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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.

About Jamie Todd Rubin (31 Articles)
Jamie Todd Rubin is a science fiction writer and blogger. His fiction has appeared in Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Apex Magazine, and most recently through 40K Books. He writes the Wayward Time Traveler column for SF Signal and vacations frequently in the Golden Age of science fiction.
Contact: Website

15 Comments on The Last Veterans of the Golden Age

  1. For readers who don’t have access to 72 year old magazines, the del Rey story you mentioned, “The Day Is Done,”is included in Robots and Magic, volume 2 of Selected Stories of Lester del Rey, published by NESFA Press last year.

    [Editor: Adding image because it rocks.]

  2. Steven, thanks for pointing that out. It is a story well worth reading.

  3. The esteemed Mr. Pohl has a new novel coming out, as it so happens. Definitely looking forward to that.

  4. Excellent round-up.  All too often we hear from the other side, the one that seems to pretend that science fiction started in the mid -90s and has no background or history.

    It should be mentioned that Fred Pohl is not just an author resource, but a fan and editorial (and early social networking) resource as well – much of which he is slowly and steadily recounting in his blog.

    Imagine what we’d know if the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s were recorded and preserved in the manner that things are today!  Lost classic manuscripts, pre-production artwork…

    Contemporary authors (and others) would do themselves a good turn by remembering this past and becoming familiar with it;  at the very least it would cut down on the claims for newness I see all too often.


  5. Paul, yes, All The Lives He Led comes out on Tuesday, April 12.

    Steve, thanks! It is rather depressing to think of how much history may have been lost forever because we didn’t have a way to record things in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s the way we do now. If only we had a real time machine… Actually, Michael A. Burstein‘s story “Cosmic Corkscrew” in the June 1998 Analog was about a time traveler when went back to visit the 1930s-era Isaac Asimov and convince him not to give up writing. Would that we had such an ability. In the meantime, we should do what we can to preserve our history and learn what we can from it.

  6. Why is SF, a genre that supposedly looks forward, stuck in the “Golden Age?”   I struggle to find the “gold” in that age.

  7. Chad, I don’t know if science fiction is stuck in the Golden Age; it may be just this one fan/writer who is stuck there. 🙂

    And I think it depends what you mean by “gold”. For me, the “gold” is the rich history of the genre, not necessarily (but certainly not excluding) the quality of the stories and writers. Just as you can look at the history in Europe in the 17th century and see the foundations that led to the United States, so you can look at the early history of science fiction and see the foundations that were laid for today. Certainly not everyone finds this interesting, but I do, in part because quite a few of the writers listed above influenced my own tastes in science fiction, to say nothing of the style of my own writing.

  8. LIONTIME // April 6, 2011 at 3:56 pm //

    There is also Ben Bova who I believe has his first story back in 1959.

  9. Good add, LIONTIME. Not only does he write good science fiction (and nonfiction) but he also was the one who had the editorial torch passed to him at Analog when Campbell passed away in 1971.

  10. Dave/David Kyle was also a Futurian.

    Depending on what you mean by “Golden Age” (the classic snarky but not untrue definition is “13”…meaning what anyone reads at that age), most of your latter-day folks weren’t reading, much less writing, sf or related things in the 1940s GA period…but living contemporaries of Silverberg and Malzberg and MacLean include also such luminaries as Kate Wilhelm, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, and quite a few more, though too few even when compared to five or ten years ago.

    Jack Williamson, of course, was writing major work in the field by the early 1930s, influencing everyone else on your list, and didn’t really quit till he died a few years back. In a discussion on a mailing list, I think it was determined that only Naomi Mitchison had a longer-spanning career, and she not quite as influential (not negligible by any means, either, though) in sf.

  11. Todd, thanks for the correction on David Kyle.

    The (non-snarky) definition I use for the Golden Age begins with the July 1939 issue of Astounding and goes through December 1950. I think this is a generally agreed upon period by many s.f. scholars and historians.

  12. Oddly enough, as Budrys pointed out years ago, the early ’40s ASTOUNDINGs apparently included JWC promises that the folks away due to the war, the Really Good folks, would be back when their service was up, so for now be content with the likes of Heinlein, Sturgeon, Leiber, Asimov, et al.

    The march forward of the JWC “golden age” obviously proceeds apace. By 1950, not only would F&SF already be on the stands, but the Thrilling Group magazines (STARTLING, THRILLING WONDER STORIES) were already being edited intelligently, Howard Browne was making slow and inconsistent improvements at Ziff-Davis’s magazines, PLANET STORIES was supplementing Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury with other wriers of similar caliber (rather less work by Wilbur Peacock), and generally Campbell wasn’t the only game in town…twenty years ago, a lot of folks preferred to set the Golden Age from as early as 1937, when JWC started as editor, and wrapping up around 1946, when the other magazines (aside from the no/mic-budget Futurian-edited magazines) began to challenge ASF seriously.

  13. @Jamie

    I don’t disagree with your historical analogy.  There are always those that get built upon.  I guess my two big issues are:

    1.  I don’t think the authors during that time period were that good.  Of course, I rarely like the “classics” of any genre. 

    2.  Given that the SF genre kind of struggles or at the very least is just smaller than others, shouldn’t we as fans be focusing on current authors.  It always bothers me when someone suggests a new SF fan read Heinlein, Asimov, etc. (I realize you weren’t doing this), when they could support a current living author.  Plus, I think a lot of people just say those old guys are good because we are supposed to.

    I’m also a fan of various styles of thrillers and it doesn’t seem like that genre focuses on past authors as much as SF does.

    My frustrations with the decay of the genre I love boil over sometimes.

  14. Chad, I’m with you on #1. As I am discovering as I read through old Astounding‘s there’s some pretty awful stuff. There are some “classics” that I love (FOUNDATION) and others that I can’t stand (Stranger In A Strange Land). What makes the awful stuff bearable is the fact that there are hidden gems buried among them. Case in point: having completed reading the first 12 issues of Golden Age Astounding (July 1939 – June 1940), my single favorite story is by an author I’d previously never heard of: “Rust” by Joseph Kelleam. This despite the fact that Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, L. Ron Hubbard, Lester del Rey, L. Sprague de Camp, E. E. Smith, and many other big name writers had stories in those issues as well. Little gems like Kelleam’s “Rust” make it worthwhile to me.

    I don’t know that I agree with you second point, not because I don’t like current authors (there are plenty that I do: Robert J. Sawyer, Jack McDevitt, Joe Haldeman, Michael A. Burstein, Paulo Bacigalupi, Allen Steele, Edward Lerner, Connie Willis, Nancy Kress, Juliette Wade among other) but because fans should read what they enjoy regardless of who wrote it and when. For me, specifically, I’m interested in the historical evolution of the genre, but a lot of folks jsut like reading a good story, and that’s perfectly fine, and it shouldn’t matter if it is Robert J. Sawyer or Robert A. Heinlein.

    I often liken science fiction as a genre to baseball as a sport: we love the current players, but we adore the old guys, the Ted Williams and Mickey Mantles and Babe Ruths. The history of the sport is pervasive and is a part of every game and something that many fans of the sport are very conscious of. Science fiction is no different.

  15. Interesting analogy to sports.  It would seem to suggest I have some fundamental difference in how I view the past, as I feel the same way about old athletes as I do old authors.  A good example is that I grew up in western Pennsylvania and am a huge Steeler fan, but I can’t stand how that area worships the 70’s Superbowl dynasty years.  “It’s past and over, so let’s move on”, is all I can think.  I’m not saying I don’t respect their accomplishments (much like I respect Asimov for his) or that a very elite handful shouldn’t be appreciated in the future (very few), but it should be only a glancing interest compared to the interest in the present or future.  Of course, this is just how I think, which tends to be a little eccentric to most.

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