Does its Golden Age Overshadow the Rest of Science Fiction?

Science Fiction’s Golden Age cannot not be pinned to definitive publications for its start and end. But everyone agrees it happened somewhen between 1938 and the end of the 1950s. It saw an outpouring of ideas and enduring science fiction stories that grabbed the attention of the person in the street. Authors like Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Ray Bradbury, James Blish and Robert Heinlein became household names. Stories like Nightfall, Childhood’s End, Starship Troopers, The Martian Chronicles were must reads. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics became a byword.

According to one Science Fiction’s historians, Adam Roberts, “the phrase Golden Age valorises a particular sort of writing: ‘Hard SF‘, linear narratives, heroes solving problems or countering threats in a space-opera or technological-adventure idiom.” In other words the stories were straightforward and solved or at least identified technological problems with ‘new’ science or gizmos. This was all during the era of fast technological change. World War II started with armies relying heavily on horses and the 1950s ended with launch of satellites such as Sputnik into space. Science fiction and science were closely intertwined to make such progress happen.

Then the pulp market disappeared in favour of cheap mass produced novels. Straightforward stories were no longer the writers’ bread and butter. Stories became literary in style. They veered away from the techno-gizmos to the psychological impacts. Simultaneously the apparent progress of science slowed down.

There are still stories today that follow Adam Roberts’ Golden Age template, but finding them in among the New Wave, Cyberpunk, anything-punk and literary stories from authors outside the genre is a Herculean task. To get a gizmo tory published these days, the writer has to come up with something new that will make a significant difference. Even then, the chances of getting the story published are slim verging onto nothing.

And yet… there is that nostalgia for the Golden Age Science Fiction. In part it is brought on by the invented gizmos of that heyday still waiting to become reality today and in the future. We want the true humanoid looking AIs, the ability to visit and live elsewhere in the Solar System, the cure-alls for diseases and so much more. They are in-built to our global psyche that we no longer need to remind ourselves of what can lie ahead. We expect these things to happen because some of science fiction’s gizmos have already become a reality – like landing a man on the Moon.

And this is the issue. The person in the street is stuck in believing the future will be along the lines of the Golden Age’s inventions – the inventions of the middle of last century, over seventy years ago.

Science has changed a lot since the 1950s. Yes it continues to deliver on the promises of Science Fiction’s Golden Age. But science has opened up new possibilities that are hardly touched upon in modern science fiction. Where are the stories about the impact of graphene on our society? What will happen to international politics and power when we fully understand the mechanisms of climate change? How will finding new minerals formed in near-zero gravity change our industrial base?

These questions are only a very tiny sample of those we authors should be pulling from current science innovation. There is one exception to this – the information revolution with all its computers and chips. The Cyberpunk movement saw to that. But even here, the one opportunity to use data to help invent gizmos has been missed.

The long shadow of Golden Age Science Fiction built into our global psyche is preventing us as a species looking at what can now be done in the future, which is far more than we could have believed possible in the middle of the last century.

2 thoughts on “Does its Golden Age Overshadow the Rest of Science Fiction?

  1. A bit off topic but your post reminded me of a John Prine song.

    We are living in the future I’ll tell you how I know
    I read it in the paper fifteen years ago
    We’re all driving rocket ships and talking with our minds
    And wearing turquoise jewelry and standing in soup lines

    Interesting that these lines reflect the disappointment that followed that 1950’s inflated optimism.

  2. Hello Ry,
    Interesting verse indeed. Thank you for sharing. I suspect the overinflated optimism was in part a reaction to the horrors of World War II and in part due to everyone being able to work and see that things were changing for the better. It was bound to come to an end, sadly.

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