As I sit wandering the internet for fresh tidbits of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, I find them flourishing everywhere. Perhaps flourishing is not the right word. Flourishing leads me to images of well-manicured flower gardens and carefully pruned trees. The speculative fiction of today could very well be classified as a kudzu rather than a flower. It invades every corner of the world, choking back the growth of orchids and tulips and lilies and violets and lotus. Instead of stepping along a path partaking of the mastery found in a meticulously constructed sculpture, I find myself sifting through the landfill desperately trying to unearth a buried treasure.
Science fiction, fantasy, and horror assault our senses from everywhere. The movie theaters are kept open by the grand spectacles that are strategically released every weekend of our summers. Television provides speculative fiction twenty-four hours a day targeting every age group from birth to death. The world is filled with speculative fiction in the form of comics and magazines and video games and card games and board games and books and eBooks and websites and every other medium that anyone with a pulse could possibly imagine. The only days that go by when I am not assaulted by some new source of speculative fiction are the days where I burrow into the darkest hole in the dankest jungle on this planet we affectionately call Earth.
Don’t get me wrong, speculative fiction of today is filled with examples of absolute genius. I’m talking Einstein and Hawking level genius. The kind of brilliance that makes you smile and call your friend to tell them of your discovery. Maybe I’m walking the wrong roads (I’m sure I could use a map), because the bright light of genius seems to be getting harder to find. They seem to be getting washed out by the white noise of mediocrity and even, dare I say, inadequacy. Perhaps I’m jaded. Perhaps I’ve seen fifty too many fireworks displays for them to provide me any sense of ooh or awe.
Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are just names provided for convenience so that the reader or, more importantly, the customer can find their topic of interest. The pages of Amazing Stories Magazine have recently been filled with discussions of what separates science fiction and fantasy, but for this discussion let’s simply clump them together in the all-inclusive, politically correct term speculative fiction. The origins of the split between the genres can be traced back to the founding of the terms. To the so called Golden Age of science fiction where fantasy and horror were spat out the same way the literary world ostracized science fiction.
Many consider the Golden Age of science fiction to have taken place between 1938 and 1950. Isaac Asimov himself declared it to be true in his anthology Before the Golden Age. Why did Asimov consider that period to be the Golden Age? The answer is simple, John W. Campbell. Asimov considered him to be the “the most powerful force in science fiction ever.” The Golden Age according to Asimov stretched from the ascension of Campbell to editor of Astounding magazine to the time when competition began to settle in from more and more science fiction magazines.
Some have disagreed on the period that makes up the Golden Age of science fiction. Norman Spinrad dated it at 1966 to 1970. Others claim even different periods while managing to provide such strong arguments that only a jury could decide. To my experience these arguments center around science fiction and rarely embrace the kissing cousins of fantasy and horror. If we now group them back together as speculative fiction, where would we place the Golden Age.
The term Golden Age is defined as the most flourishing period of literature. In this case the most flourishing period of speculative literature. By definition flourishing means growing vigorously; thriving; prosperous. It would be hard to argue that speculative fiction has never flourished more than it does today. So are we living in the Golden Age of speculative fiction? To me it just doesn’t pass the sniff test, something stinks.
Golden Age can also describe an era of peace and innocence, but it also could refer to a person’s retirement years, their golden years. Without looking in the dictionary, my gut tells me that the Golden Age refers to a period when the best speculative fiction was written. So when was the true Golden Age of speculative fiction and how do we define it? How do we label the genre today?
For me the debate is centered around the beholder. Everyone sees the world through different eyes. Every person on the planet since the beginning of time has a unique iris pattern, even “identical” twins. With our unique set of eyes, we form unique opinions. So it is with this topic.
My grandparents tell me how much better things were in the 1930s and 1950s. Maybe I’ll tell my kids how much better things were in the 1990s and the 2000s. Perspective matters. If the Golden Age equates to the best example of literature, writers might be biased to include themselves in that age. After all we know we are the best, whether anyone is smart enough to see it or not. Perhaps Asimov himself was not immune to this filter.
While I would agree the Golden Age of speculative fiction must contain great examples of writing, I also argue that it must have an equal part of peace and innocence. For me the Golden Age of fireworks was during my youth. The sparkling tails went sailing into the night sky before unexpectedly exploding into fantastic patterns of wonder. My eight year old eyes were astounded. I couldn’t help but ooh and awe at the sight. I know today that the fireworks are more well engineered. They fly higher into the sky. They explode into fabulously more complex patterns. They create spectacles that could never be achieved when I was eight. But for all their magnificence, the fireworks I see today hold no more wonder for me. The Golden Age is gone.
When Campbell discovered Asimov and Heinlein and Sturgeon and so many more, he was the barker on a soap box at the carnival. He was offering a glimpse of the bearded lady for one, thin dime. He was not only the greatest show on earth, he was the only show in town. Yes, there were others, Amazing Stories amongst them. But as Asimov stated, Campbell was the fusion generator, the arc reactor, the nuclear engine that made it go. He molded the world of speculative fiction in his image, and we loved it. He nurtured and tutored talented writers. He forged them into giants. He created two of the “Big Three” (Asimov and Heinlein) out of pulp and sweat.
Campbell chiseled the world of speculative fiction less than a hundred years ago, but in that time we have aged much more rapidly. Campbell’s time was an age of technological innocence. Einstein was in his prime. Human’s had never reached the moon. The internet had not yet tied every corner of the world together. As we look around today, our innocence is lost. Discussions of manned missions to Mars barely register on our collective radar.
As we continue our exploration, let’s cast our nets a little wider. We are talking speculative fiction after all and not just science fiction. What name comes to mind when you think of horror in its Golden Age? For me the name is Lovecraft. If Elvis is the King of Rock-‘n-Roll and Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke are the “Big Three” of science fiction, I declare Lovecraft to be the godfather of horror. In the realm of fantasy, there is no debate. The measuring stick has been and always will be J.R.R. Tolkien. Even George R.R. Martin is called the modern day Tolkien. Maybe someday they will call someone the later day Martin, but for now there is one by which all others are measured. Tolkien is the forefather of fantasy.
As we frame our Golden Age, we see that Lovecraft enjoyed his peak success in the 1920s and 1930s. The Hobbit first found paper and ink in 1937. The Lord of the Rings was published in the 1950s. Asimov proliferated from the 1930s to the 1990s. Heinlein fell from his summit in the mid-1960s. Arthur C. Clarke did not hit his stride until the 1950s. It is hard for me to imagine a Golden Age of science fiction that does not include one of the “Big Three”, but with Asimov’s definition Clarke is pushed out.
As I pull out my paint brush and dip it in the golden paint, I drag the bristles along the timeline from 1920 to 1970. For me this is the Golden Age of speculative fiction. I include not the “Big Three”, but the “Great Five”, including Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Lovecraft, and Tolkien. Not by accident the time coincides with the loss of innocence in the world. Earthlings landed on the moon. Computers slowly crept into our world alongside televisions.
So where does that leave us today? Was the Golden Age the best we can expect from speculative fiction? If it was, does that mean it is all downhill from here? In the early 1970s President Nixon removed the United States from the gold standard. Correspondingly the value of gold changed. A fitting time for the end of the Golden Age. While the US still holds vast reserves of gold, what are they really worth? Are those gold bars relics of more innocent times?
We are living in an age of virtual money. Numbers exist in our bank accounts on silicone chips and are transmitted by electrons. A person could live from birth to death without ever needing any type of physical currency and certainly not even an ounce of gold. Jewelry and speculating investors still make good use of gold, but its value to society has diminished. We have lost our innocence. We have become numb to its beauty and value.
So it is with the Golden Age of speculative fiction. We collect bits and samples of it to lock in our vault. Occasionally we pull it out to admire. Sometimes when the light is right it appears dulled and lackluster, but yet it remains gold. The speculative fiction of today is flourishing. Authors today may not have a Campbell to guide them. Their voices may get drowned out by the armies of barking seals, but there is greatness amongst them. Perhaps Heinlein and Asimov would have struggled to be known in this electron age of speculative fiction. Perhaps Campbell’s power would have dissipated inside those silicone chips. We will never know. The Golden Age of speculative fiction was a different time, an innocent time. Today we are living in the Electron Age of speculative fiction. Embrace it as it pulls us into the future. Perhaps a hundred years from now someone will mistake it for the Golden Age.