Science fiction in the late 20th century

Introduction

It is difficult to briefly summarise the second half the 20th century, as the science fiction genre expanded in many different directions and countless works were published across various media. We will therefore limit our focus to some of the main trends – a few historical notes on the Space Race, a quick look at some influential authors, a brief study of new or evolving subgenres, and some notes on major franchises in the movie and TV world.

The Space Race and science fiction

In the real world, the second half the 20th century was dominated by the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union – a tense, decades-long conflict which featured a massive arms race and various proxy wars, but few direct confrontations between the two superpowers.

Though most associate the Cold War with the threat of global nuclear annihilation, it also had a much less violent aspect which had great scientific and cultural impact: The Space Race. 

The Space Race was the popular terms for the US and the Soviet Union's competing efforts to explore outer space. The first highlight of the Space Race was the Soviet Union’s successful attempt to send a human being into space in 1961, while the climax was the US’ successful moon landing in 1969.

Thanks to mass media, these events were followed all across the globe, sparking the imaginations of entire nations. One of the consequences was that the science fiction genre became both more popular and more focused on space travel in particular, as people had now directly witnessed the possibilities in this field.

‘The big three’

Towards the middle of the 20th century, three writers in particular started to establish their fame, producing a huge number of novels that helped develop the science fiction genre in new directions, and introduced or refined many of the themes we associate with the genre today. Their fame and influence was so great that they became known as ‘the big three’ within the science fiction community. These writers were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein.

Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was a writer and a professor of biochemistry. He was born in Russia, but his family moved to the US when he was just three years old, and he became a US citizen a few years later.

Asimov’s scientific education was a huge inspiration for his literary works; his stories often pay attention to the scientific details of how a future society would work, to make everything appear as rea...

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