Last time on Goonhammer Reads Science Fiction we…
Thrilled! at the comparison of Black Library greats with classic Scifi!
Shivered! at the thought of reading nothing but Space Marine fiction for our entire lives!
Debated! the comparative radical-ness of Arthur C Clarke in the comments section!
This month, and from now on in this series, we’ll take a dive into an era (or genre) of SF, recommend some absolute must read greats and some Black Library reads to complement. This issue, we’re talking about the ray guns, aliens, flying saucers and walking plants from the early 1950s – the widely adored Golden Age.
We’re talking here about classic Scifi from the last hundred years, so it’s worth talking a bit about how Scifi critics tend to divide up the last several centuries of writing. Genres get divided up by overarching themes as authors react to the world around them, spinning mirrors of their own time out into the future (or the past). That means that world history – and technological progress – impacts hugely on Science Fiction, as does social context, publishing trends, local and international politics and anything else you’d care to name. Scifi authors can be visionaries, but they’re also products of their time and place.
That means that people throw around terms like the “Pulp Age” or the “Golden age”, or the “New Wave” or even “Cyberpunk” to describe periods of world literature – but often different things are going on in different places, united only by the vague framework of the technological milleu surrounding an author, especially when authors from either side of the pond compare notes.
“Classic” scifi can be roughly divided into a couple of key phases, with wildly varying and overlapping date ranges:
Scientific Romance 1600-1900
Radium Age 1900-1940
Pulp Age 1920-1950
Golden Age 1940-1960
New Wave 1960-1980
End of History 1990-2000+
When most of these terms get thrown around, they’re referring to genre differentiations made by men, writing about their mates (also men), in the extremely incestuous world of the scifi writer/critic/historian circle. Sometimes subdivisions will be based on a single author, or publisher, or magazine. They’re usually defined by what was happening in the Anglosphere, and even there America and Britain do very, very different Scifi. We’re not going to start at the beginning, because that would be too easy, but where the series we’re using – the Gollancz Scifi Masterworks – kicked off: the 1950s
There’s some undeniable boomer-stank about describing anything to do with the 1950s as the “Golden Years” of anything. It’s due to the BIG NAME writers coming of age – and having their own stuff printed – in the 40s to early 50s that the Golden Years is almost a universally understood description of post war Scifi. It’s very much an American led term, US pulp and SF magazines kicking off the period in 1939, with many of the major sub genres – space opera, robotics, big-man science – blossoming during the war. But everywhere else in the world, at least until 1941, had its own shit going on and its own literary trends, and the “Golden Years” don’t quite become almost universal until 1945.
It makes sense that Oppenheimer’s new sunrise would herald a change in Science Fiction writing. The atom, thoroughly and devastatingly split above the skies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was no longer the herald of perfect, scientific progress as it had been in the earlier Radium Age, and Science fiction arrived in everyday life like never before, as Isaac Asimov so memorably said:
The dropping of the atom bomb in 1945 made science fiction respectable
From 1939 to 1960, the world of Science fiction exploded into a massive abundance of stories, writers, themes and magazines. When it arrived in the mainstream in the aftermath of the war, the growing trickle of pulp SF and steady early output of Scifi’s first “Greats” – Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein and Bester – transformed the genre from fantastic, but niche, work in magazines like Astounding Science Fiction (later Analog) into world-spanning literary forms that captured the spirit of the new atomic age.
Towards the end of the Golden Years Scifi entered a broad, open plain of innovation, experimentation and changes, before rumbling discontent with strong-man-brain stories brought the New Wave. The greatest herald of the later age was – in my view – Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, and many of the greatest stories, and authors, of the terminal Golden Years come from there. You can, incidentally, read the entire thing online.
The output of the 1950s is so massive, and so influential, that it’s impossible to encompass all at once. The early 50s tends to be dominated by the themes of the 30s and 40s, of scientific wonder and single, strong, male scientists solving existential problems with the powers of their minds, overcoming superstition or the terrible scourge of anti-scienceism. There’s an untempered joy in this approach to Scifi; the world, and science, is wonderful and celebratory. It’s exactly the world that Boomers believe they lived in: white men, solving problems with brains and a little brawn.
But these are SF authors, dreamers, weirdoes and radicals and they are pushing boundaries, subverting tropes and, occasionally, even mentioning some women here and there. The outside world creeps in to small towns, terrifyingly, imposing chaos onto order, and a tall white cloud lurks just beyond the horizon. There’s Reds/clones/plants/bombs threatening the security of small town USA and Little Storyplace, Hampshire, UK, and only one fairly generic man can save the day!
Early 50s recommends
The divide between the Joy of Science and Nuclear Paranoia is pretty stark in these recommends, but gives you a good idea of the tension in early 50s SciFi. Have brave men solved the world’s problems by applying science in the same way you’d apply WD40, or have they unleashed uncontrollable terrors in the process? It’s undoubtedly still a relevant question today – but there’s no solid answers here, just great examples of “science men are great” and “science men create monsters”, and never the two shall meet – until next time.
Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
Barlemann is a pirate, a merchant and an adventurer, hired to retrieve data from a crashed satellite. He and his crew aboard the trading ship Bree will sail across the seas of the planet Mesklin, encountering civilisations, trading for unknown treasures and boldly going where no man has gone before. Barlemann is a rogue and a captain, trying to chance his hand and keep his crew together in a world that increasingly seems to be going mad. He’s also a foot long millipede.
Mission of Gravity isn’t just a good example of 1950s scifi, it’s the absolute perfect example of it. Mission is a classic scientific issue based story, with highly rational actors in both human and mesklinite form; there’s pulpy adventure, a rogue hero and – classically – aliens who just more or less think like people. It’s the one of the first proper “hard” scifi stories, where a scientifically observed phenomenon – here, that a highly oblate planet will have wildly varying gravity at the poles and equator – is spun out into a world, a framework and a narrative, and the story and characters exist to serve that concept.
This is Scifi written in the white hot optimism of the post-war American century, when everyone, everywhere will be some form of exceptional self-reliant adventurer out for themselves, and only the bold and the brave will excel in this new world. There’s very little feeling or emotion here, and the dialogue tends to consist of “Science, Aha!” “Aha indeed”, but man, this is IT for the American 50s, and it’s great. Science, heroism and a roguish charm will save the day from an issue that threatens the progress of the great god science, and a foot long inch wide millipede pirate is the greatest hero of the decade. Absolutely perfect.
Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham
Bill Masen wakes up into a world rendered blind by unforseen catastrophe, a suddenly chaotic and brutal post-apocalypse of a distinctly 50’s Britain. As society crumbles and factions of the sighted and blind alike emerge, so does something else – the ambulatory plants known as Triffids…
Triffids (1951) isn’t the best Wyndham novel (that’s The Kraken Wakes imo), but it’s the first one in his catastrophes series, and the one that has endured most in the public imagination. It’s very 1950s in structure and theme – an ordered society endures unexpected, and alien, upheaval testing man and structure alike to destruction – with a sensible, level-headed protagonist and his beautiful, intelligent female companion, but unlike a billion other novels from the early years of the decade, it’s so much more than that as well. Wyndham fought through the D-Day Landings and the book exudes a war-influenced menace, first in the chaos following Masen’s awakening and then as the zombie-like hordes of the Triffids press ever further onto the faltering remains of human civilisation.
Brian Aldiss, writing as part of the New Wave, called these “cosy catastrophes” but there’s nothing cosy about them. This is the post apocalypse in the British 50s. Yes, there’s people wanting a tea and a gin and a cigarette, but there’s also murder, a claustrophobic siege, feudal gangs and the undeniable horror Wyndham generates from a walking coconut with a sting. It’s very much what British Scifi was doing in the 50s – grey and stiff upper lipped, but horrifying and chaotic. Other fantastic examples include The Quartermass Experiment (TV, 1953), Dr Who (ok, that’s 63), The Death of Grass by John Christopher and Clarke’s Childhood’s End.
Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett
Nuclear war doesn’t just threaten, it has come and gone, leaving America a blasted rural wasteland of villages and towns, every city blasted into nothingness. For the Mennonite community of Piper’s Run, the world-that-was brought this upon themselves, and only rigid aherence to rural, religious life can save the remains of humanity. When a travelling trader is stoned to death for his connection to forbidden technology, cousins Len and Esau are set on a path to Barstortown, where the faint flame of technological progress gutters and flickers in an increasingly hopeless world.
If Triffids is British social order, and Gravity American exceptionalism, Long Tomorrow is the final part of the early 1950s triad, the shadow of the bomb. Nuclear annihilation forms the skeleton of the story, both as a post-apocalyptic story and as a looming, ever-present threat to the characters and societies Leigh creates. Long Tomorrow is Scifi predicting what a nuclear war would bring only ten years after Hiroshima – not a tide of mutated horrors, but a fundamental breakdown of society as we know it, the world locked into small, rural communities eking out precarious existence under religious law.
The book starts to tail off a little towards the end, particularly when the initial concept starts to morph into a more boiler-plate science-and-robots narrative, but the impact of the bomb, and the shadow it casts across the narrative is powerful, and done more honestly than many post-bomb narratives. There’s comparisons to be made with Nevil Schute’s On the Beach, (1957) one of the more consistently depressing post-nuclear stories and one that remains a slow and horrifyingly bleak response to the shadow of the bomb (you can firmly ignore Asimov’s contention that “there’s a nuclear war – what else is new?”), but Brackett deals more with the reconstruction of society than its painful, vomit-choked death. The horror and sheer mutagenic terror of the bomb isn’t there either – for that, look for Judith Merill’s That Only a Mother (1948), one of the best pure nuclear horror stories to emerge directly after the war – but instead there’s important foreshadowing of the feeling, emotion and motivation that would characterise the New Wave in the next decade.
You’ll know Leigh Brackett, too. Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, Long Goodbye and the first draft of a little thing called Empire Strikes Back.
Black Library Picks
If we’re talking about the age-old Golden Years of Scifi, we’ve really got to go and talk about the first Golden Era of the Black Library, right? Black Library started off in the late 80s before a more or less decade long break, when Abnett and King kicked off the publishing juggernaut we know and love. But the first Golden Age was of established scifi authors commissioned to write bizarrely horny versions of the Warhammer world and 40k galaxy. The Black Library pick for this month has to be Space Marine.
Space Marine is a flat out weird book, written by Ian Watson, a man known for occasionally horny Scifi, big, weird, ideas and a willingness, unlike everyone else in British SF in the late 80s, to write a couple of 40k books. The world of 40k in the imaginations of most authors is a weird place, right, but it’s a weird place that looks pretty much like the inside of a Catholic cathedral on a potent mix of Krokodil and Benzos. I’d argue that it’s not actually that weird, just violent, superstitious and depressed. Watson’s 40k is weird. Incredibly uncomfortable, disturbing, almost incomprehensible – a Scifi author in a cavalier mood, writing with complete free rein before the powers that be realised the leash had to be much, much tighter – a sentence, thinking about it, that would be at home in many of the sections of Space Marine. Watson has a fantastic interview – with added thoughts about writing for the Black Library – on his site. It remains interesting, challenging and to be honest, the most 40kish 40k gets outside of Penitent and Pariah. Homoerotic, sadomasochistic, horny and downright odd, this is almost as far from the mainline image of the Space Marine as Games Workshop would ever allow an author to get.
So, weird, over-sexed, not great, mostly forgotten Scifi? Pair it with the weirdly horny, barely comprehensible Star Rider by Doris Piserchia, the collected tales of Jade of the Galaxy, a young woman (and this is the 1970s, so she’s troublingly young at one point) with the power to ride her faithful steed Hrinx across the spaces between the stars. Mercurial, willful, borderline-erotic, nomadic and free spirited, Jade navigates through some pretty baffling political, social and sexual scenarios in a strange, deeply 70s fantasy galaxy. It’s all very Barbarella, with the added weirdness that the 70s added to anything involving horses. As a book I’m not sure if it works – this is a classic cut-up job, where barely related short stories are combined into a single narrative – but as a pair with Space Marine – and better with the Inquisition War series, Watson’s other, and far, far, more misogynist 40k offering, it makes a certain kind of sense.
Next time: travelling back to the future.
Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Disagree that Mission of Gravity is the best US Scifi of the 1950s because it’s actually Space Merchants and you’re annoyed I didn’t include it? Get in touch at email@example.com, or leave a comment below and join our Patreon and talk about books, please!