Golden Age of Science Fiction (3)

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

.  .  .  Some say the golden age was circa 1928; some say 1939; some favor 1953, or 1970 or 1984. The arguments rage til the small of the morning, and nothing is ever resolved.
         Because the real golden age of science fiction is twelve.
                                   David Hartwell

That the golden age of science fiction is twelve — or thirteen — has some validity, but also has limitations. If you are a thinking reader, the golden age of science fiction begins when your maturity begins.

For fun, let’s put that into pseudo-mathematical terms:

MATURITY = ENTHUSIASM – CALLOWNESS

Old age comes when you also subtract enthusiasm — some of us will never reach it. A mature reader loves the good stuff (by his/her lights) but doesn’t love everything.

I had a life crisis just short of my sixteenth birthday that drop kicked me into maturity. From sixteen to college was Hell. Then I escaped. Once I was on my own, I grew like a weed after a rain storm — fast, sprawling, and a little bit prickly. I reveled in being part of a community of scholars, but I didn’t ignore that rack of science fiction paperbacks at the back of the college book store.

I had read The Way of All Flesh in high school. Samuel Butler was good. I read Davy after I was on my own. Pangborn was better.

I had read the stories in the Old Testament in church, sitting in the back pew, with my Bible in my lap so I could look like I was listening to the preacher. They weren’t bad. I read A Wizard of Earthsea after I escaped. Le Guin was better.

I don’t disparage the classics, but consider this. Setting aside the universals of the human experience (which are reason enough to go to the classics), Dickens and Butler were fighting the battles of their day. Those battles were won or lost before we were born. The best science fiction writers are fighting the battles of today and tomorrow.

Is Dickson as good as Dickens? I doubt it. But the Friendlies, the Exotics and the Dorsai are probably more relevant to today than Oliver Twist. Aside from the universals, that is.

My college roommate introduced me to Marvel comics, something that wasn’t allowed in my childhood home. That led to a decade long addiction. I finally kicked Marvel cold turkey, so I would have money enough to eat. I swear the idea of crossovers would make Wall Street proud.

My roommate also introduced me to the Lensman books. Thanks, Bob. It’s hard to read them fifty years later without lip-syncing, but I still do.

If you read enough, and treasure the good stuff, you will create your own golden age.

You can find my golden age in tattered paperbacks on the shelves of my writing room. They are the ones I didn’t get rid of, out of the thousands I read. You will find Ursula Le Guin there, but shoved to the back. Her fantasies would be at the top of my fantasy list, and a long way above Lord of the Rings, but not her science fiction. They are all thoughtful, intelligent, meaningful, and powerful. The problem is the people with whom she populated them. They were all Mrs. Brown’s of both genders (including both genders in alteration in Left Hand of Darkness). How someone who created Sparrowhawk/Ged could fail to write any science fiction protagonist I could like, even while I was enjoying her stories and respecting her skill, is a continuing mystery to me.

You will find Pavane on those shelves. It is my second favorite fantasy and near the top in science fiction. Technically an alternate timeline story, Pavane tastes like fantasy. If they ever put on a panel, “Is there any difference between science fiction and fantasy?”, I’ll propose Pavane as exhibit number one, for the prosecution and the defense.

The Road to Corlay is there, along with everything Zelazny wrote; also everything from Dickson’s Childe Cycle, but very little of his other writing. Everything from Heinlein is there, even For Us the Living. I don’t understand why, but I re-read Heinlein more than any other author. If I could solve the conundrum of Heinlein, and apply it to my own writing, I could make a million dollars and be equally loved and hated by the whole science fiction community.

I could go on for hours, but you would quit reading. It doesn’t really matter what makes up my personal golden age. It only matters what makes up yours.

#              #              #

And then there was New Age.

No concept as fuzzy as New Age has boundaries. It’s even hard to point to a center. Is Michael Moorcock part of it? Certainly. Harlan Ellison? Maybe. Defining New Age is like trying to nail fog to the wall.

During the sixties and seventies, everybody was talking about the New Age. It was going to save moribund science fiction from itself. It was going to destroy science fiction by drowning it in a sea of whining. It depended on who you were listening to.

I never was clear on who was or wasn’t New Age. I just knew there was a lot of weird new stuff coming down and I really liked a lot of it.

J. G. Ballard blew my mind. I never knew where-the-hell his stories were going while I was reading them. I often wasn’t sure after I had finished. If you ever despair of the decency of humanity, don’t read “Deep End”, and least not if you have the means of suicide ready to hand.

Harlan Ellison was the best writer of short stories ever. No qualifiers. If you want a clinic on how to craft the perfect last line, without gimmicks, read “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”.

If you want a clinic on how to write a soap opera, in the sense of a story that goes on and on with each sub-climax leading to new start, with suspense and resolution, but no final resolution — in short, a story that can go on forever and keep its readers happily following book after book — read Zelazny’s Amber series. It will take a while. Or if you want to sample Zelazny in a short novel that doesn’t commit you to a lifetime of reading, try Isle of the Dead.

I think there is one golden age that I missed. About mid-eighties I hit a dry spell in my writing — or more accurately, in my selling. It had consequences. When I saw a newly published science fiction novel that wasn’t as good as mine, I got angry. When I saw a newly published science fiction novel that was better than mine, I got depressed.

I was still re-reading old science fiction, and new novels by old favorite authors. I found some new favorites — John Varley, David Brin, and others come to mind — but I largely bypassed a generation of new writers. Recently I have been reading Neil and Neal, Gaiman and Stephenson, but I know I must have missed a feast of others.

I have probably missed more than one feast. Is there a Golden Age of Steampunk? Probably, but I don’t know the sub-genre well enough to talk about it.

So now I’m off to Westercon to participate in a few panels, including the Golden Age panel that prompted this series of posts. While I’m on that stage, I’ll not only be sharing my thoughts, but also taking notes. I have some catching up to do.

These posts called out a short story, which will show up Monday, over in the A Writing Life side of this website.

==================================

This is an insert, placed in the last days before Westercon. The change in the Golden Age panel caused me to write additional material on the subject of political correctness getting in the way of reading old books, but the earliest space available for that post is on July 13. Click here to go there. If you saw me at Westercon, and have arrived here via the Westercon page, I think you can get to the post early. If you click and nothing happens, try again after the 13th. Sometimes posting seems to have all the paradoxes of time travel.

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

  1. jmwwriting

    Interesting point on Ursula Le Guin. I’ve always felt that science fiction as a whole, at least up until very recently, has routinely favored concept and plot over character. I’ve felt that most of the famous works I have read, whether that be Foundation, Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game, have very bland, almost cardboard protagonists. Rico and Ender seem to have no real emotional reaction to anything that happens to them, they just trudge along where ever the plot needs them to go. But maybe that’s just me. Characters have never been the draw for me in reading science fiction, though when I write my own I try to place them front and center.

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  2. sydlogsdon Post author

    Ursula Le Guin would agree with you about SF characters. The Mrs. Brown comment in my post refers to her essay on that subject “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown” available in her collection Language of the Night. I won’t paraphrase her; it has been too many years since I read it. Her SF characters meet the criteria she set for herself, but they are too everyperson for my taste. A character can be fully realized and still be powerful, interesting, and even heroic. Le Guin’s Sparrowhawk/Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea is all those things. So are most of the lesser characters in that novel, which is why it is at the top of my fantasy list. It is what I strive for.
    Incidentally, in my review of Starship Troopers in an earlier post, I found Rico to be a “dim bulb”.

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