The Golden Age of Science Fiction is Hokum

Sunday , 1, January 2017 9 Comments

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.

  • Nathan says:

    Science fiction is full of paeans and hagiographies of editors and writers to themselves. The VanderMeers here indulge in that ancient tradition, with the assumption that they know better than Hartwell or the mythical twelve year old, because they are editors, and thus can recognize between good fiction and bad. The fact that print science fiction is undoing one its periodic contractions as it caters to the hardcore New York SF crowd might indicate otherwise.

    That said, Hartwell was part of the book editors that took over in the 1970s, a group described by Barry Malzberg in his BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS as having “only a marginal understanding of science fiction and only a superficial grasp of its history (to most contemporary science fiction editors “modern” science fiction began with Harlan Ellison, and they have only the most superficial acquaintance with the work of the forties, fifties, and even nineteen-sixties).” The current divorce from canon most likely took place during this time.

    But there was an earlier divorce, caused by John Campbell when he limited science fiction to the plausible as well as let the New York science fiction clubs dominate his field. Lost to American science fiction was the idea that planetary romance is legitimate science fiction, an idea preserved by the Germans, the French, and the Italians,, as well as an understanding that hard science fiction rooted in the plausible can be traced to Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe, and even further into the past, into the 1790s and before.

  • Kenny Cross says:

    Another great post. Happy New Year!

    • Jeffro says:

      Ah, thanks. Cheers!

    • Campbell ushered in what I call Big Men with Screwdrivers SF. Though he mandated that SF be based on the plausible, I can hardly maintain my suspension of disbelief enough to read that stuff these days.

      • Jeffro says:

        The touchstone of Campbellian science fiction aka “Golden Age Sf” is not that it had more science or plausibility or thought than what came before. It’s that it had traditional masculinity, femininity, romance, and virtue diluted, diminished, or repudiated.

        • Hooc Ott says:

          Yeah though John Carter’s screw driver was conspicuously shaped like a saber “A Princess of Mars” had an artificial space satellite, teraforming machines, PVC aquaponics irrigation, dystopian social scifi, the effects of natural selection on human society, a pre-Einstein weirdly plausible grand theory of electro magnetism …the list goes on.

          Brian does identify how the Campbellian revolution was sold. Only it was false advertising that required that the science in pulp be memory holed.

        • Nathan says:

          But was that because of Campbell or the New York social clubs that became the bulk of his writers and editors? Every major attempt to move away from Campbelline conventions has been further and further away from the traditional roles and virtues, championed by someone from or influenced heavily by someone from the New York science fiction clubs of the 1930s and 1940s.

          We can, however, blame Campbell directly for psionics…

  • icewater says:

    It’s weird how you see this sort of “argument” popping out in some fields but not in the others. You won’t see constant use of that “nostalgia glasses/you were young then/it was your first” argument in relation to, for example, classic cinema or, as you mentioned, jazz music. But it is constantly invoked by “experts” in relation to genre literature, tabletop and video gaming and so on…

  • Jack Amok says:

    What you enjoyed when you were first exposed to a particular art form doesn’t determine what you think is great – it only determines what style of mediocre “crap” (as in, “90% of everything is crap”) you still enjoy after you’ve grown up.

    Take musical genres – a civilized adult can appreciate great music – the “non-crap” – from any genre, but you’ll probably only like the mediocre stuff from the genre you enjoyed as a teenager.

    But a Golden Age isn’t about the mediocre stuff, it’s about the great stuff, and about the ability to recognize the difference between what’s great regardless of the era and what’s just comfortably familiar to you.

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