Back in the Golden Age

I’ve been reading sf/f since I was a wee lad. Now, my daughter, not having read it much at all, views it as being complicated, and when I asked her why it seems that way to her, it’s because she’s not familiar with it, whereas I’m so used to it that it’s not complicated to me. And that’s saying something, because I can say without bias that my kid is smarter than I am.

But, see, here’s the thing: I was talking with a friend of mine about this a week or so ago, too. We grew up reading most of the same books and have a lot of the same tastes when it comes to sf (though he doesn’t care for fantasy at all). We are both big fans of Robert Heinlein, and we cut our teeth on Isaac Asimov and those like him.

Let me back up and explain something here to those who aren’t very familiar with the sf genre. There are different terms for science fiction that, to insiders, indicate what kind of science fiction is being talked about. For the hard core sf reader, suggesting that he (and most of them tend to be men, as I understand it at least) is reading sci fi is an insult. The term “sci fi” refers to cheap Hollywood movies that depend more on special effects than on quality story. These individuals frown on Star Wars and most cinematic forms of science fiction, viewing it as not being “real” science fiction. Likewise, the vast majority of them will not touch a fantasy novel, and it doesn’t matter how much LOTR might mean to another reader. Fantasy should not be on the same shelf as science fiction, maybe not in the same store. There’s a definite elitist attitude there (which I don’t share).

For these people, what qualifies as real sf can be almost opaque to the rest of us. It needs to be full of scientific concepts and the story should come second to that. There are some sf authors who, let’s face it, aren’t very good storytellers. Pair them up with someone who is and you can get a pretty good story. Leave them on their own and they can be very dry to read. One example that, for me, at least, falls somewhere in between is Robert L. Forward. Mr. Forward is an astrophysicist, and I’ve read two of his books: Starquake and Dragon’s Egg. I won’t go into details about them, just suffice it to say that both novels include math concepts that I simply had to skip over. The only saving grace was that Mr. Forward is a good writer. And though some may view this as sacrilege, I have a hard time reading a Larry Niven novel when he writes them by himself. Pair him up with someone else (like Jerry Pournelle), and he’s good, because he comes up with excellent sf concepts. He just needs someone to remind him that he’s writing for human beings, not computers.

Now let’s skip back in time a bit, to what is called the Golden Age of Science Fiction, when the Grand Masters were writing. We’re talking about Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Jack Williamson, Frederick Pohl, Poul Anderson and so many others. These men were grounded in science, but their stories put story first. The science was another plot device, not the reason the story existed. Many of them had themes to their writing, known as future histories. Usually short stories, they would move through time, usually starting at or just before space travel and going from there, cataloging a timeline of humanity’s future. If you’d like a good capsule version of this, try to find Birthright: The Book of Man by Mike Resnick (I linked it because his books are hard to find, for the most part). Another good future history is Heinlein’s The Past Through Tomorrow, though it’s a little thicker. Both are high quality sf, with the latter being more along the lines of hard sf (there being more science involved). Heinlein was able to pull off hard sf in a way that non-scientists could handle, though. And he was a hell of a good writer (if you read only one book by him, or one sf novel at all, make it Stranger in a Strange Land).

People who read “real” sf also tend to sneer at those like me who read/write space opera. Space opera differs from hard sf in that the science fiction is a backdrop for the story. In space opera, the story tends to be about power struggles, like in Star Wars. In other words, the story and the action are the important elements of space opera. Now, in some cases, some of the plot elements revolve around items that just wouldn’t work in any other setting. For instance, in the one I’m working on right now, the plot centers around the first crew to test a ship with a faster than light (ftl) drive disappears. Now it’s four hundred or so years later and they’ve made their way back—but they aren’t exactly human anymore. In Peter F. Hamilton’s  Night’s Dawn trilogy (talk about Bloated Epic, this one’s huge but well worth the read), the plot device that drives it is an  alien race that evolved into pure spirit form opens a rift between our galaxy and a limbo full of such luminaries as Al Capone and Christian Fletcher. They’ve been deprived of all sensation since they died and now they’re possessing people so they can experience life again. It brings on a crisis for the entire human race, and we learn from the one alien race we’ve encountered so far that every race that ever existed has had to go through this time of trials, but they can’t help us because each race also finds its own unique solution to getting through it. And some of the evidence isn’t all that encouraging, because one race apparently committed racial suicide—blew up their entire planet. Seems a little radical, but what can you do?

On the other hand, there are examples, such as the Robert L. Forward books mentioned above, that are pure hard sf, and others that are even harder to read (as I said, at least Mr. Forward can tell a good story). And that’s fine for the people who like that kind of thing. I struggle with it myself, partly through lack of a science degree of some type and partly because I believe the first duty of a story is to entertain, and hard science doesn’t entertain me. But, I guess people being people, fans of hard sf just gotta look down on the rest of us.

But read any good Heinlein or Asimov story and I guarantee you’ll be in for a story first, even if the science in it is hyper-accurate. These gentlemen understood that, in order to tell a good story, you didn’t resort to a textbook of some kind that happened to have fictional characters in it. And they were able to throw in details that made the stories feel authentic, as if you were reading about real people in real settings.

Any genre needs to evolve and change or it will die. I’m sure there are those who wouldn’t consider paranormal romance to be “proper” romance—and they’re likely missing out on some good stories. Sf now includes such things as alternate histories (I understand Harry Turtledove excels at this) and steampunk, along with cyberpunk (think Neuromancer by William Gibson. He also wrote Johnny Mnemonic, and I’m sure the story is better than the movie) and many others. To people who don’t read these stories, some of then can seem a bit silly. But I’d like to point out some others that we wouldn’t even consider science fiction now, but were when they came out, such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. When that one came out, making such a voyage on a submarine was pure speculation—but our submariners do it for months at a time now, and on nuclear powered subs, at that. And even when John F. Kennedy vowed to have men on the Moon by the end of the Sixties there were people who considered that to be a pipe dream. And there are still those who are convinced our Moon trips were filmed in Hollywood.

The future histories the Grand Masters wrote didn’t necessarily come true as they wrote them—for instance, Heinlein posited that space travel would be achieved by commercial interests, not by government—but the basic concepts have in some ways. So I’m not knocking hard science in that regard. I’m just saying that maybe we need to remember that the idea behind sf is to tell a story. And we’ve been doing that since the days when we squatted around a fire and wondered what those bright specks up in the sky were.




8 thoughts on “Back in the Golden Age

  1. Joachim Boaz

    Wonderful post. By far my favorite sci-fi is from the late 50s and early 60s. Although, I have to admit, the 60s added some needed gritty “disturbingness” to the genre… And, perhaps more importantly, some questioning about the value of technology… The 1950s tended to be so optimistic about how technology will save us — just consider a bunch of Heinlein juveniles!


    1. gilmiller Post author

      Not just the Sixties, either. Look at such movies as Logan’s Run (which I only learned recently was actually a book series before becoming a movie) and Soylent Green (I hope I spelled that right). Of course, once again, in some ways, we’re talking about the difference between books and movies—and we know what kind of a gap has always existed there.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Joachim Boaz

    Yeah, the writings from the late 50s are quite dark as well…

    I just wrote a review for David F. Galouye’s ‘Dark Universe’ if you’re curious — early 60s, somewhat of a lost author… He deserves to be read!

    1. gilmiller Post author

      I like the idea of your blog. As a writer, I tend to try to read only recent stuff to keep up with trends in the market. But, I have an old DAW set of the Elric novels, as well as the books of The Pelibar Cycle by Paul O. Williams (I have a thing for post-apocalyptic novels. I have copies of Earth Abides and Alas, Babylon waiting to be read. I’ll check in on your blog regularly to see what you recommend because, quite frankly, recommending something like Stranger in a Strange Land is easy. Digging up some of the obscure (to me, at least) books that I’ve seen listed on your blog just at a cursory glance is a treat. Not sure when I’d find time to read a lot of them, but at least they’re there if I want to look them up.

  3. Qzie

    Good post. I can’t stand hard sci-fi. It’s like they’re so worried about everything being accurate that they completely lose track of the story. I tried reading one a few years ago. The author actually managed to make the end of the world a complete snoozefest. It was terrible.
    Now The Hunger Games (they’re YA and in present tense, so chances are you haven’t read them, but they’re INCREDIBLE) were more soft sci-fi. Basically Suzanne Collins was like, “It works because it does” and didn’t let the technology get in the way of the story. That was good.
    Then with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams pretty much made the technology work for the story, not the other way around. And it was so very unscientific, which was the best part about it.
    Soft sci-fi rules. Just saying. 🙂

    1. gilmiller Post author

      I read Hitchhiker’s Guide years ago, and I’ve seen the original BBC series and have cassettes of the BBC Radio broadcasts as well (though I no longer have a cassette player to listen to them on lol). Douglas Adams invented technology whole-cloth for that series, and a lot of it was there to spoof stuff in more serious sf. Since I’m a Monty Python fan, I had no problem at all with that idea. You want some more humorous sf, try the Bill the Galactic Hero series by Harry Harrison. I personally wouldn’t call them great, but they’re pretty good.

      As for The Hunger Games, I have the first book in my “To be read” stack. It’s not that I dislike present tense, it just has to be done really well. I’ve sampled a few pages of it and it looks really good. I won’t dismiss present tense out of hand, it just has to hit a high mark. I guess I’m kinda old-school there. I grew up reading past tense and so that’s what I prefer.

      Thanks for the comment!

      1. Qzie

        Oooh, you’re in for a treat. The Hunger Games is just fantastic. I grew up with past tense as well, but the present tense really works for this trilogy because it has such a dynamic, fast-paced quality. I don’t think it would have been as effective in past tense, to be honest.

      2. gilmiller Post author

        That’s how the book Sandman Slim I mentioned in my post was. It was an in-your-face kind of immediacy that fit the story, and I’m glad I gave it a chance. I’m waiting for the sequel to hit the shelves. I want to see what happens next with this guy. It’s a dark, gritty story and a joy to read. As for The Hunger Games, it was one of those weird things where I was in a bookstore about a month or so back and saw it on an endcap. I wondered what it was all about, since that’s where the bigger selling books are usually put, and I hadn’t heard of it (some of those things seem to just go right past me for some reason). I happen to love any dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels, and when I saw that’s what it was I decided I had to try it. Just haven’t had a chance to get to it yet. I will though. Count on it.

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