For some very interesting reasons, 1953 was a year when over forty different science fiction and fantasy magazine titles appeared on newsstands in English-speaking countries. I haven’t tried to research non-English countries. And I’m not even sure I’ve found all the magazines published in English. Some of the titles below are reprint titles, but most of these magazines published new fiction.

Links are to Wikipedia. It’s amazing (astounding, authentic, fantastic, startling) how many of these magazines have extensive entries in that online encyclopedia.

For fun, I’ve collected the covers from 194 SFF magazines from 1953. You can view them at the Internet Archive. If you download the Comic Book Zip file you can change the .cbz extension to .zip and have a compressed folder of those covers. Unzip it and set your desktop background to a slideshow using that folder. It’s a fun way to view those covers over days and weeks. Or load the .cbz file onto your tablet if you have a program to read .cbz files. They look great on a tablet. As you flip through the covers pay attention to the authors. Notice how many are still famous today – such as Philip K. Dick – and how many are forgotten. Also, study the artwork. A lot of 1953 comes through those images, but it’s like interpreting dreams. Not very reliable, but strange and weird.

Many of these magazines are available on the Internet Archive. Reading them will show the future, but usually not this future – the times we live in now. Nor do they show the future young people seek today. Yet, there are lots of overlapping themes. Space travel, robots, posthumans, catastrophes, the end of the world, and so on. Writers and readers just saw it differently back in 1953.

I’ve been fascinated by the 1953 science fiction boom for years, but recently our short story club voted to group read the best stories from one year. I nominated 1953 but it didn’t win. I’m afraid the average age of our group members is now too young to be interested in science fiction from so long ago. 1976 won.

I have a theory about science fiction readers. I believe they bond for life with the science fiction stories that came out in the decade before their teen years, the decade of their teen years, and the decade of their early twenties. My teen years were in the 1960s, so I resonate best with science fiction from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. I’m guessing most of our members are in their 50s, and twenty years younger than me. So they will lean toward science fiction from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The ones closer to 60, will enjoy science fiction from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

The readers who were teens in the 1940s are dying off, and the ones from the 1950s are getting pretty old. If my theory is correct, science fiction short stories from the 1950s should be fading away from pop culture memory.

I had hoped my favorite science fiction short stories I loved reading when growing up would become eternal classics. But ask yourself how many people remember SF stories before John W. Campbell? Science fiction isn’t like rock music from the 1960s and 1970s, which many young people today are embracing over their own generation’s current music. But why not?

Science fiction in 1953 spoke to a generation and it’s fascinating to think about why. The number of science fiction readers before WWII was so small that it didn’t register in pop culture. The war brought rockets, atomic bombs, computers, and nuclear power. The late 1940s brought UFOs – the flying saucer craze. The 1950s began with science fiction movies and television shows. By 1953, science fiction was a fad bigger than the hula-hoop would ever be, we just never thought of it that way. I do wonder if the fad will ever collapse, but I see no sign it will.

Science fiction themes and ideas don’t change that much, but how they are presented does. Today, the short story club read “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” by Mercurio D. Rivera which appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. It’s a great story, but it’s also just a modern version of “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon, from the April 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. I’m not saying Rivera copied Sturgeon, but he took a similar theme and made a story for his generation.

I imprinted on 1950s science fiction because that’s what I first read. I embraced the 1960s and 1970s science fiction because that was my generation’s science fiction while I was going to high school and college. Now that I’m old, my mind is returning to the science fiction of the 1950s. I was born in 1951, so I don’t remember 1953 except through old books, movies, music, and TV shows I discovered in the 1960s.

Sometimes I think I’ve doubled back along the trail to see where I took a wrong turn. 2022 is the future of who I was in 1962. But it’s not the future science fiction promised. Maybe I reread old science fiction to get back to the future I wanted.

James Wallace Harris, 5/13/22

Update: Thanks to John Boston

In 1954, these best-of-the-year anthologies chose these stories as the best from all those magazines:

Portals of Tomorrow ed. August Derleth (Rinehart LCC# 54-6523, 1954, $3.75, 371pp, hc)

  • ix · Introduction · August Derleth · in
  • 3 · The Hypnoglyph · John Anthony · ss F&SF Jul 1953
  • 17 · Testament of Andros · James Blish · nv Future Jan 1953
  • 47 · The Playground · Ray Bradbury · ss Esquire Oct 1953
  • 69 · Gratitude Guaranteed · R. Bretnor & Kris Neville · nv F&SF Aug 1953
  • 101 · Rustle of Wings · Fredric Brown · ss F&SF Aug 1953
  • 109 · The Other Tiger · Arthur C. Clarke · vi Fantastic Universe Jun/Jul 1953
  • 113 · Civilized · Mark Clifton & Alex Apostolides · ss Galaxy Aug 1953, as “We’re Civilized”
  • 129 · Stickeney and the Critic · Mildred Clingerman · ss F&SF Feb 1953
  • 139 · The Word · Mildred Clingerman · ss F&SF Nov 1953
  • 147 · Hermit on Bikini · John Langdon · ss Bluebook Mar 1953
  • 167 · Jezebel · Murray Leinster · ss Startling Stories Oct 1953
  • 189 · D.P. from Tomorrow · Mack Reynolds · ss Orbit #1 1953
  • 201 · The Altruists · Idris Seabright · ss F&SF Nov 1953
  • 221 · Potential · Robert Sheckley · ss Astounding Nov 1953
  • 241 · Eye for Iniquity · T. L. Sherred · nv Beyond Fantasy Fiction Jul 1953
  • 273 · Kindergarten · Clifford D. Simak · nv Galaxy Jul 1953

The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1954 ed. Everett F. Bleiler & T. E. Dikty (Fredrick Fell, 1954, $3.50, 316pp, hc)
In England as The Best Science Fiction Stories: Fifth Series.

  • 9 · Editors’ Preface · Everett F. Bleiler & T. E. Dikty · pr
  • 13 · Icon of the Imagination · Fritz Leiber · in
  • 19 · DP! · Jack Vance · ss Avon SF&F Reader Apr 1953
  • 41 · The Big Holiday · Fritz Leiber · ss F&SF Jan 1953
  • 50 · The Collectors · G. Gordon Dewey & Max Dancey · ss Amazing Jun/Jul 1953
  • 65 · One in Three Hundred [Bill Easson] · J. T. McIntosh · nv F&SF Feb 1953
  • 108 · Wonder Child · Joseph Shallit · nv Fantastic Jan/Feb 1953
  • 136 · Crucifixus Etiam · Walter M. Miller, Jr. · ss Astounding Feb 1953
  • 159 · The Model of a Judge · William Morrison · ss Galaxy Oct 1953
  • 172 · The Last Day · Richard Matheson · ss Amazing Apr/May 1953
  • 190 · Time Is the Traitor · Alfred Bester · nv F&SF Sep 1953
  • 217 · Lot [David Jimmon] · Ward Moore · nv F&SF May 1953
  • 249 · Yankee Exodus · Ruth M. Goldsmith · ss F&SF Jul 1953
  • 262 · What Thin Partitions [Ralph Kennedy] · Mark Clifton & Alex Apostolides · nv Astounding Sep 1953
  • 298 · A Bad Day for Sales · Fritz Leiber · ss Galaxy Jul 1953

Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels: 1954 ed. Everett F. Bleiler & T. E. Dikty (Fredrick Fell, Mar ’54, $3.50, 317pp, hc)
In England as The Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels: Second Series.

  • 9 · Introduction · Everett F. Bleiler & T. E. Dikty · in
  • 15 · The Enormous Room · H. L. Gold & Robert Krepps · na Amazing Oct/Nov 1953
  • 81 · Assignment in Aldebaran · Kendell Foster Crossen · na Thrilling Wonder Stories Feb 1953
  • 146 · The Oceans Are Wide · Frank M. Robinson · na Science Stories Apr 1954
  • 224 · The Sentimentalists · Murray Leinster · na Galaxy Apr 1953
  • 269 · Second Variety · Philip K. Dick · nv Space Science Fiction May 1953

Then in 1986 Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg looked back over 1953 and found these stories worth remembering:

saac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories: 15 (1953) ed. Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg (DAW 0-88677-171-4, Dec ’86 [Nov ’86], $3.50, 352pp, pb) Anthology of 17 stories first published in 1953 plus a summary of the year in and out of sf plus remarks on the various writers. Recommended (CNB).

  • 9 · Introduction · Martin H. Greenberg · in
  • 13 · The Big Holiday · Fritz Leiber · ss F&SF Jan ’53
  • 24 · Crucifixus Etiam · Walter M. Miller, Jr. · ss Astounding Feb ’53
  • 48 · Four in One · Damon Knight · nv Galaxy Feb ’53
  • 86 · Saucer of Loneliness · Theodore Sturgeon · ss Galaxy Feb ’53
  • 102 · The Liberation of Earth · William Tenn · ss Future May ’53
  • 123 · Lot [David Jimmon] · Ward Moore · nv F&SF May ’53
  • 155 · The Nine Billion Names of God · Arthur C. Clarke · ss Star Science Fiction Stories #1, ed. Frederik Pohl, Ballantine, 1953
  • 164 · Warm · Robert Sheckley · ss Galaxy Jun ’53
  • 176 · Impostor · Philip K. Dick · ss Astounding Jun ’53
  • 194 · The World Well Lost · Theodore Sturgeon · ss Universe Jun ’53
  • 216 · A Bad Day for Sales · Fritz Leiber · ss Galaxy Jul ’53
  • 224 · Common Time · James Blish · ss Science Fiction Quarterly Aug ’53
  • 250 · Time Is the Traitor · Alfred Bester · nv F&SF Sep ’53
  • 277 · The Wall Around the World · Theodore R. Cogswell · nv Beyond Fantasy Fiction Sep ’53
  • 308 · The Model of a Judge · William Morrison · ss Galaxy Oct ’53
  • 322 · Hall of Mirrors · Fredric Brown · ss Galaxy Dec ’53
  • 331 · It’s a Good Life · Jerome Bixby · ss Star Science Fiction Stories #2, ed. Frederik Pohl, Ballantine, 1953 

5/14/22

11 thoughts on “The 1953 SF&F Magazine Boom

  1. Jim, thanks. A great essay, like usual. I do think you missed or omitted one key issue regarding the modern take on an older issue or theme. In SFF (and especially SF), a lot of stories are in conversation with other stories, revisiting the ideas, themes and tropes of the older story with a commentary or a difference of opinion. ““Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” is definitely in conversation with “Microcosmic God”.

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      1. Paul, I think specific SF ideas come out in two ways. Sometimes it’s a conversation between writers, and sometimes it’s inventions discovered completely separately. In 1925 Lady Dorothy Mills wrote Phoenix about an old woman going through a rejuvenation process and looking young again and then running off to Europe to join the bohemian crowd. In the 1990s Bruce Sterling wrote Holy Fire with the same plot. I doubt Sterling read Phoenix because it’s very rare. It took me 15 years to track down a copy.

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    1. You’re right, I missed that observation. I’ve thought about that in the past and should have said something. I used to feel that SF writers were all the popular people at a party doing all the talking, and we fans were doing all the listening. And science fiction was really a conversation the writers were having with each other. I wanted to become a writer so I could join the conversation.

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      1. Jim, I wonder about your remark here regarding fandom. “I used to feel that SF writers were all the popular people at a party doing all the talking, and we fans were doing all the listening.” I’ve never been active in fandom, so I don’t have a close knowledge of its workings, but hasn’t fandom had some influence on SF itself, through its fanzines, interactions with writers, etc., going beyond passive listening and reading? (David G. Hartwell discusses this in his chapter on fandom in his book Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction.)

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  2. Jim, this passage of yours is extremely poignant: “Sometimes I think I’ve doubled back along the trail to see where I took a wrong turn. 2022 is the future to who I was in 1962. But it’s not the future science fiction promised. Maybe I reread old science fiction to get back to the future I wanted.” It could be developed into a science fiction story in itself.

    Your comments about “bonding” are fascinating. This is also true in my case, but in a more subtle sense. I discovered science fiction and fantasy at the age of twelve or so, and am most attached, not necessarily to work from the previous decade, but to work from various eras which I read around that time, or a few years later–at any rate before the age of twenty-five: Wells, Bradbury, Clarke, Asimov, Borges. Much of the later SFF I discovered (and continue to discover) is writing that has some connection to what I read earlier. Would I have gravitated to Heinlein in my early thirties if I hadn’t earlier read Clarke and Asimov, or Lovecraft (also in my thirties) if I hadn’t early read Bradbury and Victorian/Edwardian ghost stories, or Hawthorne if hadn’t discovered Borges at the age of eighteen? (I discovered Hawthorne through an essay by Borges.)

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    1. Carl, that’s true. We bond with the works we discover at that age. But what you’re describing is another trait of some bookworms. You read the favorite books of your favorite writers. The same thing is true with music. Or in the case of Jack Kerouac, I listened to the music he loved after reading his books. I listened to the music Bob Dylan and John Lennon admired growing up. For writers, I’ve worked my way back into the 19th century. For music, I worked back to the 1920s. I haven’t been able to jump into classic music even though I keep trying.

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      1. You’re right, Jim–indeed, I discovered Borges partly because my interest was aroused when I read Harlan Ellison’s enthusiastic comments about his work. But I wonder if I would have gravitated (there’s that word again) toward either of them if I hadn’t initially discovered SFF at an early age. (Another thing that drew me to Borges was the fascinating entry about his work in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction which I discovered in my high school library.)

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  3. Jim, I think there are different ways people get into that genre/era of fiction. One is the type you mention, where it’s what was around at a formative age. Another is being exposed to the best of the past with the best of the present. I first picked up a PKD volume of stories with a Bradbury collection of 100 of his own best tales and a Ellison collection ‘Shatterday’. It was around the same time as I picked of a Sheckley too. So, apart from the Ellison (whose volume was a lesser work), they became favourites.
    Most /people are being exposed to a monoculture, a faddishness for the present.
    But I think, one missing element is finding and exposing folks to the best of the best, which knocks down temporal barriers. It’s getting to the 4% cream of the crop in Sturgeon’s Law. I’ve converted folks who had a poor image of SF by giving them PKD’s ‘Second Variety’, ‘Colony’, and ‘The Golden Man’, Martin’s ‘The Sandkings’, Sheckley ‘A Ticket to Trania’, ect, ect. It’s the same with movies, when a young co-worker scoffed at the black and white movies I had in my bag and I said watch them over the weekend and come back. After the weekend, he arrived panting for more. The films were ‘Citizen Kane; and ‘Double Indemnity’. Other times, I’ve got youngsters and streetwise teens into ‘The Twilight Zone’, ‘Bilko’, ‘The Outer Limits’ and these to kids who had a hard time thinking that some old and black and white could be good. But with the TV shows mentioned, I had to chose the jewels in their run. If it was silent films, it would be to start with Chaplin/Keaton/Lloyd shorts and then the films. It has to be a classic, something of a distinctively high quality that transcends time and envelops all who experience it.
    I think we bond with some of the works we grow up with, but it’s the best of those. A person who grew up in the ’80s SF would also bond with Well’s ‘The Country of the Blind’ (1905), Priestley’s ’30s yarn ‘Mr. Strenberry’s Tale’, Dunsany’s ’20s delight ‘Our Distant Cousin’s’, Kersh’s ‘Comrade Death’, ect.
    Which is why I like the fact that you put up the contents of the yearly “Best of”. It’s an interesting way to find gems that would have been lost to time. If I was a kid and read ‘Four in One’ and ‘A Saucer of Loneliness’, I’d lose any loyalty to my era.

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    1. I think it’s interesting how young people get into some works from the past, but not others. I have a hard time getting friends my age to watch old black and white movies, so I’m impressed you could kids to watch old black and white TV shows.

      I think the #1 way people discover old short stories is when they find a favorite author and then get that author’s best-of collection of short stories. I love the old Ballantine series of The Best of …

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