In May, as part of the annual science-fiction quest, I read 13 novels published by Ace. Or six and one-half volumes (one of the volumes, which contained The Rithian Terror, had a collection of short stories for its other side, and I excluded that). These books were sent to my randomly. Due to Covid-19 quarantines,and our local bookstore being closed to the public, I sent them an e-Mail asking for all their Ace Double novels, and they sent me a package with seven of them. I did not choose these books, they were a random selection of what my bookstore had. This randomness was part of an experiment.
I will have to talk in some generalities here. Science-fiction is a gigantic field, now almost 100 years old as an established genre, and with works being produced as books, short stories, movies, television shows, video games, and concept hip-hop albums. But when people think of science-fiction, a lot of the general ideas of the field come from a certain time and place. In a statement that will probably irritate many, I will say that science-fiction's basic source of ideas and story structures and tropes solidified between 1955 and 1975, in the English speaking world, primarily in the United States of America. The 1960s, both for hardcore science-fiction fans and for the general public, was the seminal decade for science-fiction. So much science-fiction was written and produced that it became a mosaic, with the source of ideas often obscured.
The mosaic of science-fiction can be taken two ways. There are two different views of science-fiction, and I will try to state them, imprecisely. In the first, science-fiction was successful because its writers and readers were enjoying the post-war prosperity of the United States, and science-fiction reflected the self-confidence that Anglo-American science, technology and social structures had triumphed. Where they showed insecurity, it was a reflection of The Cold War, and conflicts with aliens were in some ways reflective of Cold War conflicts. In the second view, science-fiction was a way for people to question and critique the seeming post-war prosperity and unity. Science-fiction was used as a means of social and interpersonal questioning, using imaginary situations to ask questions about the current world order. These are two mosaics.
What I wanted to do was examine the tiles. And not examine tiles of works that were considered to be genre-defying or transformative. Not niche fiction or literary fiction, but the most standard pulp. Something that was published and sold for cheap, something that a bored young person might pick out for a weekend of reading. This is not Dune or A Wizard of Earthsea: this is just what was the standard, garishly covered fiction of the time. Thirteen books is not enough to give me a truly statistically valid sample, but it is enough to give me some ideas.
These were the books I read:
Of these books, the oldest author was A. Bertram Chandler, born in 1912. The youngest was Dean Koontz, born in 1945. Most of the writers were born in the teens, twenties or thirties. There were only two female authors: Juanita Coulson, and co-author Leigh Richmond. Alan Schwarz used a male name to write, but since there is no biographical information about them, it could have been a pseudonym for a female writer. Or writers. All of the authors were, as far as I can tell, white or European. Kenneth Bulmer and EC Tubb were British, A. Bertram Chandler was British before becoming naturalized as an Australian citizen, and the rest (with the exception of our mysterious Alan Schwarz), were from the United States.
So it would be fair to say that the science-fiction of the 1960s was a white, male affair, and that most of its writers were old enough to have fought in, or at least remembered, World War II.
Let's take a look at the content of the stories:
The Lost Millennium is set in contemporary times, whose science-fiction element is an "alternative history" for the earth.
The Key to Irunium is a contemporary book, where characters are able to travel to an alternative dimension.
The High Hex is a near-future science-fiction story, set on an earth that has interplanetary, but not interstellar, travel.
The Rithian Terror is a medium-future story, set on the earth, with recognizable locations and cultural groups, but with a very different political and economic system.
The remainder of the books are all set in far-future science-fiction, where the earth is forgotten or unimportant, and where humanity has drifted far enough apart that contemporary political and social issues are not present, except for metaphorically.
Of the books, all of them have male protagonists. When female characters are present, they tend to be either targets of protection, such as the psychic waif in Derai, or femme fatales, such as the "Contessa Perdita" in "The Key to Irunium, or berserker barbarian babes, such as in Doom of the Green Planet or The Singing Stones. The protagonists are also mostly "white", although in the Dean Koontz book, the hero is described as "bronze skinned"---before getting his brain transferred into a very white body.
So it would be safe to say that someone reading a science-fiction book in the 1960s would probably be coming across a white, male hero, with women relegated to the role of love interest, temptress, or perhaps mysterious guide.
What is the main theme of the plots? Strangely enough, because "Alien Invasion" is such a standard trope of pulp science-fiction, only two of them feature conflicts with invading aliens (The Rithian Terror and The High Hex), and in both of those, the aliens are not truly malicious. In fact, in "The Rithian Terror", the human protagonist is basically the villain of the story. In all of the books, the main villain is human. Furthermore, many of the books address aliens as the victims of humans. The Inheritors, The Singing Stones and The Wandering Tellurian all feature humans attempting to enslave aliens as a major plot point. And The Key to Irunium, Derai, Doom of the Green Planet and Star Quest all have humans attempting to enslave weaker humans as a major plot point.
In fact, of these books, only the odd alternative-history "The Lost Millenium" and the space operas "Gateway to Never" and "The Road to the Rim" do not contain any references to what could be called, in general terms, colonial abuse of power. Almost all of the other books contain messages about how economic and military power can be used to oppress, and a standard story theme is the protagonist joining with "The little guys" or "The outsiders" to revolt against power. I think some of the call of this theme is it just makes a better adventure story than straight spaceship politics: many, or most of the books, involve using medieval technology, because sword fights and gladiatorial combat are fun. But I also think it is part and parcel of the time the books were written: science-fiction writers, and readers, were aware of what was going on around them, and these books are about suspicion of power.
So what does my totally unscientific survey of a random smattering of 1960s pulp science-fiction tell me? Which of the mosaics comes out through these tiles?
First, it is true that science-fiction of the 1960s was mostly written about white males, was written for white males, and featured characters who were white males. Characters who were not white males were often two dimensional and written as basic stereotypes. So that part of our view of the 1960s is true.
But these stories were not written as part of a victory lap for post-World War II social and technological progress. These stories, almost unanimously, were suspicious of power. The heroes were usually loners or outsiders who followed their conscience to stand against "galactic empires" or military power. Aliens were rarely, if ever, presented as a menace, with the real menace being reserved for our own, human, selves. These books, as gaudy as their covers and as catering as their action scenes were, were written not to celebrate triumph, but to give a word of caution.