A Short History Lesson: the Golden Age of Science Fiction
While modern ideas of SF differ widely, there is a strong and persistent trend in popular culture towards portraying it as a body of work that only appeals to a small and devoted percentage of weirdos. This marginalization of SF as an “alternative genre” is actually relatively recent – primarily pertaining to the latter half of the 20th century.
Prior to this period, both the definition and reputation of the genre were much more nebulous, and much less stigmatized by readers of popular commercial fiction. Beginning in the early 20th century, and reaching the peak of commercial popularity in the 1930’s, science fiction’s great era of general popularity is often referred to by critics and historians as the genre’s ‘golden age.’
The first great contributions to this movement were American, although notable British writers quickly followed. An early example is E.E “Doc” Smith, who first published his novel The Skylark of Space in 1915: a galaxy-spanning adventure series which was to inspire countless derivatives in the next fifty years (including, eventually, programmes such as Star Trek.)
Early space epics were among the most popular types of SF at the time, and tended to borrow their story lines and terminology from other forms of traditional “frontier narrative” — namely sea yarns and Westerns. In fact, some of them are even set in futuristic old-West settings, where Martians with names like “Spurs Jackson” battle “rebel tribesmen” against alien desert backdrops.
Historians have come to attribute these particular themes as an expression of growing wanderlust at the beginning of the 20th century: as human presence extended across the globe and the discovery of new worlds on our own earth seemed less plausible, space became the last, unconquered frontier. This concept is at the heart of much early science fiction, which takes up the challenge of adventuring into unknown universes with considerable enthusiasm.
So if golden-age science fiction was so popular then, why is it that so few people read it today? It may be related to the genre’s increasing marginalization throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Modern readers of golden-age SF often find the texts’ sugary optimism and out-dated science clash with our modern expectation of realism – or at least the realistic treatment of serious themes – which has come to characterize more recent offerings in the SF sphere.
Furthermore, there is a patriotic, conservative, even imperialist element to golden-age space fiction that can make it uncomfortable reading for the modern, culturally-aware intellectual.
Extending the boundaries of human influence across the galaxy, whether it be in a boat or a spaceship, is a form of colonization, and traditional SF often translates to modern readers as a kind of imperial colonialist propaganda. In fact, one of the main traits that distinguishes newer SF from golden age work is how it responds to the moral and economic questions surrounding humanity’s conquest of other worlds.
The marginalization of the genre also, and maybe unexpectedly, coincided with an upsurge in literary quality, and as the popular appeal of golden age SF began to decline in favour of a more niche market, new artists began experimenting with the traditional literary boundaries of the genre in a way that has since shaped what we consider science fiction.
Reading golden age science fiction is a great cultural experience and a good way to understand the roots of this now very varied genre. Below are some of the most famous golden age authors and if you’ve got a favourite, either from the list or not, then we’d love to hear from you about what makes them so great:
E.E. “Doc” Smith
L. Ron Hubbard (yes, of Scientology fame)
Robert A. Heinlein