Does Golden Age Science Fiction Suck?

In an NPR article, Jacob McMurray, senior curator at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, says:

“A lot of books in the ’50s and ’40s don’t hold up at all now because, either the scientific advances that they’re talking about just never happened, or these sort of cultural things that were happening at the time are so different than what’s happening now that it seems absurd,” he tells Liane Hansen. “I think a lot of the stuff from the ’60s and ’70s, when authors were trying to focus on social aspects of humanity, I think those books hold up really well. You know, a lot of the science fiction that’s happening in the ’80s and ’90s today is less fantastic, sort of focused on scientific technologies that are happening today.”

Hmmm…interesting. I might disagree with Mr. McMurray but I’m not sure of his intended meaning of “don’t hold up”. If he’s referring to the science aspects of the books, sure, some of it was off the mark. Although science fiction writers are often hailed as oracles forseeing technology decades in advance, in reality that is rarely the case.

However, if the statement is to be taken literally that the book as a whole does not fare well over time, then I would say “Nonsense!” Many Golden Age books are still considered classics even to this day. So what if the science is a bit off? Golden Age is more than an era of sf – it’s a flavor. Perhaps it’s just not a flavor that suits everyone’s tastes. Wrong predictions can (and should) be taken with a grain of salt in Golden Age science fiction.

(See also the addendum to my review for Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.)

21 thoughts on “Does Golden Age Science Fiction Suck?”

  1. I see the point, even if I don’t agree that the books aren’t readable or enjoyable now. Any work that attempts to portend the future is bound to end up with issues – scifi is especially ripe for that. I enjoy reading golden age (or older) scifi because it is fun to see how things have come to pass differently than was was fantasized about. It is also presumtuous to assume that the author was trying to predict the actual future in those works – an alternative future or fantastical future is just as possible and just as likely to come true.

    Whether it be Star Trek or 1984 or The Time Machine they all end up with issues 30, 50, or 100 years down the line…

  2. “A lot of books in the ’50s and ’40s don’t hold up at all now because, either the scientific advances that they’re talking about just never happened, or these sort of cultural things that were happening at the time are so different than what’s happening now that it seems absurd”

    This sentence, if parsed, reads that golden age SF does not “hold up at all” now because (1) either the scientific advances did not eventuate or (2) “these sort of cultural things” (eh?) happening at the time are so different than what’s happening now (i.e. the Noughts differ from the Forties) that it seems absurd.

    I would hold up this sentence as a triumph of drooling nonsese: I offer it as a candidate for perhaps the single most stupid sentence ever written in the history of science fiction critique. Consider the first half:

    (1) if someone is judging SF by its predictive ability, then WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE TIME MACHINE, and TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, should be regarded, not as SF classics of astonishing imagination, but as failures. I submit that anyone who regards HG Wells and Jules Verne as failures should turn in his SF Geek Fanboy card and report to the disintegration chamber forthwith.

    In terms of the predictive power, the world in which we live resembles the predicted future much more than it does the world as it was when those stories were written. Do we not have space rockets, rayguns, computers, robots? Isn’t cloning the number one scientific issue being debated in the public square? The stories dismissed by this critique were written either before or just when atomic energy was first discovered, when horse-drawn carts were still on the roads in major cities, and the electrification of rural areas was still under way.

    (2) Though awkwardly phrased, the only real meaning of the “these sort of cultural things” phrase is not to criticize the SF, but merely to express disdain for the decades. The critic is calling the 1940’s and 1950’s absurd.

    Now, I assume someone can discover a reason for prefering any given decade over any other: all had their good points and bad. The 1950’s were a decade where one could safely raise kids without feeling that the culture was one’s malign enemy: it was an optimistic day of progress, and the SF of that time reflected that. For a child of the current time to be calling his parents and grandparents absurd betrays a distinct historical parochialism, not to mention the kind of contempt for one’s elders fashionable among the Baby Boomers, a generation better known for their complaints than for their accomplishments.

    Certainly there are things I prefer in the modern day compared to my father’s time; but there are also things I abhor. Not everyone enjoys swimming in the filth.

  3. I don’t mean to defend McMurray’s overall sentiment, but I read the authors comments on ‘these sort of cultural things’ to mean the commentary that the writers were making on the politics and culture of the time. I believe he is saying that because the context has changed we don’t appreciate or understand the writers intent – to the point of absurdism.

    Much like a reader today isn’t able to grasp all the political and social criticism in Voltaire’s Candide, I can see some works of Golden Age scifi having the same problem (we don’t live in the cold war era anymore and that fear no longer drives us, as an example.) That doesn’t stop me from enjoying Candide or 1984 or many other works that include social, cultural, or political commentary.

    If McMurray would be more specific as to exactly which works he feels are absurd today we might have a more lively discussion…

  4. You don’t read Golden Age SF for the Science

    SFSignal: Does Golden Age Science Fiction Suck? Over on SFSignal, John tackles an issue that the curator of the SF museum mentioned on an interview on NPR….

  5. As far as I can tell from the one short quote in the article, Mr. McMurray is expressing a preference for “soft” science fiction from the 60’s and 70’s as opposed to “hard” SF of the 40’s and 50’s. From the way he phrases it (and I cannot tell if this were his intent) it reads like he likes the sixties and dislikes the fifties, independent of the books, SF or otherwise, written at the time.

    I sincerely doubt that he is saying the political and social landscape of our fathers’ and grandfathers’ day was so alien to the modern reader, that science-fictional parodies thereof will be found incomprehensible to the modern reader. It would be like saying the movie APOLLO THIRTEEN is incomprehensible to the moderns.

    (If I am wrong, and books from the 50’s do turn out to be incomprehensible, then Mr. McMurray is making a true statement which condemns the current generation for its gross parochialism.)

    On the other hand, if Mr. McMurray is merely expressing a preference for relevant social commentaries in SF books, I would say he has his priorities and his judgments exactly backwards. To use an example: GORMENGHAST is a parody that condemns the entire 1910 English system of formality and reserve; STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND is a parody that condemns the Christian religion as a con game and monogamy as folly. GORMENGHAST is still enjoyable as a work of pure fantasy, because the mocking background of the gigantic, moldy old house and its many servants is actually so strange, it might have been written by Lovecraft. STRANGER can still be enjoyed as a cops-and-Martian story, for the first third, and a little tailor story (where undergunned Jubal Hershaw outwits the Leviathan of the state) for the second third. The remaining third is a criticism of the value of the 1950’s white middle class. Both these books are whipping horses, alive at the time, now dead. In other words, I would say both these “socially relevant” books are badly dated. Works on simpler and grander themes, such as LORD OF THE RINGS or even, so help me, SKYLARK OF SPACE or PRINCESS OF MARS, still have life in them.

    Now, I cannot think of any social parodies written as SF in the 1950 and 1940, except, perhaps, NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, BRAVE NEW WORLD, or THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH. All three of these seem to me to be pertinent and eerily prescient. Since roughly half our nation these days adopts Newspeak as their first language, without even a threat of a visit to room 101, I would say Orwell’s classic still has much to say to the modern reader, even if he is not infatuated with totalitarianism, and needing to be shocked to his senses, as was the target audience of Orwell’s day.

    As I recall (and correct me if I err) Few SF writers were all that concerned with making a social comment back in the days of John W. Campbell junior. There was a vague approval for scientific planning of society: I recall a number of future earths run by a Science Patrol or benevolent United Nations (SPACE CADET; or LUCKY STARR) or maybe by benevolent psychiatric computers or benevolent psychiatric psychics (WORLD OF NULL A; FOUNDATION). And there was a vague disapproval of religion (CHILDHOOD?S END).

    Both these things are to be expected in Science Fiction. The scientists are the Good Guys, and the scientific method is supposed to be shone in the best light.

    What I don’t recall seeing before the New Wave writers in the 1960’s the full-scale assault on the social mores, the revolutionary spirit that drives writers to mock and condemn everything their forefathers have given them.

    One final note: as an ex-newspaper guy myself, I think I know how this article was written. A writer who did not know anythig about SF himself goes off to interview Mr. McMurray, and, out of everything they said, finds the one quote containing the most inflammatory (and interesting) words. Whatever else he said to clarify or support his quote, in other words, the context, is not given.

    I still condemn the quote as a foolish one, but we must give Mr. McMurray the benefit of the doubt, since he may not have meant it to be read as I have read it.

    JCW

  6. We really need to coax McMurray to explain himself in more detail – an essay on the topic or a more thorough inteview is needed.

  7. Hey all,

    I’ve been reading through these comments and I thought I’d give you a little more info. I think this is a good example of why I’d never want to be famous! In any case, NPR gave me a day notcie to do this interview, so I didn’t feel like I had much time to prepare. In any case, the interview was about 30 minutes long and it was supposed to be all about music, since I’m the curator at the Experience Music Project as well. I talked about Led Zeppelin, and the X-Ray Kinks autobio, and other things, and I just mentioned 5th Head of Cerberus. Then they kept asking sf questions, but as you can guess, this person didn’t really know anything about sf. So when you’re answering to that (and when you know you don’t have a lot of time), you (or I) tend to simplify things. There isn’t a chance to get any nuance in there, which is too bad.

    In any case, I do think that a lot of golden age sf doesn’t hold up today. ‘Doesn’t hold up’ as in they don’t resonate with modern audiences as much as they would have at the time of their publication. Of course there are exceptions. Looking in the Encyclopedia of SF, they term Golden Age, 1938 – 1946, but I think that today we think of it more as 1930s – 1950s and maybe some early 1960s. Childhood’s End, Martian Chronicles, Nightfall, Space Merchants, Fahrenheit 451, City, Case of Conscience, Canticle for Leibowitz – those books still resonate with me, but for every one that is good, there are dozens that were hits in their day that don’t hold up. Take H.P. Lovecraft, who I comepletely enjoy – but I believe that if you had 100 ‘average’ people read At the Mountains of Madness, 89 people would be bored silly and wouldn’t be able to finish. Of course this is all my opinion.

    I bring up the lack of technologies coming to pass as one reason perhaps that these texts don’t read well today. I do think this is true. I also think that social conventions changing make some texts hard to read. Have you tried reading Flatland recently? I had to stop reading it because its sexism is so severe. Also, writing styles have changed, and sometimes a super-pulpy writing style makes it difficult to enjoy.

    I have a little sf book club that we have every month here in Seattle. It’s about 6-7 of my friends, and about half of them are not natural sf readers. We read Mutant by Henry Kuttner one month, and everyone was really excited to read it. We all thought it had amazing ideas that were still relevent today, but the social conventions were bizarre, and the writing … sort of disappointing. Which is too bad, cuz I love C.L. Moore.

    In any case, I’m not condemning golden age sf as a whole, and I agree that I do have a preference for New Wave and newer material (unless it’s supernatural stuff, then I like the early early stuff), but I do think that the farther back you go in publication date, the more chance that the book won’t hold up. Of course, it’s usually possible to enjoy gems of the past as artifacts of their time, but that’s often what they are – artifacts of their time. And that time is the past.

    Of course, I’m 33 years old, so I’m probably automatically going to have a different opinion than people older or younger than me.

    In any case, the most embarrassing thing was that she asked me what my first sf book was, and it was Sentenced to Prism by Alan Dean Foster. But in the interview, it didn’t come out that way – it just said that I recommended Sentenced to Prism and the Gormenghast trilogy in the same breath! Which is amusing and embarrassing at the same time. No offense to Foster!

    best. -jacob

  8. Thanks for the clarifications, Jacob. I think everyone can agree that not all books (or movies, or songs) stand the test of time. What leaves an excellent impression today may fall out of favor tomorrow. And I believe personal preference plays a role here, too. Some people (I am one of them) like the feel of old science fiction. That’s what I meant by “it’s a flavor”.

    It’s good to know that someone associated with the Science Fiction Museum does not totally condemn Golden Age sf. After all, you know how irascible us fanboys can be. :)

  9. Our 1950?s cinematic understanding of the solar system has been ravaged by science! Our solar system was a potentially much more interesting space place before NASA sent up for snap shots, soil samples, and atmospheric tests robbing our imaginations of what might have been.

    A lot of folks got excited by the discovery of a ?Mar?s rock? thought to contain fossilized worms. This so called discovery has downgraded our imagination about life on Mars to little more than the least of life on Earth, rendering extinct the imaginative creatures once scripted to roam the ?angry red planet? of our mid twentieth century silver screens. The 1950?s ?War of the Worlds? has been reduced, at best, to a potential ?War of the Worms,? assuming Mars worms remain with intestines not petrified and fortitudes fortified to take on Earth worms.

    Those who grew up on 1950?s science fiction cinema have had their imaginations robbed of:

    a 1950?s Mars inhabited by: (a) invisible energy beings surfing radio waves to earth [The Day Mars Invaded Earth, 1962]; (b) triple eyed creatures triple eyeing earth?s Real Estate. [War of the Worlds, 1951]; (c) giant spiders, carnivorous plants and monster amoebas [Angry Red Planet, 1960]; (d) a civilization stuck in time and microscopic size [Wizard of Mars, 1965]; (e) a Mar?s girl seeking sperm donors from earth [Devil Girl from Mars, 1954]; (f) husky abductors in one piece snug fitting green pajamas [Invaders from Mars, 1953]; (g) unidentified beings who only transmit when transmitted to [Red Planet Mars, 1952]; (h) a fat hairy primate with a bubble machine and attraction for earth girls [Robot Monster, 1953]; (i) an underground civilization with men in tights and girls in mini skirts [Flight to Mars, 1951]; (j) scaly monsters with flesh shredding claws [?IT,? The Terror from Beyond Space, 1958 ].

    a 1950?s Venus inhabited by: (a) the extinct remnants of a super advanced civilization [First Spaceship on Venus, 1962 ]; (b) hormone enriched high tech sex kittens with attitude [The Queen of Outer Space, 1958]; (c) humanoids with galactic intellects in striped pants [Stranger from Venus, 1959]; (d) fat carrot headed creatures with fangs that release mind control bat gizmos [It Conquered the World, 1956]; (e?) scaly creatures that can grow infinitely large in earth?s atmosphere [20 Million Miles to Earth, 1957]; (f) girls heard but not seen [Voyage to a Prehistoric Planet, 1965].

    a 1950?s Neptune inhabited by conquest driven invaders with pointed helmets and substandard martial arts skills [Invasion of the Neptune Men, 1963].

    a 1950?s Uranus inhabited by an alien brain that projects man?s worst fears and best dream girls [Journey to the Seventh Planet, 1962].

    a 1950?s Moon inhabited by: (a) caterpillar monsters and humanoids with spears [First Men in the Moon, 1964]; (b) authentic beauty queens in black leotards [Catwomen of the Moon, 1954]; (c) telepathic women ruled by a nuke disfigured evil queen ready and equipped to zap earth [Missile to the Moon, 1959]; (d) a mysterious underground civilization seeking married couples from earth [Twelve to the Moon, 1960].

    a 1950?s Jupiter moon inhabited by beautiful girls sacrificing their own to an ugly brute with big teeth and a large appetite seeking the squirming screaming meal of his dreams [Fire Maidens of Outer Space, 1955].

    a 1950?s Asteroid inhabited by an advanced civilization of tiny people navigating their high tech equipped rock through space [The Phantom Planet, 1961].

    Boring scientific revelations about a life barren solar system force our imaginations to stretch light years to imagine what could once be imagined a chemical rocket ride away within our own cosmic neighborhood of planets! Current space craft technology would take nine month to get to mars and seventy thousand to get to the nearest star. ?The experts? suggests it will be decades before telescopic insights afford us a hazy view of planets further out visually suggestive as candidates for harboring life.

    However, notwithstanding the so called accomplishments of NASA and its foreign counter-parts, some 1950?s and early 1960?s cinematic speculations about what exists out there or visits here has yet to be disproved by as evidenced by the following: (1) a one eyed octopuses in water proof flying saucer seeking relocation space in earth?s oceans [Atomic Submarine, 1959]. (2) a dark blue flying saucer wandering aimlessly about without pilot, stated purpose or destination [The Bamboo Saucer, 1968]. (3) a small extraterrestrial flying contraption that can make noise everywhere in the middle of nowhere [Beast with a Million Eyes, 1955]. (4) a floating ET brain seeking human head space and world domination [Brain from Planet Arous, 1957]. (5) floating flitting light balls containing alien brains that inhabit middle age humans [Cape Canaveral Monsters, 1960]. (6) a cosmic man able to exit and enter his golf ball space craft via light beams [The Cosmic Man, 1958]. (7) cosmic rays that enlarge insects and diminish humans [Cosmic Monsters, 1962]. (8) high elevation one eyed ETs able to turn humans into freeze dried zombies [The Crawling Eye, 1958]. (9) an astronaut?s severed hand that has a hand in multiple murders [The Crawling Hand, 1963]. (10) a bulky slow moving ET comprised of rags, tarps, and carpets that consumes slow moving people [The Creeping Terror, 1964]. (11) an invisible space monster able to suck up urban landscapes [Dagora, 1965]. (12) falling veggie space things that blind and eat humans and take over their space [The Day of the Triffids, 1962]. (13) ET cops authorized to police Earth?s nuclear impact on other planets [The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951]. (14) light weight ET?s in laser equipped saucers [Earth VS the Flying Saucers, 1956]. (15) aliens ?flying under the influence,? intoxicating teens via fingernail syringes [Invasion of the Saucermen, 1962]. (16) outer space effects that turn men into monsters [First Man into Space, 1959]. (17) a gooey space creature able to board orbiting earth craft for a menacing visit to earth [Flame Barrier, 1958]. (18) a menacing space bird projecting an anti matter shield that deflects the military?s best efforts [The Giant Claw, 1957]. (19) ugly space aliens that assume the likeness of eligible bachelors and marry their women [I Married a Monster from outer space, 1958]. (20) an ET force field able to isolate one neighborhood from the rest [Invasion, 1966]. (21) veggie space pods able to assume the likeness of humans and destroy the originals [Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956] (22) invisible ET invaders able to inhabit dead humans and play hide seek and destroy the military [Invisible Invaders, 1959]. (23) one eyed ET?s that land like meteors in meteor looking space craft [It Came from Outer Space, 1953]. (24) ET?s with bulging eyes able to tunnel under nuclear test sites and make our world theirs [Killers from Space, 1954]. (25) a gigantic ET vacuum able to suck up Earth?s energy for take out to other planets. [Kronos, 1957] (26) a low flying ET friction missile able to turn cities to toast. [Lost Missile, 1958] (27) a marauding planet X seeking an earth takeover [Man from Planet X, 1951]. (28) dead planet aliens who squat on mars, then on the moon, and now want to squat on earth [The Mysterians, 1957].

    The list goes on and science obviously still has a lot to answer for!

  10. “Have you tried reading Flatland recently? I had to stop reading it because its sexism is so severe.”

    Abbott was making a point. He did not like the way women were treated in his day so he exaggerated the treament of the Flatland women to show Victorian-era men how badly they were treating their wives, daughters, etc.

    See the recent “Annotated Flatland” for more on this.

  11. John I’ve watched some post Golden Age sci fi stuff too but IT SUCKS…Although the other day I watched ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind.’ Wow! Those special effects are amazing! Then I watched ‘Fire in the Sky,’ about this guy who got abducted and probed by extraterrestrials. It was worse than being a victim of racism or sexism according to my Afro American female friend, who watched with me. Alhough she admitted she couldn’t be 100% sure given that she’s never been probed by extraterrestrials. I haven’t either. How about you?

    So anyways we’s got to thinkin. How come all those abduction stories are mostly about white folks getting abducted! It would seem that racism is universal. Speaking of Universal, “It Came From Outer Space” was, in my opinion, one of the best Universal Sci Fi movies of the 1950’s, notwithstanding Ray B’s disappointment that Universal insisted on sticking a one eyed monster in the face of a 3D movie glasses wearing audience instead of having faith in their imagination. But I digress. How about you?

  12. “So anyways we’s got to thinkin. How come all those abduction stories are mostly about white folks getting abducted!”

    Look up the case of Betty and Barney Hill.

  13. How can you be sure you haven’t been abducted and probed by aliens? Granted, their mind wipes don’t seem to work to well on some people (hicks, mostly, or redneck, take your pick…), but they may work great on the rest of us normal people. Can you be 100% sure you havnen’t been abducted?

    I’d guess in John’s case they’d send him right back out. Sort of an alien version of catch and release…

  14. We be readin ya writin and we be tinkin ya all be right on! We done be abudcted and can’t rememba. It must be da mind wipe ting! My girlfriend’s ma ma is wonderin if dey used Charmin mind wipes cause she says she got fragile brain tissue and hope dey be usin somtin soft. (I also hope it’s Charmin but won’t formally admit to having soft brain tissue.) I just be writin dis down as it bein said cause I want to get it just da way it bein said. We ain’t used to be talkin to such smart folk and sure do appreciate ya all takin da time to egucate us all. Da ya all tink dim aliens can read our kind of talkin like you all? We don’t know but we know you know. Tanks for readin and edgucatin us ya all.

    P.S. We be stupid so you all can feel smarter than you ain’t. It be our way of makin your little world a happier little place. Anyways we all would like ya all opinion about da ‘Skeleton of Lost Cadavra.’ It be a 1950’s retro movie made in 2003 or thereabouts. Thanks for bein ever so patient and takin da time to share us folk who need edgucatin. It kind of like bein in the Peace Corp and helpin folk who need helpin. Tanks for donatin ya time. In the mean time we be lookin for Barney. I got a video called, “Barney goes to outer space.” He got all dese kids taggin along.

  15. the kind of contempt for one’s elders fashionable among the Baby Boomers, a generation better known for their complaints than for their accomplishments.

    Oh you mean like the civil rights movement, rock and roll, home computers and the internet? I love your intelligent commentary! Keep up the good work!

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