He staggered back to his bunk, as trembling like a metallic flying monster, the Future rushed on in the blackness of interstellar Space.
—Robert Bloch, The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton (1939)
Just over threescore and ten years ago, in a galaxy far away, the period that historians and scholars of science fiction commonly refer to as the Golden Age had arrived, and sentences like the above were not uncommon. Although a tempered assessment, such as that of Mike Ashley in the first volume of his history of SF magazines, might be that "that the Golden Age dawned during 1938 and 1939" there is a single magazine issue that is often pointed to as the harbinger of the Golden Age: the July 1939 issue of Astounding Stories, edited by John W. Campbell Jr.
Its table of contents is probably unfamiliar to many modern readers. A few years ago Elizabeth Bear commented on a "generation gap in SFF; we're having different conversations, the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, and Generation X." Rich Horton , in a discussion of these remarks, noted that "Bear means that the famous notion of conversation between SF writers, of playing with each other's ideas, is restricted to writers of roughly similar age." If this is true, few writers/readers born after 1965 would even recognize the names in the aforementioned table of contents other than by second- or third-hand reference.
Horton went on to write that "I have found a lot of SF to be old-fashioned—not so much on the surface, but the strategies, plots and even ideas seem to hark back to the '70s or even '50s." It is not a stretch that certain concepts and storytelling conventions reach back even further.
Well, suppose for a moment that an Inquisitive Reader were interested in familiarizing herself with the standout pieces of the late 1930s and beyond. Where should she turn?
Standard recommendations for the early stuff might include Science Fiction of the Thirties (ed. Damon Knight, 1976) and Before the Golden Age (ed. Isaac Asimov, 1974), but as the latter's title indicates they cover mostly pre-1939 works. Another fine anthology, The Golden Age of Science Fiction (ed. Kingsley Amis, 1981), in fact contains stories published in the 1950s and 1960s. (Amis, by the way, is not the only one to relocate the Golden Age to latter decades. See, for example, "Science Fiction in the Fifties: The Real Golden Age" by Robert Silverberg in Nebula Awards Showcase 2010.) Of course, there are more broadly encompassing anthologies that cover wider periods and include a few choice cuts from the era we have in mind. The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction: Short Novels of the 1940s (ed. Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin H. Greenberg, 1989) and The History of the Science Fiction Magazine Part 2, 1936—1945 (ed. Mike Ashley, 1975) get us a little closer, but are still limited in that they are single volumes covering many years of individual interest. Most Year's Best Anthologies flourished at least a decade after the 1940s. Another option might be the magazines themselves—but that can represent a significant investment of time and money.
Fortunately, our well-chronicled field boasts an anthology series that bridges the gap in question. The Inquisitive Reader will find solace in a landmark historical SF short story anthology, now out of print but readily available through online used-book markets: Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories. Over the course of its twenty five volumes, published from 1979 to 1992, these anthologies reprinted three hundred and seventy-two stories, hundreds of them undisputed classics of the field. The series provides an invaluable chronicle of the evolution of SF over two and a half formative decades by making available the ultimate source material, the stories themselves.
The year 2009 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the launch of this series, the first volume of which reprinted work from 1939. Outside of homework requirements, I'd fathom a guess that not many of us spend our free time reading SF stories published nearly seventy years ago.
Very well, then—why should we seek out these dusty works?
In response to the generational gap between writers (and, by extension, readers) identified by Elizabeth Bear, Robert Silverberg commented on "a straight line of evolution from the Golden Age Grand Masters down through the best New Wavers to today's top writers."
In other words, if we wish to fully understand today's work, we need to be at least somewhat familiar with its ancestry.
This argument, which in some form applies to all literature (potentially all art), is especially significant in the case of SF, where writers frequently present new takes on established themes. Contextualization is vital.
Another even simpler reason for writers is that they should study what came before "to keep from reinventing the wheel." Writers—and readers—who prize originality and freshness of vision will care about this point. Of course, as we move farther and farther away from the groundbreaking "classics" this becomes an increasingly daunting proposition.
Central to all these arguments is the appeal of the work itself. Many of the three-hundred and seventy tales under consideration have been reprinted individually in subsequent anthologies, some of them dozens of times. They continue to delight readers today just as they've been doing since they were first published.
And, finally, a personal consideration. I was born in 1979 and spent my early reading years in Spain and Germany, where the earliest English-language SF I was exposed to was from the New Wave. In other words, I'm approaching much of this work as a first-time reader, presumably like many of you. I'm sure that in the course of this ongoing project, in which I'd like to review all twenty-five volumes in the anthology series, I'll find plenty of surprises. My intent with this review series is as much descriptive as it is analytic. There are more specialized works which deal full-on with the philosophical implications of specific stories or which dissect them academically. The idea here is to gain familiarity with the material and an appreciation for its continued relevance.
So, let us step back in time. 1939: a watershed year for SF. The World Science Fiction Convention was held for the first time, and the field saw the first published stories of Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, A. E. van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, and Theodore Sturgeon. Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories: Volume 1, 1939 (IAPGSFS 1) collects twenty noteworthy fictions, including those firsts by van Vogt, Heinlein, and Sturgeon. (To avoid bibliographic clutter in the review itself, I've included the full of table of contents at the end of this piece. And speaking of endings, readers please be warned that I may spoil them when I think it necessary to make a point.)
One of SF's unique possibilities is to tell stories from a non-human perspective (at least nominally, since without any human elements these fictions would be rendered incomprehensible.) Often this serves to provide insight into the human condition by regarding it from afar, and when done well leads to memorable, inherently fascinating non-human characters.
Roughly a third of the works in this anthology ("I, Robot", "Rust", "Cloak of Aesir", "Heavy Planet", "The Gnarly Man", "The Day is Done" and "Black Destroyer") feature non-human vantage points. Five out of these seven tales were first published in Astounding. We shouldn't be surprised by this: the emergence of non-human characters as acceptable storytelling points of view, and the presence of stories in which no humans were featured at all, can be traced back directly to Campbell's editorial direction, as described by Neil Barron:
He [Campbell] also told them he wanted stories about aliens who could think as well as humans, but not like humans. In practice, this latter axiom didn't work out. Campbell made it plain that he wanted Homo sapiens to triumph all over the galaxy, and writers including Asimov adjusted what they wrote accordingly.
Campbell's influence on the field was not limited to editing. Between 1930 and 1940, under the name of Don A. Stuart, he penned a series of stories that bear a passing resemblance to what we think of as space opera today (we recognize the subgenre's shape, but mutations have left their mark in the intervening decades). "Cloak of Aesir" has not aged as well as some of its companion pieces. Damon Knight describes Campbell's style in these works as containing "short, blurted, agrammatical sentences"; unfortunately for us, he's right. Knight goes on to argue that the "tone—a kind of high-pitched sing-song" and the "point of view, a subtle thing that resists exact definition" are significant, and that each of these related tales is a "landmark in science fiction history." Modern readers may enjoy the vast, far-future scales of "Cloak of Aesir," as well as its depiction of the non-hostile ruling aliens, the Sarn. But the qualities that Knight singles out lead to a sense of haziness that diminishes rather than enhances the reader's enjoyment. "Visual clarity" is not enough to compensate for the lack of emotional complexity, the repetitive characterization (everyone is "bitter" for most of the story), the magic-as-science and the confused plotting. Campbell's earlier "Twilight" (1934) and "Who Goes There?" (1938) are more impressive for their moody evocations and overall aesthetic effect.
Another early exercise in a sub-branch of SF, this time "hard" SF, is Rothman's "Heavy Planet." Again we have a story with no human characters, but rather two alien factions adapted to a world, Heavyplanet, the gravitational pull of which is so strong that the protagonist's skin is like "armor plate" and his muscles "hard as carborundum." The plot is captivating. Though there is little psychological difference between the alien hero and a human would-be equivalent, his motivations remain plausible and interesting. I haven't found evidence to support it, but I would be surprised if "Heavy Planet" didn't inspire, at least in setting and mode, Hal Clement's classic novel of world-building, Mission of Gravity (1953).
"The Gnarly Man" and "The Day is Done" are two very different excursions into pre-human history. In the first, a surviving Neanderthaler whose anomalous brain structure keeps his body from ageing has survived from 50,000 BC into the present. De Camp's portrayal of "Shining Hawk" is astute for its focus on the character's sophistication rather than his brutishness. This story's conceit, developed in nearly identical fashion, was given film treatment in Jerome Bixby's The Man From Earth (2007), a more talky and less vigorous rendition. "The Day is Done" takes us back to the past, where a Neanderthaler called Hwoogh, the last of his kind, struggles to adapt to a Cro-Magnon-dominated life. Del Rey's premise is promising—and has received excellent treatment in more mainstream venues, such as in William Golding's outstanding novel The Inheritors (1955)—but his execution falls flat. Exposition clutters the tale. Even more noticeably problematic is the dialogue, peppered with slang like "ain't": it feels out of context and comes across as a bizarre affectation. According to the introductory notes, "The Day is Done" was Asimov's favorite del Rey story. Asimov praises the "important things this story has to say about social relationships and the nature of evolutionary change in a revolutionary world." This is one instance, sure not to be the last in these reviews, where modern readers are well-advised to be skeptical of Asimov's personal taste.
In introducing Eando Binder's "I, Robot" Asimov acknowledges that the tale caught his attention. (Eando Binder was the joint pseudonym of brothers Earl Andrew Binder and Otto Oscar Binder; "I, Robot" is the first of their best-known Adam Link series, penned by Otto alone.) "I, Robot" and "Rust" both deal with robot perspectives. "I, Robot" attempts a first-person construction from the point of view of Dr. Adam Link's mechanical creation, but is only partially successful in the rigors of the form. This first-person narrative, in which the robot recounts its genesis and eventual persecution, contains more than a few human-isms not accounted for in the robot's self-described nature. Though at one level immediately beneath the obvious drama the tale can be read as an anti-Frankenstein piece, a contemporary perspective might side more closely with Damon Knight's assessment that "I, Robot" is nothing more or less than "a clumsy pastiche of Frankenstein." Still, it remains of interest as a direct literary predecessor to Asimov's own I, Robot collection (so titled by the publisher in spite of Asimov's objections).
One of Asimov's central concerns with his own robot stories (which will be featured in later volumes), was to "challenge the careless assumption that any new technology was bound to run amok and threaten the destruction of its creators." Successfully combating the "Frankenstein complex" is one thing Asimov's stories, despite other flaws, do well.
To formalize the emphasis on a rational treatment of robots, Asimov constructed safeguards in the form of the Three Laws of Robotics. It should be noted that even before he devised such Laws, other writers had produced entertaining stories featuring sympathetic robots (without the codification). An earlier Binder tale, "The Robot Aliens" (1935), also features benevolent robots, as do Ray Cummings' "X1-2-200" (1938) and "Zeoh-X" (1939), Lester del Rey's "Helen O'Loy" (1938) and "Robots Return" (1938) by Robert Moore Williams.
Asimov's Laws, in turn, continue to spawn many responses, including deconstructions of the their premises (e.g. Tobias Buckell's "Io, Robot" ) or challenges to their moral implications (Charles Stross's Saturn's Children ). There have also been robot farces, from Robert Sheckley's "The Cruel Equations" (1971) through his "The Quijote Robot" (2001), and stories which subject Asimov's dictates to more subversive and radical reinterpretation, often satirical, such as David Langford's "The Last Robot Story" (2002), Mike Resnick's "Robots Don't Cry" (2003) and Cory Doctorow's "I, Robot" (2005) and "I, Rowboat" (2006).
Joseph E. Kelleam's "Rust" is simpler in conception than Binder's—all humans are dead, and the few remaining functional robots are breaking down—but better realized. Its exposition may come across as a tad repetitive and borderline maudlin, but it builds towards a meditative, near-poetic sense of despair. Notably, this is one story where Homo sapiens doesn't win. In fact, even the robots don't fare well. The theme of robotic longing for human creators deceased or departed may be observed in popular works as recent as Wall-E (2008). (Unlike other contributors to this first anthology volume, Kelleam's name remains obscure, and with good reason: he only penned a handful of stories and four novels over a period of almost thirty years. Along with the present "Rust," only one other early tale, "The Eagles Gather" , is still well-regarded today. In short, his highest contribution to the field was his first published story, an unusual situation by the standards of then as of today. We won't be encountering him again in this series of reviews.)
"Black Destroyer" is a remarkable story. Featured on the cover of that iconic July 1939 issue of Astounding, it has Golden Age stamped all over it. Its viewpoint alternates between human scientists and the Coeurl, an intelligent, cat-like creature with tentacles aboard a human spaceship. This technique allows van Vogt to effectively build the horror of the human crew's decimation by the Coeurl and at the same time allows us to empathize with, or at least understand, the Coeurl's own fear. Though Damon Knight's blast on van Vogt's novel The World of Null-A is by now well-known (see, for example, Robert Silverberg's column on "Rereading Van Vogt" or Graham Sleight's evaluation), Knight had a far higher opinion of "Black Destroyer". When he reviewed it in 1951, alongside another early van Vogt tale, "Discord in Scarlet" (1939), Knight observed that:
As menaces, the black cat-creature and the four-armed red humanoid are vivid and convincing; the stories of their attacks on the ship and its crew are straightforward, logical, intensely exciting.
This helps to account for the stories' influence on popular films such as the Alien franchise. As Cory Doctorow relates regarding that franchise's literary legacy:
'Nostromo,' the ship from the first film, is the title of a Joseph Conrad novel. The Sulaco in Aliens likewise comes from Conrad. The literary heritage goes on: science-fiction legend A.E. van Vogt sued the studio for plagiarizing his "Voyage of the Space Beagle" [a fix-up novel that includes "Black Destroyer"] in Alien, settling out of court for an undisclosed sum.
"Black Destroyer" is also one of two entries that feels, at least in part, as much horror as it does SF. The other belongs to Robert Bloch, whose tale "The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton" is an oppressive study in isolation. Richard Clayton's biggest enemy on his mission to Mars is his own mind, beset by restlessness and boredom. The story, sparse in characters and claustrophobic in setting, is still effective and delivers a chilling finale. It also emphasizes a trope that occurs repeatedly throughout these stories; the Lonely Character or Recluse. In "I, Robot," we learn of the robot's creator that "He was a recluse, lived by himself, cooked for himself—retired on an annuity from an invention years before." Regarding Clayton: "Clayton had thought himself a misanthrope, a recluse." The same applies to Hwoogh, literally isolated by dint of his race, and Coeurl, who is "weighed down" by his "aloneness—one against a hundred." It doesn't seem far-fetched to speculate that the appeal of such literally alienated characters might be linked to SF's predominant readership during the 1930s, as Campbell himself suggested:
In 1930, the only audience for science-fiction was among those who were still young enough in spirit to be willing to hope and speculate on a new and wider future—and in 1930 that meant almost nothing but teen-agers.
If the above is true and the consumer demographic was comprised mainly of adolescents, their potential sense of isolation might carry over into the angst of reclusive heroes with whom it wouldn't be difficult to identify personally.
Humor and Satire
Most present-day readers are familiar with Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novels and the works of Terry Pratchett, but few may realize how far back humorous SF reaches. Henry Kuttner was one of its earliest practitioners, penning three different series of comic SF stories (Pete Manx, Gallegher, and Hogben) between the late 1930s and late 1940s. Other early writers who exploited comical veins include Anthony Boucher, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, William Tenn, and Robert Sheckley.
Kuttner broke into print with a sale to Weird Tales in 1936 and was a prolific writer of various science-fantasy series. He married C. L. Moore in 1940, and the two in collaboration are responsible for a large body of work (especially under the pen-names of Lewis Padgett and Lawrence O'Donnell) that tends to overshadow, somewhat unjustly, Kuttner's solo efforts. He is represented in IAPGSFS 1 by the story "The Misguided Halo", one of four concerned with achieving a predominantly humorous or satirical effect. The other three are H. L. Gold's "Trouble With Water", L. Sprague de Camp's "The Blue Giraffe," and Theodore Sturgeon's "Ether Breather". Each showcases a different style of humor.
Kuttner's "The Misguided Halo" is the most heavily ironic, chronicling the misadventures of one K. Young, who is erroneously bestowed saintliness in the form of a halo by an angel and struggles at every turn to commit a sin sufficiently grave to free himself of the odious gift. Kuttner makes his story consistently funny, not only by exploiting the humor of his premise through situations and dialogue, but also by providing highly stylized narrative description. In a paragraph that might be considered in poor taste by some of today's readers and which I won't quote, he describes a character's excess weight with a degree of hyperbole striking for its visual immediacy. Later incidents, such as the following, prove equally effective and demonstrate Kuttner's technical versatility:
'What's important?' Devil demanded. 'Important matters, eh? Such as what?'
'Beating small children,' said Young, and rushed upon the startled child, brandishing his cane. The youngster uttered a shrill scream and fled. Young pursued for a few feet and then became entangled with a lamp-post. The lamp-post was impolite and dictatorial. It refused to allow Young to pass. The man remonstrated and, finally, argued, but to no avail. [ . . . ] Administering a brusque and snappy rebuke to the lamp-post, Young turned away.
The story's conclusion, with Young's discovery that as a saint he can't sin, is its most acerbic observation. Stories of angels whose interference with ordinary people lead to comic situations would become popular in television a decade later, with The Twilight Zone featuring two such stories ("Mr. Bevis," 1960, and "Cavender is Coming", 1962). By contrast, Gold's "Trouble with Water" is explicitly moralistic and patently absurd. The unlikable Greenberg, fishing in a lake, provokes a water gnome by ripping off his hat (!) and earns himself the following curse: "water and those who live in it will keep away from you". Despite an unsympathetic protagonist, Gold's restrained storytelling (opposite in approach to Kuttner's exaggerations) and the logical working-out of a simple concept remain fresh and amusing. De Camp's "The Blue Giraffe" is off-beat and provides a comic exploration of genetic mutation ("that blasted machine is an electronic tube of some sort, built to throw short waves of the length that affect animal genes"). It is telling that it was written six years before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which might have made the humor less palatable.
Sturgeon's "Ether Breather," which deals with an author, a new type of TV transmission and invisible aliens, is obliquely funny. With a little bit of hindsight, it can be seen to foreshadow the emotional concerns that Sturgeon's latter work would more fully explore. Jonathan Lethem, in recalling Paul Williams' observation that "Sturgeon's only method was the tour de force" notes: "That has long seemed to me the only critical remark on Sturgeon's art that needs making." We should admit readily that "Ether Breather," a journeyman entry, is not quite a tour de force, but it is nonetheless inventive and moves along briskly.
Looking at these four stories we can also see differences intrinsic to the markets in which they appeared. Those published in Unknown (Kuttner and Gold) are overtly supernatural, comfortable in their constructions of comedic scenarios; the humor comes first, the justification second. Those published in Astounding, on the other hand (de Camp and Sturgeon), ascribe scientific reasons (wacky, but scientific) to their mechanisms, and despite other merits, lack the former's levity and escapism; they are, by contrast, SF stories first, and humorous second.
Science, Progress, and Responsibility
A characteristic of Golden Age stories is the writer's willingness to go beyond the trappings of straightforward scientific developments like space travel or the Ultimate Weapon and to focus on the ethical dilemmas and social consequences that might result from such technological developments. Even when these speculations stray into wish fulfillment they provide relevant explorations of humanity's responsibilities. Whether on a social or personal scale the following explore the ramifications of a new discovery: "The Ultimate Catalyst" by John Taine, "Greater Than Gods" by C. L. Moore, "Trends" by Isaac Asimov, "Life-Line" and "Misfit" by Robert Heinlein, "The Four-Sided Triangle" by William F. Temple, and "Star Bright" by Jack Williamson.
"The Ultimate Catalyst," slow-moving and talky, has an interesting setting and political backdrop. In the Amazonian rainforest, Dr. Beetle is using science to develop plants that will taste like meat in order to satisfy dictator Kadir and his men, quarantined to the jungles by the United Republics. In the end, the protagonist subjects himself to the same fate as that which he imposes on his enemies, and science is used to serve the greater good. Asimov's introduction reflects that the subject of this story is "the problems of the working scientist," which is a preoccupation perhaps most interesting to scientists or those fascinated by the mechanisms of discovery. That particular sub-readership was probably larger at the time; today's umbrella of speculative fiction devotees tends to be wider and of more diverse sensibilities. Also, we should remember that John Taine was the pseudonym of Cal Tech mathematician and math historian Eric Temple Bell, which is not to imply he couldn't devise an exciting story but rather, as Asimov mentions, that the subject of working scientists was one with which Taine was personally familiar.
Before marrying Henry Kuttner, and prior to "Greater Than Gods", C. L. Moore had already attained renown, authoring two successful series: the Northwest Smith chronicles (1933—1936) and the sword-and-sorcery Jirel of Joiry stories (1934—1939), many of which originally appeared in the fantasy-friendly pages of Weird Tales. These earlier pieces are often characterized by an intensity of colorful description, eerie atmospheres, and an uncommon grappling with substantial questions. In "Greater Than Gods" Bill Cory faces a choice of vast import, for his decision to marry one woman or another will set in motion different futures, each with different destinies for humanity. The mechanism of Moore's tale is fascinating: Cory's far-future descendants from both alternate timelines contact him and provide a glimpse of their world, dramatically framing his decision. The narrative is also buoyed by a sense of gravitas throughout. But other key elements, such as Cory's psyche and the simplistic delineation of female/male-influenced futures, seem staged and manipulative. The ending also doesn't quite work for me. I should mention that my lukewarm reaction to "Greater Than Gods" is somewhat at odds with the generally high esteem in which I hold the work of C. L. Moore. Her subtle command of craft and vividly poetic imagination are not absent in "Greater Than Gods," but they fail, in my mind, to add up to something comparable to later, more technically innovative masterpieces like "No Woman Born" (1944) or "Vintage Season" (1946). Perhaps these other works made my expectations of "Greater Than Gods" unfairly high.
"Trends" and "Life-Line" both depict advances that meet with resistance from the social order. Despite its heavy-handedness, "Trends" is a well-constructed exploration of how socially conservative forces, and religion in particular, can become reactionary and anti-scientific. In "Life-Line" this is inverted, with the scientific community opposed to a radical invention: Dr. Pinero's method for determining a person's time of death based on weight and date of birth. "Life-Line" is a dazzling performance. In his first published story, Heinlein creates complex characters and plays with an idea that reveals much about the human condition, namely our stance towards death. He does so implicitly, rather than by moralizing. The story's pace is swift, and the use of newspaper-clippings and other forms of reporting appropriate and ingenious. In his science fictional autobiography Arthur C. Clarke observed that "The story is smoothly written, and packs quite a number of punches": these are statements few modern readers should find themselves contesting. If you only read a few of the stories in this volume, don't miss the pleasure of discovering what these punches are for yourself. Heinlein is also featured with "Misfit," early military SF. Revolving around a young man's discovery of his own calculational prowess, the story is suspenseful and well-written but less conceptually distinctive than "Life-Line."
Temple's "The Four-Sided Triangle" (novelized in 1949) is built around the notion of replicating a person, a perennial theme in SF. Its focus on relationships verges on melodrama, but also allows for a profoundly personal exploration of its theme. Earlier instances of human duplication not explicitly biological in nature (and therefore distinct from the theme of cloning) include Jackson Gee's tragicomic "An Extra Man" (1930), Murray Leinster's slapstick "The Fourth-Dimensional Demonstrator" (1935) and Richard Tooker's "Moon of Arcturus" (1935). Temple's treatment, while not definitive, is still worthwhile, and more serious in intent than the previous three. It does not delve particularly deeply into the ethical dilemma of actually creating life; Joan is in fact rather carefree about her duplication. Contemporary writers to explore this issue of responsibility and others un-probed in Temple's take include James Patrick Kelly in "Think Like A Dinosaur" (1995) and John Kessel in "The Juniper Tree" (2000).
"Star Bright" too plays on a smaller, more intimate scale. Mr. Peabody, economically distressed, makes a wish upon a falling star. Lo and behold, it is granted by a fragment of meteorite that ends up inside his skull and gives him the ability to create whatever he wants. Williamson's story is inspired and thought-provoking, and though we might shake our heads at the science we should acknowledge the deftness of the characterization and skill of the plot. The ordinary person with an extraordinary ability has by now become a staple of the genre, specially prevalent in media SF: it has been used in everything from the original The Twilight Zone to more recent series like The 4400 and Heroes and an entire universe of comics. But it signaled something of a shift for SF at the time Campbell began molding it, and represented a change for Williamson too, who had already been publishing for over a decade. Indeed, Williamson's early work, most notably his Legion of Space series, was exuberant in its vigor and spirit of galaxy-spanning space-opera adventure. By contrast, "Star Bright" is remarkably quiet, and a testament to Williamson's commendable facility for adapting to the demands of the market for over half a century. Predictably, Williamson will return in this series several times, including in the very next volume.
I would be remiss if I didn't comment on some of the science and technology displayed in these early works of SF. Certain elements are to be expected: predictions that are reasonable based on what was known at the time. Widespread belief in ubiquitous atomic energy, as noted in the following phrases, falls into this category: "atomic propulsion" ("The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton"), the "atomic-blast field" and the "atomic generator" ("Cloak of Aesir"), "atomic engines" ("Black Destroyer"), and even "three-dimensional atomic" televisions ("Ether Breather"). There are also tales of genetic modification, biochemically induced by man in "The Ultimate Catalyst" and machine-triggered in "The Blue Giraffe." Again, nothing startling when one remembers that H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau had been published back in 1896. And, of course, there is plenty of space travel, with Asimov's prediction of a manned mission to the Moon in 1978 in fact proven too cautious by history.
But there are also those elements that surprise for their acuity (these were, after all, pulp magazines). Here is one such: we find what might be the first use of the phrase "alternative future" to mean "alternate reality" in C. L. Moore's "Greater Than Gods." Moore's "Plane of Probability" might have seemed fanciful back in 1939, but today it can be read as a description of the "multiverse" that emerges naturally from the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, developed several decades after the story. Heinlein's "pink worms" are the space-time cones one encounters when one studies Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity (1905). Further, Heinlein makes the connection explicit by identifying them as descriptive of "space-time events."
Naturally, there are scientific misses too. Sturgeon, for example, seems prescient in his divination of home television recording (TiVo anyone?) but the spell is at least temporarily broken by his offhand reference to a program advertised by one of the "antigravity industries." He also posits "'press cars, forced by compressed air through tubes under the city." Lastly, how a radioactive meteorite fragment lodged inside the brain of Williamson's protagonist would bestow upon him the ability to literally create objects and life-forms remains foggy at best.
SF set in the past, present or future inevitably captures the writer's present. These Golden Age stories incorporate their fair share of gender stereotypes, biases, and normative assumptions. Moore's "Greater Than Gods," perhaps surprisingly, contains a number of them. I wonder if some were meant as tongue-in-cheek. While Moore claims that women would govern "more peacefully than men," her entire story revolves around a masculine decision and the assumption of female passivity concerning a marriage proposal. The following narrative passage, for example, sticks out (italics mine):
Of course, some things suffered under the matriarchy. Women as a sex are not scientists, not inventors, not mechanics or engineers or architects. There were men enough to keep these essentially masculine arts alive—that is, as much of them as the new world needed.
"Pilgrimage" by Nelson Bond is noteworthy for its depiction of a girl passing into motherhood in a matriarchal society. It features a cast of strong, female characters and female-empowered social functions. But these potentially "feminist" implications are brutally undercut by the protagonist's discovery at the climax of her pilgrimage that literally "The Gods—were Men!" The Gods provide the cultural context from which the Clan inhabitants derive their meaning and cannot be easily dismissed as a plot device. Beyond the obvious quest story, it is possible to read "Pilgrimage" as a commentary on the distortions of history (men have become deified) rather than an affirmation of men's intrinsic power, but there doesn't seem much in the text to support this interpretive distinction.
William F. Temple's "The Four-Sided Triangle" also appears to subscribe to gender prejudice. In describing the central love interest, Joan Leeton, Temple writes (italics mine):
She was soothingly sympathetic without becoming mushy, she was very level-headed (a rare thing in a woman) and completely unselfish. [. . .] She possessed a brain that was unusually able in its dealing with science, and yet her tastes and pleasures were simple.
Temple later reflects a still-present social bias towards monogamy, which he states "is deep-rooted in most normal people, and particularly so with Will."
Another example of gender bias is the proportion of male-to-female protagonists: at least three-quarters of the stories told through human eyes are male-oriented. This last phenomenon, given our records of the main readership, is not particularly surprising.
By examining these stories we've gotten a sense of the Golden Age. Much high-quality work would be written during the following years, all the way into the vaguely-defined end of the Golden Age and beyond. One way to characterize the period is in terms of its motifs, as Peter Nicholls does in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:
In the years 1938-46 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 . . . "
At least a quarter of the stories in IAPGSFS 1 (published in the year in which, coincidentally, Nicholls was born) attest to this assuredness, though which quarter may depend on the reader's specific sensibilities.
In the next review I look forward to exploring more of these motifs by examining classics from 1940, including works by Fritz Leiber, Jack Williamson, Theodore Sturgeon, Isaac Asimov, Lester del Rey, P. Schuyler Miller, and Harry Bates.
Ashley, Mike. The Time Machines: the Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950. Volume 1 in The History of the Science Fiction Magazine. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000.
Horton, Rich. Locus Looks at Short Fiction. Locus, October 2008.
Barron, Neil, ed. Anatomy of Wonder. A Critical Guide to Science Fiction. West, Connecticut: Libraries Unlimited, 2004.
Knight, Damon. In Search of Wonder. Third Edition, Expanded and Revised. Chicago: Advent Publishers, 1996.
Stableford, Brian. Frankenstein. Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia. New York and London: Routledge, 2006.
Knight, Damon. Worlds Beyond, Vol. 1 #2, January 1951.
Campbell, John W. The Black Star Passes, Introduction. New York: Ace Books, 1972.
Sturgeon, Theodore. The Man Who Lost the Sea. Volume X: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2005. "Foreword" by Jonathan Lethem.
Clarke, Arthur C. Astounding Days. A Science Fictional Autobiography. Bantam Books, 1990.
Nicholls, Peter. "Golden Age of SF." The Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Danbury, CT: Grolier, CD-ROM, 1995.
Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories: Volume 1, 1939: Table of Contents
- "I, Robot" by Eando Binder (Amazing, January)
- "The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton" by Robert Bloch (Amazing, March)
- "Trouble With Water" by H. L. Gold (Unknown, March)
- "Cloak of Aesir" by Don A. Stuart [John W. Campbell Jr.] (Astounding, March)
- "The Day is Done" by Lester del Rey (Astounding, May)
- "The Ultimate Catalyst" by John Taine (Thrilling Wonder Stories, June)
- "The Gnarly Man" by L. Sprague de Camp (Unknown, June)
- "Black Destroyer" by A. E. van Vogt (Astounding, July)
- "Greater Than Gods" by C. L. Moore (Astounding, July)
- "Trends" by Isaac Asimov (Astounding, July)
- "The Blue Giraffe" by L. Sprague de Camp (Astounding, August)
- "The Misguided Halo" by Henry Kuttner (Unknown, August)
- "Heavy Planet" by Milton A. Rothman (Astounding, August)
- "Life-Line" by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding, August)
- "Ether Breather" by Theodore Sturgeon (Astounding, September)
- "Pilgrimage" by Nelson Bond (Amazing, October)
- "Rust" by Joseph E. Kelleam (Astounding, October)
- "The Four-Sided Triangle" by William F. Temple (Amazing, November)
- "Star Bright" by Jack Williamson (Argosy, November)
- "Misfit" by Robert A. Heinlein (Astounding, November)
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro grew up in Europe, mostly, and despite the advice of his betters earned a BS in Theoretical Physics and studied creative writing. He now lives in California. His fiction has appeared in Farrago's Wainscot, Neon Literary Magazine and other online venues. His reviews and critical essays have appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Foundation and elsewhere. If you too are waiting for your own pet Aineko, visit Alvaro's blog.
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