Golden Age of Science Fiction (1)

I am scheduled to participate in several panels at Westercon this year, July forth weekend in Tempe, Arizona. I intend to research the topics of each panel, and place posts outlining the ideas I will be carrying with me to the convention. Unlike normal posts, I will continue revising these right up to the moment I leave, including after they are published.

This material is for the panel “What Makes the Golden Age Golden?” Material for the other four panels will be published between now and the July 4th weekend, probably some in A Writing Life and some in Serial.

Now for the change-up. After I had written and posted all this, I finally got a proper description of the panel. 

Heinlein and Asimov are two pillars of the Golden Age of Sci-Fi. But reading those works with modern eyes can reveal attitudes that would be unacceptable in modern times. What can we learn from the classics when we look past the sexist and racist attitudes that pervaded the works of that time? Can we still appreciate works that present unacceptable ideologies?

What I had thought would be a panel on SF history is clearly going to be something different. I don’t mind. I am always ready to take up arms in the fight against political correctness, and this looks like it’s going to be a grand brawl!

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The golden age of science fiction is thirteen. Some say twelve. Yes, that’s an old chestnut, but it’s still around, and people are still repeating it, because it’s true. (The golden age of fantasy would be a whole other panel, which I won’t talk about here.)

You can see it at work in Goodreads, where it can be encapsulated in this theory: The number of stars a novel will get is inversely proportional to the age at which the reviewer first read it.

That doesn’t always work of course, but it goes a long way toward understanding all those low star ratings of Harry Potter by grumpy old people who cut their teeth on Lord of the Rings, and all the five star reviews by people who were young when they first read him.

What makes thirteen a golden age? Duh! Youth, newness, our first realization of our personal uniqueness, and our first real sense of making our own choices. It also makes thirteen the golden age of baseball, science, making money, sexuality, and every other thing that makes life fun.

As for a list of books from my personal version of that golden age — sorry, can’t do it. Most of the science fiction books that gave me joy in the fifties are too dated to be enjoyed by moderns, with the exception of the early Nortons. Since Andre set her stories outdoors and stated her technological wonders without explaining them, they are largely immune to changes in the “real world”. They work when you are thirteen, and still work as long as you can see the words on the page.

We science fiction types always like to invoke Sturgeon’s Law — 90% of everything is #%*%#.” Turn that on its head, and we can say that every era has produced at least some good science fiction. In other words, there is not one golden age, but several, if you ignore the dreck. Let’s look at some of them

The first golden age of imagination was the ancient world. Thor lived then, and he still does. Gilgamesh lived then, and he lives again today, after a long hiatus. Zelazny’s works keep ancient Egypt alive. An odyssey is an odyssey, whether it is carried out by Odysseus or Dave Bowman.

Half-men half-animals, from Ra to the Centaur, abounded in the ancient world and they never really went away. Witness the were-critters inhabiting today’s bookstores. Demigods were everywhere, and they still are. Hercules is still among us and Tarzan is his modern cousin.

The trouble with starting in the ancient world is that it is ancestral to everything in heroic myth, from James Bond to Wyatt Earp to Luke Skywalker to Spiderman. Science fiction proper is not so old.

The first golden age of science fiction is found in the works of Jules Verne. Verne had the advantage of being so far back in science fiction history that he was respected. His works, in France at least, were viewed as literature, not as novelties. Now some modern science fiction writers are now being taken seriously again, but personally, I think this has more to do with sales figures than genuine acceptance.

Between Verne and today stretches the Valley of Critical Disdain, which takes up 99% of the history of science fiction.

Jules Verne invented science fiction, but he didn’t invent all his inventions. His technique was very much the same as the one science fiction writers use today. He took contemporary events and technology, and extrapolated them. That, not his “inventions”, makes him the father of science fiction.

Verne’s Nautilus was not the first submarine. As early as the 1500s there were diving bells and plans for sealed, submerged rowboats. There were numerous unbuilt plans before Drebbel’s first successful submarine in 1620. Every good American knows about Bushnell’s Turtle of 1776.

Kroehl’s relatively modern submarine made its maiden voyage in 1866. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was serialized in 1869-70. Verne’s Nautilus was not the first submarine but it was infinitely advanced over the real submarines of the day. That is the manner in which science fiction still operates. 

Americans know Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, mostly from movies, comic books and juvenile editions, and some Americans know a half dozen other Verne titles. But Verne published from 60 to 80 novels, depending on which list you read. (The difference lies in whether you count French editions or English editions, and how you count the ones that were published in parts and later placed under one cover.) He was a force in French literature, and for at time was studied in French schools as an exemplar of excellence in the French language.

In the English speaking world, we have fewer titles. They are are often indifferently translated, and frequently abridged for the juvenile trade. One of my fantasies-that-will-never-happen is to learn French in order to read Verne in the original. more tomorrow

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