8 amazing British sci-fi novels of the 1950s

From Brian Aldiss to Arthur C Clarke, 1950s Britain was rich in fantastic science-fiction novels. Here are 8 of the best...

It seems that every few years somebody announces science fiction is dead. In 2007 it was the turn of Ridley Scott, who then went on to make The Martian, so perhaps these claims should always be taken with a pinch of salt, particularly when we look back over the history of SF writing over the years and find that it is a genre that is as much defined by current events than by any singular vision of the future.

For that reason, British science fiction in the 1950s was incredible stuff. Anxiety over the powers scientists had unleashed after the dropping the atomic bomb at the end of World War II obsessed many novelists, but so did a sense of despondency at poverty and suffering within a community that was still living with rationing until 1954. How could novelists make sense of those strange times? Writers such as Arthur C Clarke turned their eyes to the far future, while others such as John Wyndham explored contemporary society. But, in either case, the fear of ‘What if?’ was electric within those books., and are well worth reading now – not only for an insight into the 1950s, but for how they continue to reflect on life now.

Here’s a look at eight of the best of them.

Equator (US Title: Vanguard From Alpha) by Brian Aldiss

Aliens. If they arrived on Earth, how would we interact with them, and could we overcome that barrier of otherness? In Equator, one of Aldiss’ earliest books, otherness really isn’t a problem. Instead the arrival of the Rosks from some far-off humid planet leads to an awful lot of negotiation, and the realisation that the aliens are just as slippery, divided and devious as humanity.

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The Rosks negotiate land around the equator on Earth, and then even a space for themselves on the moon; they claim to be a race of refugees, but there may be terrorists within their midst. Government spy Tyne, undertaking an espionage mission, makes a discovery that seems to threaten the stability of the Rosk/Earth pacts, but can he get the information into the right hands? Whose hands are the right hands, anyway?

If all that sounds like it addresses the kind of problems that face the world right now, I wouldn’t disagree with you. Having said that, it’s all wrapped up in a quick, action-filled spy thriller that includes inscrutable baddies and femme fatales. If you wanted to read a James Bond SF novel with some deep thinking material to boot, this is the book for you.

 

The Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham

Triffids have become one of those cultural icons that we all know whether we’ve seen one of the many film, radio and TV versions, read the book, or not. John Wyndham was a brilliant writer at putting his finger on disturbing ideas and images, from scary children to sea monsters, and to be honest any of his books could have gone on this list. But if you haven’t read anything of his, maybe start with the triffids. It’s so much more complex and frightening than it sounds.

A meteor shower blinds everyone who looks at it, but through sheer chance our hero Bill Masen retains his sight. As society crumbles he sees terrible things, not least of which is the escape of triffids (a carnivorous plant that is being grown in large numbers to provide fuel) into the wild. Blind humans are easy pickings, for both triffids and unscrupulous people who use the situation to gain control. Masen must try to find a place for himself that is safe from both threats.

 

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Wasp by Eric Frank Russell

Terry Pratchett loved it and Neil Gaiman optioned it and tried to write a movie script from it; Wasp is a book written in 1958 that still sounds like a subversive idea today. It’s a comedy about terrorism. We follow the adventures of James Mowry, a man who has been trained by the government of Earth to infiltrate and undermine the government on another planet. For we are at war with the big-eared, purple-faced Sirians, and it turns out one terrorist in the right place can be an extreme problem, just like a wasp at a picnic.

It’s a straight line of an adventure through a series of steps that Mowry has been given to disrupt the Sirian government. The bureaucratic system there has paperwork and heavy-handed policing and general day to days moans from the populace that can easily, with a bit of misinformation, turn into rebellious mutterings. Sirians are an awful lot like humans, and the ease of manipulation is very funny and really, really uncomfortable.

The Death Of Grass (US title: No Blade of Grass) by John Christopher

The thin thread that separates civilization from brutality crops up in a lot of science fiction of the fifties. The post-apocalyptic vision rests on the moment in which things cannot be saved, and old standards of decency must either be consciously protected or thrown aside. Which side of the divide would you stand on? Such questions were addressed in the new knowledge of how terrible humanity could be to each other after WWII, and are still being addressed today – perhaps there is no answer that does not trouble us.

A mutated virus infects rice, wheat and barley crops, and a family makes their way across an England that is falling apart in the hunt for food. They are attempting to reach a safe place, but others want to find it too, and the question remains – who really deserves to find and keep that safe place for themselves?

 

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The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle

Astronomer Fred Hoyle is best known for coining the phrase ‘The Big Bang Theory’ which he used dismissively; his own Steady State theory posited a different start to the universe. He wasn’t afraid to hold controversial theories, or to speak out about them. He also put that ability to good use as a novelist, and The Black Cloud is a very interesting read for that reason. It’s not interested in obeying the usual rules of novels; Hoyle sets up the idea that a huge black cloud is discovered via telescope, making its way directly for Earth, and then he plunges into a mathematical exploration of that cloud that makes you marvel at the skills and abilities of such scientists.

You won’t get much emotion in the writing, and at times the fate of huge amounts of people gets little more than a few lines. But the characters are vital and interesting, the premise fascinating, and there’s something enjoyable about the diagrams and equations that you can find on the pages. It’s a unique perspective on science fiction.

 

The Tide Went Out by Charles Eric Maine

There are quite a few novels of “cosy catastrophe” (as named by Brian Aldiss) on this list, and often the question that lies at the heart of them is – will we be decent people if the glue of society’s rules unsticks? Considering it was written in 1958 Maine’s novel is brutal and uncompromising; nobody good is going to survive this apocalypse. That’s not the way it works, deep down, when the truth is its every man for themselves.

The Tide Went Out requires a bit of suspension of disbelief when the apocalypse comes and the oceans around the world begin to disappear due to a nuclear accident, and I think that’s because the science in the weak point in this science fiction. But the strength of it is in the difference between what people think and what they do, particularly in the case of a hero who wants to have an easy life, and wants to justify it to himself in all sorts of ways. That juxtaposition of personal selfishness with a society that is falling apart is powerful stuff, although far from heartwarming.

 

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On the Beach by Nevil Shute

There’s not a ray of light to be found in On The Beach. A nuclear exchange has created a deadly radioactive cloud that has already killed off most of the planet before the book even begins; the last human settlements are in Australia and they, too, will be dead within months. They know it, and yet they go on doing their jobs and raising their children. There is a choice – a suicide pill provided by the vestiges of the government. Some people take it, and some don’t. Why they make that choice, and what makes us battle on even if the face of total hopelessness, permeates the novel. 

There’s a moment in On The Beach where the two main female characters quietly discuss, late at night, what will happen to the baby when the cloud arrives. How can they make sure it dies painlessly? Perhaps that’s why this, of all the 1950s apocalypse novels, is my favourite – because it shows dignity despite hopelessness, and love without agenda.

 

Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

At the cusp of humanity inventing viable space travel, aliens arrive and assume mastery over us all. We don’t see them, and it is impossible to effectively rebel against such advanced creatures. Life on Earth begins to change in ways that could not be imagined. Clarke doesn’t stick with one character but examines lots of different lives, including the alien ones, as a terrible future moves ever closer.

Reading Childhood’s End is a bit like looking down the wrong end of the telescope. Humanity seems quite big and impressive in the opening pages, and then gets smaller and smaller until we’re just a speck in a universe that is more complex and yet more ordered – now Clarke shows us the larger picture – than we had ever imagined. By the final pages all concerns of the space race, rocketry, and technology are gone and instead there’s one of the strangest, most difficult to accept endings in SF literature. Nobody wrote about facing the unimaginable quite like Clarke, and this is one of his best.