Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Golden Age of Science Fiction

I’m a science fiction fan ... one of the biggest ... and I mean that several ways. Yet I think this is the first time I’ve written about SciFi on my blog. After over 250 different subjects and essays, I finally get around to my life-long love affair with science fiction ... which was the genesis and heart of my love of science.

I was around ten-years-old when I read my first science novel. It was “Have Space Suit, Will Travel” by Robert Heinlein. This was a story (or book) intended for a younger audience ... a so-called “juvenile.” Heinlein wrote this book after world war two and it was based on his experience as an aeronautics engineer working at a lab where pressure suites were being developed for use at high altitudes. The title echoes the expression “Have tux, will travel” and also the popular at that time TV show “Have Gun — Will Travel.”

Although the book was written for kids, it did receive a nomination for the Hugo award in 1959. The Hugo Awards are a set of awards given annually for the best science fiction or fantasy works. The awards are named after Hugo Gernsback, the founder of the pioneering science fiction magazine Amazing Stories. There may be a movie in the works now based on that this story.

I’ve read science fiction all my life. I finished off a couple of short stories just last night. In fact, although modern science fiction is often in the novel form, in its hay-day it was most often short stories published in magazines called “pulps” due to the inexpensive paper that was used. With our modern world of computers and cellphones and blockbuster SciFi movies such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Star Wars” as well as lots of TV shows with an outer space theme, we seem to be living the fiction.

If you go back one hundred years, it was also a time of speculative fiction, but the evidence of the modern technological world was just starting to appear. The nineteenth century saw steam and the telegraph both drastically reduce distances and inspiring imaginations. There were some founding science fiction in the writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells during that time, but with the advent of the twentieth century there was a revolution, both in science and in day-to-day life. The new century saw the spread of the automobile, electric light, telephone, radio, and many other new inventions that definitely pointed to a technological future.

Fiction was filled with stories of spaceships and aliens and the imagination of a generation was captured by these low cost, “pulp” publications and what dreams were dreamed.

The development of American science fiction as a self-conscious genre dates in part from 1926, when Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories magazine, which was devoted exclusively to science fiction tales. He is notable for having chosen the variant term “scientifiction” to describe this incipient genre. The term "scientifiction" and Gernsback’s name are often inextricably linked. However, even though Gernsback encouraged stories featuring scientific realism to educate his readers about scientific principles, such stories shared the pages with other exciting tales that had little basis in reality.

Published in his and other pulp magazines with great and growing success, such scientifiction stories were not viewed as serious literature but as sensationalism. Nevertheless, a magazine devoted entirely to science fiction was a great boost to the public awareness of the scientific speculation story. Amazing Stories competed with several other pulp magazines, including Weird Tales (which primarily published fantasy stories), Astounding Stories, and Wonder Stories, throughout the 1930s. It was in the Gernsback era that science fiction fandom arose through the medium of the “Letters to the Editor” columns of Amazing and its competitors.

At this time science fiction was still a relatively small field dominated by Gernsback and other editors such as F. Orlin Tremaine. Probably the most notable work that came from this period was the writings of E.E. “Doc” Smith. Edward Elmer Smith, Ph.D., was a chemical engineer who worked in the food industry on doughnut and pastry mixes. His two series, the Skylark and Lensmen earned him the title the “father of the space opera.” But it was his inclusion of hard science facts into his fiction that really was the spark.

It was in the 1930’s that science fiction found its voice. Toward the end of that decade the voice began to resemble, more and more, that of John Wood Campbell, Jr., and in the 1940’s Campbell dominated the field to the point where to many he seemed to be all of science fiction. It was his age of influence that was “The Golden Age of Science Fiction.”

Campbell’s singular, personal impact was a phenomenon that had never happened before and can never be repeated. Before the 1940’s, science fiction was a small field, there was nothing to dominate. Campbell, however, towered. He had a charismatic personality that utterly overshadowed everyone he met. He overflowed with energy and he had his way with science fiction. He found it pulp and he turned it into something that was his heart’s desire. He then made it the heart’s desire of the reader.

Put another way, he found science fiction a side-issue written by eager fans with only the beginnings of ability, or by general pulp writers who substituted spaceships for horses, and disintegration rays for revolvers, and then wrote their usual stuff. Campbell put science fiction center stage and made it a field that could be written successfully only by science fiction writers who learned their craft.

To put it still another way, he found science fiction a trifling thing that could only supply writers with occasional pin-money and he labored to make of it something that which science fiction writers could make a living. He could not, in the 1940’s, drag the field upward to the point of making writers rich, but he laid the foundations for the coming of that time in later decades.

John W. Campbell, Jr., born in Newark, N.J. in 1910, attended M.I.T. between 1928 and 1931, but never finished his schooling there. The story is that he failed German, and transferred to Duke University. In many ways this experience was reflected in his later life. At M.I.T. he picked up his interest in science, and, at Duke, he was influenced by R.B. Rhine and the ESP tests, carried out at the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University, and picked up his interest in extra-sensory perception and the scientific fringe. The former was apparent in the 40’s and the latter became his theme in the 50’s and 60‘s with his support of L.Ron Hubbard.

He started out as a writer and sold his first science fiction story when he was just a teenager, which is not unusual for science fiction devotees. However, he didn’t realize you need to keep a carbon copy and the manuscript was lost by the publisher he submitted it to, which was unusual. So having a good backup isn’t just an issue in our computer age. His second sale was “When Atoms Fail,” which appeared in the January 1930 issue of Amazing. He was nineteen at the time.

As I mentioned, in those days the greatest name among the science fiction writers was E.E. “Doc” Smith. His “The Skylark of Space,” a three-part serial that appeared in Amazing in 1928 dealt with interstellar travel and mega-forces and mega-distances. It was an example of what came to be called “super-science stories” and Smith made it his specialty. Campbell followed that model from the start.

There was a difference, however. Smith could not change. He remained super-science to the end. Campbell could change and did. He wanted to write science fiction less in scale and more with puzzling mind.

He even changed his name for that purpose, using the pseudonym Don A. Stuart. Under this new name he wrote “Twilight” which appeared in 1934 in Astounding Stories. This tale told of the end of humanity in a far distant future. It proved a tremendous hit, and instantly began the change of making science fiction smaller in scope and deeper in thought.

He wrote “Stuart” stories predominately thereafter, until he published his best known story, “Who Goes There?” that appeared in Astounding in 1938. In 1973 the story was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the finest science fiction novellas ever written.

The story has been adapted three times as a motion picture: the first in 1951 as “The Thing from Another World;” the second in 1982 as “The Thing” directed by John Carpenter; and most recently as a prequel to the Carpenter version, also titled “The Thing," released in 2011. In the original version, six-foot, seven-inch tall James Arness, later to gain fame as Marshal Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke, played the alien, although it was difficult to recognize him in the makeup. Part of the movie was shot in Glacier National Park in Montana ... possibly a good substitute for the snowy and remote Alaska research base that was the supposed locale for the story. The later movies matched the original Campbell “shape shifter” story line more accurately than the 50’s version.

By October of 1937, Campbell was appointed to an editorial position at Astounding, and, within a few months, he was in full charge. His first significant action was to change the name of the magazine. He wanted to get rid of words like “amazing,” “astounding,” and “wonder,” which emphasized the shock-value and superficiality of science fiction. He wanted to call the magazine simply Science Fiction, thereby defining its scope clearly. Unfortunately, that name was already taken by what turned out to be a short-lived magazine from Columbia Publications. So, with its March 1938 issue, Astounding Stories became Astounding Science Fiction.

As an editor, Campbell was a phenomenon even greater than he had been as a writer. He held open house and anyone who might conceivably help him achieve his aims was welcome. It was then that an eighteen-year-old named Isaac Asimov appeared with his first story and was invited to Campbell’s office for a chat lasting over one hour. Although Campbell rejected Asimov’s first story, he saw the potential in the soon to be famous writer, and encouraged him. Although he continued to reject Asimov’s stories, he would meet with the young writer offering advice and encouragement until Asimov’s writing improved to the point of acceptance.

These were difficult times for publishing houses and writers. The war created a paper shortage and the draft and war-work depleted the number of writers. Many magazines failed. In addition, comic magazines (comics) had appeared and competed for the limited small change of the science fiction buying public. As magazines failed and were discontinued, only Astounding Science Fiction survived, largely due to the efforts of John Campbell.

Campbell had built a stable of excellent writers, some from before his time, but ones that fit the Campbellesque style and wrote what Campbell sought. Outstanding among those writers was Jack Williamson, Clifford D. Simak, and L. Sprague de Camp. However, for the most part, Campbell found new writers such as Isaac Asimov. His first issue that truly demonstrated his thinking and new authors in his mold was the July 1939 issue. Most consider it as the start of the “Golden Age of science fiction.”

The issue contained such classics as “Black Destroyer,” the first science fiction story written by A.E. van Vogt, “Trends” by Isaac Asimov, “Greater Than Gods” by C.L. Moore, and “The Moth” by Ross Rocklynne. All four of these authors became known as “Campbell authors,” although some had published before.

The next issue contained the first story by new author Robert A. Heinlein, “Life-Line.” Heinlein and van Vogt were common contributors to Astounding and soon were science fiction “superstars.” Another great Campbell author is Arthur C. Clark, whose first science fiction story “Loophole” appeared in 1946 Astounding. Also among these early authors are Lester del Rey, whose first story, “The Faithful,” appeared in 1938 and T.L. Sherred and A. Bertram Chandler.

However, not every great science fiction writer could write for Campbell. They didn’t have the “Campbell touch.” One such writer is Frederic Brown and another, most famous writer, Ray Bradbury.

Campbell’s influence continued into the 50’s and 60’s, until his death in 1971. Sadly, toward the end of his life, he was involved with several “pseudo science” topics including his promotion of “General Semantics,” a theory of logic that was adopted by Campbell, and some of his writers, including A.E. van Vogt in his novel “The World of Null-A.” The name “Ā” refers to non-Aristotelian logic. This is logic that includes three or more values and rejects the simple true/false of Aristotle’s thinking.

Later Campbell became a big supporter of Hubbard’s Dianetics and his Scientology, although Hubbard’s other fellow writers and friends had a lot of doubts.

SF writer Alfred Bester, an editor of Holiday Magazine and a sophisticated Manhattanite, recounted at some length his "one demented meeting" with Campbell, a man he imagined from afar to be "a combination of Bertrand Russell and Ernest Rutherford.”

Although Bester only wrote a few science fiction stories, his 1956 “The Stars are my Destination” (also known as “Tiger, Tiger” from the William Blake poem) is, in my opinion, one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time.

Bester states that the first thing Campbell said to him was that Freud was dead, destroyed by the new discovery of Dianetics, which, he predicted, would win L. Ron Hubbard the Nobel Peace Prize. Bester commented: "It reinforced my private opinion that a majority of the science-fiction crowd, despite their brilliance, were missing their marbles.”

Hubbard, another of Campbell’s favorite authors is considered one of the most published writer of all time. In 2006, Guinness World Records declared L. Ron Hubbard the world's most published and most translated author, having published 1,084 fiction and non-fiction works that have been translated into 71 languages. Isaac Asimov and his over 500 published works is also often listed as a most popular writer, but others such as , J.K. Rawling, Agatha Christie, and William Shakespeare hold records too.

To me, in addition to Bester, Asimov — “The Good Doctor” and Arthur C. Clark, the man who first thought up geosynchronous satellites, were two of the greatest writers for the Golden Age and beyond. (And, of course, Heinlein.) I was never that big a fan of Bradbury, but his work is definitely first rate.

For the last twenty-nine years, each year, I purchase and read “The Year’s Best Science Fiction” collection edited by Gardner Dozois. This thick collection of the latest writing by the latest writers is very interesting. Science Fiction is now as much about people as about science and the art form has advanced considerably.

However, I must admit that after completing reading one of these up-to-date stories, I often just don’t get it. I just want to go back to the old stories from the Golden Age. I have already read most all of them, but a failing memory in my “Golden Age” allows me to experience them again in their original freshness. Who says old age has problems.

The Golden Age formed the foundation of modern science fiction and its influence can be traced through the science fiction movies of the fifties to “2001” and “Star Wars.” But more significant is the influence this literature and fiction had on my generation of scientists and engineers, including yours truly.

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