Reflections of a Golden Age
by Christopher M. Chupik
Recently there has been some controversy in our community about whether or not the classics of the genre have value. I’m not going to fisk that article, as others have already done so. I’m also not going to call for the genre to return to the Golden Age, though I’m certain that the commenters on a certain blog which has fifty Hugo nominations will almost certainly spin this post as such. What I’m going to do is talk about my own experiences.
It’s said the Golden Age of SF is twelve and this was true for me. When everybody else was discovering the Hardy Boys, I was leaving them far behind as I journeyed with the mysterious Mr. Bass to the Mushroom Planet. Soon I accompanied David Innes and Abner Perry in their iron mole as it broke through the crust of Pellucidar, the prehistoric world at the Earth’s core. I went to Caspak, the land that time forgot, and later was transported to Barsoom with John Carter, the greatest swordsman on two worlds.
And no, I have no idea how nobody ever noticed I was reading paperbacks with nekkid chicks painted by Frank Frazetta and Michael Whelan on the covers. I was lucky. If a kid got caught with those today he would be marched to the principal’s office, possibly suspended and forced to undergo extensive therapy.
With junior high, I discovered Doc Savage (my school library fortunately had a pair of the Bantam doubles, The Headless Men/Devils of the Deep and Secret in the Sky/Cold Death). I read Ray Bradbury’s short stories and spent my reading periods and lunch breaks and discovered a bittersweet Mars which became as real in my mind as that of Burroughs, no matter what the Viking probes had discovered.
A collection of H P Lovecraft (The Outsider and Other Stories) opened my mind to a whole new non-Euclidian realm of cosmic horror. And then I found out about Robert E. Howard suddenly I had a whole new world of adventure open up for me, from the prehistoric empires of Kull and Conan to the Elizabethan exploits of Solomon Kane. A summer visit to my uncle gave me a chance to read both 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mysterious Island in the span of a few weeks. When I went to my public library, I would use their brand new computer terminals to search for decades-old books, not always finding them, but always looking.
In high school, my library had a selection of nonfiction books about SF — from the ’70s. So I got to learn what the SF field was like 20 years earlier. Such a different time: old guard vs. new, gender roles, political slapfights, accusations of fascism and sexism . . . Er, okay, maybe it’s not that different after all. Point is, I learned a lot. My list of authors grew and my horizons expanded to the edge of the universe.
I read Larry Niven and marveled at the wonders of the Ringworld. I learned the Laws of Robotics and pondered psychohistory. I read Orwell and discovered that some animals are more equal than others. Heinlein I unfortunately skipped, due to the fact that I made the mistake of believing in his “fascist” reputation mentioned in those books I had read. Because of that, I didn’t read him until adulthood, which I regret immensely now. You know, that could be a whole other post . . .
And now? My high-tech Kobo e-reader has a copy of Edmond Hamilton’s The Star Kings on it. Does it matter that I was reading this novel with a device more sophisticated than any of the computers contained within? Of course not.
One of the complaints made was that the younger generation can’t relate to “futures” where men still wear hats and they can make intelligent positronic robots but not personal computers. I say you’re not giving the younger generation enough credit. When I was reading Bradbury and Asimov, I was very aware that I was reading of future’s past. It doesn’t matter that Orwell’s 1984 is behind us (or is it?) any more than it matters that the Mars that Burroughs and Bradbury wrote about has no more foundation in reality than Middle-Earth.
It didn’t matter to me because I could see the things that hadn’t changed. Ultimately, the human experience remains consistent across the ages. Sure, superficial things like slang and fashions change with the decades (Think our modern SF won’t look hokey and dated to people mid-century? Think again.) But people still fall in and out of love. There is conflict and injustice. The universe is full of terrors and wonders yet to be discovered. It doesn’t matter if the characters are flying to a swampy Venus in rocketships or taking a starship through a wormhole to Gliese 581.
What matters is this: Is the plot good? Are the characters interesting? Is there a sense of wonder? Were you gripped? Do you want to read it again? These remain true, if you’re reading in 1915, 1955 or 2015.
The Golden Age is whenever you find it.