A new Golden Age of Science Fiction September 3, 2011Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture.
Something very interesting is happening online – for me at least. Project Gutenberg, amongst others, is putting up Golden Age (and sometimes more contemporary) science fiction stories. If your tastes run to the more classical, the 19th century and early 20th century is reasonably well served. One can catch up on the other works of Jules Verne, they’re online. All of HG Wells is too, as far as I can see. And so on. It’s far from exhaustive, but exists and it is far from alone.
You’ll find them as podcasts in some instances, or text files, or files ready for use on electronic media.
A very recent example. I was flicking through Asimov’s ‘Nightfall One’ collection from the early 1970s when I read an introduction he had to the title story in which he mentioned a radio adaptation of it from the late 1940s or early 1950s. Off to Google and within a minute or two I was able to source MP3s of those plays, part of a series made of then contemporary SF authors short stories and novellas. As an aside they’re amazingly evocative perhaps because they’re not in the slightest bit visual but depend entirely upon clanking sound effects, odd orchestration and – yes – somewhat over the top acting [you’d wonder what some of the actors made of the scripts].
It’s as if a window was opening up to the past, not as widely as one might like, but in such a way that it is now possible to get a real sense of classics that have either been long-forgotten – although that begs the question as to whether they would then be truly classics, or more often canonical works that have been crowded out by subsequent additions.
I started reading science fiction in the early 1970s, assisted in no small way by a few titles that my Dad had bought, which at this remove I’m curious as to whether he ever read. What did he make of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance with its wonderfully archaic and florid language? And Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke? Somehow those novels were freighted in with a range of materials that became popular during the late 1960s. Velikovsky, von Daniken (he had no truck with them, but he wasn’t one to throw a book away), Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Other bits and bobs. Sadly he must have passed on that other great standard of the time, the Illuminatus Trilogy which I discovered seven or eight years later.
But it was the SF which really caught my attention. I still recall the cover of that Clarke paperback edition with its vast spaceships over Manhatten, but I’ve google searched it subsequently with no success (and it’s not the one subsequently used by Pan paperbacks with saucer shaped ships and people running in the foreground – but any pointers gratefully accepted).
There was further exposure in Speed & Power magazine which in most issues had an unabridged story by Isaac Asimov and Clarke and excellent illustrations as well.
Now nostalgia is all very well, but there are still a remarkable number of stories that I either half-remember from old Terry Carr anthologies, or that I never read.
Stories that have remained with me are the beyond gloomy ‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Godwin, and the unpleasant but somehow compelling ‘Meathouse Man’ by George R.R. Martin – yes, that George R.R. Martin, both of which we will return to later (I remember trying to explain the plot of the latter in the Gaeltacht in 1979, in Irish, to a couple of classmates who were convinced that there was no sex in SF. They were frankly disbelieving at the idea of the very particular form of sex in that story, the New Wave of science fiction had yet to lap around their feet – so to speak. Mind you I was pretty disbelieving when I read it too).
Yet that was a great benefit of first arriving at SF in that decade. The experimentalism of the New Wave was everywhere (even in the early works of the next wave of harder SF – exemplified by Bear and Benford and in a softer variant Banks), while the classics were still highly regarded. Knowledge of true pulp material was more restricted, which was a pity. For that one had to turn to collections, like Brian Aldiss’s Galactic Empires, which I recall in a fantastic hard-bound edition in Fairview Library of all places. And the sense of freshness and possibility, when Galactic Empires were still, conceptually, in their infancy and the Culture was almost literally half a century away or more. The idea of Trotskyist influenced SF [you know who I’m talking about!] – a dream, a dream. Although Mack Reynolds was slightly later fighting the good fight for a more orthodox strand.
Coincidentally I’ve been rereading Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree after some thirty five or so years. Reissued in the mid 1980s as Trillion Year Spree and with an additional contributor in the shape of David Wingrove, it provides a useful overview of the literature with a – perhaps – typically waspish tone from Aldiss who at times seems uncertain as to how to treat of the changes that had taken place since the first edition.
So it is that Star Wars is lauded, Star Trek in the cinema glided over. Ironic that given how the late 1980s [re]iteration of the latter would, for a while, achieve a near hegemonic status as the short hand for science fiction in the broader culture. The later edition of the book sits at a point after the flourishing of SF after Star Wars – both in cinema and in text, but before the even greater dominance that it has achieved in the last twenty years where SF plots are now routinely woven into blockbusters (see Inception etc).
Indeed Aldiss refers from the vantage point of the 1980s to ‘… a survey of developments since the early sixties… it records a time when SF novels reached the bestseller lists, when SF conventions became big business, when SF scholarship grew up, when even the publishing of SF criticism flourished in great diversity, and – this especially – when everyone went to SF movies.’
Of course from this remove that almost seems like a shadowy precursor of the current era. Compare and contrast the rather dismal SF that followed Star Wars on television with what we now see, Battlestar Galactica (TONS), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (natch), and a myriad of half digested SF/Fantasy series that often barely made it past one season – the Man From Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle and more. One doesn’t have to unquestioningly and uncritically accept that Fringe or Dollhouse are the best thing since sliced bread – and they’re not, at least not the latter – to see however that there has been a step change in quality both in execution and as importantly in execution of concept. One could argue that a similar process took place in the literature, that it took a good decade, exceptions and omissions aside, before it too repositioned itself and expanded outwards.
But there remains a past that is suddenly in part accessible. Aldiss is particularly good on the Golden Age of 30s to 50s SF – even if for some of us it is difficult to tell if that Golden Age was in truth the 1930s, or the 1950s, or the 1970s or the late 1980s or the 2000s or perhaps now. This period, driven in part by figures such as John W Campbell of Astounding magazine brought story after story. And this is – broadly speaking – the period which Project Gutenberg is opening up again. The pleasure of this is that one doesn’t have to have a Kindle or iPad to enjoy these works – although they probably help. They’re short, economical, fast-paced. A single sitting will usually suffice. And there are longer works available too. It must be thirty odd years since I read Murray Leinster’s Operation: Outer Space, a novel that in the context of Mad Men seems far from prescient, but in its depiction of a future world that is in truth 1950s Manhattan writ large – with all the prejudices that that entails – is perhaps more recognisable today than it might have been five years ago.
Aldiss argues in Trillion Year Spree that…
SF often exhibits a brazen whorish face ot the world at large. It is more important than ever that it should continue its old role of evaluating the pluses and minuses of progress, and that hubris should continue to be clobbered by nemesis. For SF is in crisis.
Where it belongs.
It’s odd that. As SF not merely has entered the mainstream, but in many respects become the mainstream, I’ve wondered whether that sense of crisis is over. But then one looks at the circulations of the remaining SF periodicals, the leap in the number of novelisations of TV series and it seems that perhaps it is. Same as it always was. And in any area the impulse to say ‘there’s a problem’ can outweigh the often mundane realities of a situation. But, I can’t help but feel that this increasing availability of works will impact positively on the area in all forms, that by looking back it will help people look forward.
And I’d tentatively argue that people need to. This is a curious period. We’ve lived out the end of the Space Shuttle and a sort of retreat, at least in the short term, from the dynamic that – almost perversely – fuelled the New Wave. The recent film Moon exemplified this, a sort of dystopian vision of the future where we might have arrived on the Moon, but all was alienation and anomie.
Seems like we’re not even going to get back to the Moon, not anytime soon. That the low earth orbit is as good as it gets for the next decade or two. And while it’s hazardous to draw great conclusions from a tiny slice of historical time there is a something of a sense of options closing down. Maybe this is retrenchment rather than retreat, but either way our fictions will unquestionably be influenced by that and if so perhaps, perhaps they need some sort of shot in the arm to tide us forward.
Aldiss argues that:
… SF transcended the pulps, by extending their simply strong-arm formulas and inventing new protagonists big enough to take on the universe. At the same time, very subtly, the problems those protagonists faced could be shown to have close bearing on day-to-day problems in a technological society, problems with a ‘realistic’ and ‘mythological’ level. Where other magazines messed about with the present, Campbell gave you the future on a chipped plate.
Entertainment, surely. But not just entertainment.
There is a paradox. If there is a retrenchment, or worse still that retreat, then does the internet become a part of it? Stephen Baxter in his novels has tangentially warned of the dangers of a technologically driven societal Introspection, where the online supersedes the off-line. And ironically perhaps this proliferation of early to mid-period SF works arriving now is just part of that. But… the world continues, stuff happens, people have to live. So, potentially not.
And it’s not just Project Gutenberg and it’s not just Golden Age material that’s available. There are some fine collections of stories on the internet. Infinityplus, sadly no longer operational, but still online, is a good place to start. But a bit of searching and one will find material here there and everywhere. Stephen Baxter has a few pieces of his own on his site. Alastair Reynolds likewise. Baen Books continue to provide books for purchase and a free library, both of which have classic and not so classic texts. You’ll even find sites that collate information as to what stories by which authors are readily available for download or online reading.
Anyhow, all this near random musing has a purpose. If there’s a resource out there let’s use it. I’ve previously linked to a story by James Tiptree Jr. and I’m thinking about every so often linking to the occasional SF story that’s available on line.
Watch this space.