The Great Myth of the Golden Age of Science Fiction

Monday , 6, February 2017 65 Comments

Here’s the Great Myth of the Golden Age of Science Fiction:

“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.

It’s horseshit.

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.


Jasyn Jones, better known as Daddy Warpig, is a host on the Geek Gab podcast, a regular on the Superversive SF livestreams, and blogs at Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery. Check him out on Twitter.

65 Comments
  • anonme says:

    Here is hoping the Pulp Revolution leads to the Heroic Age.

  • anonme says:

    I also figure this is as good of place as any to make the following observations.

    I am a huge fan of Campbellian SF, and loved (some of) the books of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. They are big influences on me. However, I can’t deny it seems that age has done irreparable harm to the genre as whole. Hard SF should have been a nice subgenre, that some writers could explore. Instead it was used as a hard, fast cage that represented the whole of the genre, and everything that didn’t fall into it’s limited confines were mocked or discarded.

    One name that did so much harm, that I’m just barely learning about now is Damon Knight. Here is a man who pushed the myth that pulps were pap, and is a big part of the reason the Campbellian ‘Big 3’ is remembered as Asimov, Heinlein and Clark instead of Asimov, Heinlein, and von Vogt.

    Even Asimov himself, a man who is a huge influence of mine, did so much to limit imaginations, writing long screeds against space knights, dismissing the work of EE ‘Doc’ Smith, and so on. I wonder if he realized the wooden cages he placed the genre in would be replaced by iron and concrete.

    That said, like I intimated previously in this thread, I have great hope for those who write pulp heroes, as those are protagonists well accustomed to breaking cages of iron, with nigh impossible feats.

    • Nathan says:

      In a renewed understanding of weird fiction, there will always be room for Campbelline tales, but Campbelline tales should never be the sole expression of legitimate SF. What happened to SF is almost as if hardcore arena PvPers got ahold of WoW and stripped away the lore, the open world, the dungeons and raids, and anything that was not arena PvP. And any time the hardcores get ahold of a game or a medium, sales tank. Just like they did in the 1940s.

      As for Knight, he also created the institutions of SFWA and Clarion Writers Workshop, from which the even more restrictive ideas of SF come from – such as mundane SF. Many of the leading critics of SF in the 1950s were his cronies. If any one man bears the blame for the current state of SF, it is Knight.

      • icewater says:

        Every single time that I saw some choice morsels of Knight’s “wisdom” quoted, and that includes this blog (I think that last time was in relation to Merritt), it had awful impact on my blood pressure. That man was… special.

  • keith says:

    I don’t hate Campbell, per se, it is just that the sort of writing he wanted is far removed from what I enjoy. He would’t or provably didn’t think much of Bradbury, Smith, Herbert, Lafferty, any more than I care about the so called big three. Sadly, it is that sort of fiction, and even philosophy behind it int he case of Asimov and Clarke, that came to be viewed as worthy, high, intelligent SF that is to be emulated as much as possible… So many modern authors praise and emulate Asimov, but who is trying to look up to Dune? Zindell was the last one to try, and nobody remembers Zindell nowadays.

    • anonme says:

      >but who is trying to look up to Dune?

      Brian Niemeier.

    • Carrington Dixon says:

      provably didn’t think much of Bradbury, Smith, Herbert,

      Campbell published the Lensman novels and Dune. That says something about his feelings about Smith and Herbert, at least.

      Heinlein, too, seems to have had a high opinion Doc Smith as a man and as an author.

      • icewater says:

        True that. But Dune is still as far removed from say, Asimov’s stuff, as you can get while staying in the same “genre”.

        Campbell’s preferences and his idea of the direction some genres ought take is pretty obvious, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t able to recognize quality and mass appeal of fiction even if it was almost exact opposite of that (like Dune was).

    • cirsova says:

      According to Adrian Cole, his Dream Lords series, which he’s started back up for Cirsova, was a mix of John Carter and Dune with a bit of pop occult writing thrown in for flavor.

    • I remember Zindell. I stole at least one of his ideas for my book THE GOLDEN AGE, and I honestly cannot think of a more sincere form of flattery than that.

    • quantumsoma says:

      Zindell’s “A Requiem for Homo Sapiens” is undoubtedly my favorite BOOK of all time. Not just in the sci-fi genre. Some other good one’s to remember: “Hyperion” and “The Book of the New Sun”.

  • Max Kolbe says:

    I grew up on the Science Fiction Book Club so I got all those great Campbellian writers and others as well and while I utterly love some of them, I can see so much truth in this. You see it especially in Asimov, in Clarke, in Heinlein, in McCaffrey, in others–a sort of smugness too.

    All Atheists I would add, with a capital A. Committed. And yes, not to be Johnny one-note, but that does matter.

  • Terrific says:

    This article would have been a lot better if you had given us concrete examples of what you were talking about. Unless you intended it only for those who already have opinions on the matter. I know all about the destruction being wrought today by SJWs, but I would have appreciated any examples from the Pulps to show why their age was “golden”.

    • Jasyn Jones says:

      @Terrific: That’s what, for example, Jeffro’s Appendix N book is all about. Also the Pulp Archivist, Puppy of the Month Book Club, Jon Mollison’s Seagull Rising blog, PC Bushi’s blog, Cirsova, and a HUGE number of posts on this very site.

      Click “Appendix N” or “Before the Big Three” at the top of this post for great examples.

    • JonM says:

      “This article would have been a lot better if you had given us concrete examples of what you were talking about.”

      I say this with no animosity intended whatsoever: Consider the gauntlet thrown.

      I didn’t think my next book would non-fiction, but “Damon Knight Killed Science Fiction” has a nice ring to it. My only regret is that to write it, I’ll have to read anything written by Knight.

      • If you are going to read something by Knight, consider that after he scorned A.E. van Vogt’s respected place in SF with his article on “Cosmic Jerry-building”, he tried to write a Van Vogt style book with all the Van Vogt tropes of amnesiac supermen, time paradox, and cosmic wonder.

        It was called BEYOND THE BARRIER and it simply stunk. It simply stunk. He could not do it.

        I do not recall if he were man enough later publicly to admit that the trick of cosmic jerry building he was so quick to dismiss was a trick beyond his power to mimic. All I can say is that I do not recall seeing any retraction.

        • caleb says:

          First time I heard of that, but I guess that I am not surprised by his novel being completely forgotten unlike those of another author he tried to outdo.

          That is reminiscent of how Colin Wilson was challenged to write “superior” Lovecraftian tale after he whined about Lovecraft. And he actually did it, and it was accomplished, intelligent little piece of SF horror if not really superior to Lovecaft. And Wilson considerably amended his judgement of Lovecraft afterwards.
          Knight was apparently not cut of the same cloth.

  • Nathan says:

    For a start pulp weird fiction had more genres than today: supernatural mystery, heroic fantasy, planetary romance, gothic romance, chinoiserie, weird menace, forensic mysteries (Gernsback did consider this to be science fiction), hero pulps. And, given how more and more pulps are being reprinted or posted online, it is entirely likely that I’ll have found more by next week.

    • caleb says:

      I kinda wish that Castalia would take a look at some of those old pulp authors that are of merit and yet remain out of print. Likes of Wildside Press are already doing that, but more’s the merrier.

      And speaking of lost pulps, I keep stumbling on gems. I recently picked up Wildside’s megapack of David H. Keller’s weird fiction, to kill some time, and to say that I was pleasantly surprised would a major understatement. Now I need to hunt down as much of man’s fiction as is possible.

      • anonme says:

        >I kinda wish that Castalia would take a look at some of those old pulp authors that are of merit and yet remain out of print.

        Yeah, me too. Especially say, some of the tales in Appendix: N that aren’t in print.

      • icewater says:

        That’s something I’ve been thinking about. Wildside’s releases consist mainly of out of copyright stories. That is fine and dandy, and I like to have them bunched in cheap kindle releases, but there’s a number of novels and story collections from that era, some of them mentioned on this blog in one context or another, that I’d like to see on Kindle. That would go nicely with Castalia’s goals and would be of interest to their audience, I think…

      • cirsova says:

        Cirsova Publishing may be dipping their toes in that pond soon.

        Right now, our big project is a fully illustrated 70th anniversary edition of Brackett’s Stark Trilogy, but I’d really like to make Albert dePina my next project.

        • caleb says:

          I love Brackett! So, those are some good news.

          (I must admit that this is the first time that I ever heard of Mr. dePina though – in my defense, one is ever surprised by the sheer number of quality and/or prolific pulp authors that are forgotten nowadays)

    • Jasyn Jones says:

      What’s interesting is that’s a HUGE difference in the modern definition of “genre”, which is (in essence) a bundle of commonly associated tropes. Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Urban Fantasy, as examples.

      Whereas the genres you’re talking about were far more varied than moderns, they differed in more than just FX and costuming.

      Bizarre.

  • PCBushi says:

    Another nice post, DWP!

    I agree with some of the commenters here – I’ve got no beef with Campbell or the Big Three writers, and indeed I too enjoy a good hard SF yarn, but the damage their politicking seems to have done to the genre is a tragedy.

    I’d also add as my own two cents that the decline in quality of SFF doesn’t mean that the Iron, Bronze, Clay ages have *nothing* good. For example, Harry Potter gets a lot of shit because it’s beloved by the Left, but I’m also a big fan and would go to bat for it. Then again, there’s no accounting for taste!

  • JonM says:

    Damon Knight is cancer. His vile attempts to lift himself up by tearing down greater men than himself would have been rejected by Rand as a character in “Atlas Shrugged” as too over the top.

    If you really want to understand how mewling and pathetic he was, go read van Vogt’s “The World of A” and then read Knight’s take on it. It’s like he’s talking about an entirely different novel than the one you read. It would be pathetic if it wasn’t so craven.

    But that might take some time, so here’s a couple of choice bite-sized quotes from the man who killed SF.

    Damon Knight on Robert E. Howard: “Howard never tried, or never tried intelligently, to give his preposterous saga the ring of truth…Howard had the maniac’s advantage of believing whatever he wrote; de Camp is too wise to believe wholeheartedly in anything.”

    Damon Knight projecting: “All the great fantasies, I suppose, have been written by emotionally crippled men.”

    Source: http://robert-e-howard.org/SandRoughs13ss13.html

    • icewater says:

      Holy crap at that REH bit.

      And of course, he thinks that hack de Camp superior to REH.

      ….
      Of course. Of course he does.
      That progenitor of the worst aspects of modern nerdom, de Camp, who tried to character assassinate REH in his biography while endlessly milking his creations, long before the current generation of writers made it fashionable to do so for REH and HPL. Can see why our pal Damon would like him.

      • Mike Schilling says:

        > It’s like he’s talking about an entirely different novel than the one you read.

        He is. He’s writing about the original version, serialized in Astounding, which has never been reprinted. Unless it’s been scanned and posted online (which I’ve looked for and never found), the only way to read it is to buy the magazines used. Which I did; I think I spent about 30 bucks altogether.

        It’s not good. It’s much slower-paced, with a lot of irrelevant actions, and some of the specific criticisms Knight makes are good ones:

        Gosseyn does a lot of double-takes. He doesn’t seem very smart.

        Patricia Hardie keeps showing up and being a completely different person from the last time.

        You can read more about the differences at http://www.icshi.net/sevagram/summaries/world1-preface.php (This page is what got me interested in reading the original.)

        Because of Knight’s criticisms, Van Vogt completely rewrote the book into the version we know and love today. Which wouldn’t exist excerpt for Knight.

        • keith says:

          Credit where it’s due then.

          Still, that doesn’t significantly alter the picture I have of him, based on what I know.

        • Jon Mollison says:

          Oh, for the love of – when am I going to start listening to my inner voice before trying to be reasonable. Just a few paragraphs into the citation Mike provides, and what do I find: “The importance of [Knight’s] original Destiny’s Child review seems to have been greatly exaggerated in retrospect.”

          Also, “Later, in 1956, he wrote an expanded and altered review (included in In Search of Wonder) which accounted for the alterations van Vogt did in the 1948 book version.”

          What kind of game are you playing here, Mike? Your citation blows your contention out of the water, and I’ve barely scratched it! Did you think I wouldn’t follow this lead, or you just ignorant of what it reveals?

          But hey, thanks for giving me another bullet to put into the gun I’m aiming at Knight’s reputation.

          • Mike Schilling says:

            Not playing any games.

            1.The paperback of Null A I used to own has an introduction by Van Vogt himself, saying that he rewrote the book because of the Knight review.

            2. The updates to Knight’s review aren’t very extensive. They’re mostly parenthetical comments about how one of the things he’s just criticized isn;t in the revised edition.

    • Nathan says:

      Remember, Knight founded Clarion, who taught SF writers for 40 years, and whose graduates flood the Hugos, Nebulas, and Best of SF collections each year…

    • anonme says:

      Everything thing I learn about this man, makes me even more cynical about him.

    • Keith West says:

      Knight wrote a few short stories that are decent, but that’s about all. I’ve never liked any of the novels he wrote, at least of the ones I’ve read. And I find Howard’s worlds much more believable than de Camp’s or Knight;s because Howard wrote from a place of conviction, not cynicism. Knight was ultimately a little twerp who couldn’t write at the level of his heroes, so he tore them down.

    • Damon Knight’s 1956 book *In Search of Wonder* is worth a read. He tears up Van Vogt, and praises Heinlein, but most of the other people he slams have long been forgotten. I think his primary sin is that he was big-picture blind: He dwelt on small things and could not appreciate that stories with occasional lapses could be very engrossing, even moving.

      To me, that sort of thing isn’t criticism; it’s carping.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    “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.”

    Exactly. Thank you for posting this, Mr. Jones. I also fear that the SocJusWar aren’t done with the debasing of SF&F.

    Thanks to everyone who commented here; you’ve done an excellent job of elevating my blood pressure, but it is good to know the names of your enemies.

    Damon Knight
    James Blish
    Clarion

  • Man of the Atom says:

    “As for Knight, he also created the institutions of SFWA and Clarion Writers Workshop, from which the even more restrictive ideas of SF come from — such as mundane SF.”

    What an apt term for Knight and the weaklings he birthed and coddled:

    “The Mundanes”

    Whenever I hear of Knight, I’m reminded of this fine specimen:

    Damien Walter — peas in a pod.

    Knight’s analyses and Bizarro World screeds are nothing but raw envy in my estimation, having read Howard, van Vogt, and others that he maligned since I was an adolescent. They had talent; Knight didn’t.

    DWP: Home Run article! Please continue to clear the fog and cobwebs from the True History of SF&F.

  • C.J. Carella says:

    SF may be dead in traditional publishing, but indies and small publishers are doing rather well in the field – mostly by concentrating on telling good stories without kowtowing to the SJW cause du jour.

    A quick look at the best-seller charts in assorted SF sub-genres will show self-published writers dominating them. And indeed, a lot of what they write could be described as ‘pulp.’

    There are more writers making a good living writing SF than during the Golden or Silver Ages; they just don’t show up in Locus, get invited to conventions or join the SFWA (even now that they changed the rules to let us lowlifes join in). All they had to do was ignore the gatekeepers and their noxious rules.

  • Very good piece, Jasyn. I’d like to see more from you on this and related topics.

    For me, the big annoyance today is this insistence that characters are everything, and that nothing else matters. I’m an ideas-and-action guy, and I learned by imitating Keith Laumer, back in the 1960s and 1970s when Laumer was still first-run. I know how characterization works and I do a reasonably good job with it. But when I’m at a workshop and someone demands, “Who are your people? Nobody cares about your starships!” I have to summon heroic energy to suppress the urge to throw large, heavy things at the demander.

    Whether we realize it or not, we here are creating a sort of alt-SFF by studying the pulps and adopting the stuff that works. (Not all of it did.) I’m old-ish, and I grew up reading the best of the pulps. That’s how I write. It’s good to see that I’m not alone.

  • Rod Walker says:

    A good article!

    But Mr. Sanderson’s observation on the impact a SF novel would have on one’s career is now obsolete. Most of the best SF is now indie-published, and the whims of New York publishers no longer have any affect on a writer’s career, so long as he is bold enough to indie publish.

    • Jon Mollison says:

      When the editors and publishers decided to become gatekeepers and ‘improve’ SF it spiraled down into a backwards ghetto that nobody really wanted to be a part of. Once the tech allowed people to bypass those gatekeepers people started to return to SF.

      That’s no coincidence.

  • VD says:

    “Damon Knight is cancer. His vile attempts to lift himself up by tearing down greater men than himself would have been rejected by Rand as a character in “Atlas Shrugged” as too over the top.”

    I once observed that John Scalzi is our age’s Damon Knight. Of course, he probably thought it was a compliment. But the truth is, Knight damaged science fiction in ways no one else has, not even Philip Nielsen Hayden.

  • anonme says:

    Well Daddy Warpig, it’s look like your first essay wasn’t an one off. This one is also generating a lot of discussion. Congratulations.

  • deuce says:

    “Damon Knight is cancer.”

    Undoubtedly, but never forget that he was an utter fanboy for James Blish. Blish’s savaging of A. Merritt in the late ’50s laid the groundwork for everything else. ERB’s fiction had sunk out of sight since 1950 due to publishing minutiae. However, Merritt was still selling well. He was the titan who had to be brought down. Once that was accomplished, it opened up major Merritt fans like van Vogt and others to be read out of SF. Blish was the original regicide who began the critical spiral into “Screwdriver” SF to “New Wave” to what we have now.

    Dig up their bones!

  • deuce says:

    Hmmm. I shouldn’t post on the fly. While Knight was quite the Blish fanboy, they were destroying SF more-or-less concurrently. I knew of Blish’s attacks on Merritt earlier than I knew about DK’s cultural sabotage. My visceral dislike of Blish is of longer duration. Perhaps that made me switch things in my mind. Apologies to any I misinformed.

    Dig up their bones!

    • Jon Mollison says:

      Indeed. I was aware of Blish’s work, and his contributions as an accessory to murder will not go unremarked, but no one bothered to name a major prize after Blish. Damon Knight is the high profile target here, and from what I’ve read already, this is going to be easier than I thought. the man’s own words condemn him.

      Interestingly, what I’m doing here is pulling a Damon Knight…on Damon Knight himself.

      • Nathan says:

        Both are Futurians, and were behind at least one attempt to wag the dog of fandom toward socialism prior to their criticisms coming out in the 1950s. Knight, however, is the one wrapped up in SFWA, Clarion, and New Wave. Lemme know if you want a source or two.

  • deuce says:

    There’s a good reason why Poul Anderson has never been considered part of the “Big Three”: he stayed too pulp in his execution and loyalties. Despite being a better writer and plotter than all of them (except maybe Heinlein, and I would argue even that) he refused to tone down particularly. THE HIGH CRUSADE and the “Flandry” tales show that. He dared to make barbarians protagonists against effete technocrats, which just wouldn’t do. He would also constantly use language one would expect more from an Icelandic sage or a Conan yarn in his scifi tales. The horror! Not to mention that, other than a short period in the ’50s, he was unapologetically conservative/libertarian. Poul had to be punished. My esteem for Mr. Anderson rises pretty steadily from year to year.

  • L Jagi Lamplighter says:

    I think that Campbell’s period was the Golden Age of HARD science fiction, the nuts and bolts type. But Science Fiction is so much more than that.

    It makes more sense now, doesn’t it, that it was a pulp SF story (Star Wars) that brought SF back to the main stream.

  • Can’t agree more! Bought a big SF pulp collection some years ago and have been reading through it (almost done!) and have to say the sheer breadth of story types, situations, and characters is unbelievable. Compared to today’s stuff, it scintillates. I’ve just had published a hard SF novel called A Well Ordered Universe that you say is in the Campbellian style but two subsequent novels are more in the wild pulp tradition (while bucking PC stereotypes)

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