Voices of 1956: Hear Asimov, Bradbury, and Campbell on the State of Science Fiction

The science fiction of 1956 is calling. Are you listening?

There was a science fiction boom going on in 1956. An unprecedented number of science fiction magazines were available on the newsstands. Books were being published. Radio drama. Movies.

On the 4th of December that year, the NBC radio network broadcast “Ticket to the Moon,” an episode of the series Biography in Sound. Usually this series profiled a prominent person of recent decades—for example, Winston Churchill, Knute Rockne, or Grandma Moses—but on this occasion, the subject was science fiction.

One may find a copy of this 48-minute documentary in the fabulous Internet Archive—the Web’s attic, which holds all manner of audio files, films, and books.

Listen, and narrator Norman Rose will set the scene, introducing those who will paint a picture of SF, circa 1956, for you.

The voices given the most air time in the program are three of SF’s giants.

Isaac Asimov, a professor of biochemistry then nearly 37, had been selling novels and short stories to the magazines for nearly two decades, and had recently begun writing a bit of nonfiction.

Ray Bradbury, who, like Asimov, had been an active SF fan in his teenage years, had by age 36 risen to literary acclaim beyond the pulp magazines with his novels The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451.

John W. Campbell, Jr., age 46, the long-serving editor of Astounding Science Fiction, had mentored many of the field’s most prominent writers, and loved nothing better than to explain SF to anyone who would listen.

Appearing more briefly are A. E. van Vogt, author; Robert S. Richardson, astronomer and SF writer; Forrest J. Ackerman, celebrated Number One Fan, and Willy Ley, science writer and historian of rocketry.

Also on hand is George Pal who, having at that point produced Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, War of the Worlds, and Conquest of Space, was certainly qualified to represent Hollywood SF.

Arch Oboler, creator of radio’s spooky Lights Out (and writer of its legendary “Chicken Heart” episode) insists that what he’s writing is not really science fiction. His play Night of the Auk had just opened on Broadway. It’s about the returning crew of a Moon rocket, learning enroute that nuclear war is raging on Earth. But I guess it’s not really science fiction.

Even a great-great-great-grandfather of science fiction is heard from, albeit thirdhand. We hear 17th-century author and swordsman Cyrano de Bergerac explain how he devised several methods of flying to the Moon. The words are those Edmond Rostand put in Cyrano’s mouth in his eponymous 1897 play, as recited by Norman Rose.

Although many women were actively writing SF in 1956, the lone female voice here is Wendayne Ackerman, identified as “Mrs. Forrest Ackerman.” She would later become known for translating German-language SF into English.

The credits at the end of “Ticket to the Moon” are, alas, missing from the audio file I obtained. I wish I could tell you who wrote the script that’s wrapped around all the interview soundbites. Here’s a sample:

“Go out to the corner newsstand, or the candy store across from the neighborhood movie, where the teenagers hang out. Pass up the black newspaper headlines of today and pay no attention to the angular ladies on the fashion magazines. Ignore the leers of the magazines that promise to reveal the seamy side of everybody. And somewhere, peeking out from behind the Spicy Detectives and the Singing Guns of the Panhandle, you’ll find the World of the Future.

“In a handful of magazines, you can read about the everyday problems of exploring the Moon. Or Mars. Or Alpha Centauri, or galaxies yet unknown to the feeble eyes of our astronomers—yet as familiar as their typewriter keyboards to the men and women who create the world of science fiction.”

Later, Forry Ackerman portrays the contemporary surge in SF:

“In America, there are approximately 20 periodicals, and they seem to be growing night and day. But America is just one part of this planet; the science fiction boom is reverberating round the world. In Germany they have half a dozen science fiction magazines now. There is one appearing weekly, I believe it is, in Italy, and science fiction is being translated into French. Quite recently I received one of Ray Bradbury’s books, Fahrenheit 451, in a surprising language—this was in Japanese.”

Isaac Asimov attempts to describe the science fiction fan of 1956:

“For one thing, he feels himself to be part of a small and rather esoteric group. That is, the average science fiction fan, especially when he first starts reading science fiction—maybe at the age of twelve—may not know very many people who are interested in science fiction. He may not be able to convert other people. In fact, he may feel that he is suspect, because of this strange reading matter of his, and that other people are suspicious of him and think there’s something queer. Well, it comes, usually, as a great relief to him to find out that there are other people who read science fiction. And his first impulse, very often, is to form some sort of club.”

I found Dennis Nyhagen’s site “Digital Deli” an excellent source of information on the Biography in Sound series and other vintage radio shows. To my surprise, I learned that John W. Campbell subsequently played host to another radio series, Exploring Tomorrow, that dramatized stories from the pages of Astounding. Before you ask, yes, the Web’s attic has episodes of Exploring Tomorrow, too.

1956 is calling. If you’re curious to learn how the people of science fiction explained their subculture to a national radio audience, or if you simply wonder what their voices sounded like, tune in “Ticket to the Moon.”

Bill Higgins writes and speaks about science, technology, and history. He is a radiation safety physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois.


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