According to the lore, a fan named Peter Graham once responded to a debate on what age—referring to period of time—constituted the “Golden Age” of science fiction by saying “twelve.” Others took him seriously and began to tout the importance of writing the kind of stories that would appeal to twelve-year-olds.
But I didn’t stumble across science fiction at twelve. For me, the golden age of science fiction was twenty-nine. That was my age when, bored by yet another novel about suburban angst, I complained bitterly to a co-worker about the state of modern fiction. He said, “Why don’t you try C. J. Cherryh?”
I found the first book of the Morgaine series in the crappy mall bookstore that provided the only literary outlet for a town of 100,000, scarfed it down, and came rushing back for the rest of the books. From Cherryh, I moved on to Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany. By the time I hit thirty I wasn’t reading anything but science fiction.
Not that I hadn’t read science fiction (and fantasy) before. Everybody read Foundation, Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Lord of the Rings when I was in college and I’d made my way through Brave New World, 1984, and Animal Farm as well. I just hadn’t thought of science fiction as separate from other fiction, hadn’t known there was a world in which lots of writers wrote stories that were rich with ideas. I didn’t know there were so many similar books out there.
In my thirties I discovered Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Karen Joy Fowler, Vonda N. McIntyre, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Roger Zelazny. I devoured all of Le Guin and Delany and tried to keep up with Cherryh’s prodigious output. I ventured into cyberpunk and discovered a love for William Gibson.
It may have dawned on the reader that the authors I read provided me with a rather skewed view of science fiction. Certainly I read a lot of women authors in a genre often labeled male. More significantly, neither my reading nor my writing were shaped by the “Golden Age”—regardless of whether you define it as the 1930s, '40s, or '50s. I read and appreciated Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and Herbert, but it didn’t occur to me that some people thought they defined the genre.
Although I remain dismayed at the regular anti-feminist outbursts that occur within our genre—especially because one of my earliest discoveries was that the most powerful and well-written feminist fiction from the 1970s was, in fact, science fiction—it was not just great women writers that brought me into the fold.
It was the ideas. The best science fiction tells a good story while being chock full of ideas. That, I think, is what all the different corners of the genre have in common. That’s what brings us all together in a genre in which some writers wax elegiac while the prose of others is politely termed serviceable, a genre in which some authors spend chapters building a believable world while others sketch out just enough to let us know we’re in another place, a genre in which some create characters who are interchangeable no matter how different their supposed backgrounds and others write about people so real you expect them to walk through your front door.
A genre in which some people introduce us to many ways to look at gender while others persist in a level of sexism that makes you want to throw the book across the room. Which sometimes you do. But sometimes—especially with some of the classics—you read around the misogyny because the other ideas are so damn powerful.
I’ve gone back to reading some mainstream and literary fiction in recent years. Why? Because these days many of those books tell great stories—often with speculative elements—and are about more than neuroticism and angst. Such authors as Karen Russell, Michael Chabon, and James McBride write the kind of stories science fiction readers want, even if their books don’t have spaceships on the cover. Literary publishing still gives science fiction no respect, but it’s been stealing from the genre nonetheless.
In an interview on the Coode Street Podcast, Karen Joy Fowler discussed the ongoing question of whether she writes science fiction. Her conclusion? “I don't know if I write science fiction or fantasy, but I'm writing for science fiction and fantasy readers.” These days there are lots of other writers out there emulating Fowler.
By the way, the co-worker who introduced me to Cherryh (and later dragged me out to see Alien, insisting that it was science fiction and not horror) was African American. Science fiction readership wasn’t all white even back then, when there were many fewer authors of color being published. Like me, he was a lawyer who would rather have been doing something else—in his case, drawing comic books.
We did what fans always do: talked about the books we loved. I recall that neither of us realized at first that Delany was African American. But while I’m sure that my friend would have preferred to see more racial diversity in his science fiction—just as I hungered for adventure stories where the women had the adventures—his desire for the ideas kept him reading.
Let’s get away from the myth that the golden age of science fiction is twelve. Young people are part of our audience, sure, but they’re part of our audience because they’re smart, not because our stories are written for those in junior high. It’s time for us to fully embrace the idea that science fiction is a genre for adults. That means our stories should embrace complex topics: politics, social change, historical inequities, the winners and losers of technological advances, the intricacies of sexual and other relationships among adults, the mistakes as well as the victories of science.
And while we’re at it, we need to remember that those adult readers come from many different backgrounds, as do the people who write the stories. The era in which most stories were by and about straight white men who dreamed of spaceships when they were twelve is over.
The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twenty-nine. Or sixty-seven. Or forty-two. Or any age at which someone can get excited about an idea. Let’s write for the grownups who never lost their sense of wonder, the ones who like to sit up all night talking about the singularity or utopia, the ones who still get a frisson when someone says, “What if . . . ?”
Science fiction: It just might be your grandmother’s genre after all.