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Golden Age of SF

Entry updated 23 June 2021. Tagged: Theme.

It has been said, cynically, that the Golden Age of sf is twelve. (This epigram, often wrongly ascribed or paraphrased with slightly different ages, was coined by the sf fan Peter Graham.)

Certainly there is no objective measure by which we can say that the sf of any one period was notably superior to that of any other. Nonetheless, in conventional usage (at least within Fandom) some older readers have referred to the years 1938-1946 as sf's first Golden Age, while mid-1940s SF Magazine letter columns often exalted the pre-war Golden Age (from 1938 until the USA entered World War Two in December 1941) and younger readers, though not necessarily convinced, had not yet jettisoned the term when the first edition of this encyclopedia was published in 1979. By the time of the second edition in 1993 it was not a term so often used, though books like The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence (1989) by Alexei and Cory Panshin still argued for the primacy of this period as a peak in sf's development.

There is little argument about when the Golden Age began. The term is nearly always used of genre magazine sf (see Genre SF), and it is almost always seen as referring to the period ushered in by John W Campbell Jr's assumption of the editorship of Astounding in October 1937. (In March 1938 he altered the title to Astounding Science-Fiction and continued to tinker with its appearance, using a centred dot 1942-1946: Astounding Science·Fiction.) Within a few years Campbell had managed to take over not only many of the best (and youngest) working writers of the period, such as L Ron Hubbard, Clifford D Simak, Jack Williamson, L Sprague de Camp, Henry Kuttner and C L Moore (the last three often in his companion magazine Unknown, whose new take on Science Fantasy informed many perceptions of the Golden Age), but to develop such new writers as Lester del Rey, Eric Frank Russell (who had had a couple of stories in Astounding before Campbell arrived), Theodore Sturgeon and especially the big three, Robert A Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and A E van Vogt. These writers dominated genre sf until their younger contemporaries Alfred Bester, James Blish, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, C M Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl, after sometimes protracted apprenticeships, emerged as new forces in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But as soon as these new names are evoked, it becomes clear that it is difficult to say in what sense the Golden Age could be said to have stopped in 1946, or anywhere in the 1940s. Certainly Campbell's Astounding was in the latter 1940s receiving quite high-class competition from Startling Stories, and a few years later from Galaxy Science Fiction and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and by the 1950s it was coming to be seen as a force for conservatism in magazine sf rather than its spearhead. The "end" of the Golden Age may have had more reality, then, for devotees of Astounding than for sf readers in general.

Certainly 1938-1946 was a period of astonishing activity (among comparatively few writers), the time when most of the themes and motifs of sf were taking their modern shape, which in some cases proved almost definitive and in others continued to be reworked and modified, as is the way of genres. It was also the great age of the Pulp magazines (most of which were dead or transfigured into Digests by early in the 1950s), the period in which genre sf belonged primarily to magazines rather than books, which gave the magazine readers something of a sense of belonging to a kind of secret brotherhood (not a sisterhood: the Golden Age stories were by and large written by men for young male readers.)

A balanced reading of genre sf since Campbell would probably see it as becoming progressively more mature; it would also see (as sf became more popular) much mechanical reworking of the Golden Age themes by hack writers, whose increasing numbers may have partly obscured the steady improvement in the upper echelons of the genre. Certainly there were slack periods, the late 1950s being one such and the late 1970s another, but only with tunnel vision and nostalgia could the claim seriously be made that the period of World War Two marked a high point in sf that has never been reached again. Indeed, by the 1980s the Golden Age "classics" of sf, which until then had been reprinted constantly, began to drift quietly from the marketplace as they proved less and less accessible to succeeding generations of readers.

It is interesting to turn to one of the Anthologies of the Golden Age period – perhaps Adventures in Time and Space (anth 1946) edited by Raymond J Healy and Francis McComas, or the relevant sections of The Astounding-Analog Reader (anth 1973 2vols) edited by Harry Harrison and Brian W Aldiss, or The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (anth 1970) edited by Robert Silverberg – and see how banal the writing and retrospectively creaky the plot devices even of the supposed classics often seem. Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall" (September 1941 Astounding) retains the potency of its original idea, but the working out is laboured; Lester del Rey's "Helen O'Loy" (December 1938 Astounding) is sentimental and patronizingly sexist. The soaring ideas of Golden Age sf were all too often clad in an impoverished Pulp vocabulary aimed at the lowest common denominator of a mass market. It would not hurt to remember, also, that the Golden Age was an almost purely US phenomenon, restricted to the not very large readership of a tiny handful of ephemeral magazines. This is not to devalue it; but to keep things in proportion we should remember that elsewhere (in the UK, and in the USA outside the magazines) non-genre sf books of real literary quality were being published and had already been published which had nothing to do at all with what Campbell was offering.

But, when all the caveats have been stated-including the almost undeniable counterclaim that sf now is by and large better written than it was then – there is a residue of truth in the Golden Age myth. For older readers, certainly, there has been nothing since then to give quite the same adrenalin charge (not too far removed from the Sense of Wonder). It may be a matter of context. Today we expect sf to present us with amazing concepts (as it still, sometimes, does), but in the 1940s this stuff seemed (except for unusually sophisticated readers, which the pulps were not aimed at anyway) to spring miraculously from nowhere at all. In the years 1938-1946 the wild and yearning imaginations of a handful of genre writers – who were mostly very young, and conceptually very energetic indeed – laid down entire strata of sf motifs which enriched the field greatly. In those years the science component of sf became spectacularly more scientific and the fiction component more assured. It was a quantum jump in quality, perhaps the greatest in the history of the genre, and, in gratitude to that, perhaps the term Golden Age should be enshrined. As, indeed, it has been by the authors of many histories and commentaries on the genre, from James E Gunn to Donald A Wollheim: the Golden Age does not lack defenders.

Nevertheless it may be wrong to speak of the Golden Age. Other readers, other countries, other times may identify different Golden Ages. Even in the sphere of Anglophone sf, Mike Ashley has strongly argued in his Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines 1950-1970 (2005) that the true Golden Age – the one which really sparkled with a huge diversity of talent – was 1950-1954 with its flood of new and re-emerging writers (Philip K Dick, Philip José Farmer, Damon Knight, Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth, Robert Sheckley) and a strengthening and recognition of sf as a genre. A healthy market for sf is also a factor. Elsewhere, an editorial in the Australian magazine Aurealis opined that Australia's Golden Age had proved to be the 1990s, chiefly because of the healthy magazine rivalry between Aurealis and Eidolon and the growth in other Australian markets. Readers in Bulgaria, Hungary, Japan, Poland and no doubt other countries have used the phrase Golden Age to describe the years when their own local magazines established themselves and brought forth new talent. [PN/MA]

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