SOME OF THE BEST YA SF EVER: The “Winston Juveniles”—Part One

Back in the Good Old (or Bad, depends on your point of view) Days, fiction—especially SF—that was written for a teen audience was called “Juvenile” fiction; I don’t believe any disparagement was meant, or at least we juveniles (except for the “delinquents”) never took it as disparaging. Nowadays teens are called “Young Adults,” and fiction written for them is called “YA” fiction. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Depending on your expectations, maybe it would be easier to be thought of as “just a kid” rather than a proto-adult; at least you’d be excused for acting like a kid. And again, no disparagement is meant here, either. Even the King James version Bible (in 1 Corinthians) says, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” The ancients realized there was a difference between children and adults; I believe part of it is development of critical thinking. (I’m still working on that myself, which is why some of my posts are… hmm… either silly or maybe not thought out completely… but you’d never get me to admit it!)

Figure 1 – Rocket Ship Galileo (Scribner’s, 1947) – Robert A. Heinlein
Figure 1 – Rocket Ship Galileo (Scribner’s, 1947) – Robert A. Heinlein

By the way, none of this is meant to cast aspersions on today’s YA books, whether SF or fantasy. It’s a Whole New World from what it was fifty or more years ago; both the writers and the audiences are totally different. I’m writing from a perspective that many of the current crop of YA readers might not understand emotionally, even if they do intellectually. Today’s YA persons are differently-empowered and the modern society—no matter who is trying to turn back the clock—is a whole lot different from what it was half a century ago. But let’s try to bring the generations together anyway!

In my opinion, the seminal—and here I’ll switch from calling them “juveniles,” although I grew up calling them that—YA SF books were the twelve or so Scribner’s-published Robert A. Heinlein books. The prototypical YA SF book involves a teen-aged protagonist (in the ‘40s and ‘50s they were all young men; a good portion of, not only Heinlein’s YA fiction but all YA fiction, was published in Boys’ Life, which was—if not published by the Boy Scouts of America, was certainly published for the BSA. So much, if not all YA SF back in those days had male protagonists. It is hardly so today.) who lives in the future (hey, we’re living in the future of those days!) and/or has a science-fiction-related (usually space-related) adventure of some kind. Heinlein’s YA books, arguably the gold standard for 1940s and 1950s YA SF, were mostly didactic books; that is, they were intended by Heinlein to teach—or at least espouse—some or all of Heinlein’s views and values, although they were so entertainingly written that the reader usually didn’t know he or she was being taught. There was usually an older man (a father-figure) who took the young protagonist under his wing and taught him how to survive—often literally—in a world he was not raised in or suited for. Examples are Baslim, the cripple who helps/raises Thorby in Citizen of the Galaxy (1957); Mr. Dubois, the History & Moral Philosophy teacher, who schools Johnny Rico in Starship Troopers (1959)—yes, that is a YA book if you read it carefully—or even Kip Russel’s dad in Have Spacesuit Will Travel (1958); sometimes the “father-figure” is a composite, and not even necessarily male. Heinlein was an early adopter of the “competent female,” although he didn’t defy convention by making a girl or woman the protagonist of his YA books. He came close, though, with Carmen Ibañez in Starship Troopers or Rod’s sister Helen Walker—an “assault captain” in the “Amazon Corps” in Tunnel in the Sky (1955).

Figure 2 - Winston Logo (from dustjacket)
Figure 2 – Winston Logo (from dustjacket)

There was also the Tom Corbett series of books from Grosset & Dunlap (1952-1956)—which were “inspired” by Heinlein’s Space Cadet, and written by a half-dozen different writers (including, surprisingly, Alfred Bester!) and vetted scientifically by Willy Ley, but rather than being stand-alone books, they were TV series tie-ins, so I’m not going there right at the moment. Maybe later….

But aside from Heinlein’s books, there was another series that (not only in my opinion; I’ve talked to a number of people who feel this way) embodied the best in YA science fiction: the series of “juveniles” published by the John C. Winston company from 1952-1961 (although from 1960-61 it was Holt, Rinehart and Winston). Prior to Heinlein opening the YA SF market with Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) (Figure 1), the only real YA SF was the Tom Swift series created by Edward Stratemeyer in 1910, and published under the name of Victor Appleton but written mainly (well, the first 36, anyway) by Howard R. Garis, who also wrote the Uncle Wiggly series. (There was a Tom Swift Jr. series published by a different publisher from 1954 to 1970-ish, written by “Victor Appleton II.”) But the Tom Swift books were not very well written; their main thrust seemed to be not characterization or even plot, but invention: Tom Swift and His Motorcycle …and His Rocket Ship … and His Jet Marine …and His Atomic Earth Blaster and… well, you get the drift. The writing was so bad that it coined a phrase, “Tom Swifties,” for using verbs and adverbs to quickly substitute for properly writing a scene (actually, Stratemeyer or his syndicate disliked the use of the verb “said,” and used almost any verb in its place—a process called, by editors, “said-bookism”), and “Tom Swifty” is now used for punning sentences such as “Gee, it’s dark in here,” Tom said brightly.

The Winstons planned to change all that; the series was—if not up to Heinleinian standards—intended to raise the bar for YA literature in the SF arena and, by golly, it did. Their editorial board (consisting, as far as I know, of Cecile Matschat and Cecil Carmer with occasional guest editors like Lester del Rey—Cecile Matschat was a writer, an artist and historian as well as a geographer; Cecil Carmer was a writer and editor; both specializing in Americana; and Lester del Rey was a prolific writer under his own name and several pseudonyms, some of which appeared in the Winston YA series) selected books of reasonably high literary quality with books by “leading science fiction writers and scientists,” that would “set high standards of drama and excitement in the science fiction field” (quotes from different Winston dust jackets). And they hired good artists to do the dust jackets, too: artists ranging from Alex Schomburg (who also did the distinctive end papers shown in Figure 3) to Virgil Finlay to Paul Callé and Mel Hunter, among others. (Alex brought several dust jacket originals—as well as the endpaper originals—to Moscon in 1978 when he was Artist Guest of Honor. So far I have seen no reproduction that does any kind of justice to the brilliant colour and smooth airbrush of these originals. Even Jon Gustafson’s book Chroma, The Art of Alex Schomburg from Richard Pini’s “Fathertree Press,” although printed on heavy gloss stock, doesn’t do justice to this artist’s originals because a reproduction simply can’t have the brilliance and texture of the original art.)

Figure 3 - Winston endpapers by Alex Schomburg
Figure 3 – Winston endpapers by Alex Schomburg

Since the (arguably) best YA author of SF books was already taken by Scribner’s, who would Matschat and Carmer get to write these tomes? (If I’m not mistaken, I read somewhere that the initial group of books was to be fifteen books—by the series’ end, it was 35 single books plus an anthology edited by Lester del Rey.) Well, for the thirty-five single books you had writers like Poul Anderson, Ben Bova, Paul Capon, Arthur C. Clarke, Paul Dallas, Lester del Rey (under his own name and a couple of pseudonyms), Evan Hunter (under his own name and his Richard Marsten pseudonym), Raymond F. Jones, Philip Latham (Robert Richardson),  Milton Lesser, Robert W. Lowndes, Alan E. Nourse, Chad Oliver, Jack Vance, Donald A. Wollheim and no doubt one or two more I’ve forgotten. Although the books—and some of the writing—vary in quality, they’re all by writers who either had a scientific specialty (Chad Oliver was an anthropologist, Richardson an astronomer, etc.) or who were becoming or had already become professional SF writers.

Figure 4 - Danger Dinosaurs cover by Alex Schomburg
Figure 4 – Danger Dinosaurs cover by Alex Schomburg

Some of the books were well- and vividly-enough written that many of their readers still remember them today or count them as influences on their lives or writing. One such example is Richard Marsten’s 1953 book, Danger: Dinosaurs! (Marsten was a pseudonym of soon-to-be famous mystery/detective writer Evan Hunter, whom you may remember also as Ed McBain, author of the 87th Precinct series of books and the TV show.) Hunter had previously written a Winston under his own name (Find the Feathered Serpent, 1952). Both books dealt with time travel; the first went to the Yucutan Peninsula during the Mayans’ reign, the second to a now-familiar period: the Jurassic. (Back in the ‘50s, they had to explain that the Jurassic period is where you’d find the most dinosaurs; Hunter acknowledged the help of a professor in geology with his Jurassic stuff. I’m not even sure they had paleontologists as we think of them today!) He also wrote another (Rocket to Luna, 1953) as Marsten, involving space—rather than time—travel.

Be that as it may, the book involves a young man, Chuck Spencer, who is accompanying his older brother, Owen, on an expedition to the Jurassic era via the Time Slip; the actual Time slip is an area marked by blocks on the ground outside the actual building containing the Time Slip machine, which we never see. The whole Time Slip operation is, we’re told, run by the government; it’s a very different government operation than any we’d see today. There’s a bored police guard on the gate—to keep out “tempomaniacs,” people who want to time travel for their own purposes, like to escape from society—and the only other security is a big sign saying “Keep Out, Government Project” or something similar. The only allowable time-travel projects are either scientific expeditions or photographic ones, and that’s what big-game hunter Dirk Masterson claims his expedition is there for. Of course, because when we meet him he turns out to be a real jerk, you know that he’s just not going to do what he’s supposed to. A surprise for the modern reader, as well, is that one of his chief assistants is a “Negro,” (yes, this is very pre-civil rights, which didn’t really get rolling in the US for a few more years) and Dirk treats him badly, which our protagonist Chuck notices. I see this as progressive for the ‘50s, and an indication of the kind of quality that Cecile Matschat was aiming for. If African-Americans appeared in ‘50s SF, for the most part they were background characters; here, Arthur (for we never—deliberately—learn his last name,  until nearly the end of the book) has a major role as a brow-beaten Black man. In fact, he and Chuck have a talk about the roles of the African-American man (again, “Negroes,” in concert with the times) in present-day (1952) America, lamenting that they are limited to the porter, the elevator operator and so on). It all comes together at the end of the book, validating Arthur’s role as a major character, but I can’t say more about that for fear of spoilers.

Yes, I’m still worried about spoilers; the book is still available through Amazon, both as collectible hardcover and as Kindle edition (although as you can see in Figure 5 they’ve changed the author’s name from his pseudonym to his real name—legally changed from his birth name, Salvatore Albert Lombino—probably because they can get more customers with the Hunter name) for just $2.99. The hardcover will cost you around $80; these books have become quite collectible. A quick comparison with my carefully-reconstructed Winston scan from a damaged dust jacket will show that someone had to have had the original art, or a scan—or photo—thereof, to make that change.

Figure 5 - Kindle Danger Dinosaurs Cover
Figure 5 – Kindle Danger Dinosaurs Cover

Another interesting thing about this book is how much our understanding of dinosauria has changed over the years. The book asserts—contrary to Michael Crichton’s book and the movie—that T. Rex didn’t exist in the Jurassic; that the major carnivorous dinosaur threat was his ancestor, Allosaurus. I’m no dino expert, so I’ll leave Google alone and let this one go; you can follow it up if you like. Another change is that we know that Brontosaurus was a mistake; nowadays he’s called Apatosaurus. And what are the odds that they would find both Ramphorhynchus—a pterosaur—and Archaeopteryx (one of the first proto birds, they thought at the time—we now know it wasn’t actually in the direct line of today’s birds) in the same area? Of course, for excitement you have to have Stegosaurus and Brontosaurus stampedes, or the book would be pretty dull, however unlikely the scenarios portrayed in the book are by modern standards. Instead of Velociraptor, Hunter mentions Ornitholestes as the human-sized carnivore to beware of. And they have run-ins with both Diplodicus and Icthyosaurs.

Another interesting part of this book is Hunter’s take on time travel. If you get killed on one of these jaunts, or Time Slips, millions of years before you were born, you will fade out of existence as if you never lived. The universe will accommodate your non-existence by wiping out every trace of your life. That theme has since—I believe this was the first use of it—been used by other writers. It’s a good one, but rather hard to rationalize if you think hard about it, in my opinion. An enormous amount of “rearrangement” would have to take place. To anthropomorphize, I think the universe is fundamentally lazy, and that would be too much like work. Never happen.

Well, I see this has gone on much longer than I intended, and I’ve only covered one book so far; I guess we’ll have to pick up next week where we left off here. I think this book is a fascinating snapshot of SF in the ‘50s, giving information on ‘50s culture and scientific knowledge or achievements, while still maintaining plot and character—however simplified for teen audiences—and a sense of adventure. If you should buy the Kindle version, please drop me a line or leave a comment and let me know what you think. Next week we’ll get back into the Winston YA line!

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  1. best sci fi covers by winston and co. i have 22 of the titles. i dont know exactly how many there were. i keep looking for near mint copies to round out my collection {which most of mine are} but theyre getting to be like hens teeth.

    1. Yes, Paul, Winston had great covers–some of the best were Alex’s (Schomburg), but people like Virgil Finlay and Paul Callé also did great covers. I was lucky enough to see some of Alex’s originals, including the endpapers, when he guested at a convention I put on.
      I have a friend near Seattle who actually wrote to Winston in the ’70s and got some first editions that they’d apparently still got. Lucky stiff… I think he has a near-complete collection.

  2. Alerted by your article I found that many of the Winston Science Fiction titles are available for Kindle on Amazon from 99cents to $2.99 – such a deal! Just search for “Winston Science Fiction” to find them.

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