The Golden Age of Science Fiction is NOT Twelve

Saturday , 7, January 2017 26 Comments

There is a lot of great stuff in The Frisky Pagan’s latest post, but this part especially struck me:

Q: I’ve read that the target audience of most pulps was twelve year old boys. Have you consciously ‘written down’ to your audience at times?

A: Twelve-year-old boys? No, no. Kids didn’t read the pulps. Not many kids anyway. What 12-year-old would have understood the stories in, say, Weird Tales?


I didn’t read the pulps as a kid; I know that. I read the authors mentioned earlier in this interview. And when I wrote for kids I wrote for Boy’s Life and American Boy.

There you have it, straight from honest to goodness pulp author Hugh B. Cave.

This really does get to the heart of the matter, too. This is the exact point where the scam was played. Because when people look at the Appendix N list this is their first line of attack when they want to disqualify it as having any significance. It’s loaded with pulp stories… therefore… it can only be a list of things that Gygax liked when he was a kid! And it’s just so obvious. Because this line about pulps and twelve year old boys goes back decades. Everyone takes it for granted.

And I mean everyone. I’m not even in the literati set and looking at the tabletop game designers of the seventies blew my mind. Why would a grown man like John Eric Holmes, a professor and designer of the very first role-playing game “basic set”– why would he be so into some weird series by Edgar Rice Burroughs that I’d never heard about…? Why would he take the time to write three Pellucidar pastiche novels…?

If someone had told me that I really should take a look at Tarzan– really go back and read it– I’d have thought they were crazy. If SFFAudio runs a letter from the old Weird Tales by a grandmother raving about how much of a kick she gets from reading their creepy stories… I think man, that’s really weird. People in the seventies simply didn’t behave like I thought they “ought” to behave. People in the twenties and thirties…? Even less so!

It’s almost like some sort of project was begun some time around 1940… and it only really came into its full force around 1980 or so. The details are sketchy and I’m sure that every specific innovation and transition seemed like a good idea at the time and that everyone involved had some combination of good intentions and plausible dependability. But the fact is… a cultural divorce was effected.

And smug rehetoric insinuating that pulp stories are juvenile and that people that like them are weenies is a big part of how it was accomplished.

  • Jon Mollison says:

    There’s another problem with the, “Golden ages is 12,” set:

    Think about the kids who were reading Tarzan, Conan, and Frodo at the age of 12. Those are some ludicrously high achievers. (For the record, I’m a pretty smrt dude who was hella precocious at 12, and I tried and bailed on all three of those at that age. I needed another five years if seasoning before I could appreciate them.) It’s like saying the golden age of smoking or drag racing is 12. Sure, some kids get into it that early, but those are outliers.

    Taking that into consideration, there’s room for some intersting psycho-analysis of what typically happens to brilliant 12 year olds as they age. They have disdain for adults who enjoy material they have ‘outgrown’, they never really get that intelligence and wisdom are two different things, and tend to embrace the mindset of, ‘if it’s popular it’s crap’, too. Combine that with a deep rooted desire to have their ‘secret kingship’ acknowledged by the masses and you get a group that is really susceptible to the idea that their vision of sf/f is so much better than than that of the old masters.

    • Brian Renninger says:

      When you say “old masters” do you mean the pulp masters? So, the idea is that adolescent rebellion can lead to adopting more,um, experimental literature rather than the old pulp? I think the attitude you describe of precocious 12 year olds can push away from the old masters as you describe but, the same impulse can push toward old masters depending of the social circumstances and nature of the child (or, both). For example, I think the trope of the adolescent nerd in love with Russian Lit is well established. That kid is precocious but, also wants to appear more adult. Another similar child without the need to be seen as adult but, still seeking “secret kingship” might well choose the pulps as their otaku focus. Myself, at 12 was grinding through both tons of pulp and stuff I viewed as edgy and avant garde. The key, as you point out is secret knowledge rather than particular type of secret knowledge.

      • Jon Mollison says:

        Just trying to get into their heads. They figure if they loved it at 12, and now they are more mature, they must need something more mature to enjoy. Since they lack wisdom, they fail to understand that 12 year olds can enjoy the best something has to offer, and that changing the thing you love doesn’t necessarily make it better.

        More specifically, they figure all that nonsense about fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way is all kid’s stuff, without understanding how it isn’t a trapping, but a foundation. So they come up with “new and improved” trappings (like the Three Laws or Psychohistory, as mentioned below), not understanding that they’ve moved the structure from a foundation of rock to one of sand.

        The people who believe the Golden Age Fallacy are a classic case being smart enough to know a lot, but not yet smart enough to understand how little they know.

        • Daniel says:

          I think it is more likely that the “precocious” 12 year olds who “grew out of” Conan and Lovecraft and Burroughs, etc. were the same ones who claimed to have mastered them…but didn’t.

          Maybe didn’t even try. I don’t know.

          They sure as hell didn’t ever love them.

          Now, that’s not to say some work read as a child doesn’t end up serving better as memory than literature. But usually, a book I found good when young continues to surprise.

          Gene Wolfe says it best:

          “All this stuff, and I was too dumb to appreciate it as a boy!”

          But the ones who tried to run the pulps out?

          Quality has been lost on them from the beginning.

          • Hooc Ott says:

            “They sure as hell didn’t ever love them.”

            George RR Martin loved Conan.

            Then he made him a fat drunk spendthrift wife hitting cheating philanderer named King Robert and killed him off as a bore with a boar.

            Fritz Leiber and Moorcock give great praise for Conan and Howard and yet made in my opinion anti-hero mockeries and negative reflections of the Character in their work.

            Further more with GRRM and his justification of all the rape in his work claims it is in there to make it more realistic.

            A similar refrain made by Leiber specifically about his character Fafhrd is he wanted to make a more realistic Conan.

            I think. don’t know and should probably re-look it up, Moorcock made a similar claim about Conan and his Elric books.

            Jon Mollison is onto something here. He really really is.

          • Andy says:

            Asimov also claimed to idolize writers like Jack Williamson when he was a kid, but then would run them down after he became a writer himself, boasting of how much greater sophistication his work had.

  • Daddy Warpig says:

    Adventure (at least in the Pulp sense) is intrinsically about morality: Good vs. Evil.

    “Plausible science is the most important thing about Science Fiction” is inherently non-moral, morally inert, because science and technology are mere tools. The morality of technology lies in how it is used.*

    Intentional or not, Campbell’s push for SCIENCE opened the door for the non-Christian and anti-Christian elements of Fandom, but also the Bohemian and libertine factions (the New York clique, who became the core of WorldCon). The inherent morality of Good vs Evil was swept away and replaced with moral relativism (something Leftists and libertines both needed before they could sell their belief systems).

    As well, the lie of Leftism, as formulated by Marx, was that Leftism Is Science and Science is Leftism. Leftists pushed the veneration of science because they truly believed that proposition.

    Libertines had, in certain areas of psychology and sociology, explicit support for the notion that libertinism and sexual license were scientific and ethical, and so pushed the veneration of science because that supported their propaganda efforts.

    The push to sideline Adventure and focus on Science may not have been begun by those two factions, but they certainly aided it and coopted it for their own purposes.

    *99.999% of the time. There are, as always, exceptions.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      “As well, the lie of Leftism, as formulated by Marx, was that Leftism Is Science and Science is Leftism.”

      Pascal, Newton and Decartes were the inventors of our understanding of modern science and all were deeply faithful.

      This isn’t an argument against your comments, which strike to the heart of it by the way, but a negative proof against the lie that science is somehow faithless Marxism.

      • Daddy Warpig says:

        Not sure you understood the point.

        Marx was the man who invented (and popularized) the concept that Leftism was Scientific, and hence inevitable. It is a lie.

        I said nothing about the faith of scientists, I’m talking specifically about Marx’s lie, and why that lead Leftists to venerate science itself.

        • Hooc Ott says:

          Well my twitter is forever gone so I may as well shed some of my rules for engaging with whom i see as allies and kind of heroes really.

          “Not sure you understood the point.”

          I do. I really really do.

          “Marx was the man who invented (and popularized) the concept that Leftism was Scientific, and hence inevitable. It is a lie.”

          Agreed. Nietzsche is in there as well with Marx, but still totally agree.

          “I said nothing about the faith of scientists, I’m talking specifically about Marx’s lie, and why that lead Leftists to venerate science itself.”

          No you didn’t. I did, and I did it to illustrate the world of science that existed before Marx did what he did. A world of thought and reason and discovery that allowed for those things to exist in harmony with faith rather then in Marx invented eternal conflict.

          Saying that the very inventors and first appliers of the scientific method had no conflict with between faith and science as the Marxists do is important I think.

    • Nathan says:

      I’d argue instead that Campbell represented the capture of American science fiction by the New York clique, which ran libertine and socialist in its mores and fiction. And, unless you were part of that clique, you were sidelined from publication. (see: Malzberg’s Breakfast in the Ruins, as well as how quickly van Vogt and Kuttner vanished from SF’s consciousness once they left the clique.) But that’s a chicken vs. egg argument about the source, rather than the effects.

      The effects were to take American science fiction, through various acts of social engineering, out of step with the rest of the world’s idea of science fiction by erasing the heroic and limiting stories to, at first, the plausible and then to the mundane.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    In my opinion, the concept of the Golden Age of Science Fiction is Twelve thing is mostly not about that specific age but, that people’s tastes often solidify at puberty. So, if they aren’t hooked on SF by that age, then it is much harder to hook them on it later. It’s a marketing strategy.

    Though, I totally agree, that the pulps were not written for 12 year olds. There is a similar idea that comics where written for kids too but, in the same era as the pulps there were lots of comics written for adults both as strips and books. Heck, the comic code came about for fear that comics written for adults would be read by kids.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    “It’s almost like some sort of project was begun some time around 1940”

    Asimov was a nihilist.

    He was science fiction’s Gmork for The Nothing.

    Foundation is a roadmap to the Will to Power that reduces culture and society to a set of levers to be manipulated.

    I, Robot reduces morality into three program loops that can be written with 1s and 0s no heart no soul no humanity needed.

    • icewater says:

      I have to agree with this. Philosophy and treatment of human collection in something like “Blindsight” is almost a natural evolution of Asimov’s outlook.

  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    On some level, I actually understand the “Golden Age is 12” argument: you tend to have fond memories of the stuff from your childhood, so it seems like everything from later is going down the tubes.

    However, I ultimately disagree with the “Golden Age is 12” view because it fails to account for changes in culture, which affects the content of the stories. In my view, there is no such thing as a “Golden Age” of sci-fi/fantasy, just different philosophical or cultural milieus (However, I will go on record to say that I dislike the current ultra-left milieu.)

    • PCBushi says:

      “On some level, I actually understand the “Golden Age is 12” argument: you tend to have fond memories of the stuff from your childhood, so it seems like everything from later is going down the tubes.”

      This is similar to what I took away from that assertion. It’s probably why the original Star Wars trilogy will always be the peak of the franchise for me.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    Diving back into my wordpress account and get a gut punch of…


    Brackett is twelve


    “I’ll assume most of us have read Leigh Brackett, have greatly enjoyed The Long Tomorrow, and are also repelled by the childish pulpiness of most of her short fiction.”

    That narrative, they sure love to cling to it.

  • Nathan says:

    Just doing a little digging…

    “Golden Age of Science Fiction Is 12 …because that’s a particularly great age to encounter the genre.”

    Peter Graham originally wrote “The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve” in *Void* around 1957.

    So the phrase has been around for sixty years or so.

  • icewater says:

    Eh… I think that saying how classic pulp was always about Good vs Evil is oversimplifying it. It was always fashionable to claim that about pulp, and about early SFF in general, from the age of Moorcock to the age of “New Weird”. One new weird author who I actually enjoy, unlike the bulk of them, once wrote this:
    which encapsulates this attitude and is also utter BS. Nobody who actually read, for example, Zothique tales or even some of Howard tales, could claim that Moorcock was first author who “freed” fantasy from morality and from having struggle of Good vs Evil at its core. It is just their typical ignorance and attempt to make the past look simpler and inferior. (second part of that quote is also pointless and impossibly broadly defined, which is really reflective of how new weird authors define their genre and “importance”)

    • Jeffro says:

      The thing to compare Asimov to is the stuff he would have been a fan of: Williamson and Weinbaum. Yes, the Weird Tales crew had a much greater range of styles than that. The thing that strikes me about the older science fiction of the 20s and 30s is that dames and romance are a central element.

      Just of the top off my head, I’m trying to think of where the good/evil thing might have come from. Certainly, Moorcock and Zelazny wrote stories that were meant to attack the whole concept. But even something like Conan has a very specific, very nuanced expression of the moral ethos. It’s just like there’s much more to Tarzan’s racial/political ethos than anyone would give a “pulp” writer credit for.

    • Daddy Warpig says:

      Good vs Evil isn’t simplistic, at least in the context of a Christian understanding of it, as it of necessity includes the notion that all men are sinners, all have fallen short and need redemption. Even the greatest paladins have sinned. All people are “grey” in this sense. What matters is the direction you’re headed in and what you fight for.

      Conan is a thief, a drunkard, a womanizer, a brawler. Yet he still frequently fights against Evil: an undead lich, monsters from the stars, vile magicians. Unwillingly, inadvertently, yet he fights.

      I do not say all pulp is the tale of virtuous Christians against fell Evils, far from it, but ADVENTURE is the tale of struggle, and 99% of the time (there are exceptions) that puts it in the vicinity of Good vs Evil. Adventure demands of its protagonists courage, perseverance, and valor, and those are virtuous virtues, and hence Good. Adventure demands heroes.

      It is a subversion, an inversion, to wrote a story where Evil is right and triumphs, and that was not (for the most part) the stories in the pulps. Even today, the pulpiest works are Good vs Evil: Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, and John McClane.

      Perhaps I have inadvertently overstated the case, but it is clear that stripping Adventure from SF stories lead to (or allowed) the rise of moral relativism and eventually nihilism (and worse). With no need for heroes, SF stories were free to be unheroic.

  • Kevyn Winkless says:

    I think, actually, it’s less about good vs evil as something more fundamentally rooted in the protagonist: heroic protagonists need to have principles, and the nature of heroic tales is that the protagonist’s principles are challenged – there comes (at least one) moment where the hero needs to choose between cleaving to the principle and something else. Choosing to stay true may (almost always does) mean the hero has a harder row to hoe, but in the end “being true” is what saves the day and drives the hero through to victory.

    That’s easiest to do with an established and explicit good/evil dichotomy, but I don’t think it’s strictly needed. All that’s needed is something important and fundamental to the character of the protagonist to be presented as virtuous, and for it to be opposed by the antagonist in some way that makes the hero have to *choose* to stay true – preferably at the risk of disastrous consequence.

  • Please give us your valuable comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *