The golden age and more

Those who read enough science fiction, particularly those who read enough about science fiction, hear a lot about the so-called golden age. The golden age of what? Well, the golden age of science fiction, of course.

When was that?

Well, if you grew up in the 1950s—as I did—you may think that it was the 1950s.

Or you might agree with the late David Hartwell that the golden age of science fiction is 12. Get it? Hartwell writes:

Powerful ideas concerning great changes in humanity are waiting in accessible form, clothed in science fiction. If you read them when you were twelve, you will remember them when you are older, even if you do not remember where they came from.

Indeed at age 12 or so I first began to appreciate the classics of SF. (Stop! I’m tired of typing “science fiction” over and over, so I’m switching to the abbreviation used by all those who are serious about the field: “SF.” Never “sci fi,” which immediately brands you as a newbie! Furthermore, as David Hartwell discusses in welcome detail, SF also stands for “speculative fiction,” thereby fueling all sorts of debates and controversies.)

Hartwell’s wonderful book, Age of Wonders, is a serious study that explores the history and nature of science fiction. We’re talking books, not movies! We’re also talking 39 years ago, so some things are necessarily out of date. Although parts of this work may be slow going—Hartwell does have a PhD in Comparative Literature, after all—Age of Wonders will amply repay whatever time you put into reading it.

Among the many riches of this historically oriented book is a fascinating discussion of readers vs. fans. For example:

A science fiction fan is not merely one who observes, who watches, no matter how worshipfully and attentively, as may be the case with a sports fan or a fan of popular music or a devotee of the works of Agatha Christie. SF fandom is made up of people engaging in one or more of the following activities: participating in local science fiction clubs or discussion groups, writing letters to magazines that publish SF, SF conventions, collecting SF or related materials, publishing or participating in amateur publications about SF, publishing or participating in amateur publications about SF fandom (not necessarily about science fiction directly).

A person who reads only SF, even if he or she reads a great deal of it, but does not engage in any of these activities is not part of the world of fandom and for the sake of clarity will be referred to as an SF reader rather than a fan. The great majority of SF readers—including most omnivores and chronics—in this sense are not fans.

You may wonder what this mention of “omnivores and chronics” is all about. Well, one of the reasons that Hartwell is so informative is that he tells us—both in broad strokes and with specific details—about different types of science fiction, what they are and who they appeal to. I’ve always (well, since the aforementioned age of 12) been aware that SF comes in a variety of flavors, but I had never categorized them the way Hartwell does. It’s nutritious food for thought; read his book to find out the specifics.

There’s also some fascinating discussion of science fiction as presented in movies and television, which Hartwell calls sci-fi to distinguish it from SF as found in books and magazines. I am definitely sympathetic to this bias. This distinction circles back to the question of omnivores, who may not exist anymore.

Please note that SF definitely does not include fantasy, no matter what bookstores may claim:

There is a huge and loyal mass audience for fantasy at the present time, but an audience of what C.S. Lewis would have called bad readers: those almost wholly uncritical and seemingly ready to reward the most repetitive and gory spectacles—and very powerful because of vast numbers in the mass audience outside the field.

Despite the sometimes academic flavor of his writing, Hartwell does not stay away from controversy, as you see. I was particularly struck by his explanation of some of the hatred caused by Tom Goldwin’s famous short story “The Cold Equations,” and I can only imagine what would have happened in social media had it been been written today rather than in 1954. I only wish Hartwell had done a compare-and-contrast with Ursula LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which is equally relevant today and has the opposite conclusion.

Finally, as I am now planning my summer course, in its context as one part of the interdisciplinary theme “Forming Our Future,” I have to close with one more paragraph from David Hartwell’s book:

In a way, the dream of science fiction is to control reality by creating it. If you don’t like the way things are, read a story about a world in which things are different. Be in that world. A long-term chronic, separated in some way from mundane life to begin with, does lose touch with many of the elements of daily life in the present, much like an absentminded professor—he is distracted by the future.

Categories: Books