Golden Age of Science Fiction (2)

Raven’s Run concluded Monday, May 22. A new novel will begin soon.  Meanwhile, this is the second of three posts of material for the panel “What Makes the Golden Age Golden?”, to be presented at Westercon.

Yesterday, we looked at Jules Verne. Meanwhile, over in England, there was a fellow named H. G. Wells, but I place him with all the other unreadable Victorians. In my opinion, if he had been a German or a Spaniard or — God forbid — a Hindu, we would never have heard of him. Actually, that is probably true of most of the denizens of British Literature 101. Others differ on this opinion.

Science fiction, as we know it, got its start in France and England. The next major event in science fiction history, possibly not a golden age, but at least an efflorescence, was the era of the magazines, starting with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories in 1926 and extending, much attenuated, until today.

The era of John Campbell’s Astounding from 1939 is probably the most cited period in the search for a golden age, and a list of stories from that venue is compelling. The list of authors from the Campbell era is of almost unbelievable quality.

At that time, science fiction was mostly a literature of short stories. Novels existed, but were typically presented serially — a technique that has been in play at least since Charles Dickens. All that changed around the time of the end of World War II, with the rise of mass market paperbacks. It is a complicated story with dozens of players, but no one was more influential than Donald A. Wollheim.

Wollheim began as a fan, went on to write novels and short fiction, and eventually found his métier as an editor. He began with fanzines, moved to the editing of anthologies, then became an editor at Avon books. In 1952 he moved to Ace, where he introduced Ace Doubles. These were twin novels, published together back to back, head to foot. Two for the price of one was a real selling point in the era when paperbacks were introducing cheap literature to the masses. That’s me; I was part of the masses.

Was this a Golden Age? In terms of the availability of new writers like Delany, Le Guin. Zelazny and Brunner, certainly. And Andre Norton’s works finally got to shed their tattered cloth library look and to sport bright, new multicolored covers, sometime two on one double. But technically, this might not be a true golden age, since large numbers of the titles were recycled from the John Campbell era magazines.

It sure felt like a golden age to those of us who were reading the hundreds of titles that were suddenly available to us.

Here lies one of the answers to what makes a golden age. Any time you publish material, some of it will be golden. If your output is large enough, there will be enough gold to make an age, notwithstanding all the rest of the sludge-flow that carries it along. The influx brought about by Ace doubles and the rest of the paperback revolution made huge numbers of new works, and equally large numbers of lost classics from the past, available on every street corner for prices that everyone could afford. If that isn’t a golden age, I don’t know what it takes.

With no intention to disparage the genius of Le Guin, Zelazny, or any other, I am reminded of an old Irish story:

A group of men in an Irish bar were solving the world’s problems one by one. Deep into the night, one of them asked the group, “If every poet in Ireland were all killed tonight, how many years would it take before a new generation of poets rose up?” Another of the group raised his hand with one finger showing, and the rest nodded in agreement.

It is my opinion that for every literary genius who arises, there are a hundred like her or him that we will never know. For every award winning novel, there are many more as good moldering away in typescript, awaiting their author’s death and their final trip to the trash bin.

Literary genius is a part of the whole human race. A golden age comes when opportunity arises for the distribution of genius. Change the venue, change the world.

Today there is a mass of unread eBooks, self published through Amazon. You wanna get rich? Invent the algorithm that winnows through this crop of eBooks, and separates genius from the rest. Of course, if you do, would-be authors everywhere will hate you.

Why? Let’s consider traditional editors as Valkyries. (I didn’t say vultures, I said Valkyries.) They cruise above the field of battle and choose those worthy of Valhalla, or at least publication. Self-publication bypasses this process. An algorithm to decide on quality would be an AI-editor. Now there’s a scary science fiction concept.

The onslaught of paperbacks was not the last golden age. Beginning with the original Star Trek, there was a golden age of television science fiction, although its quality was never very pronounced. CGI, starting with Star Wars, brought a golden age of movies, at least visually. I watch them occasionally, but I have yet to see one which rises to the quality of a good novel. That may be just a personal prejudice.

I watched the Wild Wild West in its original run, and had no idea I was there for the birth of steampunk. I’m still trying to figure out what steampunk is, as something more than a sales tag. Jules Verne, plus sex? That’s puzzlement, not disparagement. I have liked the steampunk I’ve read and watched, but it won’t come into focus for me as a movement. more tomorrow

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3 thoughts on “Golden Age of Science Fiction (2)

  1. jmwwriting

    Very nice summary of the history here. I love this sort of thing, but I am a historian in addition to being an author, so maybe I am biased. I’ve always been curious about the choice for the “Golden Age” of sci-fi. It seems to me the Heinlein era was when it really took off as an established, defined, and respected form. What do you think?


    1. sydlogsdon Post author

      Heinlein got his start in the Campbell era, at which time he was one of many excellent new writers, but a writer who writes for that many decades can’t define a Golden Age. An editor like Campbell can, and the “Campbell era” is one of the many candidates for the title. Hartwell lists a number of contenders in the quote at the top of tomorrows’s post. I think the who-dunnit-when arguments are going to continue for a long time. I enjoy listening to them. My personal position is, a blessing on all their houses. SL

      Liked by 1 person


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