Vintage Scifi?

I was born the year before Nineteen Eighty-Four was published: it was doubtless written and completed during 1948, with the future date arrived at by simply reversing the final two digits. I’ve now read a couple of titles for Vintage Scifi Month but, as with 1984, Flowers for Algernon doesn’t apparently strictly doesn’t count as “vintage” because it was published in 1966, well after I was born (the rule of thumb for this “not-a-challenge”). But, luckily for me, 1898’s The War of the Worlds indeed does count, and has now been read and reviewed here.

As a matter of interest, I decided to see what did qualify as vintage SF for someone of my age. And, depending what one counts as Science Fiction, it turns out the answer is … “quite a lot”, providing one includes scientific romances, allegories and other speculative titles that seem to cross genres.

Here then is a list of what I currently estimate as a personal Vintage Scifi, calculated from a couple of online timelines of the genre: I shall be travelling backwards in time which, in the circumstances, seems quite apt.

(Links are to my reviews on this blog. And here’s some discussion on what constitutes science fiction.)

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1945. C S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength is the last of his so-called Space Trilogy but is more allegorical fiction than scientific romance; I’ve also read library copies of his Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and Perelandra (1943), the other titles in the series.
1944. Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius ruminates on what it means to be human, even if the outward appearance of the subject is canine.
1942+ Isaac Asimov’s Foundation began serialisation in this year, though not published in book form till 1951.
1932. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: I registered this as prescient when I read it in my teens, though I remember little of it now save that the title quotes The Tempest.
1930. Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon was a future history of the world; sadly I recall only its sheer scope, as if all the intermediate historical details of Wells’s The Time Machine‘s timeline had been filled in.

1912. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World was published just as most of the globe was finally being mapped. I’ve also read three of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels (which began with 1914‘s At the Earth’s Core and included Tarzan at the Earth’s Core in 1929), all of which must’ve been heavily influenced by Doyle’s scenario.

1901. H G Wells completed The First Men in the Moon at the start of the 20th century, rounding off a sequence of four scientific romances all of which, apart from The War of the Worlds, I also read in my teens.
1898. The War of the Worlds.
1896. The Island of Dr Moreau.
1895. The Time Machine.

1886. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is more a psychological ‘fable’ (as the author categorised it) than hard SF but to me definitely qualifies as speculative fiction.

1868. I read Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea in the wake of the Disney film, first released in 1954 (I saw it in the cinema around that time, but only later on television) — I skim-read the original novel, along with a couple of other Verne romances, in an edition aimed at young readers.
1865. Verne also wrote the speculative novel From the Earth to the Moon, a recent read for me; the author’s notion of a giant cannon to project a space capsule may have influenced Wells’s The War of the Worlds and his Martian projectile cylinders, as it would later inspire Joan Aiken’s steampunk novel Night Birds on Nantucket (1966).

1818. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is counted as vintage SF not just because of its speculative nature, but because of its undoubted influence on a number of later entries in the genre, such as Sirius, Flowers for Algernon, The Island of Dr Moreau and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

I have a few of these as yet unreviewed titles still in my possession and so, rather than wait till next January’s Vintage Scifi event, I rather fancy digging some out during the course of this year for a revisit.

Feel free to borrow the above meme if, like me, you’re planning to read (or reread) books already on your shelves this year.

How about you? Do some of these classic speculative novels appeal or appear on your shelves? Do you perhaps, being more of a spring chicken than me, have more of a choice when it comes to what counts as vintage? Or does SF in any shape or form simply turn you off? Even if treated in a humorous way?

29 thoughts on “Vintage Scifi?

    1. I judge that Sirius is more approachable than L&FM, but I really didn’t appreciate what Stapledon was aiming to achieve philosophically in the latter title; I’d probably have a more intelligent understanding of it if I were to read it today.

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  1. What counts as vintage sci fi? It’s such a new and rapidly changing genre that I’d put a pretty late cut-off, maybe just anything older than 30 to 40 years …

    I have mixed feelings about science fiction. It upsets me that it’s considered more legitimate than fantasy, when the latter is often more psychologically true and morally wholesome, compared to a dreadful book like Foundation. The worship of technology and anti-human forces disturbs me. I do enjoy it when there is a strong humanistic element, as in Ursula K. Le Guin.

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    1. As with you, Lory, much ‘blokey’ SF leaves me cold — and when I say ‘blokey’ I mean when the techie stuff takes pride of place with much masculine posturing substituting for character development. Not that I don’t like some philosophical musing prividing intellectual challenges (and here’s where I think Le Guin strikes a fine balance); but so-called ‘hard sf’ dates so badly when real-life technological developments and scientific research overtake inaccurate imaginings and made-up technobabble (Philip K Dick’s neologisms are too silly, even when he’s being arch).

      SF as ‘more legimate’ than fantasy? I haven’t come across this attitude, certainly not recently, and anyway the previously stoutly defended frontier between the two genres has crumbled away as formerly intermediate genres like magical realism and the like have found their way into mainstream contemporary fiction.

      I’ve just had returned to me (huzzah!) Kingsley Amis’ New Maps of Hell (1960) and Peter Nicholls’ Explorations of the Marvellous (1976) which together illustrate the rapidly changing landscape of speculative fiction in the 60s and 70s; I read these two titles eons ago and really must reread them for reviewing half a century on.

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  2. Gosh – what a list! I was particularly delighted to find that with the exception of Frankenstein (Yes, I know), Jules Verne, and the Island of Dr Moreau I think I’ve read them all (not 100% sure on the Stapleton). I remember slogging through the CS Lewis trilogy in my 20s, I tried to re-read it some years ago, but it was so turgid, I stopped within a few chapters. I remember adoring the Pellucidar novels back then too. Three I’d add to your list off the top of my head would be The Purple Cloud by MP Shiel from 1900 (not a nice man, but an interesting novel), Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak from 1942 and A Canticle for Leibowitz which was published the year before I was born.

    I liked the definition of Vintage Sci-Fi in this tag as 1979 or older – ie 40+ years. That admits a lot of superb novels, including Charisma by Michael Coney from 1975, a British parallel universe novel I was obsessed with as a teenager!

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    1. The Wikipedia list (which I mostly used for this selection) lists heaps more titles, many of which I’d never or hardly heard of. But I agree about the Lewis trilogy being turgid: I do want to reread That Hideous Strength because of its Arthurian themes, and I have a copy of his unfinished title in that series, The Dark Tower which I’ll struggle through again some time, but then I’m done I think.

      The Purple Cloud brings to mind Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud which, though definitely of its time, I did enjoy. I always mixed up A Canticle for Leibowitz with Flowers for Algernon but now I’ve read the latter I think I’ll try the former! And that Michael Coney you mention intrigues. 🙂

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  3. Interesting! Vintage sci fi or speculative fiction is the kind that appeals to me mostly, and especially when it veers away from those space operas with endless battles. It’s decades since I read the Lewis books and I know I loved them at the time though I suspect my attitude might be a little different nowadays. But I may try again one day. I love early Ballard short stories too, and although I don’t consider them vintage I tend to forget how the years have moved on and suspect they might be considered as ‘vintage’ by younger readers…


    1. The image on the #VintageSciFi meme (taken from a genuine novel cover I suppose) always makes me smile because of its ridiculousness, but that must be a reflection of what was then generally on offer: space rockets, bug-eyed monsters and scantily-clad nubile women in want of rescuing. At least here we only have a BEM with a space pistol!

      Ballard is not an author I’ve sampled yet, so maybe a collection of his short stories may be a good place to start.

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  4. elmediat

    I am vintage 1954. 😀 So my timeline of speculative fiction is a bit different. I do think we really should set the marker based on when one really becomes aware of the genre lines. That would be, in my case, about grade 6-7. By Grade 8 I was aware of Gernsback, and I had discovered the science fiction & fantasy magazines. Lin Carter’s work on expanding fantasy literature awareness, plus the publication of H P Lovecraft mythos & R E Howard’s Sword & Sorcery had become available at that time. The anthologies of ghost & supernatural tales gave me my first taste of Victorian Literature.

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    1. Apart from Wells and Verne I came to speculative fiction and related genres relatively late, in later teens and early twenties: Lovecraft certainly, Arthur Machen, and William Morris under the influence of Tolkien and Lin Carter. SF wasn’t really much of a thing apart from Asimov’s Foundation series, some André Norton and C S Lewis. Other than a pre-teen obsession with DC comics I never really had access to the US pulp fiction, and when I later came across the stuff I’d already moved on to P K Dick, Le Guin and some Moorcock; sadly (?) Gernsback and Howard have yet to cross my path!


  5. I grew up on vintage sci fi black and white films of the 1950s and 1960s. Saturday afternoon’s were spent watching Invaders from Mars, It, Thing, The Beast with Five Fingers and a personal favorite, The Crawling Eye.

    They say nuclear technology was the cause for these fears of biology gone crazy, hence the ‘eye’s and ‘fingers’ and all those aliens from outer space.

    Only as an adult did I start reading sci fi, although I pretty much stopped at Wells and the three you have listed. The War of the Worlds is nothing like the films and became one of my favorite books.

    This is a good list of which I am going to save….

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    1. John Wyndham’s novels about triffids and krakens were my introduction to nightmares related to Cold War anxieties, Laurie. I suppose TV shows more than cinema provided more of my acquaintance with speculative themes — Lost in Space with the space family Robinson, for example, and British shows like Doctor Who, Quatermass and Blake’s 7 — my cinema experience was mostly Saturday morning comedies, cartoons and westerns.

      Screen adaptations of classic SF novels are always a reflection on the period the films were made; with my history hat on I often prefer to go to the source text and examine the context in which the narrative was created. So, I’m glad my list may be of some use for you!


  6. What a great challenge, if only I had some time to fit in more reading. I’m going to put the Arthur Conan Doyle one on my wish list anyway, because somehow The Lost World has slipped past my radar. If you were considering short fiction, I’d suggest Rudyard Kipling, especially ‘Wireless’.

    Good luck, Chris.

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    1. Ooh, I’ve got a collection of Kipling’s short stories to read, I’ll see if ‘Wireless’ is in there. I’ve read The Lost World a couple or more times over the decades, the last time when Bob Hoskins appeared in it for a BBC mini-series a few years ago; I’m tempted to seek it out again knowing it’s inspired by a real-life South American plateau.

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  7. What a lovely idea to define “vintage” as before each participant was born! Thanks for a very thought provoking post!

    I was born in 1969 and it turns out that all of my favourite Philip K Dick novels count (except “A Scanner Darkly” since that was 1977). I particualrly like “Martian Time-Slip”, “Clans of the Alphane Moon”, “Man in the High Castle” and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” (which only just got into the category being publsihed in 1968.)

    With Arthur C Clarke the Rama series is too late for me to include it, but “Islands in the Sky” – one of the earliest Sci fi novels I ever read does count.

    I also loved Asimov as a child. My parents even said it was rare to see me around the house without one of his novels in my hands. The original Foundation trilogy counts, but sadly not Foudation’s Edge (which was one of my favourites). It was with Asimov that I first discovered that an author could tie in a number of different series’ (apologies – no ide how to write the plural of series!?) of novels into one overarching story. (I’d say what the link was but it was such a pure joy for me to discover it myself and I wouln’t want to spoil it for anyone else.

    Sorry to ramble on – it was lovely to remember the books of my childhood!

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    1. I haven’t read PKD’s time slip, clans or scanner novels (though I watched the animated version of the last), only the ones with castle, sheep, penultimate truth, minority, Ubik, and policeman in the title. As for Clarke, Childhood’s End and The Fountains of Paradise are what I recall reading, both good though it’s been forty years since I enjoyed the latter.

      In English “series” is both singular and plural: in French we have une serie, but English has a habit of borrowing foreign plural words and misusing them as singular, famously panini (which should be one panino, ‘little bread’ or bun) and data (which is Latin for more than one datum, ‘something given’). And then we laugh at foreigners who look confused…


      1. Thanks for explaining “series” to me. English is such an idiosyncratic language – I’m so glad I grew up in England! I have such respect for people who learn it as an additional language – I don’t think I could do that.

        I’ve read Childhood’s End, but didn’t really get on with it. I enjoyed the Rama series more although when I tried to reread it more recently I liked it much less. I sometimes wonder if the changing response to books I sometimes experience are perhaps a measure of myself changing?

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        1. I think you’re right about us as readers changing and not appreciating books we once enjoyed. It’s partly the world changing, I suppose, but also our experience of language and attitudes and what’s less acceptable: I now feel vindicated that, for example, misogynistic stuff in novels from earlier in the 20th century that left me uncomfortable are now deemed unacceptable — thank goodness for this kind of political correctness!

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    1. Not my concept but the originator of the meme, though she did say it wasn’t a hard and fast regulation, just a general rule of thumb to be interpreted liberally — it was all about reading the stuff! 🙂

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