing variety; science fiction began to explode with new magazines, new ideas, new techniques.

The first of these alternate worlds The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which was created by Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas with the help of publisher Lawrence Spivak, was based on the belief that science fiction could be literature and that a literary approach that included fantasy would be viable on the newsstands. In the Boucher-McComas magazine, the distinction between science fiction and fantasy was not as great as in Astounding: literary science fiction tends to resemble fantasy. The wellsprings of science fiction are in the mind; the source of literature is the heart. Science fiction appeals to the intellect and achieves its effects through the tensions created by treating an imaginative concept naturalistically, through the disproportion observed between humans and the universe, between one's lifetime and eternity, between one's accomplishments and dreams; literature appeals to the emotions and achieves its effects through the analysis of character and the interplay of language. Science fiction and literature seem worlds apart. Fantasy and literature, on the other hand, are inseparable; fantasy, which is concerned with the conflict between a person and his/her imagination, which deals with the fanciful explanations we have created to rationalize ourselves, our origin, and our fate, and the mysterious forces that act on us and our world--that is, with myth and legend--has as long a history as literature itself. They are interwoven and in some ways identical.

Science fiction has difficulty being literary in the traditional sense. It deals not with the known but the unknown, and the specifications of the unknown require explanation. Such explanations are not narrative, but they are the stuff on which narrative is built. Science fiction tends to take an individual's basic emotions and impulses as constants; characters tend to take the roles of ideas; and unperceptive critics accuse them of being wooden or cardboard. Sometimes they are; usually they are more important as representatives than as individuals, and their feelings are important only insofar as they are typical and lead to actions that mean survival or death for the group.

Boucher and McComas, however, believed that science fiction could be literature, by reducing or eliminating the inbred conventions (space warps, time tracks, tractor beams, force fields, blasters, and so on)—if you have to appeal to a general audience, you must not rely on any specialized understanding—or using them for their myth value; by insisting on skillful writing and a greater concern for the complexities of character and of language; by associating science fiction with more literary works in the fantasy tradition within the pages of the same magazine and by reprinting stories from the experimental mainstream; by critical or biographical headnotes for each story; and by a conscious attempt to broaden the mainstream's critical vision to include The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and thereby science fiction itself.

Although The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction did not make a great deal of money, it managed to survive and become one of the top three science-fiction magazines in spite of a word-rate payment consistently a cent or more under its competitors. It attracted literary interest, literarily inclined authors, and literary (or at least more literate) stories.

Another alternate world for science fiction was created in 1950 when H. (for Horace) L. Gold, with World Editions, Inc. and later with printer-publisher Robert Guinn, produced Galaxy Science Fiction. The publishers of Galaxy wanted well-written stories, but they was not willing, as the publishers of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction sometimes were, to accept literary quality as a substitute for narrative excitement. Gold's vision focused not on the adventurer, the inventor, the engineer, or the scientist, but on the average citizen. Gold wanted stories about characters who accept their situations and endure, who try to adjust to them, because, he wrote, although "the attempt to adjust may be doomed, just as they often are under, say, the various dictatorships we've spawned, yet the great majority will try its damnedest to get along somehow." (Gold, Letter to James Gunn. Quoted in Gunn, Alternate Worlds. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 1975.)

Opposed to this, Gold wrote, was the story of the rebel, the misfit:

The exceptions, the rebels and misfits who beat their heads against walls, who fight City Hall, who want snow in the summer, who uncharacteristically subordinate their own lives to principles, philosophies, causes of all sorts--these are the ones science fiction has hitherto written about nearly exclusively. Sure, they also include the history-makers among the outcasts, but that's not the point.

There are only so many varieties of misfit, from the most passively humanitarian to the most destructively antisocial.

Work through the list, as s-f has done, and you come back to the beginning and can only go through it again—and again—and again. Somebody had to break the suicidal trunk-to-tail procession. I may have been the biggest single editorial influence in doing so. At any rate, it pleases me to believe I was, and still am, and who would I be hurting if I'm wrong? (Gold, Letter to James Gunn. Quoted in Gunn, Alternate Worlds. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 1975.)

Some stories that were rejected by Astounding, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Galaxy found markets in the publications that lived in the shadow of the Big Three. Two such magazines were If, which was sold by the Quinn Publishing Company to Galaxy and later won several Hugo awards, and the shorter-lived Venture Science Fiction, a companion to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. They stood out from the other magazines for their willingness to pay a fraction of a cent more a word than their competitors (usually two cents a word rather than a cent or a cent and a half) and for their tolerance for experimentation and more literate writing.

A fourth alternate world appeared in 1951. It seemed like a radical experiment at the time: a book composed of never-before-published stories, that contradiction in terms, an original anthology. It was a response to three facets of science-fiction publishing: the success of the anthology, the increasing difficulty in finding unanthologized stories worth reprinting, and inadequate distribution of magazines. Raymond J. Healy, who had coedited the big postwar anthology Adventures in Time and Space, commissioned and solicited original fiction from a variety of science-fiction writers and published them in a book New Tales of Time and Space.

In 1952, Ballantine Books published the Star Science Fiction Stories, edited by Frederick Pohl, the first volume in an annual series that started by offering five cents a word or more for short stories but gradually reduced its payment rate to about that of the better-paying magazines. The series was discontinued when Pohl became editor of the Galaxy magazines, succeeding Gold.

The principle had been proved sound, however: anthologies of original materials sold better than magazines, probably because they remained longer on the book racks; being undated, they weren't automatically returned when a new issue arrived.

The next major venture in the original anthology was the Orbit series, edited by Damon Knight. Launched in 1966 as an annual, the anthology became a semiannual publication in 1968. The Orbit series was the first to actively encourage new writing, even experimental writing; one year its stories received the majority of Nebula Award nominations by members of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

This new pressure to experiment in prose and in narrative would soon accelerate and broaden as yet more alternate worlds opened to writers of science fiction. If Gernsback had ended the forgotten Diaspora of science-fiction readers and writers with his creation of a new Jerusalem, and Campbell gave a Zionist movement new leadership, new vigor, and new direction, by the 1960s the science-fiction homeland had grown large enough, strong enough, sure enough to tolerate a variety of viewpoints, a diversity of goals that would continue to expand in the decade to come.

Writing Assignment

Considering James Gunn's essay "The Protocols of Science Fiction," explore whether—and how—each of the stories assigned for this lesson requires the application of uniquely science fictional reading protocols. Refer to specific lines or events within each story. Do these protocols reflect different science fictional viewpoints from the ones expressed in earlier science fiction?