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MIND MELD: Are Golden Age Writers Worth It For New SF Readers?

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The ever quickening pace of science and technology makes today’s world vastly different from the era of ‘Golden Age Science Fiction’. Stories written back then assume a very different view of the world than what today’s readers have and may seem very out of date. Our question:

Q: Are ‘Golden Age’ stories too dated and is it worth it to recommend Heinlein, Asimov, etc. to the new SF reader?

Here’s what they said…

Elizabeth Bear
Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. This, coupled with a childhood tendency to read the dictionary for fun, led her inevitably to penury, intransigence, the mispronunciation of common English words, and the writing of speculative fiction.

Asimov holds up better than Heinlein for me, honestly, although I do think Heinlein was the better writer in the sense of structure, story, and characterization. But I have a weakness for Asimovian puzzle-stories, and the Asimov I’d still not hesitate to recommend is his short fiction, especially the mysteries.

I think the average modern SF reader expects a stronger sense of story and character arc than the prototypical Campbellian reader, and I think if you can manage to read around Heinlein’s cultural assumptions, some of his work is still thought-provoking and worthwhile

There are a number of Golden Age SF writers, however, that I would recommend without hesitation, on the assumption that modern readers are not stupid, and are capable of filtering for the time in which the work was written. Id tend towards the stronger prose stylists for a modern audience, I think, as the New Wave raised the style bar pretty high. Among the writer’s I’d put in front of modern readers are Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, L. Sprague de Camp, H. Beam Piper, C.L. Moore, Alfred Bester, Hal Clement, and Poul Anderson.

Jeffrey Ford
Jeff Ford has short fiction the recent anthologies The Del Rey Anthology of Science Fiction, The Starry Rift (Viking), Extraordinary Engines (Solaris), The Living Dead (Nightshade), The Best of Leviathan (Prime), The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror #21 (St. Martins), and Year’s Best Fantasy #8 (Tachyon). His most recent novel is The Shadow Year from Morrow/Harper Collins, and a new collection, The Drowned Life from Perrenial/Harper Collins.

I wouldn’t personally recommend either Asimov or Heinlein only because I’m not crazy about their writing. I do, though, fully appreciate their renown, and I know a lot of readers like their work. The problem is usually not the technology, even though it might be out of date. The problem is when the technology is out of date and the characters and stories behind that stuff are flat. I can still get a lot of enjoyment out of an H. G. Wells novel in which the science is all outmoded. In fact, I can still get a charge out of Poe’s Science Fiction stories, where the “science” he was using was known by many at the time to be bogus. For writers of the Golden Age, I’d suggest Bradbury. The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 still work for me, even though the science isn’t really there anymore (and I’m not sure it ever really was). There’s more to them than the thrill of the science. Also, mentioning Bradbury, his collection, The October Country, still strikes me as phenomenal. Other writers from that time period I’d suggest to friends are Bester, Vance, Wyndham, Brackett, Brown. I’m sure there are more I’d be willing to suggest if I’d read more deeply into the Golden Age.

The first panel I was ever on at a convention was at one of the Philcons about 15 years ago.Sitting next to me was the writer Hal Clement. I’d gotten his books from our local library when I was a kid. It was great to meet him. He seemed like a cool old guy. On that panel he described a situation that happened with one of his books. I don’t remember which one it was. He said that in writing it he’d done this up to the minute research on some astronomical event so he could capture it correctly in his story. Then he went on to say something to the effect that by the time the book came out, the science that he’d used for the story had been proven to be fallacious. He laughed about it, but he also spoke about how disheartening it had been to him at the time. And this is the thing with writers like Asimov, Clement, Clarke (I’d add Jules Verne to this list as well), I think they felt a certain commitment to being science educators as well as story tellers, which is an admirable thing, I suppose, and I think important for the time period. When the science is where you’re putting your focus, though, and then it rusts and all you have behind it is enough of a story to support the thrilling ideas that have rotted over time, that’s a tough read. I like to be educated while I’m reading fiction, but I don’t necessarily want to be conscious of the fact. Heinlein seems less guilty to me of this than some of the others, but for some reason he still leaves me cold. On the other hand, I think for someone interested in the history of scientific ideas, Asimov would be a great read. I guess what it comes down to is, try them all, if you like them, great, read more, if you don’t, no sweat.

Michael Swanwick
Michael Swanwick has received the Hugo, Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards for his work. Stations of the Tide was honored with the Nebula Award and was also nominated for the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. “The Edge of the World,” was awarded the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award in 1989. It was also nominated for both the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. “Radio Waves” received the World Fantasy Award in 1996. “The Very Pulse of the Machine” received the Hugo Award in 1999, as did “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur” in 2000. His most recent novel is The Dragons of Babel (2008, nominated for the Locus award this year), set in the same universe as The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. A forthcoming non-fiction book, Hope-in-the-Mist, will cover the life and writing of the early fantasy author Hope Mirrlees.

Literary journalist Michael Dirda made the case for reading the genre classics in his Nebula Awards banquet speech not long ago. He noted that when he discovered science fiction all serious readers – and therefore all writers as well – were conversant with the entire history of the field and had read all its essential books. This is no longer the case and it’s resulted in many writers reinventing the wheel – tripping themselves up on literary problems that were solved long ago in better-written and more successful stories and novels. Anybody who’s interested in fiction set in the far future should read Clifford Simak’s City and Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, for example, just to see how deftly it can be done.

That said, there’s definitely a winnowing going on. Lester Del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy,” once considered a classic, is now essentially unreadable, and it is not alone. Time is a merciless critic, and not all of yesteryear’s attitudes are palatable today. Nevertheless, works as different (and as dated) as Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles can still be read with pleasure.

So I come down with both sides of this issue. Yes, you should introduce new readers to the Golden Age classics. But rather than relying on memories that may be decades old, you should reread the works first, to make sure they don’t contain any unpleasant surprises. If they do, you’ll be sparing yourself some real embarrassment.

And if they don’t, you’ll be reconnecting with an old friend.

Sue Lange
Sue Lange is a founding member of Visit her bookshelf there at:

Let me ask you this: Do we stop reading To Kill a Mockingbird because Obama’s in the Whitehouse?

Certainly science fiction has a more difficult row to hoe because its conclusions become irrelevant when new information comes to light. The egg is right there on the face.

But let me ask you this: Do we stop studying Vermeer because representational art is now considered puerile?

In any art the history of the discipline is studied by studying the works. If you don’t know where you’ve been, you won’t know where to go. Right?

Without the golden age, the age of pulp science fiction wouldn’t have evolved into new wave. Science fiction had to take itself seriously before it could move in a more socially conscionable and literary direction. So it was important, so we study it.

Beyond that, though, Heinlein and Asimov are both still part of the ongoing conversation. And I don’t mean just the conversation about the weakness in Golden Age prediction. Just last week New Scientist had an article on robotics that mentioned Asimov. Whether or not Asimov was spot on makes no difference. The point is we’re still jabbering on about him and his damn three rules.

Some of Heinlein’s stuff is fluffy, sure, but I just did a review of Stranger in a Strange Land a couple of weeks ago and noticed 627 people had reviewed it there. Over half of them gave it five stars. The reviewers couldn’t all be old fogies clinging to a golden age when a race of sentient Martians was still a possibility.

In my review I talked about the old-fashioned philosophy that was new and dangerous at the time but kind of funny now. Some of Heinlein’s ideas are insulting, yes, the way ideas in old books tend to be once you’ve gained enlightenment, but that’s not meant to say a book is no longer important or relevant. If nothing else it shows how far we’ve come.

Further than that, though, the fact that Stranger in a Strange Land had ideas in addition to technological predictions makes it interesting beyond whatever wow factor it should have. That Heinlein envisioned socialism in his bizarre way is infinitely more important than the fact that he got the Martians wrong. It’s worth taking a look at for that alone.

I read Childhood’s End back in the 70s. Twenty years on, it was still relevant for me. I’d have to go back and reread the book to find the inconsistencies in tech, but it feels like we’re on the brink of that book’s golden age even though the aliens have not come yet. And they probably aren’t going to come before we either achieve some of the miracles ourselves or deem them unnecessary. I have a feeling we’re always going to be on the brink of his golden age. Certainly lets read it to see where we’re at, to see if we want to go where he thought we should.

I’m quite sure there’s plenty of unredeemable sf books from the 40s and 50s, laughably outdated, tragically bereft of meaning, that should not be recommended. I have no idea which ones they are. I haven’t read them. Nobody told me to read ’em. But don’t throw out the baby with the wash, man.

You could even argue that the charm in books from a more innocent time is the innocence themselves. We’re still watching It’s a Wonderful Life, even though we doubt very much you could stop a run on the bank with a line about trusting the institution and pulling together in times of crisis. Accuracy is not the reason to watch. The dream, the escape, the sentiment, those are still valid and important.

But really it boils down to hanging on to the good stuff. Science fiction is not just about the science, much as we tell ourselves it is. In the end, it’s still fiction and fiction requires a story. Good stories hang around because we like them. Not for the technological chrome, but for the plot, the characters, the theme, and the emotional truth. Science fiction from the Golden Age with emotional truth will remain relevant.

Regarding rampaging technology, the more important question is not about the Golden Age science fiction. It’s about the today’s science fiction. How the hell is sf from today going to stay relevant long enough to get published? We can see it obsolescing as we type it.

Jonathan McCalmont
Jonathan McCalmont is a critic whose work has been published at Strange Horizons, The SF Site and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He also edits Fruitless Recursion – an online zine devoted to discussing works of genre criticism – and has recently launched Ruthless Culture – a site devoted to film criticism whilst bearing an uncanny resemblance to a blog.

My answer to both questions is ‘No’ largely because I disagree with the idea that science fiction has or ever could have a “Golden Age”.

One of the most pervasive and toxic myths surrounding the history of science fiction is that, like science itself, SF has progressed in a linear fashion with newer works somehow supplanting the books that came before them. This Whiggish history of SF is not only misguided but also a recipe for complacency.

Many fans, critics and scholars present the evolution of SF as a long, straight road leading from Frankenstein to Embassytown with the occasional bathroom break and lunch stop at The Stars My Destination, Starship Troopers and Neuromancer along the way. According to this view of SF history, each new generation of writer added new tropes and new techniques to the genre resulting in older works gradually seeming more and more crude and unsophisticated by the standards of the day. The problem with this vision of history is that it was written by the victors and, like all victors, the writers of SF history have presented their victory as not only inevitable but natural.

The most egregious example of this approach to history is the way in which cyberpunk positioned itself as a direct response to the pulps of the Gernsbackian era. As Jeanne Gomoll argues in her “Open Letter to Joanna Russ”, Gibson’s short stories and Sterling’s rhetoric effectively ‘unmade’ feminist SF; its influence upon cyberpunk unacknowledged and its continuing vibrancy rendered irrelevant by the need for a history of SF that was all straight-lines and manifest destiny.

Because of this tendency in how the field views itself, older stories have never been more demanding of our attention. They demand our attention because what we think of as good SF is only ever the result of fashion and market forces, forces that tend to make challenging and unusual works disappear. Consider, for example, Olaf Stapledon’s twin masterpieces Last and First Men and Star Maker, written in the 1930s before many of the techniques that are currently in vogue were developed, these books lack anything that contemporary readers of SF might recognise as ‘plot’ or ‘character’. Instead, they are an elaborate future history and an exploration of the cosmos ending with a moment of supremely spiritual (and yet unflinchingly materialistic) apotheosis. Simply stated, they don’t write books like those anymore and while the blame for SF’s formal conservatism can justly be laid at the feet of publishers and audiences alike, it would be ludicrous to suggest that Stapledon’s methods are in any way ‘dated’. These are books of genuine beauty and power and their lack of formal influence on the genre in no way diminishes their appeal. Don’t read these books because you ‘have to’ in order to understand the field or get the most out of the works

of some later author… read them because they are sensational and quite unlike anything that gets published nowadays and maybe, if you read them and enjoy them, you’ll be influenced by them when the time comes for you to write your own book. That is how fashions change and that is why the idea of a linear history of SF is toxic recipe for stagnation and death.

As for Heinlein and Asimov, I would not recommend them simply because I have never enjoyed any of their books. Asimov was more interested in robotic pathos than he was in style or insight while Heinlein’s formal innovations are easily counter-balanced by an extended fall from artistic grace and into unrelenting self-indulgence.

The place of these over-rated monsters in the orthodox history of science fiction is absolute and secure and, if you really have an interest in that history then I recommend reading them and hope that you get on better with them than I did. However, the orthodox history of science fiction is not the only history of the field. Amazon, AbeBooks and eBay are positively overflowing with brilliant novels (both in and out of print) that are overlooked, unloved and perfectly suited to what it is that you want from your experience of science fiction. Read Russ! Read Zelazny! Read Burroughs! Read them because chances are that they will surprise you and because you have just as much right to make up your own

history of the genre as you do to contribute to its future. SF is infinitely mutable and offers endless possibilities… those possibilities exist in the future and the past but always off the beaten track.

Kate Elliot
Kate Elliott is the author of the Spiritwalker Trilogy (starting with Cold Magic), the Crossroads Trilogy (Spirit Gate), the Crown of Stars fantasy series and the Jaran science fiction novels. Besides Twitter and Facebook, she can also be found online at her own blog.

I think anyone with a deep love for and interest in SF would be well served to read at least a few of the classics from the so-called Golden Age to familiarize themselves with the history of the field. It’s good to get a sense of perspective, and as with all periods and genres of art, the best work holds up regardless of when it was produced.

But to a new SF reader? I’m doubtful I would start them with Golden Age stories. Naturally it would depend on what the reader wants and who the reader is and what her tastes are, but even many of the best stories from that period are dated in a predictable fashion, both culturally and in the way they’re written. So I would likely suggest something more recent to begin with because I think the dated-ness of the older stories might not be the most compelling introduction to the field, especially since I happen to think we’re living in a Golden Age of SFF right now, one that’s quite a bit more inclusive than last century’s Golden Age.

Chris N. Brown
Chris N. Brown (aka Chris Nakashima-Brown) writes fiction and criticism from his home in Austin. Recent stories include “Medusa” in Rudy Rucker’s Flurb #11, “Windsor Executive Solutions,” with Bruce Sterling (Futurismic, 2010) and “The Sun Also Explodes” in Lou Anders’ Fast Forward 2.”

You can never have too many futures, especially in the atemporal age of Network culture. The Golden Age canon of white-dude-with-a-slide-rule science fiction has its role, Bob, but probably not as a literature that is contemporarily relevant in the manner its authors intended.

Lately I have been listening to classic radio broadcasts of dramatizations of Golden Age short stories. The square-jawed voices of X-1 acting out post-WWII futures from Astounding and Galaxy reveal how the canonical sf authors were the secret bards processing the experience of American power in the twentieth century. Golden Age science fiction was the literature of the takeover of *this* planet by technologies of the future in the hands of a putatively innocent and noble Empire. Read from the perspective of a 21st century they barely imagined, surely Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury are as relevant as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck–maybe even more so. Which is different than saying Golden Age SF is good.

The authors of the New Wave saw this, and began repurposing Golden Age narrative tropes around the same time as Golden Age dreams of lunar conquest became real. By revealing a subtext to classic science fictional consciousness that was more Buzz Aldrin than Neil Armstrong, the New Wave opened up richer territory for the exploration of contemporary identity than the interior realism of the modernists. The New Wave looked at the Golden Age and saw the primitive instincts of the naked ape coupled with advanced technologies of transportation, communication, medication and mass destruction. This phenomenon was one that could best be explored through the narrative laboratory of science fiction.

Today the archetypes of crewcut white guys in flight suits persist, even as we pass beyond the age of the polished aluminum American hegemon–just ask the cynics who persuaded George Bush to put on his own flight suit and pose for the Presidential action figure collection, or the Hollywood productizers of national identity scrambling to make a real time Rambo-ization of SEAL Team Six’s hit on Osama (in an invisible helicopter!). The action figures may now come in alternative colors, but their Thunderbirds pilot identities as the masters of the giant American compu-bots that run the world doesn’t really change. What does change is how bizarrely science fictional the technologies become–like the wingless drone pilot blowing up cars on a Yemeni highway through a screen in a trailer somewhere in Florida.

Golden Age sf is the indigenous literature of the culture that gave us these technologies that obliterate conventional realities of time, space, and perception. Revisiting that literature can be immensely relevant to understanding the now, if approached from a knowing angle of attack. And in the age of Network culture, when every creator has the tools of atemporal mixing at their disposal, the opportunities for repurposing the futures of the past are much more evident. A lifetime supply of Gernsback continuums are there, waiting to be called back into service for purposeful deconstruction.

Saladin Ahmed
Saladin Ahmed has been a finalist for the Nebula Award for Best Short Story, the Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction or Fantasy Writer, and the Harper’s Pen Award for best Sword and Sorcery/Heroic Fantasy Short Story. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and podcasts,including Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, PodCas, and StarshipSofa. His first novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, will be published by DAW Books in February 2012. His website is

I’d be surprised if a single respondent would say that Golden Age stories are too out of date to even read!

We may take issue with the term “Golden Age.”

We may ask skeptical questions about various canons.

We may find that certain stories display such contempt for entire classes of people that we, personally, can’t enjoy them.

We may feel technological questions, of themselves, are the least compelling question in SF.

We may doubt that Golden Age writer [X] should enjoy an eternal seat at the Table of Absolutely Must-Read Classic SF.

We may even be suspicious of the critical commonplace that Golden Age story [Y] is still and always vital because the [soul/heart/human condition/universal character] transcends its anachronistic notions regarding the future.

But despite all of this, I don’t know a lot of writers who are quick to say we should never read something again because it’s outdated. I sure as hell hope no one ever says it of me!

Michael A. Burstein
Michael A. Burstein, winner of the 1997 Campbell Award for Best New Writer, has earned ten Hugo nominations and four Nebula nominations for his short fiction which appears mostly in Analog. Burstein’s first book, I Remember the Future, is available from Apex Publications. Burstein lives with his wife Nomi and their two daughters in the town of Brookline, Massachusetts, where he is an elected Town Meeting Member and Library Trustee. When not writing, he edits middle and high school Science textbooks. He has two degrees in Physics and attended the Clarion Workshop. More information on Burstein and his work can be found on his webpage and blog.

When SF Signal first sent me this question for their latest Mind Meld discussion, I was amazed at how appropriate the question was for me. People have compared my writing to that of Isaac Asimov for its clarity, and when Publisher’s Weekly recommended my collection I Remember the Future, they noted that “Older fans will admire [Burstein’s] dedication to remembering and honoring the past.” The fact is that much of my fiction, such as “Cosmic Cokscrew”, “Paying It Forward”, and the title story “I Remember the Future” itself, deal with how the future will remember the past. It’s one of my personal obsessions.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise to anyone when I say that it is absolutely worth it to recommend Asimov, Heinlein, and other Golden Age writers to the new SF reader.

But when SF Signal actually posed the question, it occurred to me that others might not feel the way I do. It may be self-evident to me that the old writers are worth reading, but why would today’s readers want to pick up one of these older books? To be honest, many of the stories are dated, assuming a world view that no longer exists or a future with technology that is both too primitive and too advance for what exists today. Isn’t it more worth reading only the SF written today, and ignoring the SF written in the dead past?

After thinking about it, I came up with three answers.

1. Many of these stories are actually quite good and worth reading simply on that basis alone. We don’t stop reading Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, or Arthur Conan Doyle simply because they wrote in the past. Why should the science fiction writers of the Golden Age be thought of any differently, just because their stories were set in a future that no longer is considered possible?

2. Stories from the past are a lesson in extrapolation. In a manner of speaking, every science fiction story is like a laboratory experiment, in which initial conditions (the year the story was written in) lead to a hypothesis of what the world might be like in future years. The difference is that we can now compare the hypothesis to the reality and see how accurately the story predicted our world.

As a caveat, I should remind everyone that science fiction writers are not in the business of predicting the world one hundred percent accurately; that’s not our job. Our role is to imagine what the world might be like, and in many cases that might be to warn people away from the futures we describe. But by reading stories from the past, we can learn more about the fears and anxieties of those writers, and get a better idea of how our own modern anxieties inform the science fiction we write today.

3. Finally, many of the stories aren’t dated at all. For example, Robert Heinlein’s If This Goes On – is set in a future United States in which a religious dictatorship has taken hold. The way the story is written, just change a few implied dates and it could easily have been written today and set further ahead. Come to think of it, Nehemiah Scudder is supposed to get elected in 2012….

Much of Asimov, Clarke, and other writers from the Golden Age are also not dated, because either they are set in the far, far future or because they explore universal themes of what it means to be human. No matter that Asimov’s robot stories are based on a world from the 1930s and 1940s and the dates within many of them are already past; they still shine a light on morality and ethics, and how we treat each other.

Finally, one bonus reason to read the stories of the Golden Age: they are still fun to read. Don’t believe me? Ask Jamie Todd Rubin.

About JP Frantz (2322 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

29 Comments on MIND MELD: Are Golden Age Writers Worth It For New SF Readers?

  1. midas68 // June 1, 2011 at 1:52 am //

    Much of the old SF not only loses much due to age but also due to the quality of writing accepted by most of the cheap pulps of the era.  

    I liken much of it  akin/ comparing the original  “The Thing” to Carpenters much superior version.  

    It loses clearing in Acting/Directing/Story/Dialog/Effects  only the original idea is given the nod to the prior version. which of course is something you have to do anyway.

    But only till the mid 90’s and then at a very slow pace did Carpenters version start to get favourable nods.

    Stogies (should be another O in there) who I guess was in control of most things. would routinely belittle the film in favour of what was considered a classic amongst their Dying Breed.

    I agree it’s a classic, but mainly because the competetion was pretty horendeous at that point in time.

    It’s mainly of note today just because of its orgins to Carpenters now considered Classic.

    Course Crap is the mainstay of any decade and the new The Thing coming out will likely not make anyone forget about either version.(its not that type of continueity folks)

    The Odds are Sturgeons and that is probably generous(90% of SF is BullCrap)


    To the writing part,  The Classic Amougus  Asimov’s Greatest thing since Mince Meat “Foundation Series” 

    Umm, All I know is I could not get past the first few Terrible chapters to find out for myself.

    As far as the (Golden)Aging well, If Scientest Asimov could not really comprehend of computers keeping the books in data form. Which is the most basic of comp tech. Then I find no real need to find out what more he could not comprehend/even within the boundless limits of cheap/and non cheap SF.

    Not to (fail to) mention that he’s considered miles above most of the ancients in writing.

     I’m not saying the average quality today is very high. Just the imaginative limits that publishers place the bottom bar at, won’t let you sink too  today . a bar that was prevalant back in the good ole days.


    As always, the Sarcastic Voice of Reason takes another Breath.

  2. Jaxicat // June 1, 2011 at 3:07 am //

    When I first started reading books, I began with fantasy books so when I come across an older science fiction book that has Martians on Mars or tropical jungles on Venus, its easy for me to keep on reading.  I guess I just kind of file it away as a different universe than our own.

    When I read Fantasy today I am at least a little bit comparing the stories to Tolkien, Lewis, L’Engle and all the other authors I’ve read in that genre.  When I read SF, I’m comparing the story to Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and all the other authors I’ve read in that genre. 

    I’m really not looking for the books to be the same as what has come before, I am looking for some ineffable connection though.  If you are an author and you haven’t read these stories, I am likely to sense it and probably lose interest in the story eventually.  I can’t prove that but never the less its true.  I may not be your target audience and that’s fine, I’m just saying.

    Bad things happen can happen when someone writes something without knowing at least a little about what has come before, things like the last episode of Battlestar Galactica.

  3. I discussed this very subject with Robert Sheckley in Romania in 1999 when we were doing a Concatenation Science & SF venture.

    Many of the golden age stories actually need very little updating.  Brian Aldiss did a few years ago have a new version of his decades old novel Non-Stop published.

    Bob was however not inclined to update his stories.  He was still doing new stuff, and besides he would have to scan in and convert to word all his old material which was produced before the age of the word processor.

  4. Are Golden Age stories too dated? This will depend on who you ask and what is implied by “dated.” A thirteen year-old today might have trouble getting into a story like Heinlein’s “Blowups Happen” or Sturgeons’ “Ether Breather” because the terminology and science are dated. A contemporary SF writer might find the style and characters of a story like Asimov’s “The Mule” or Rocklynne’s “Quietus” dated because they are overly simply and the characters seem flat or don’t mesh with our current cultural standards. But to a long time fan of the genre, to someone interested in its history and evolution, there is a great deal of value in these dated stories. And if you look carefully, you’ll find some, like del Rey’s “The Day is Done”, Kelleam’s “Rust”, and Hubbard’s “Final Blackout” that read as if they could have been written today.

    Is it worth it to recommend Heinlein, Asimov, etc. to the new SF reader? Absolutely, and for the same reason you’d introduce a new jazz listener to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. It provides the roots for the genre. As Kate Elliot suggested, you might not start them on Golden Age fiction, but for a new SF reader to get a complete idea of how the genre evolved, then those stories play an important role, regardless of how well-received they are today.

  5. Interesting comparison by midas68 to The Thing. The question it brings up is what deserves classic status? Carpenter’s The Thing is definitely superior to the original in terms of just about everything: tech, technique, technicolor, plot, character believability, scare factor, background music. But the original has one thing that trumps anything to follow: an original idea. (Dumb as that might have been). By being the first (and I’m not really sure it was the first they-came-from-outerspace plot) it gets to plant the flag. Which means it now owns the territory. That’s true of movies, stories, and pop songs. And maybe that’s as it should be. It’s hard to come up with a new idea. Not so hard to fix an old one.

    As for literary quality: that’s a matter of taste and it has nothing to do with the original question. But since we’re going there, Golden Age SF is a good example of function defeating form in the marketplace. Otherwise Sturgeon would be much better known than either Asimov or Heinlein. In science fiction, function refers to the gee whiz factor. I doubt very much sf fans care about form as long as they can get their rocks off on the tech.

  6. I’ll just point out, since it wasn’t mentioned by either Sue or midas68, that the original movie, The Thing is based on a (barely) pre-Golden-Age novella by Campbell (writing as Don. A Stuart) called “Who Goes There?” So the film’s “original idea” actually comes from Campbell’s story. If you’ve never read the story, you should. Even by today’s standards, it is pretty remarkable.

  7. A plethora of interesting thoughts. I’ve argued for a while that the “Golden Age” (as well as the “pulp era,” “New Wave,” “modernist mainstream post-punkian trope/insert-your-own-genre-mashup”) are all worth analysis, for any aspiring writer. But in studying such authors, the goal must always be to understand what has been successful, and why, so that we may in turn stand upon the shoulders of our predecessors, rather than allow our own contributions to be perceived as simple imitation or mockery.

    Here is the textbook course I’ve recommended to several friends:

    • Before the Golden Age, 1931-1938
    — edited by Isaac Asimov

    • Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories, 1939-1963
    — edited by Isaac Asimov (25 volumes)

    • World’s Best Science Fiction, 1965-1971
    — edited by Donald A. Wollheim & Terry Carr (7 volumes)

    • The Annual World’s Best SF, 1972-1990
    — edited by Donald A. Wollheim & Arthur W. Saha (19 volumes)

    • The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 1984-Present
    — edited by Gardner Dozois (28 volumes, so far…)

    • Year’s Best SF, 1996-Present
    — edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (16 volumes, so far…)

  8. I’m not sure I’d recommend anything from the Golden Age as a new reader’s very first exposure to SF, although given the ubiquity of SF and SF-ish stories in other popular media like movies, TV and comics, I think the oft-mentioned reader with no exposure at all to SF is a bit of a mythical construct on our parts.

    But for people starting to explore science fiction — new-ish readers — there’s a tremendous amount in the Golden Age that’s worth recommending. Now, the way the question is being expressed, some of that material is obscured by the phrasing. Of Heinlein, Asimov and etc., I’m more likely to recommend the etc.  

    Cordwainer Smith’s work, for instance, is beautifully written, has strong characterization and at least emotionally is still searingly current — essentially everything people make the mistake of assuming that the Golden Age wasn’t. I think that if you haven’t at least read ‘Scanners Live in Vain’ and ‘The Ballad of Lost C’mell’, you’ve missed some of the best that the genre has had to offer.

    For both new-ish readers, and people who’ve been reading SF for a while and want more of a grounding in its history, the old Science Fiction Hall of Fame collections – Volumes 1, 2a and 2b – are a fine place to start, if you can track down copies. And you get your Asimov and Heinlein in there, too. Everyone wins!

  9. Like many movies from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s that remain entertaining and moving  there are numerous ‘golden age’ science fiction works maintain readability as well.  as well as the names mentioned, A.E. Van Vogt (Black Destroyer) and John Wyndam (The Crysalids) have written works that stand the test of time.  The pulp novels of The Spider by Grant Stockbridge are actioners that often feature science fiction as well as evoking the atmosphere of the better Batman movies.  You can also read many older works in a sitting, where these days.

    The style of the books are definitely different than in today’s fiction, but style is not necessary a measure of quality. For instance, many modern SF novels are over 500 pages, as many modern writers are not nearly as editing out extraneous tangets from there works as writers in previous eras would.  

    I would also disagree with those who use the different versions of The Thing as an corallory of everything about modern SF being superior than previous forms.  In my opinion, Howard Hawks direction of the original is every bit as competant as Carpenter’s remake as is the acting.  The story and dialog and are different, but both scripts were aiming at different targets, both are effective.  The effects, I’ll grant, but effects are often used in lieu of script these days, so that is a facile argument.  Much Media SF is in fact shares a level sophistication that is typical of Golden Age SF, which clearly shows that there is a demand and interest in that degree of substance, if not style in SF, re:Avatar & Inception.  

  10. I’m very interested in this topic, not only because Jamie has done such a good job with his Vacation segments, but because I remember suggesting a topic similar to this one for a Mind Meld sometime back.  It’s something that I’ve thought about ever since Jonathan Strahan and Gary K Wolfe discussed it on their podcast.


    IMO, some of the Golden Age SF can be safely relegated to the dustbin of history, and other books and stories should definitely be read.  How much of Victorian literature do we even know about, much less read, these days? But we still read Twain, Dickens and Doyle.  I think the same is true of Golden Age SF–the real gems should be read by every serious reader of the genre.  Like Kate says, I don’t think its the place for new readers to F/SF to start, but later on, certainly.


    “You like Shadow’s Son?  Wait until you get a taste of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser”

    “You should check out Lest Darkness Fall if you want a classic time travel story.”

  11. Interesting about the story behind The Thing, Jamie. Can’t wait to find out where Campbell got the idea from. We just keep going back further and further until we get to…In the beginning.

  12. Fwiw, Rocket Ride Books published what I like to call the definitive publication of Who Goes There?

  13. Sue, “Who Goes There?” appeared in Astounding in 1938 and the Brass Tacks letter columns were still talking about the story in late 1940. That’s how popular it was back then.

  14. The comments here really astound me. Makes me feel I am very alone with my taste in Sci-Fi. I started reading Sci-Fi as a kid (about 20-22 years ago) and I read most good Sci-Fi books published before 1980. The sad thing is, nowadays no Sci-Fi is published any more that I like. The only one that sometimes comes close (but also sometimes dissappoints by being to lengthy) is Iain M. Banks. Apart from that, there is NOTHING new that compares with:


    The Forever War

    The Space Merchants


    The Disposessed

    Ender’s Game


    And please don’t bring up Neuromancer, I just hate it.

    It seems that the field “Space Opera” has almost completely vanished (with the exception of Iain M. Banks). How come? I am the only one who feels like this about contemporary Sci-Fi ?

  15. midas68 // June 1, 2011 at 6:56 pm //

    HiYaaa(thats Karate)

    Yes Read Campbells OG Thing story(I’ts not bad)


    Yes The OG gets the OG title, aka  A tip of the Hat.


    Some like to say (The Great Hawks) target audience is the only difference in quality between the Two THingamagigies.   Which spits bio’Opic sluice juice in the eye of progress.   Also adding that effects are meaningless  is true but only half so and irrelevant if not used APOLOSELEY.


    Its becomes Very Important if the Story/Acting/Directing is Hem’Haweked in a age where the main set up is litterally “THE CREATURE BEHIND THE DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Which is indicative of ALL the SF Movies and many stories of the Gloden Age.  So when one compares era’s  one needs to realize that todays authors and Movie makers have grown(Because of what came before) And therefore not a slave to repeat the same.

    Ahh,  maybe now your adding some Think/Think

    Ya See, Now they can take the story a little deeper(nod of the hat insert here)because the OG’s Mastered and made cliche what initially shocked or tickled the fancy of a more naive generation(or Ignorant,  which is not a I.Q. Put down(Come on and Get with it Guys)  So they braved that wild and semi Y/A fronteir so we could grow.(Are you taking notes or waiting for Cliff)

    Not sure why one debates without the Compound Essentials aready being known.

    Now if your still got the Tally Waggly G-Wigglin you a new one.  Then Stop Duck and Cover(G.A. Stuff there)   I am not saying we have more Brain Cell’s.   I am not saying Hawks isn’t Great (HIs Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby are Top 20 All Time, u Boochers) I’m saying Golden Age SF/Movies had a Cheaper and more Naive Medium in which to work and is very noticable in todays Age.


    90% of Everything eats DipSticks.  Good for you if ignorance is bliss(Or Bad Writing and Cinema)

    Like Kurt Cobain said before he shot himself in the Head.

    “I wish I was like you, Easily amused”


    Come On guys, this is Kindegarden stuff.  And your trying to compare a Great Grade School Teacher to a Great College Professor.  It’s like Penut butter Sandwiches and T-Bone Steak.   I dream of Jennie and the Playmate of the Year.   Pong and Donky Kong Country.  


    Its a tip of the hat, that Is no longer in Fashion.


    Flame and Game away.


    P. double S.  Props to Jeffrey Ford for having some Balls to tell it like it is even with his Peeps all about.



  16. Fairly obviously some of it will be dated and some of it will be timeless.  I’d happily give a new SF reader Andre Norton’s “Sargasso of Space”.

    And, of course, there is a sense of wonder all its own in time travelling to the fiction of an earlier era, and that as much as anything else makes those books valuable.  [I’m reading 1930s Nero Wolfe books at the moment – not only do the books stand up to modern fiction, but the written world teaches me more about the attitudes of the past than any history text.]

  17. God, midas68, decyphering your comments is like sifting through Burgess.

    Yes, writers can improve take stories deeper now, but that doesn’t mean that they do or will avoid attempting to reinvent the wheel.  And I think you miss my point on targeting.  Carpenter’s Thing focused on Paranoia, Violence, Nihilism and body-horror, with it’s own fair share of “THE CREATURE BEHIND THE DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOR!!!!!!!!!!!!! moments. 

    It is far more of a Horror Movie than an SF one.  Hawk’s version actually messaged that Niavete was dangerous, and that the allure of purity (in this case intellectual)  was a fool’s game and could get you killed.)  Classics are classics not because they had little competition, but because they hold value over time.  War of the Worlds is a classic because, not only did it spawn multiple sub-genres of SF, but it stands up well against alot of SF written today, and, hey, it was written over a hundred years ago in a virtual vacuum.

    With regards to the latest thing, it belongs in that creatively bankrupt modern arena of ‘fill in the blanks’ SF, that sadly includes Star Wars and Dune prequels that actually tend to water down the works they are derived from, created, it seems only for the $$$.

    If today we have such esteemed ‘Professors’, then explain the spate of churlish remakes from Cat People to The Day The Earth Stood Still, many of which are barely a shadow of those ‘classics’ of the naive era.  Hell, Avatar and Inception were Oscar Nominees, and they have much more in common with classic SF than modern!

    I’m not saying the ‘Golden Age’ was a golden age, but 10% of any era is usually worth reading.

    Lastly, in support of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, I had a colleague who once wrote three different essays on the book, implying that it primely promoted alternatively communism, fascism and homosexuality.  Each argument was pretty compelling.  This puts me in some agreement with Johnathan, as could you do the same with the much lauded reaction books that followed over the years – The Forever War, Ender’s Game, Old man’s War? 

  18. Absolutely NOT!  I agree with a lot of what McCalmont says above.  Ever since I read Asimov for the first time I have wondered what everyone thought the big deal was.  Then I read Heinlen and was again dumbfounded.  These are the best of the “Golden Age?”  I just don’t see it. 

    I must admit I would recommend almost zero of the “classics” in any genre.  I don’t like Hemingway (he writes like a 3rd grader), Shakespeare, Bronte, Hardy, etc. (I do like Twain). 

    Also, I would suggest that for a genre that is constantly writing about the future it lives in the past “Golden Age” too much.  These older writers and this era are brought up too often.  Is it an inferiority complex?  Are we trying to create classics to gain respect from the literati? 

    On a side note, some of the commentors really need to work on format and paragraphs.  It’s just not worth trying to read them.

  19. @Steven

    No, you are not the only one.  I find my SF apetite hard to fill with a lot of what is currently out there.  It is difficult to find good space opera now.  On top of that, I don’t even like Banks, so that really just leaves me with Hamilton and Reynolds and neither puts out more than a book a year.

  20. The story behind The Thing (“Who Goes There?”). Well…there was a writer named John W. Campbell, Jr. who became well known for space opera and then who morphed into a writer named Don A. Stuart who became known for style. Campbell’s mother had a twin sister who did not like John. She scared the heck out of the young John once.

    So there you have the story behind the monster in “Who Goes There?” And the original, IMNSHO, is better than either film version, especially when read with the appropriate background (a dark stormy night, in the middle of a blizzard).

    As for can we read “golden age” stuff now? I certainly can. But it was what I had growing up, when I had my own Golden Age of Science Fiction (which everybody knows is either 8 or 11).

    Can “kid’s today” get hooked on that hookey old stuff? I will speak of my own experience with my daughter. She expressed an interest in Dr. Who. Knowing she did not like older films (she automatically dismisses anything in black and white), I started with the first episode of the “new Who”. Color! (or would that be “colour”!) Explosions! Monsters! Action! Music!

    She did not like it.

    So, I hauled out “An Unearthly Child”, the old, creaky, black-and-white first episode with William Harnell.

    And she was hooked.

    Whether it was because like much early television (and early science fiction) there’s as much emphasis on telling the story through conversation (see the bulk of the “Foundation” stories by Asimov!), or a “simpler” approach (no money for sets or special effects!) or what, she has enjoyed Old Who more than New Who. We now watch both, but she prefers the classic Doctors (and even is reading the novelizations).

    I haven’t gotten her onto Nourse, Norton, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Moore, et al, but…bit by bit…

  21. *points at Chad* Let’s get him, fellas!


    I think one of the reasons older, ‘Golden Age’ works comes up so much is because of all the youngsters who can’t be content to talk about what they like without going out of their way to bash what came before. I admit it unashamedly. I get defensive.

    I didn’t like my granddad that much, but you know, I wouldn’t be here without him. I can enjoy my life without pissing on his grave at every opportunity.


  22. I agree with A.A. Roi on Inception, but not Avatar. In spite of the fact that it was an over the top in  sf special effects extravaganza, it actually had a message. Sure the plot was us vs. them as usual, but the good guys, for a change, were “the other.” Not necessarily us, but the aliens.

  23. Oh btw, Steven and the others of you looking for space opera, if you don’t mind self-promotion, you could try my ebook, The Textile Planet. It’s getting terrible reviews over at LibraryThing but that’s because most of the reviewers are not sf readers. 

    It’s experimental in nature so please feel free to rank out on it in the Amazon reviews. It’s not meant to be light reading. It’s very fast paced in the beginning and we don’t get lift off until the second chapter. So I apologize if it’s not operatic enough. Also I don’t explain faster than light travel. Or where in the universe the antimatter divide exists. Nothing gets blown up and the aliens are really tiny so they’re not much of a threat. In other words there’s a lot to find fault with. Go ahead, rank out.  Believe me, I can take it. I’ve survived the LT reviews.

    It’s only available in ebook format. $2.99. Pretty cheap. You can get it for your Kindle at Amazon or if you want some other format, find it at Book View Cafe.

  24. Bob Blough // June 3, 2011 at 12:39 am //

    Steven Obua,

    Try Alastair Reynolds for great space opera. He has the same problem as Banks – gigantism. But they are really good.

  25. Hey Sue, congrats on the book, will check it out.  

    I was more suggesting the level of sophistication of the story.  I would argue that Avatar (although very very pretty) has a pretty basic message, and that similarly toned works from the 50’s such as Heinlein’sRed Planet and Wyndam’s The Crysalids,  even the original Day the Earth Stood Still had at least a similar level of sophistication and nuanced approach to their messages about the negative consequences of human behaviour.

    I too have found that modern Space Opera has moved to a different place than my interest.  These days, that means writing stories I know I will like, also not being thrilled by the gigantism of modern authors. Anyone interested can click on my name below (my first novel is free to read online – shortly to be available as an ebook).    

  26. A. A., the story upon which The Day the Earth Stood Still is based–Harry Bates’ “Farewell to the Master” (Astounding, 10/40)–is an even more nuanced than the film. I read the story as a misunderstanding and miscommunication, something very human with often dire consequences, and something that shows up again and again in science fiction. The same theme was particularly well-illustrated in Haldeman’s Forever War.

    Chad wonders why a literature of the future spends so much time looking back at the past. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, there are two reasons:

    1. I’ve read enough of the genre, old and new, to be curious about how it evolved from one to the other. I enjoy the historical context in which stories are written. (Lots of “atomic power” stories in the early 1940s, lost of post-apocalyptic stories in the 1950s, etc.) I enjoy being a scholar of the genre, as well as a writer and fan.
    2. Perhaps even more important, when I first stared reading s.f. back in the late 1970s, it was people like Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke that I got started with. That had a big influences on my 9-year old self and that influence is hard to shake. I imagine if I had started with Ellison, Zelazny and Delany, my outlook might have been different, but it didn’t happen that way.

    Jonathan suggests that perhaps science fiction doesn’t have a “Golden Age.” We tend to think of Golden Ages as idyllic and in that sense, I think I agree with Jonathan. But “Golden Age” also has a historical meaning, a fancy way of highlighting an important period of history, whether or not it was really idyllic (it wasn’t) or the stories were better than they are not (they are probably not). I think of “Golden Age” as a historical marker, not a measure of quality. There was another “Golden Age” in the late 1960s but it wasn’t called “The Golden Age”, it was called “The New Wave” (in diliberate reaction to the Golden Age) but it was a “Golden Age” nonetheless in being an important historical marker for the genre.

    This is not unique to science fiction, or to literature for that matter. It is part of the way we humans label events to help fix them in our memory and in relation to other periods.

  27. Good discussion.  Unlike some others I like the gigantic space operas (I just don’t like Banks’ writing).  My favorite is Dune (a little older).  I just don’t see many on the shelves.

    The reasons for brining up the golden age that Jamie put forth ring true.  But, I would argue that the first reason would also be a reason to not bring it up with new or potential SF fans.  Scholarly works are rarely fun reads. 

    I don’t read fiction with the primary purpose of being taught a lesson or to have some social point explored in an interesting universe.  These are secondary reasons to the primary reason of reading fiction for entertainment, for me at least, and I think that is what most people are looking for.

    The golden age authors seem to hit the secondary reason really well, but they fall a little short in the entertainment department.  This is why I don’t recommend them to new readers.

    One of the big reasons I am always wary of looking back is that a lot of poor or average stories get “golden” added to their title just because they are old.

    Congratulations on self-publishing the books.  More reasons for me to finally buy a Kindle.


    I can take it and it makes for a more interesting discussion.

  28. What exactly does “gigangtism” mean?


  29. midas68 // June 16, 2011 at 9:14 pm //

    To A.A. And a Warning to others.


    I just watched Hawks “The Thing”
    You owe me 45 minutes of my life or the amount of time it takes for a brain to either succumb to Retardation(U) or to Rebel against(I)

    This time is right after the Tied up Capt. undoes his hands right in front of the Secretary and holds them in front of her as she looks right at them several times and then later she is shocked by his hands being untied.

    But wait, this is nothing.  The Watcher of the alien in a Giant Block of Ice doesn’t like the aliens face  so he covers it with a Electric Blanket(yes, plugged in)  Not only does this Giant block of Ice Melt in a Impossibly  Fast amount of time.  But the moron a few feet away doesn’t notice anything. Of course if your going to put a heated blanket on a block of ice that its your job to keep frozen, Those things are Moronically   Possible.

    I could go On but you obviously have no sense about you to understand such things as you like to argue with crap like this as your base.

    There is a reason for it,  Maybe Some thing from Outer Space.

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