“The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.”
Not a clue who said it first. I thought it was Sprague DeCamp. It’s been attributed by Thomas Disch to Terry Carr, who apparently denies saying it. Carr attributes it to Peter Scott Graham, only Carr says Graham set the number at thirteen. David G. Hartwell wrote a piece for Futures Past entitled “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is Twelve,” and gives attribution to Graham. There’s a good summary here.
At any rate, it’s a good observation. What time period constitutes the high point or classic era of a genre or art form is a highly personal call, and any opinion we offer has a lot more to do with our personal history than we’re probably willing to admit. I’ll say this: whenever the Golden Age of Science Fiction was, it sure as hell isn’t now! There are still good SF authors living and working, but they’re being obscured by the plethora of licensed novels and the desire of publishers and retailers to only handle books which will sell in the millions of copies. Friends often point out to me that Asimov’s and Analog are still publishing good SF, but I don’t care for short stories much, and I think the pulse of the genre is best taken on the retail book shelf, not at the newsstand.
For my money, if you want to shop for Science Fiction, your best bet is to find a good used book store. When compiling a list of books worth reading, one should not start with only the set of books published in the last two years. The thoughts of authors who wrote twenty, fifty or a hundred years ago are often equally as worthy of our attention as those of authors writing now. They may be moreso, for an author writing at least twenty years ago never heard of the Kardashians, Octo-Mom, or Kanye West, and thus must have possessed a kind of intellectual purity to which we poor denizens of 2011 can’t even aspire.
And sure, science has grown and evolved. An SF book from 1930 is going to contain incorrect assumptions and outright errors; but then I’ve read fiction from the past two years which suggest that Earth’s sun could turn red within centuries, and earth would survive (!) or that aliens from non-Earthlike planets could have DNA. I therefore don’t think a decades-old work should be forgotten simply because it may contain the odd scientific error. We can learn a lot, after all, by looking at mistakes, other peoples’ as well as our own.
I am therefore embarking on a new project: I want to highlight on something of a regular basis works which I think should be of interest to fans of Science Fiction. I’ll pull heavily from what I’m reading right now, and you’ll find that that list includes a lot of books from long ago which I’ve stumbled across in my journey as a used book addict. (And some of them will have been sitting on my shelf for decades before I’ve read them! I own as many as a thousand books I’ve not read.) I’ll probably also touch on comics, TV shows, movies… you name it. What I pick will be, by my definition, what should interest a fan of Science Fiction. In other words, selfish S.O.B. that I am, I’m going to talk about what interests me. That means you may find a few non-SF creatures like vampires, a few werewolves, and a few costumed heroes, but you’re very unlikely to read about orcs, hobbits or (Hugo help me!) Dragons.
Which leads back to what exactly was my golden age of Science Fiction? It lasted a while, as I recall. It probably did begin at about age twelve, possibly even eleven. It was not book-oriented, at first. 1976, when I turned eleven, offered a fair sampling of SF-themed pop culture. We had the Six-Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman, plus Space:1999 on TV, Logan’s Run in the theaters, and The X-Men just rising to fame in comic books. The next year would of course bring Star Wars. All of these captured my imagination, and, of course, there were Star Trek re-runs twice a day.
Probably Star Trek stuck with me the best as I got a little older. The first Trek film, arguably the last of the seventies SF-epics, came to theaters just as the Seventies closed. I think that added some energy to my love of the show, but it was already strong. I was already buying every book published by Bantam and Doubleday, and starting to dabble in the fanzines. Here was my gateway to book reading. I remember spending a Sunday during high school, laying in my bed with a copy of the Trek novel Devil World, by Gordon Eklund. As the sun went down and concerned family members stuck their heads in to suggest I was damaging my eyes by reading in the dark, I did something I’d never done before: I read a novel in one sitting. Talk about your golden age! I couldn’t sit still that long now if Bob Heinlein leapt from his grave, handed me an unpublished manuscript and stared at me while I read.
Previous Trek novels had seemed largely to be SF novels the authors couldn’t sell elsewhere, and they’d stuck the Enterprise crew into them and sold them to a publisher who wanted “names” on the books he was selling to rabid Trek fans clamoring for more. This one, however, seemed to actually be a story planned with the characters in mind, and I was hooked. I went out seeking more stories by this Eklund guy. (And Gordon, if you happen across this blog, it’s been way too long since I’ve seen a new book with that guy’s name on it!) Suddenly I was reading non-Trek, non-movie-inspired SF.
As high school progressed, comics began to frustrate me and SF on TV and in movies dwindled or became too concerned with cashing in on Star Wars’ success, I delved farther into books. I tore into authors whose works I hadn’t read, and decided I should become more knowledgeable about the SF field. It helped that I met a girl – an actual girl! – who also liked SF, and looked at me in disgust when she found out how little real SF I’d read. She handed me books by Heinlein, and who was I to say no to a girl who liked SF? RAH became my eternal favorite.
My time in high school – 1979 – 1983 – was a pretty exciting one, literary SF wise. Many of the classics of the genre were already old, but their authors were still producing. Heinlein wrote Friday, Clarke sequelized 2001, and Asimov wrote new robot novels. (I was less excited about the Foundation sequels. I recognize the trilogy’s importance, but my heart belongs to the robots, and has since I first saw Robby duke it out with his cousin from Lost in Space.)
Alas, as I got older, so did the genre. Star Trek: The Next Generation bumbled its way into forever changing how we saw SF, and the greats of the field all slipped away from us. (They’re not dead, you understand. They were picked up by continua craft and whisked off to a convention in the far future. But it’s better there than here, so they’re staying.) While there’s still some cool stuff happening, the death throes of traditional publishing leave the future of the genre in doubt. My personal golden age would seem to be long past.
Recently, though, even before I decided I needed to start blogging more actively, I’ve been revisiting some of the books from that personal golden age, and seeing how they hold up. Many of them are still worth a reader’s time, yet they’re not on the shelves any more. So I think I’ll put in some time in this space, in months to come, to let whoever-the-hell-is-reading know what I think may be worth their time and why.
So check this space. I’m shooting for weekly. We’ll see if I can get more ambitious.
One last thing: I think the last entry in this blog announced a similar intent to do a series of posts on a topic, specifically the need for government. That got dropped fairly quickly for personal reasons. I won’t go into it. It’s in the past. I do think that this project, being more personal, is something I can sustain. Here’s hoping…