With regards to world events, they say those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it. As applied to literature, I would modify that statement to read that those who don't know their history are missing out. There are a large number of absolutely wonderful books that have fallen out of print and are in danger of being forgotten. Sure, some classics are reprinted annually to support school reading lists. But what about the slew of others that don't make the cut? And what about science fiction, a field often overlooked by mainstream audiences? Wouldn't it be fantastic if modern audiences could be introduced to the science fiction classics of yesteryear?

Enter: Library of America

The Library of America aims to do just that. Since 1979, their mission has been “to help preserve the nation's cultural heritage by publishing America's best and most significant writing in durable and authoritative editions.” Since then, they've been publishing the definitive editions of works in a high-quality, compact format. Along the way, they've unearthed coveted editions of science fiction, fantasy and horror classics.

Check out last week's SF Signal for great sci-fi/fantasy titles to read with your kids.

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This month, their science fiction shelf grows larger with the publication of American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950's, a 2-volume set edited by Gary K. Wolfe. Although the books could be purchased individually through used bookstores, aficionados will no doubt want to own the complete group of novels between this set's beautiful covers, which include:

  • Frederick Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth's witty and biting satire on consumerism, The Space Merchants.
  • Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, a captivating look at the possible evolution of man.
  • The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett, which portrays a post-apocalyptic world where science is forbidden.
  • Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man, the classic novel that inspired the classic film.
  • Robert Heinlein's Double Star, in which a down-and-out actor is hired to assume the guise of a prominent politician with contrary political views.
  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, a well-written novel of revenge and a sci-fi retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo.
  • James Blish's A Case of Conscience, in which a Jesuit biologist questions his faith when trying to determine whether aliens have souls.
  • Who? by Algis Budrys, a novel that plays off Cold War paranoia and themes of identity.
  • Big Time by Fritz Leiber, a behind-the-scenes look at the cosmic struggle between two shadowy factions who travel through time to control their destinies.

This is an excellent sample of the science fiction published that decade. But why the 1950's? Isn't it the years 1939 through 1942 that are often cited by science fiction historians as "The Golden Age of Science Fiction?" While it's true that the Golden Age gave rise to science-fiction giants like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein, by the end of the 1940s, the era of pulps was waning. Additionally, the publishing market was opening up to a much larger extent to longer-length paperback science-fiction books, allowing writers, both existing and emerging, to experiment and try new things. The result was a creative boom in the field of U.S. science fiction—one that American Science Fiction captures wonderfully.

Companion Website

Not content with simply publishing a definitive collection of science fiction novels from the 1950's, the Library of America also offers a spectacular companion website for American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950's. The website is a treasure trove of bonus material and science fiction treats.  This is the first companion website offered by the Library of America for one of their editions.

One of the highlights is a series of introductions offered by luminaries Michael Dirda, Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Nicola Griffith, James Morrow, Tim Powers, Kit Reed, Peter Straub and Connie Willis. Each gives a personal appreciation for one of the collection's nine novels. There's also a 1950s science fiction timeline showing key events in the field. For those who enjoy classic science fiction art (who doesn't?), there's also a cover gallery. They've also included a series of illuminating articles by the editor, Gary K. Wolfe, an award-winning science fiction critic and author who can be heard weekly on the insightful Coode Street podcast, co-hosted by the equally-knowledgeable Jonathan Strahan.

I don't envy Wolfe's task of choosing definitive works from a decade that offered so much in the way of novels worthy of the term "classic." Nonetheless, he has succeeded wildly: This is a must-have collection. Readers can't lose owning a collection that not only offers a glimpse into history, but some damn fine reads, too.

John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a Hugo Award-winning group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also likes bagels.