Golden Age of Short Science Fiction, 1938–1950
The time period referred to as the Golden Age of Short Science Fiction began in 1938, when John W. Campbell, Jr. became editor of the science fiction magazine Astounding Stories, which was renamed Astounding Science Fiction in 1938 and finally Analog in 1960. Under Campbell's tenure, Astounding Science Fiction became the premier science fiction magazine in the world. Assembling a talented group of writers, Campbell set out to publish stories that were based not only on plausible and reasonable scientific and technological advances, but also on the psychological and sociological effects of these advances on the individual. Critics have contended that this fiction embodies a uniquely American utopian vision—that American ingenuity would lead humanity to an idealistic future. Under Campbell's reign, science, plot, and characterization were emphasized. Writers were provided with guidelines for quality and benefitted from Campbell's collaborative approach to editing. Astounding Science Fiction dominated the genre of science fiction until 1950, when several other magazines, such as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction appeared and paperback novels and short story collections began to challenge Astounding Science Fiction for readers.
During the Golden Age, commentators maintain that two main types of science fiction stories were prominent: “hard” science fiction, which is based primarily on scientific fact and obscure scientific theory; and “soft” science fiction, or space opera, which is regarded as a melodramatic space fantasy that often employs stock themes, settings, and characters from American Western literature and movies. These tales reflected a widespread concern about war, the devastating impact of the Great Depression, and the rapid technological progress made around the time of World War II. They also utilized a common mythos by establishing a historical framework of world history, known as the “Future History,” stretching far into the future and including galactic warfare. During the 1930s and 1940s, space flight, catastrophic threats to Earth, superhuman heroes, and universal warfare were the prevalent themes of science fiction stories. Critics have also explored the depiction of gender roles and the lack of sexual relationships in the fiction of the Golden Age.
Many tales that were published in Astounding Science Fiction were viewed as formulaic and commercial, written to appeal to the broadest audience possible. In this sense, Campbell succeeded in attracting new readers to the genre and improving the image of science fiction literature. Several of the authors Campbell published went on to become major science fiction authors, including Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. Campbell is credited with honing the work of these authors; in many cases, he was often considered as a collaborator and his influence on their work and careers is regarded as profound and incalculable. The popularity of the writers and stories from that period resulted in the proliferation of science fiction magazines and books as well as TV and film adaptations of science fiction stories. Science fiction has emerged as a potent sub-genre of American literature with a popularity that can be traced back to the influence of John W. Campbell and his stable of Golden Age science fiction authors.
This essay is an extended argument for bringing down the barriers between Literature and serious Science Fiction. It argues that Science Fiction (SF) has many redeeming features as an art form and is not just about spaceships and aliens; it also shows how Literature (itself under siege as an art form) could benefit by not being so exclusive and precious.
SF occupies a vital role in our society. It makes concrete ideas, hopes and fears about our relationship to technology, progress, and even to the human body. It allows us to think through these issues in a unique way, because only SF is able to fully explore the space of opposites in a detailed and compelling way; for example:
Us vs Aliens
Here/home vs Other worlds
Here/now vs The future
The mundane vs The fantastic
Limitations vs Freedom
Only SF can ask “what if”, and explore a posed question in a visualised, highly embodied way. It can give us glimpses into our possible future; for example Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge is set in 2025, and reads as if it was written in that year, so vivid and detailed is the depiction of the future this novel gives us. SF swings between the two poles of technologically-driven imagined future utopias vs dystopias and demonstrations of the failure modes that we are prone to. For example, the “grey goo” of genre piece “Blood Music” by Greg Bear, and a host of other end-of-the-world scenarios.
SF allows for thought experiments on a grand scale; for example alternative histories like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, where Dick imagines a world where the USA is ruled by Axis powers. SF as a genre frees the writer to exaggerate current concerns (climate change, the threat of nuclear war, the role of robotics and computation, to name a few) to follow a train of thought to a logical conclusion; to anticipate trends and prepare or amaze us with astonishing ideas.
SF also keeps one’s mind open to new possibilities. This is vitally important in our exponentially progressing techno-culture.
Science Fiction and Literature
Science Fiction (SF) devices can be important and useful tools in the writer’s toolkit. All fiction by its nature asks us to suspend our disbelief; SF merely asks for a different type of belief suspension. It seems a great shame that most “serious” writers of Literature do not employ SF devices more frequently, and that those who purport to judge great Literature do not consider SF works more seriously.
Of course not all SF novels are masterpieces. Much of SF is caught up with the signifiers for their own sake, rather than the signified – for example, glorifying space travel, technology, progress, the horror of aliens, etc. SF also typically mirrors more than it challenges mainstream attitudes. As a vast intertextual web with a long history, SF has its own tropes and cliches and can easily fall back on these – much like genre fiction does. Paradoxically, SF can also become a victim of its own success: it can paint such a vivid and compelling picture of an imagined or potential danger that people might not take the actual danger seriously enough. The Terminator movies, for example, have come to symbolise man vs machine (AI) so completely in popular imagination that it can be hard to forge more oppositional or nuanced ideas in such a conceptual space without falling into the “SkyNet” vortex.
Another paradox, or perhaps, a curiosity of SF is how completely wrong it can be. This is probably an argument for encouraging people to read more serious SF where the ideas are thought through with more detail and subtlety, or realism. For example, it may well be very likely that in mere decades we (humanity) will start to merge with machines, to such an extent that it will completely eclipse the mainstream-imagined SF future of regular humans zipping about in spaceships, Buck Rogers style. We simply might not be human in that sense any more (we will be more like the ship!) Despite SF’s best attempts, the future will no doubt be different and scarier than we can imagine. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to imagine it.
More serious, literary writers have veered into SF territory with sometimes compelling results: Rant by Chuck Palahniuk, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson and some of the earlier works by Jonathan Lethem are some good recent examples. These books show that intrinsically there needn’t be boundaries between SF and mainstream Literature.
However it seems there is an artificial and damaging separation between SF and Literature – at least, the kind of Literature that wins Booker Prizes. Why aren’t SF devices afforded the same respect as say, magic realism, which like SF requires a greater suspension of disbelief? Booker Prize winner (and winner of the “Booker of Bookers”) Salman Rushie (for Midnight’s Children), Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, Japanese write Haruki Murakami all employ magic realism seemingly with praise and without any stigma or to the detriment of their works as serious Literature. It is hard to understand why the devices of magic realism enjoy a more exalted status than those of SF, but certainly the Booker Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction are veritable deserts for SF, with only The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a post-apocalyptic novel, being a notable exception.
The power of ideas
SF is often about ideas. Some SF novels are built around a strong central premise; a good example is Gateway by Frederick Pohl. The premise here is a space station built into a hollow asteroid that was long ago abandoned by an alien race, where a thousand of the alien spacecraft can be piloted in a limited and dangerous way (nobody knows where a particular setting will take the ship or how long the trip will last). The premise here so good the story must have surely nearly written itself; there are themes of the frontier, the risks people will take for riches, etc.
To be truly compelling and important, of course, SF has to ultimately be about us: about what it is to be human, to live inside or transcend our bodies; to live in a rapidly changing world that is sometimes hard to make sense of. This kind of sensibility certainly overlaps with the domain of Literature.
To get at some “truth”, through analogy, SF can completely unshackle the writer from a specific context; they can explore (for example) the mechanisms employed by totalitarian regimes without being constrained or attached to a particular current or historical milieu. The best SF can let us see the stark reality of a situation. To take a well known military example: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, published in 1974, shows a war in a futuristic context, but comments upon the reception given to US troops returning to America from Vietnam. SF writers have even explored radically alternative moral universes, such as Ursula Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness) and Mary Doria Russell (The Sparrow).
The compelling mechanism of story can reach ideas to people who might not normally be exposed to these ideas in any other form. SF can “acclimatise” us to the coming future, a future that is inevitably linked with unstoppable technological and scientific progress, yet which is still of our own making. I see no reason why it cannot be tied to the sensibilities of great Literature.