Golden Age of Science Fiction
The first Golden Age of Science Fiction—often recognized as the period from the 1938 to 1946—was an era during which the science fiction genre gained wide public attention and many classic science fiction stories were published. In the history of science fiction, the Golden Age follows the "pulp era" of the 1920s and 30s, and precedes New Wave science fiction of the 1960s and 70s. The 1950s are a transitional period in this scheme; however, Robert Silverberg, who came of age in the 1950s, saw that decade as the true Golden Age.
According to historian Adam Roberts, "the phrase Golden Age valorises a particular sort of writing: 'Hard SF', linear narratives, heroes solving problems or countering threats in a space-opera or technological-adventure idiom."
From Gernsback to Campbell
One leading influence on the creation of the Golden age was John W. Campbell, who became legendary in the genre as an editor and publisher of many science fiction magazines, including Astounding Science Fiction, to the point where Isaac Asimov stated that "...in the 1940s, (Campbell) dominated the field to the point where to many seemed all of science fiction." Under Campbell's editorship, science fiction developed more realism and psychological depth to characterization than it exhibited in the Gernsbackian "super science" era. The focus shifted from the gizmo itself to the characters using the gizmo. Most fans agree that the Golden Age began around 1938-39; the July 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction  containing the first published stories of both A. E. van Vogt and Isaac Asimov is frequently cited as the precise start of the Golden Age. Science fiction writer John C. Wright said of Van Vogt's story, "This one started it all." The August issue of the same magazine contained the first story by Robert A. Heinlein.
There are other views on when the Golden Age occurred. Robert Silverberg in a 2010 essay argues that the true Golden Age was the 1950s, saying that “Golden Age” of the 1940s was a kind of "false dawn." "Until the decade of the fifties," Silverberg writes, "there was essentially no market for science fiction books at all"; the audience supported only a few special interest small presses. The 1950s saw "a spectacular outpouring of stories and novels that quickly surpassed both in quantity and quality the considerable achievement of the Campbellian golden age."
Developments in the genre
Many of the most enduring science fiction tropes were established in Golden Age literature. Space opera came to prominence with the works of E. E. "Doc" Smith; Isaac Asimov established the canonical Three Laws of Robotics beginning with the 1941 short story "Liar!"; the same period saw the writing of genre classics such as the Foundation and Lensman series. Another frequent characteristic of Golden Age science fiction is the celebration of scientific achievement and the sense of wonder; Asimov's short story "Nightfall" exemplifies this, as in a single night a planet's civilization is overwhelmed by the revelation of the vastness of the universe. Robert A. Heinlein's 1950s novels, such as The Puppet Masters, Double Star, and Starship Troopers, express the libertarian ideology that runs through much of Golden Age science fiction.
The Golden Age also saw the re-emergence of the religious or spiritual themes—central to so much proto-science fiction before the pulp era—that Hugo Gernsback had tried to eliminate in his vision of "scientifiction". Among the most significant such Golden Age narratives are: Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles; Clarke's Childhood's End; Blish's A Case of Conscience; and Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz.
As a phenomenon that affected the psyches of a great many adolescents during World War II and the ensuing Cold War, science fiction's Golden Age has left a lasting impression upon society. The beginning of the Golden Age coincided with the first Worldcon in 1939 and, especially for its most involved fans, science fiction was becoming a powerful social force. The genre, particularly during its Golden Age, had significant, if somewhat indirect, effects upon leaders in the military, information technology, Hollywood and science itself, especially biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry.
The impression of many parents at the time, however, was often tinged with dismay and intolerance, sometimes sparked by the racy cover illustrations of pulp magazines. The stereotypical cover of a science fiction pulp magazine depicted a brass-bikini-clad woman at the mercy of a bug-eyed monster.
A number of highly influential science fiction authors emerged in the Golden Age, including:
- Poul Anderson
- Isaac Asimov
- Alfred Bester
- James Blish
- Nelson S. Bond
- Leigh Brackett
- Ray Bradbury
- Fredric Brown
- Bertram Chandler
- John Christopher
- Arthur C. Clarke
- Hal Clement
- L. Sprague de Camp
- Lester del Rey
- Philip K. Dick
- Robert A. Heinlein
- L. Ron Hubbard
- C. M. Kornbluth
- Henry Kuttner
- Fritz Leiber
- Walter M. Miller, Jr.
- C. L. Moore
- Chad Oliver
- Frederik Pohl
- Ross Rocklynne
- Eric Frank Russell
- Clifford D. Simak
- E.E. "Doc" Smith
- Theodore Sturgeon
- William Tenn
- A. E. van Vogt
- Jack Vance
- John Wyndham
End of the Golden Age
It is harder to specify the end of the Golden Age of Science Fiction than its beginning, but several coincidental factors changed the face of science fiction in the mid to late 1950s. Most important, perhaps, was the rapid contraction of an inflated pulp market: Fantastic Adventures and Famous Fantastic Mysteries folded in 1953, Planet Stories, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories and Beyond in 1955, Other Worlds and Science Fiction Quarterly in 1957, Imagination, Imaginative Tales, and Infinity in 1958. At the same time the presence of science fiction on television and radio diminished, with the cancellation of Captain Video, Space Patrol, and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet in 1955. Science fiction had flourished in the comics in the early 1950s, where it was by no means restricted to juvenile material; however, the introduction of the Comics Code in 1954 hurt science fiction comics badly, and one of the most notable publications, EC's Incredible Science Fiction, was dropped at the end of 1955.
The second half of the 1950s, therefore, opened with a marked reduction in the visibility and marketability of science fiction. At the same time, technological advances, culminating with the launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957, narrowed the gap between the real world and the world of science fiction, challenging authors to be bolder and more imaginative in an effort not to become yesterday's headlines. Newer genres of science fiction emerged, which focused less on the achievements of humans in spaceships and laboratories, and more on how those achievements might change humanity.
Notes and references
- Nicholls, Peter (1981) The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Granada, p. 258
- Robert Silverberg (2010). Science "Fiction in the Fifties: The Real Golden Age". Library of America. Retrieved September 20, 2012.
- Roberts, Adam The History of Science Fiction, p 195, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. ISBN 0-333-97022-5
- Asimov, Isaac (1989), The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction, Carroll & Graf Published Inc., p.1
- Null-A Nitty-Gritty: An Interview with John C. Wright
- Roberts, Adam The History of Science Fiction, pp. 196-203, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. ISBN 0-333-97022-5
- Roberts, Adam The History of Science Fiction, pp. 210-218, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. ISBN 0-333-97022-5
- InfinityPlus.co.uk - 'Fear of Fiction: Campbell's World and Other Obsolete Paradigms', Claude Lalumière
- SciFi.com - 'John W. Campbell's Golden Age of Science Fiction: An irreplaceable documentary illuminates the man who invented modern science fiction', Paul Di Filippo
- Google Books - 'Age of Wonders Chapter One: The Golden Age of Science Fiction is Twelve', David G. Hartwell (October, 1996)
- YouTube.com - Isaac Asimov on the Golden Age of Science Fiction