Thursday, April 5, 2012

Authors of the Golden Age of Science Fiction-Part 1

Beginnings and Endings

An author once famously quipped that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve. More serious students of the genre consider its golden age to have commenced with John W. Campbell's assumption of full editorship of Astounding Stories in 1938. (1) John Wood Campbell, Jr. (1910-1971) was himself an author of science fiction. Before assuming the helm of Astounding, he had written memorable stories under the pen name Don A. Stuart (2). After 1938, however, he wrote little in the way of fiction. Instead, he recruited, encouraged, and inspired a number of writers whose names have become synonymous with science fiction.

"The beginning of Campbell's particular Golden Age of [Science Fiction]," according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, "can be pinpointed as the summer of 1939." (3) A.E. van Vogt made his science fiction debut that summer with "Black Destroyer" (Astounding Science-Fiction, July 1939). That same issue also included "Trends," one of Isaac Asimov's first stories in the genre. Robert A. Heinlein's first story, "Life-Line," appeared the following month. Campbell completed his grand slam in September with "Ether Breather," the first published science fiction story by Theodore Sturgeon. Campbell's stable of writers eventually grew to include Fletcher Pratt, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, Frederik Pohl, the husband-and-wife writing team of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, and many others. Some were called away to wartime service, even as the concepts advanced by science fiction became reality. Radar, rockets, jet power, atomic weapons, supersonic flight--the list of innovations from those years, first dreamed up by science fiction writers, could go on and on. Under Campbell's guidance, Astounding and its authors continued to dominate science fiction after the war. 

The Golden Age of Science Fiction is said to have ended in the 1950s as old pulp titles toppled like tenpins. Although Astounding survived (it was renamed Analog Science Fact and Science Fiction in 1960) (4), Campbell seems to have lost his edge. He may also have lost his marbles, or at least the even keel and healthy skepticism necessary for a science fiction editor to do his best work. He became interested in paranormal and pseudoscientific ideas and was an early convert to L. Ron Hubbard's "new science of the mind," Dianetics. That conversion is all the more surprising because of Campbell's reputation for promoting what would later be called hard science fiction. (5, 6) In any case, for about a dozen years--from 1938 to about 1950--John W. Campbell was a leader in the field of American science fiction magazines.

During those same years Weird Tales underwent changes of its own. The editorial offices of the magazine moved from Chicago to New York City in 1938. In May 1940, a new editor, Dorothy McIlwraith, took over for long-serving Farnsworth Wright. She remained at her post until Weird Tales--like so many old pulp magazines--met its end in the 1950s. (7) In the meantime she published stories by Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner, Ray Bradbury, and many others.

McIlwraith is often criticized as an editor. Fans of Weird Tales consider it to have had its own golden age during the 1920s and '30s and she simply was not part of it. To be fair to McIlwraith, we should remember that Weird Tales had lost its mainstays in 1936-1937. Less than a year following the suicide of Robert E. Howard in June 1936, H.P. Lovecraft--the friend he had never met--died in poverty in Providence, Rhode Island. Thus "The Unique Magazine" lost two of its most accomplished and prolific authors. Moreover, it seems to have lost the two men at its heart.

To be continued. . . .

(1) Campbell renamed the magazine Astounding Science-Fiction in March 1938, the first issue for which he was fully responsible.
(2) His most well-known story is "Who Goes There?" also known as "The Thing from Another World" (Astounding Science-Fiction, Aug. 1938). The story was included in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame collections of the early 1970s and has been adapted to film three times. Incidentally, "Who Goes There?" bears a passing resemblance to "At the Mountains of Madness" by H.P. Lovecraft, which had been serialized in Astounding Stories in February-April 1936, two and a half years before Campbell's tale made its debut.
(3) Coincidentally or not, 1939 is also called "the greatest year in the history of Hollywood."
(4) The actual title was Analog Science Fact [symbol] Science Fiction, where [symbol] was a new symbol created by John Campbell and symbolizing the expression "analogous to":
Thanks to Lambian of Wikipedia for providing the symbol.
(5) Dianetics wore some of the trappings of science fiction, including its reliance on an electrical gadget, the Mathison E-meter. By the way, the “new science of the mind” made its debut in a May 1950 article in Astounding Science-Fiction.
(6) According to Wikipedia, "[t]he term [hard science fiction] was first used in print in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller in a review of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Islands of Space in Astounding Science-Fiction."
(7) Following the lead of Astounding, Weird Tales converted to digest size in the aftermath of World War II. I'm not sure, but I think the only science fiction and fantasy pulps to survive the 1950s were digest-sized. I hope someone can confirm or deny that.

An Astounding First . . .

"Black Destroyer," A.E. van Vogt's first published science fiction story, Astounding Science-Fiction, July 1939. Cover art by Graves Gladney.
Text and captions copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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