The Last Veterans of the Golden Age
One of my favorite science fiction stories of all-time is Lester del Rey’s “The Day Is Done” which appeared in Astounding some 72 years ago in May 1939. The story is about the last of the Neanderthals, who finds himself unable to compete with the better equipped homo sapiens. It is a sad, haunting story, watching a proud species come to an end from the inside. Reading it the first time made me wonder how much of their history was lost forever when the last of them disappeared from the face of the earth.
As I said, that story appeared 72 years ago at the dawn of the Golden Age of science fiction. Seventy-two years is a lifetime for many people. Most of the great science fiction writers from that era are gone: all of the Big Three, all of the pre-Campbell writers who made the transition to Campbell’s Astounding, even those writers who lived particularly long lives like Jack Williamson and L. Sprague de Camp are no longer with us. There are few writers and fans from that era still around, but in my lifetime those last veterans of the Golden Age will pass quietly into the good night and an important door connecting our field’s history to the past will be closed forever. Because, as I have discovered in my Vacation in the Golden Age, the stories that we read and love (or hate) are only the thin outer layer of our history. Peel back that layer and there is a fascinating, untold history of our genre that says as much about its evolution as the stories that make it up. And it would be a shame to lose that history.
We still have a chance to capture some of it, by looking to those still with us, who lived and breathed during the Golden Age, whether writer or fan, editor or publisher, and asking them to tell us their stories–the ones behind the stories that we read in books and magazines. Who are these last veterans? Three came to mind at once when I began considering this question:
The first is Frederik Pohl, 91, who is, if I am not mistaken, the last surviving member of the Futurians. He is still actively writing novels and not only that, he has been blogging for some time now. There is something both incongruous and absolutely appropriate about a fellow who grew up in the Golden Age to write about science fiction and to win the Hugo for Best Fan Writer.
The second is Ray Bradbury, also 91. Bradbury is not typically associated with the Campbell crowd, but he did have a couple of enthusiastic fan letters in those early Golden Age Astounding‘s, to say nothing of several stories later in the Golden Age, “Eat, Drink, and be Wary” being the first in the July 1942 Astounding.
The third is James Gunn, 88, who started writing science fiction in the late 1940s at the tail end of the Golden Age and whose “Without Portfolio” appeared in the January 1955 Astounding. Gunn has gone on to be science fiction’s premier scholar and I was lucky enough to take one of his fiction-writing workshops back in the summer of 2008.
All three of these Veterans, by the way, are Grand Masters of Science Fiction.
I am still learning the history of my beloved genre, however, and although I should have been able to come up with more names, I began to draw a blank. So I turned to the person I consider to be the single most knowledgeable person about the science fiction genre I have ever met, Barry N. Malzberg (to say nothing of one of its finest writers), and he kindly provided me a list of other Veterans of the Golden Age who are still with us. They include:
- The grande dames Katherine MacLean, 86; Anne McCaffrey, 85; and Carol Emshwiller, 90, all of whom broke into the field between the late 40s and late 50s.
- Long time fan, writer, and publisher David Kyle, 92, who helped to form Gnome Press where many early classics including Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy were first published in book form.
- Harry Harrison, 86, still active, who started publishing in the early 1950s and who is most famous for his Stainless Steel Rat stories.
- Jack Vance, 95, who wrote The Dying Earth series and Peter Phillips, 90, whose “Dreams are Sacred” appeared in the September 1948 Astounding.
- Brian Aldiss, 85, and Robert Silverberg, 76, both of whom made their first sales in the mid-50s. Aldiss wrote The Billion Year Spree, a history of the science fiction genre. Silverberg is still going strong with stories, books, and his wonderful and important “Reflections” column in Asimov’s.
- There’s Frank M. Robinson, 86, who wrote, “The Maze” which appeared in the June 1950 Astounding; Richard Matheson, 85, whose first story, “Born of Man and Woman” appeared in F&SF in 1950.
- Daniel Keyes, 83, who wrote one of science fiction’s most famous stories, “Flowers For Algernon” which appeared in the April 1959 F&SF; and Harlan Ellison, 76, who got his start in the 1950s as a young fan.
There are certainly others that I am unaware of, the names of which I hope to see appear in the comments. Despite this list, however, they are, as Harry the King would say in Henry V, “the happy few” that remain from those early days. With more than seventy years and a World War intervening, the total number of writers and fans from that era can’t be very large and is, sadly, dwindling every day.
But those that remain represent a vast, untapped history of our genre. And just like efforts were made to collect oral histories from veterans of the World Wars, we should strive to do the same with these Veterans of the Golden Age. Many of them have contributed their stories, written autobiographies, but I have found that when you sit down and actually talk, that’s when you get the real stories, the real histories, the behind-the-scenes look into the world of science fiction in its heyday. The Science Fiction Oral History Association has been collecting some of these oral histories, but it is up to us to encourage these writers and fans from the Golden Age to talk about those days, what it was like to be a writer, what is was like to walk into Campbell’s office for the first time, what it was like to be a fan at an early WorldCon.
And so my plea here, humble as it may be, is that if you know writers and fans from the early days of science fiction, encourage them to tell their stories, to preserve our history in a way that the last of the Neanderthals in del Rey’s story could not do. Our history is who we are and the window we have to preserve it is closing. Don’t let it fade out quietly away like Hwoogh. Let’s capture as much of it as we can before it is too late.
Filed under: The Wayward Time-Traveler
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