Golden Age of Science Fiction

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Golden Age of Science Fiction, often identified in the United States as the years 1938–1946,[1] was a period in which a number of foundational works of science fiction literature appeared. In the history of science fiction, the Golden Age follows the "pulp era" of the 1920s and 1930s, and precedes New Wave science fiction of the 1960s and 1970s. The 1950s are, in this scheme, a transitional period. Robert Silverberg, who came of age then, saw the 1950s as the true Golden Age.[2]

"Golden Age" science fiction is often termed Campbellian Science Fiction after editor John W. Campbell.[3] In historian Adam Roberts's words, "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."[4]


From Gernsback to Campbell[edit]

An influence on the creation of the Golden Age was John W. Campbell, who achieved status as the most prominent editor of the time. Isaac Asimov stated that " the 1940s, (Campbell) dominated the field to the point where to many seemed all of science fiction."[5] Under Campbell's editorship at Astounding Science Fiction, the genre developed more realism and psychological depth to characterization than in the earlier Gernsbackian "super science" era. The focus shifted from the gizmo itself to the characters using the gizmo.

By consensus, the Golden Age began c. 1938–1939,[4] slightly later than the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, another pulp-based genre.[6] The July 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction [7] is sometimes cited as the start of the Golden Age. It included "Black Destroyer", the first published story by A. E. van Vogt, as well as the first appearance by Isaac Asimov in the magazine with the story "Trends".[8] Later author-critic John C. Wright said of Van Vogt's story, "This one started it all."[9] The August issue contained the first published story by Robert A. Heinlein, "Life-Line".[8]

Characteristic tropes[edit]

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 "Runaround"; the same period saw the writing of genre classics such as the Asimov's Foundation and Smith's 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" (1941) 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 novels, such as The Puppet Masters (1951), Double Star (1956), and Starship Troopers (1959), express the libertarian ideology that runs through much of Golden Age science fiction.[10]

Algis Budrys in 1965 wrote of the "recurrent strain in 'Golden Age' science fiction of the 1940s—the implication that sheer technological accomplishment would solve all the problems, hooray, and that all the problems were what they seemed to be on the surface".[11] The Golden Age also saw the reemergence of the religious or spiritual themes—central to so much proto-science fiction prior to 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 (1950), Clarke's Childhood's End (1953), Blish's A Case of Conscience (1958), and Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959).[12] A related concurrent (and perhaps ironic) development was the "psi-boom" of the 1950s in which, largely owing to the efforts of John W. Campbell, a variety paranormal phenomena were valorized and integrated into stories.

End of the Golden Age[edit]

Asimov said that "[t]he dropping of the atom bomb in 1945 made science fiction respectable" to the general public.[13] He recalled in 1969 "I'll never forget the shock that rumbled through the entire world of science fiction fandom when ... Heinlein broke the 'slicks' barrier by having an undiluted science fiction story of his published in The Saturday Evening Post".[14] The large, mainstream companies' entry into the science fiction book market around 1950 was similar to how they published crime fiction during World War II; authors no longer had to publish only through magazines.[6] Asimov said, however, that[13]

I myself was ambivalent ... There was a tendency for the new reality to nail the science fiction writer to the ground. Prior to 1945, science fiction had been wild and free. All its motifs and plot varieties remained in the realm of fantasy and we could do as we pleased. After 1945, there came the increasing need to talk about the AEC and to mold all the infinite scope of our thoughts to the small bit of them that had become real.

He continued, "In fact, there was the birth of something I called 'tomorrow fiction'; the science fiction story that was no more new than tomorrow's headlines. Believe me, there can be nothing duller than tomorrow's headlines in science fiction", citing Nevil Shute's On the Beach as example.[13]

Several factors changed the market for magazine science fiction in the mid- and late 1950s. Most important was the rapid contraction of the 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. In October 1957, the successful launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 narrowed the gap between the real world and the world of science fiction, as the space race began. Asimov shifted to writing nonfiction he hoped would attract young minds to science, while Heinlein became more dogmatic in expressing libertarian political and social views in his fiction.

In the early 1960s, emerging British writers, such as Brian W. Aldiss and J. G. Ballard, cultivated New Wave science fiction, indicating the direction other writers would soon pursue. Women writers, such as Joanna Russ and Judith Merril, emerged. The leading Golden Age magazine, Astounding Stories, changed its title to Analog Science Fiction and Fact in 1960. John Clute, writing in the The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, asserts that it was Frank Herbert’s wildly popular novel Dune (1965) that “arguably capped and put paid to the Golden Age of SF. No sf novel since published, it may be, has seemed so sure of the world it describes.”[15]

Cultural significance[edit]

Many scientists deeply involved in the exploration of the solar system (myself among them) were first turned in that direction by science fiction. And the fact that some of that science fiction was not of the highest quality is irrelevant. Ten year‐olds do not read the scientific literature.

— Carl Sagan, 1978[16]

As a cultural trend 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 became a 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 pharmaceuticals.[citation needed]

Prominent authors[edit]

Early (1938–1946)[edit]

Later (1947–1959)[edit]

Alternative opinions[edit]

Robert Silverberg, in a 2010 essay, argued that the true Golden Age was the 1950s, and that the "Golden Age" of the 1940s was a kind of "false dawn". "Until the decade of the fifties", Silverberg wrote, "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",[2] as mainstream companies like Simon & Schuster and Doubleday displaced specialty publishers like Arkham House and Gnome Press.[6]

The English novelist and critic Kingsley Amis endorsed that view when he compiled The Golden Age of Science Fiction: An Anthology (1981), with two thirds of the stories from the 1950s and the remainder from the early 1960s.


  1. ^ "Golden Age of SF". Retrieved 2024-01-09.
  2. ^ a b Robert Silverberg (2010). "Science Fiction in the Fifties: The Real Golden Age". Library of America. Archived from the original on August 25, 2012. Retrieved September 20, 2012.
  3. ^ Sawyer, A. (2019), "Review" in: Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol. 30, No. 3, pg 462.
  4. ^ a b Roberts, Adam The History of Science Fiction, p. 195, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. ISBN 0333970225
  5. ^ Asimov, Isaac (1989), The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction, Carroll & Graf Published Inc., p. 1
  6. ^ a b c Budrys, Algis (October 1965). "Galaxy Bookshelf". Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 142–150.
  7. ^ "Astounding Science Fiction, July 1939".
  8. ^ a b Asimov, Isaac (1972). The early Asimov; or, Eleven years of trying. Garden City NY: Doubleday. pp. 79–82.
  9. ^ Isaac Walwyn. "Null-A Nitty-Gritty: An Interview with John C. Wright – Sevagram".
  10. ^ Roberts, Adam The History of Science Fiction, pp. 196–203, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. ISBN 0333970225
  11. ^ Budrys, Algis (August 1965). "Galaxy Bookshelf". Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 186–194.
  12. ^ Roberts, Adam The History of Science Fiction, pp. 210–218, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. ISBN 0333970225
  13. ^ a b c Asimov, Isaac (1969). Nightfall, and other stories. Doubleday. p. 93.
  14. ^ Asimov, Isaac (1969). Nightfall, and other stories. Doubleday. p. 328.
  15. ^ Clute, John (2023), Entry: “Dune; Part One” in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, online version.
  16. ^ Sagan, Carl (1978-05-28). "Growing up with Science Fiction". The New York Times. p. SM7. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-12-12.

External links[edit]