“Science Fiction sucked until the coming of John W. Campbell and the Big Three—Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. Together they swept away the puerile garbage of the Pulps and brought about Science Fiction’s Golden Age.”
This is, not to put too fine a point on it, utter tosh. Bunk. Hokum.
The coming of Campbell and co. did not save or elevate the Fantasy and Science Fiction genre. Before them, it was already popular and widely read. In addition to the Pulps, there were novels, radio serials, and (eventually) cinema serials.
Nor was F&SF at that time a literary ghetto, a genre thought fit only for teenage boys and pencil-necked geeks. Men and women, adults and children—all read the Pulps. Some F&SF magazines were aimed solely at the adult audience.
It took the twin assaults of Campbell and the Socialist-Libertine wing of the Futurians to turn the mainstream off of SF. And, despite periodic attempts to revive SF, it remains a ghetto today.
In [CURRENT YEAR], Science Fiction is a career killer. Brandon Sanderson (repeating the wisdom of his colleagues) said that publishing just one SF novel would damage his sales—for that novel and all ensuing works he published, even if he returned to Epic Fantasy. Ian M Banks writes under two names, so the stink of SF won’t rub off on his other works. And the only selling F&SF genre, the only genre traditionally published writers can build a career off of, is Epic Fantasy. Written Science Fiction is not popular.
This is not the way it used to be.
Campbell’s reign was not the Golden Age of Science Fiction. His ascendancy marked a fall in popularity, a fall in readership, a fall in the esteem F&SF was held in.
Campbell was the avatar of the Silver Age.
Now, a Silver Age is nothing to sneer at. Good works, even great works, can be (and were) produced in a Silver Age. Some of my favorite works, in fact. It’s just that, taken as a whole, it’s nowhere near as good as what came before. And what came before was the Pulps.
The Pulps were the Golden Age of F&SF. Not just because they were popular, but because Pulp writers were free from the arbitrary constraints of genre and tropes that hobbled later writers. Hence their stories were more imaginative, more varied, and more inspiring. Moreover, Pulp stories were more adventurous, more heroic, and more thrilling.
With this as the starting point, we can more clearly understand the devolution of the genre: The Pulps were the Golden Age of F&SF, Campbell was the Silver Age, New Wave the Bronze Age, and the 80’s and 90’s the Iron Age. Since 2000, we’ve entered the Clay Age, the point of maximum debasement of the genre. (Maximum debasement so far.)
Every age of F&SF after the Pulps has been about less: less variety, less action & adventure, fewer heroics and less heroism. Less imagination. Less of all the things that make F&SF great.
Many modern F&SF writers brag about their bravery in challenging dogmas and constraints (a hypocritical lie), but Pulp writers had no constraints on their imagination. Compared to theirs, modern imaginations are thoroughly straitjacketed by both ideology and genre.
Pulp writers were also closer to the truths of what it means to be human than most writers of later Ages. Their women were more feminine, their men more masculine, and relations between the two more true to life, more emblematic of how men and women relate to each other in the real world. Being free of the burdens of same-itarian ideology, they were able to woo and love in ways unthinkable today. Thus, their struggles and suffering were more visceral and vivid.
(And, in being more modest and restrained, they were sexier and more amorous by far.)
In contrast, most Silver, Bronze, and Iron Age characters are (to a greater or lesser degree) stiff and unnatural, usually reflecting not real people but the author’s philosophy or belief system. All too often they were reduced to mere vehicles for illustrating the author’s beliefs.
As for the characters of the Clay Age, today’s SocJus F&SF, they are not noticeably human at all. Most often, they are robots programmed to parrot political platitudes, or robotic, cardboard-thin strawman villains intended to illustrate the same.
The metaphor of a Golden Age evokes a descent from a past time of greatness, a progressive devolution from grandeur and might. In many cases, this Golden Age never existed, but in F&SF it did. There really was a time in the past in which Fantasy & Science Fiction was less miserable, less preachy, less artificial, and more exciting, more imaginative (wildly imaginative), and more real than today’s dreck.
But while Science Fiction might be a career killer and Fantasy might be moribund—lost in an endless cycle of aping then repudiating a tiny set of drearily repeated tropes—but there is a way out of both. And it’s the Pulps.
By returning to the Golden Age of Fantasy & Science Fiction, by reading those works and learning how powerful and imaginative this genre can be, writers and editors can free themselves of the parochial limits of genre and ideology. They can create great works again.
And what happens after that will be incredible.