Golden Era Fiction

Before the Golden Age

Astounding Stories - January 1934

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.

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The Door into Lovecraft

If you are anything at all like me, you’re surrounded by people who revere H.P. Lovecraft as a master of the weird fiction genre.  But also, if you’re like me, you grew up reading modern writers – or at least writers that were still alive in the eighties, such as Asimov, Heinlein or Robert Asprin, to name a few genre figures I recall from my early days of reading science fiction and fantasy.

Astounding Lovecraft cover

Every once in a while, an essay (generally found in one of Asimov’s collections) mentioned this legendary “Golden Era” from whence all that is good in the genre originated, but the publications mentioned therein where antediluvian.  There were a bunch of new books being published every year by great authors (Thieves World!).  Why waste time on the older stuff.

Well, there are various good reasons to do so.  For starters, Asimov was right when he gushed about the era.  If you enjoy can-do attitudes and heroes willing to overcome whatever an unfriendly universe can throw their way, then the Golden Age is a good place to start.  If you want to see everything from the limits of space travel to the boundaries of mental capacity explored through a scientific lens and with innocent joy, this is the era to go.  Admittedly, if literary experimentation or diversity are the main things you look for in your fiction, then this is probably not the right era for you. These are straightforward stories written to entertain, and they do that job well.

So it was with those expectations that I picked up my first Lovecraft, a Del Rey paperback of The Doom that Came to Sarnath and Other Stories.

I found it interesting, but not the mind-blowing experience that the Lovecraft fans had led me to expect.

Why?  Well, in these tales, Lovecraft does what so many editors who rejected him criticized him for: writes in a forced archaic tone which helps create atmosphere and add to the dread, but also slows down the reader – which, come to think of it, was likely also intentional.

I left off of Lovecraft to read more pressing matters after that, but, thanks to Easton Press and their now-discontinued Horror Classics series, I ran into the man again.

Easton Press - HP Lovecraft - At the Mountains of Madness

And this time I got the message.

The book Easton Press selected was At the Mountains of Madness.  It has become the book that I send people who ask me: “What’s all the fuss about Lovecraft, anyway?”

The reason for this is that this one is told by a modern-day (remember it was written in 1931) explorer in his own colloquial voice, but it still combines many of the elements found in his other tales, including Shoggoths, the hint of the old ones, Miskatonic University and namless fear leading to madness.  It’s all there, but it’s also readable.  Those who wish to explore further can do so in his other work.

Plus, if you want to know where writers and filmmakers who placed their horror stories in the wasteland of Antartica got their inspiration, you need look no further.

As an added bonus, this one is short enough to read quickly – and he street cred that having read Lovecraft brings among SFF fans is priceless!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His best-known novel is probably Siege, and that’s likely why it’s the one being adapted into a graphic novel.