When I first started on my Vacation in the Golden Age, I expected to “discover” writers that I hadn’t read much of, but certainly heard of. That was part of the point: reading C.L. Moore and L. Ron Hubbard; Henry Kuttner and Nelson S. Bond. What never really crossed my mind, however, was becoming a fan of a writer that–until that time–I’d never heard of.
I first encountered Malcolm Jameson in the October 1939 issue of Astounding. He had a decent story in that issue, “A Question of Salvage,” but it was nothing earth-shattering. I’d learned that Jameson was a friend of Robert Heinlein, who was still in his literary infancy at the time. Both had served in the US Navy. Both left the navy due to illness. In Jameson’s case, it was cancer.
What a curious species, the science fiction magazine. If you consider that first issue of Amazing Stories, published in April 1926, as the birth of the modern science fiction magazine, then the science fiction magazine has survived in one form or another for nearly 86 years. This despite constant proclamations that science fiction is dying. Why has the science fiction magazine survived as long as it has?
This is not to say a magazine cannot be killed. We have seen countless magazines die, some after only a single issue. But they are inevitably replaced by another magazine, one that is perhaps more durable than its predecessor, one that lasts somewhat longer. And when that one dies, still another comes along to take its place. There is an almost evolutionary battle taking place that has made the science fiction magazine, despite its seeming precariousness, a fit venue for the literature. One might die, but it will be replaced, and never has the species died out entirely.
I think that there are several important reasons for this.
A recent SF Signal Mind Meld asked participants “what was your introduction to fantasy and science fiction?” I thought this was an interesting question because it illustrates the wide and varying entry points into the genre. But it also occurred to me that first impressions are not always good and a poorly suited book can just as easily turn a person off to the genre as a well-suited book might turn someone on. From there, my mind wandered a bit. I recalled a year ago when I’d just obtained the complete set of 1947 Astounding‘s for my Vacation in the Golden Age. I’d mentioned this acquisition to Barry Malzberg, who I think considers 1947 Astounding at its absolute peak. He suggested a I read T. L. Sherred‘s “E For Effort” right away. I told him that I would and he responded with something that has stuck with me ever since. It was something like, “I am envious that you are coming to this story fresh, that this is your first time reading it.”
You can read a story again and again, but there is only one first time. There is a moment before you start reading where you are holding a book that countless others before you have read and enjoyed and thought exceptional. You may even have some idea of what the book is about, but you have not yet immersed yourself in the story until you turn to that first page and begin reading.
And so I thought it would be interesting to share some of my own first-time experiences with classics of the genre. First-times can be uneven experience. Some are absolutely memorable, even life-changing events. Others can be somewhat disappointing. I’ve tried to list a mix of experiences.
Remember a few months back when a remarkable infographic of the history of science fiction was let loose on the web? I think I spent hours looking at that infographic, growing increasingly uneasy. It was the same unease I feel after returning from Readercon, my favorite science fiction convention. The unease is a reflection of my awareness of just how little SF I’ve actually read. And it can sometimes lead to that oh-so-depressing thought that I’ll never be able to read it all. Keep in mind I am speaking specifically of science fiction–my experience with fantasy and horror is too limited for consideration.
The 1940s was probably the last time it was possible to read all of the science fiction being published. When looking at what I’ve managed to read as part of the broader overall landscape of the genre, it is quite small. But if I can’t read it all, maybe I can at least sample as much of it as I can. In part, this is what I’ve been doing with my Vacation in the Golden Age. But why sample from all across the landscape in the first place? I think of myself not only as a science fiction fan, but a science fiction writer, and an amateur scholar of the literature. As such, I want to have some familiarity with all of the landscape, even if my specialty and what I really enjoy reading is more limited.
Or put another way, I want to broaden my horizons.
I’ve been on this path for nearly three decades now. When I started reading science fiction, it was mostly one author (Piers Anthony). That eventually broadened until I was exposed to more and more authors and sub-genres and work spread across different time periods. I imagine that this is a fairly common path: some particular author draws you in, you read them voraciously and then begin to risk other authors. And yet, there are still vast areas of the science fiction landscape with which I have no experience and they represent appalling lapses.
It has been said that the novella is the perfect form for science fiction: enough space for an author to build worlds, and short enough to read in an afternoon. My habit, when getting the latest issue of a science fiction magazine, used to be to read the non-fiction first, then the short pieces, and maybe, if I get to them, the novellas.
Over the holiday vacation, I spent a lot of time catching up on stories that I missed earlier this year. And also reading some older stories in various volumes of Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best anthologies. Since I was on vacation and had more time, I felt expansive and decided to read a novella or two. That turned into three, then four. And before I knew it, I’d torn through seven novellas. And discovered that they can be one of the most powerful forms of “short” fiction out there.
A good short story, for me, captures a moment in time which implies everything that came before and everything that will come after. That said, it is very difficult to really get to know a character in a 4,000 or even a 6,000 word story, although there are writers out there who can achieve this. There is a little more room for this in novelettes. But it is in a novella that Real magic seems to happen. Novellas provide enough room for an author to build worlds and characters–and enough room for readers to fall in love with them. For me, therefore, the impact of a novella is very different from the impact of a short story.
I sometimes think that the term “Golden Age” leads to the idea that all stories from that era are light or optimistic tales with valiant heroes and happy endings. When we think of Golden Age stories, we tend to think of the most famous stories, many of which came from technological optimists like Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke. The Golden Age bridges a time leading into the Second World War and the boom that followed and the stories reflect the changing mood, just as stories written today reflect the mood of our times. Yet for every Kimball Kinnison, there is a story with a hero more grounded in the realities of the time. And while there are many stories from the Golden Age that convey a sense of optimism, there are a fair number that give us a more realistic view of the world in which they were written.
All of this has been on my mind recently because I’d seen a number of discussions online where the question was asked why there aren’t more positively slanted stories in science fiction today? It is a valid question, but one that often seems to be followed by “…like stories from the Golden Age.” The type of story a reader desires is a matter of personal taste. But as one who has spent the entire year reading every single issue of Astounding from July 1939 through 1941 as part of my Vacation in the Golden Age, I feel obliged to point out that this perception of the Golden Age is inaccurate. There are plenty of dark stories with nasty characters, anti-heroes and bleak outlooks. Some of these stories are probably ones that you’ve even heard of.
Over the last year, as I’ve made my way through my Vacation in the Golden Age, I’ve read stories by a number of writers who I’d never heard of before: Arthur McCann, Phillip St. James, Lee Gregor, Caleb Saunders, Frederick Engelhardt, Kurt von Rachen, Rene La Fayette, Marice G. Hugi, E. Waldo Hunter, and Robert Willey to name just ten or so. Often times, one of the stories by these authors will be particularly striking, and it makes you wonder what happened to them? Why can’t I find other stories by that author? Did they just up and quit after a few short pieces in Astounding? Or is something else going on?
As it turns out, in most cases something else is going on. It’s been said that a professional fiction writer is a paid liar and so it should come as no surprise that in some instances, even the name that appears on their byline is made up. And so it is for each of the names mentioned above:
Arthur McCann is the pen name John W. Campbell used for non-fiction articles in Astounding. Phillip St. James is Lester del Rey. Lee Gregor is Milton Rothman. Caleb Saunders is Robert Heinlein. Engelhardt, von Rachen and La Fayette are all incarnations of L. Ron Hubbard. Maurice G. Hugi is Eric Frank Russell. E. Waldo Hunter is Theodore Sturgeon. And Robert Willey is the pen name that Willy Ley used for fiction, in particular, a great story called “Fog” (Astounding, December 1940). One name I didn’t mention because it has become a well-known pseudonym is Anson MacDonald, a.k.a. Robert Heinlein.
For those who missed the first three parts: I was finally let in on SF Signal’s little secret: they have a time machine and they allowed me to use it to travel back to those times in the history of science fiction that I thought interesting to report on. In part 1, I traveled to the first World Science Fiction convention in 1939 and interviewed John W. Campbell. In Part 2, I made for 1957 where I managed to wrangle an interview from a rather busy Isaac Asimov. For my third trip I’d revisited a Harlan Ellison reading from 1995. After hearing that reading again, I knew where I needed to go next–
I made an educated guess as to where the 97th World Science Fiction convention would be held. Given that the 97th convention would take place in 2039, it seemed to me there was only one possibility: the Big Apple; New York, New York. It turned out that I was correct, and why not? In addition to being the 97th WorldCon, it was also the 100th anniversary of the 1st WorldCon, a visit to which I’ve already described. Even guessing when it would take place wasn’t difficult: September 1-5, Labor Day weekend.
Finding the hotel in which it took place was a bit more tricky. I figured that once I got to New York, I could hop on the Internet and figure it out but the Internet had changed somewhat, evolved into more of an augmented reality in which (as a quickly learned) special contact lenses were needed to reveal and interact with that reality. It took some practice, but I managed. The most difficult part, of course, was obtaining a membership. There was good reason why I couldn’t attend under my own name, and while it is easy to appear to be a journalist in the past when you know what has happened, it is a much trickier thing to do in the future when the last 28 years are an unknown. So I attended as a fan and my name tag (a virtual tag that one could see along with my various social networking statuses thanks to the AR at the hotel) read: DAVID SELIG.
For those who missed the first two parts: I was finally let in on SF Signal’s little secret: they have a time machine and they allowed me to use it to travel back to those times in the history of science fiction that I thought interesting to report on. In part 1, I traveled to the first World Science Fiction convention in 1939 and interviewed John W. Campbell. In Part 2, I made for 1957 where I managed to wrangle an interview from a rather busy Isaac Asimov. For my third trip I’d had plans to visit 1968, but–
1968 was one of those years in which the world was coming apart at the seams. Wars and rebellions. Assassinations and protests. There were few shining lights in 1968. Among them, perhaps, was Apollo 8’s science-fictional Christmastime journey around the moon and, perhaps, science fiction itself. A year earlier, Harlan Ellison‘s groundbreaking original anthology Dangerous Visions had taken the science fiction world by storm and by 1968, stories that appeared in the anthology were winning awards left and right. I thought that 1968 would be a perfect time to visit and see if I could talk to the fellow who put together this (now) classic volume.
But the truth is, I was a little afraid. Not of the war and strife and rebellion, but of Ellison himself…
For those who might have missed Part 1: I was finally let in on SF Signal’s little secret: they have a time machine and they allowed me to use it to travel back to those times in the history of science fiction that I thought interesting to report on. I ended up traveling to 4 different times. In part 1, I traveled back to the summer of 1939 to attend the first World Science Fiction Convention and, posing as a reporter, I managed to get in a brief conversation with John W. Campbell, practically blowing my cover in the process. Now let me tell you about my second trip…
This one took a little more careful planning and I was particularly nervous because I was going to pay a visit to my all-time favorite writer–and one who I never met when he was alive–Isaac Asimov. And here I have to admit that I cheated a bit. To make this work required two trips. First, I made a quick trip back to September 30, 1957 and nervously made a phone call to Dr. Asimov at Boston University. I got him on the line and that Brooklyn accent that I’ve heard on tape so many times suddenly sounded so real. I told him that I was a reporter, gave him my name and asked him if I could interview him the following week, on Monday perhaps. He agreed and the time was set for his lunch hour, on Monday, November 7, 1957.
The good folks at SF Signal waited 15 installments before letting me in on their little secret: back there, in that storage room, behind the shelves of bagels, and the teetering stacks of ARCs, and piles of videos (including a complete set of Star Blazers, including the rare “Bolar Wars” season), back there amidst all that dust and pressed paper was a time machine.
“We thought you could be a real correspondent for a few weeks,” John DeNardo said to me, “Interview the people that helped to shape science fiction, hang out with them, see what they were really like.”
“You’re joking,” I said. “Look, my minor was in journalism, but I have no real journalistic experience.”
He gave me a strange look. “That’s what you’re worried about.” Well, what else?
You can find it scattered throughout older science fiction stories: characters would visit libraries filled with “book-films.” They had “players” in which the films could be viewed. In many of those imagined futures paper books still existed. But it seemed that among many writers, the transmigration of form from paper to electronic was a natural, inevitable course to take. They didn’t use the term e-book, of course. But the notion was there. The desire was there. It was just a matter of time.
And here we are today at the dawn of what I think will ultimately be looked upon as a new Golden Age of science fiction. I’m not sure that it is possible to acknowledge a Golden Age as it happens, but I think that fans and writers looking back from twenty years hence will agree that we are in the midst of important, groundbreaking times in the genre. And I think they will point to the e-book revolution as a big reason for this new Golden Age. What was once science fiction is now giving new life to the short form.
The original Golden Age was made up of just a handful of magazines of any importance. There was Astounding, of course. There were smaller magazines like Planet Stories, Astonishing Stories, Super Science Stories. There was Amazing Stories. And later, there was The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy. There were some important stories published in the smaller magazines, but the vast majority of famous stories came out of, what was then, the Big Three: Astounding, F&SF, and Galaxy.
The following are some notes for an idea for a possible column for the Wayward Time Traveler on SF Signal:
In the November 1993 issue of Science Fiction Age, Scott Edelman had an editorial titled, “Some SF tries to answer the question, ‘What is Science Fiction anyway?'” He opens his essay with the question “Why is it that we read science fiction?” and then goes on to say:
What is it that we’re looking for there? Some have written lengthy essays attempting to pin down the appeal of the genre. But there are other writers who are trying to figure out the answer to that question by writing a special brand of science fiction which is called “recursive” science fiction, that is, stories that are not only SF in and of themselves, but manage to be about SF.
Scott’s editorial was my first introduction to the term “recursive” science fiction. But it wasn’t my first introduction to the idea that fiction could be meta. Indeed, I was at the time taking an excellent class on “metafiction” as part of my creative writing. In this class we examined stories by writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Italo Calvino and many other writers who commented on their literature through fiction.
There is the old adage: don’t judge a book by its cover. This may be true, but in science fiction and fantasy, we can certainly identify a book–sometimes even a story– by its cover art. Our genre has been blessed with artists and artwork that have given vision to writers’ words since its inception. Many of the extraordinary paintings found on science fiction covers have become emblematic of the work itself. In college, I can recall spending my hard-earned money on the newly-released coffee table book, The Art of Michael Whelan and then spending hours leafing through the pages. I cannot read Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation stories without Whelan’s image of Hari Seldon in my mind. When I think of Mars of the future, it is Whelan’s interpretation of Ray Bradbury‘s Martian Chronicles that I see.
This was all brought home to me back in May when I found myself at the Nebula Awards banquet seated at a table with, among others, Michael Whelan and his wife. While my wife and his chatted through most of the meal, I sat mostly silent, rather in awe of the man who created so many of these memorable images. On some level, it made me realize just how important art is to our vision of the stories we know and love.
Back in May, winners of the 2011 Nebula Awards were announced at the Nebula Weekend in Washington, D.C. In a little less than two weeks, the winners of the 2011 Hugo Awards will be announced at the World Science Fiction convention in Reno, Nevada. These are two of the big annual awards in science fiction and fantasy.
The Hugo award, first given out in 1953, is science fiction and fantasy’s “people’s choice” equivalent. It is voted on by members of the World Science Fiction convention, those members consisting mostly of fans. The Nebula award, first given out in 1965, is science fiction and fantasy’s “Oscar”, voted on by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
They are not the only awards.
Over the years awards have proliferated and become increasingly narrowcasted. But such a proliferation seems to occur in most mediums. There are countless awards for television and motion pictures, for instance, and there are an equally prolific number of awards for literature outside the bounds of science fiction and fantasy.
I recently attended Readercon, my favorite science fiction convention, and while there, I moderated a panel called “Capturing the Hidden History of Science Fiction”. I was fortunate to have a great group of panelists including Barry N. Malzberg, Eileen Gunn, Fred Lerner and Darrell Schweitzer. For a Friday night at 9pm, it was a standing-room-only crowd. That surprised me: I hadn’t realized so many people were as interested in this “hidden history.” The discussion was a good one, I think, but I wanted to explore the subject further here. Much of what was discussed on the panel was of academic value. What I wonder is: how much of this hidden history has value to run-of-the-mill science fiction fans and the new generation of science fiction writers?
What is meant by “hidden history”? This wasn’t well explained or explored in the Readercon panel and I think that most people have their own idea about what this means. For me, it can mean a number of different things. “Hidden” is a loaded term, of course, but what I meant by “hidden history” was really that history of science fiction that is difficult to uncover. One classic example is the (probably apocryphal) story behind how Dianetics and Scientology got its start at a Hydra Club meeting in the late 1940s. A better example for our purposes is Mark Rich‘s biography C. M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary. Reading such a book raises as many questions as it answers. For instance:
While writing this installment, I learned of the passing of Martin H. Greenberg, science fiction’s most prolific anthologist. I never met Greenberg, but like many people I’ve never met in science fiction, I felt like I knew him, both through his own work, as well as through the voices of those who had worked with him, or who had been friends with him. It made me think about all of the science fiction writers I never got to meet, and what we might have discussed had a meeting been possible.Here is a list of six science fiction people that I wish I could have met. They are listed alphabetically by last name.
- Isaac Asimov. Asimov is one of my favorite writers. I enjoy his fiction and nonfiction equally, although I will admit to a preference to his nonfiction. His Foundation series is one of my all-time favorites. If I’d had the opportunity to meet with him late in his life, I think I might have asked him how he might have concluded that series. After Foundation and Earth, he didn’t know where the series was going and so he went ahead and wrote two prequels. I wonder if he ever figured out what came after Foundation and Earth?
In the summer of 1939, science fiction fans and professionals from around the country gathered in New York for the 1st World Science Fiction Convention. Among those in attendance were writers who had yet to become big names in the genre: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Jack Williamson, L. Sprague de Camp and Cyril M. Kornbluth. Editors like John W. Campbell were also in attendance as were famous fans like Sam Moskowitz and Forrest J Ackerman. A convention, such as this one, provided a unique opportunity for fans and professionals to meet, mingle, and discuss the passion they had in common: science fiction.
But science fiction fans (and most writers–though certainly not all–started out as fans) can be a contentious bunch, serious about the genre they love so dearly to the point where amiable discussions could flare up into something greater. In fact, one such skirmish took place during that first WorldCon, when the Futurians were excluded from the event. It was the first of many now famous (or infamous) skirmishes that taken place in the seven decades since that first convention.
Last time, I speculated on why time travel is such a popular trope of science fiction, and why it is even considered science fiction at all, as opposed to fantasy. I ended with a promise to list and discuss what I felt were some of the more important (and enjoyable) time travels stories.
What follows are ten novels and one short story all involving time travel in some form or another.
It has often been said that two big tropes of science fiction are really closer to fantasy. The first is FTL (faster-than-light) travel upon which most, if not all, galactic empire stories are built. After all, this is the only way humanity can spread throughout the galaxy (and beyond) in reasonable, comprehensible time scales. Stories ranging from E. E. “Doc” Smith‘s Gray Lensman to Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation Trilogy, and right up through Carl Sagan‘s Contact and Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict novels all presume some sort of FTL capabilities, be it a drive, a wormhole, hyperspace or some other mechanism. We suspend our disbelief because these are good stories.
The other trope usually classified as science fiction, but often regarded as fantasy is time travel. I love time travel stories, but I have often wondered why they are so popular. The mind-expanding proportions of galactic sprawl stories is understandable. We dream of exploring distant places, of what we might find there, better yet who we might find there. But why are time travel stories so fascinating? And why are they generally classed as science fiction, when in fact that are more like fantasy?