There’s a lot of nonsense in The Rise of Science Fiction from Pulp Mags to Cyberpunk over at Electric Lit– so much, it’s hard to know where to start. For my money, the passage below is the one that takes the cake:
But “the Golden Age” has come to mean something else as well. In his classic, oft-quoted book on science fiction, Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction (1984), the iconic anthologist and editor David Hartwell asserted that “the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12.” Hartwell, an influential gatekeeper in the field, was making a point about the arguments that “rage until the small of the morning” at science fiction conventions among “grown men and women” about that time when “every story in every magazine was a master work of daring, original thought.” The reason readers argue about whether the Golden Age occurred in the 1930s, 1950s, or 1970s, according to Hartwell, is because the true age of science fiction is the age at which the reader has no ability to tell good fiction from bad fiction, the excellent from the terrible, but instead absorbs and appreciates just the wonderful visions and exciting plots of the stories.
You do hear that phrase quite a lot. It just sounds so insightful and winsome and clever… people love to trot it out in discussions about the history of science fiction and fantasy. There’s something off about it, but it’s so disarming, people rarely have a comeback for it.
The problem is, it’s not really an assertion. It’s more of a sneer, really. A con. It takes something that makes sense in one context and then trusts that the listener is not widely read enough to catch the fact that it doesn’t make sense at all once it’s generalized to an entirely different topic.
And I do wonder. Do I like Jon Pertwee as Doctor Who simply because he was the first one I saw…? Do I like vintage MicroGames simply because they were the first games I bought back when I was twelve…? And D&D in particular is a flashpoint for these sorts of controversies: what if it’s all due to nostalgia that I prefer older editions of the game to new ones…?
That is the point where most people can have a chuckle, agree to disagree, and then move on to other topics. Different strokes, to each his own, and all that. Why get hung up on a matter of taste? But if you’re talking about science fiction, that doesn’t actually work. When it comes to something as vast as literature there is a tool to help sort these questions out. It’s called the canon. And it’s existence is not merely a matter of opinion, mood, or mass delusion. It’s a fact.
Jazz has about the same amount of history as science fiction and you can see one emerge there. Every fan can, regardless of personal preferences, list the the grandmasters of that medium. Style and era don’t really come into it, only greatness. Thus: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Theolonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Wes Montgomery, Milt Jackson, John Coltrane….
Science fiction has just that sort of list as well. While the average fan of the seventies could have recited it effortlessly back in the day, few can today. The ascent of “influential gatekeepers” like David Hartwell has played no small part in making things that way. And when he said, “the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12” he really was insinuating that there is no science fiction canon.
That’s a lie.