To anyone who has lived a life that has not been utterly disastrous, there is an iridescent aura permeating its second decade. Memories of the first decade, extending back to before the age of ten, are dim, uncertain, and incomplete. Beginning with the third decade, after twenty, life becomes filled with adult responsibility and turns to lead. But that second decade, from ten to twenty, is gold; it is in those years that we remember bliss.
Isaac Asimov in his introduction to
Before the Golden Age (1974)
When I first wrote about authors of the Golden Age of Science Fiction (April 5, 2012), I noted that the golden age of science fiction is twelve. In his introduction to Before the Golden Age (1974), Isaac Asimov seconded that notion. Born in 1919 or 1920, Asimov entered his second decade at about the same time the stock market crashed and the nation began its descent into the Great Depression. In other words, Asimov's personal golden age commenced before 1938, when the Golden Age of Science Fiction is said to have begun. Asimov squeezed in his first sale of a science fiction story before turning twenty: "Marooned Off Vesta" was published in Amazing Stories in March 1939. If we take the author at his word, his life began turning to lead less than a year later. (1)
According to Asimov, the Golden Age of Science Fiction lasted from 1938, when John W. Campbell assumed the editorship of Astounding Stories, to 1950, when the number of science fiction magazines increased and science fiction began making inroads into other media. "During the Golden Age," Asimov remembered, "to read Astounding was to know the entire field." After 1950, "the individual could no longer comprehend the field entire . . . . and the Golden Age, when all science fiction could belong to the reader, was over."
Twelve years makes for a brief golden age, but I suppose all golden ages are brief by definition. (2) But what about the periods before and after a golden age? Aren't they also worth remembering? Isaac Asimov addressed that issue in Before the Golden Age, a fat anthology that covers the period from 1920 to 1938 with an emphasis on 1930 to 1938. The idea seems to have been to pick up where Sam Moskowitz had left off in his two previous anthologies, Science Fiction by Gaslight (covering the period 1891-1911) and Under the Moons of Mars (covering 1912-1929). (3) If the Golden Age of Science Fiction lasted a dozen years, then the period immediately preceding it--from 1926, when the first science fiction magazine was published, until 1938, when the Golden Age began--lasted just as long. That leaves a lot of material open to the anthologist.
To Asimov and his peers, the distinction between the Golden Age (GA) and Before the Golden Age (BGA) must have been like the distinction historians make between BC and AD. If we consider that before Campbell and Astounding, science fiction was more likely scientific romance, or science fantasy, or space opera, then we can concede a distinction. But what about that end date, 1950? To readers of 2013, a distinction made in 1974 about a development from 1950 is less clear. Unless you're a hardcore student or fan of science fiction, you might have a vaguer notion of when the Golden Age of Science Fiction ended--and maybe of when it began as well.
With all that in mind, I would like to cover a number of authors who wrote before, during, and maybe a little after the Golden Age of Science Fiction and whose names are well known to science fiction fans today. Every one of these authors contributed to Weird Tales, mostly after 1938, when the magazine moved its offices from Chicago to New York, and especially after 1940, when Dorothy McIlwraith became editor. Dorothy seems to have been friendlier to science fiction and its authors than was her predecessor, Farnsworth Wright. We should remember that she had lost many of the magazine's big names and needed the cachet of known authors. We should also remember that the 1940s--a decade of radar, rockets, jet power, and atomic bombs--were a friendlier time for science fiction than the 1930s. Technological developments during World War II showed that we do indeed live in a science fiction world, a fact that is more in evidence now than it was then. (4)
More Authors of the Golden Age of Science Fiction
(Some a little before and some a little after, all in alphabetical order)
- Forrest J Ackerman (1916-2008)
- Eando Binder, pen name of Earl Andrew Binder (1904-1965) and Otto Oscar Binder (1911-1974)
- Anthony Boucher (William A.P. White) (1911-1968)
- Fredric Brown (1906-1972)
- Stanton A. Coblentz (1896-1982)
- Ray Cummings (1887-1957)
- Lloyd Arthur Eshbach (1910-2003)
- Ralph Milne Farley (1887-1963)
- John Russell Fearn (1908-1960)
- Gardner F. Fox (1911-1986)
- Orlin Frederick, pen name of F. Orlin Tremaine (1899-1956)
- Damon Knight (1922-2002)
- Murray Leinster (1896-1975)
- P. Schuyler Miller (1912-1974)
- Emil Petaja (1915-2000)
- H. Beam Piper (1904-1964)
- Margaret St. Clair (1911-1995)
- Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950)
- Nathan Schachner (1895-1955) and Arthur Leo Zagat (1896-1949)
- E.C. Tubb (1919-2010)
- Jack Williamson (1908-2006)
(1) Asimov completed his bachelor's degree in 1939, married in 1942, and didn't have children until the 1950s. However, the American entry into World War II nearly coincided with his twenty-second birthday. The war years, especially before the tide was turned, must have been leaden indeed for millions of Americans.
(2) We might say equally that a decade in a person's life is also a brief golden age. But is there anything about a person's life that is not brief?
(3) Asimov dedicated Before the Golden Age to his friend Moskowitz. By the way, comic book fans have taken to calling the period before their golden age, "The Platinum Age," a construct that to me seems of little use.
(4) Interestingly, science fiction also gave rise to technological or scientific religions, I guess to take the place of beliefs that science had attempted to destroy, or at the very least that science had brushed aside. I'm thinking here of flying saucers, Scientology, and the abortive religion of the Shaver Mystery. Fantasy and weird fiction did not give rise to new religions because both genres are wholly compatible with religion. Where nothing was destroyed, nothing had to be replaced.
To be continued . . .
To be continued . . .
Original text copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley