Characters and Society in Science Fiction Stories after 1945

This essay was written for a class I took called “Science Fiction and American Culture.” It was in response to three short stories and one novel:

  • “Thunder and Roses” by Theodore Sturgeon,
  • “The Roads Must Roll” by Robert Heinlein,
  • “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber, and
  • The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth.

You should be able to find a copy of The Space Merchants in your local library. Or you can purchase one from Amazon.com.

abstract man in light

In the introductory essay (“The Social Side”) to the short story “Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber, James Gunn discusses the four stages of science fiction as mentioned by Isaac Asimov’s 1953 essay “Social Science Fiction.” Asimov said that science fiction written since around 1945 have had a more sociological bent. He defined social science fiction “as stories about ‘the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.” (Gunn, pg.166.)

The three short stories and a novel that we read for this week were all published between 1945 and 1955 and had a more sociological, rather than technological, bend to them. This is most strikingly noticeable in the development of the central male figure in the stories.

“Thunder and Roses” by Theodore Sturgeon was published in 1947. The central male figure, Pete Mawser, is still reminiscent of earlier, pre-1945, characters — for example, from Robert Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll.” Mr. Gaines is a cool, collected, man’s man. He doesn’t let his wife get in his way, and he gets his job done without letting emotions curve his path. Mawser, is also something of a man’s man. He is in the military. He gets things done (like when he helps Sonny get rid of the razor blade). However, in him you begin to see the social aspects of science fiction coming into form.

“Thunder and Roses” has a social statement to make. It suggests that it is better to let your enemies live, even if they have attacked you first, if the price of retaliation is the obliteration of all life. It also says something about self-sacrifice, that it is sometimes better to be altruistic, in the long run, than selfish. Pete Mawser learns this lesson in the story. Through listening to Star Anthem’s song, and then being with her as she dies, he realizes that the sanctity of life is more important than revenge. At the beginning of the story, Mawser is full of hate. The reader gets the impression that he’d retaliate if he had the means. “Hate was first. Hate was ubiquitous….” But, at the end of the story, he destroys the means of retaliation so that no one can retaliate.

“Coming Attraction” by Fritz Leiber was published in 1950. The central male figure, Western Turner, furthers this trend towards the socializing and warming of male characters. Turner, although a proper — and stereotypical — Englishman, has feelings. You can also say that he wears them on his shirtsleeve, for he cares about Theda before he knows anything about her. He’s willing to help her escape to England even before he knows her name. Turner is like a chimera. He is emotional and caring while being cool and aloof. It depends on his situation.

The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, was first published in 1952. Mitchell Courtenay, the central male figure of this tale, goes through an evolution of character while still remaining the same. He starts out as a firm believer of marketing. He changes through various life-threatening, as well as world-view threatening, situations into a person who may not always bow down to “the god of Sales,” but who will use marketing to further the aims of the “Consies” (the Conservationists) if they, in turn, further his own personal aims.

“The First Canticle” by Walter M. Miller, Jr. was first published in 1955. Brother Francis Gerard of Utah, the main character of this story, is the ultimate “human” man. He is humble, modest and honest. He is a “simpleton” who is a devout follower of his (soon-to-be) Saint Leibowitz. His dreams are simple, as well as his life. It is very hard to find the “man’s man” in Brother Francis. The story is also the most sociological of the three short stories. The culture in which Brother Francis lives is richly described and alluded to. What probably makes this world so vivid is its familiarity. It is history repeating itself in a slightly different form.

The Space Merchants also develops a complex social structure. But, because of its complexity and unfamiliarity, it takes longer to build. The stories we read for this week exemplify the trend Asimov wrote about. They illustrate how characters and the society they live in became more important than the society they live in, became more important than technological gadgets in science fiction stories after 1945.