Many of us who read science fiction were introduced to the genre, knowingly or not, through the authors from the Golden Age. Essentially, if your foundation in SF comes from Asimov, Heinlein or Clarke, you are a child of the Golden Age (even if you’re no longer a child).
It’s the era of science fiction that has been discussed, anthologized and studied harder than any other. It is to the genre what “Pride and Prejudice” is to romantic novels (and romantic comedies). The era towers so far above today’s genre writing that if you ask random readers the name of an SF novel today, most of them will still choose books from that era (especially if we recognize that 1984 and Brave New World are novels from the same period).
To be fair, there have been a few monumental classics, books that have stuck in the canon after the Golden Age ended (Dune, Ender’s Game and, perhaps, Ringworld come to mind), but for the most part, the end of that era marked the end of the public’s fascination with the genre as a literary form (of course, they still flock to theaters to watch genre films, but that’s another story).
The causes are myriad, and today’s SF is often more a platform for political preaching (although, to be fair, it often was in the Golden Age, too) than it is an entertainment medium.
Scholars agree that the Golden Age began on the day that John W. Campbell took over the editor’s position at Astounding. His new views on what science fiction should be forever changed the genre… and he had a brilliant eye for talent when it came to writers, too.
But as someone who’s already read a lot of what the Golden Age has to offer, and who is conversant with the later eras as well, I was curious to find out what had come before. What were these famous glory days better than? I assumed it was something that came before (the people who came later have been fighting the idea that the Golden Age was in any way a good thing… and they’ve been losing that battle for fifty years).
So I went straight to the source (well, actually I went to Ebay) and purchased two editions of pre-Campbell Astounding. Let’s discuss one of them today: January 1934.
I’ll talk about the stories in a bit, but first, let’s discuss the Letters to the Editor. Now, astounding, back then, had a section called “Brass Tacks” in which readers would rank the stories, criticize the artwork and argue with each other. In this edition, readers were saying how much they enjoyed (or hated), the “new” astounding. Apparently, after a change of publisher (they’d recently moved to Street & Smith), the mag had given a greater focus to literary merit and scientific accuracy, moving away from more adventure-driven SF in the Sword & Planet style.
From this, one gathers that the changes that Campbell so famously cemented were already well under way when he appeared onto the scene (more on that on Friday), and that the Golden Age might have happened even without his shepherding influence, although, to be fair, it would likely have happened in a much-diluted form.
The authors, likewise, were a mix of pre-Golden-Age and Golden Age names. Nat Schachner represented the old guard. His tale “Redmask of the Outlands” replaces magic with incomprehensible technobabble and uses that to set the stage for an adventure. It’s a hell of a good adventure, mind you, but it’s not science fiction as it was understood under Campbell. On the other side of the ledger, we have the cover story, Donald Wandrei’s “Colossus”, which extrapolates straight from the scientific understanding of the time to create a scenario so huge we still can’t say, eighty years later, whether it’s possible or not. Also, there’s a story from Jack Williamson. How cool is that?
As was the custom, there are also novels in serial form… Even cooler!
Of course, not all of the stories were excellent. “The Confession of Dr. DeKalb”, a short story by Stanton A. Coblentz was a bit of a clunker, and the style in some of the others owed a huge debt to the lurid writing that came before… but in general terms, it’s easy to tell why readers flocked to the newsstands in droves to buy these things. They were entertaining, the writing was decent for the most part, and the magazine opened windows into world once could lose oneself in (during the Depression, I imagine many people wanted to lose themselves, and this was better than looking at the world out of the bottom of a bottle).
My own favorites? Impressively, I managed to enjoy the most scientific story (“Colossus”) and the least (“Redmask of the Outlands”) pretty much equally, so I’ll go with those.
Fun stuff. Reading copies of these mags are still affordable, so I’d recommend grabbing one to anyone with an interest in the history of literature.
Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel, Timeless, was released last week as an ebook for all the major platforms. You can check it out here.