Science Fiction's Pre-Golden Age (1904-33), an Introduction

Earlier this year, I formulated an eccentric but strict periodization scheme, in which the Nineteen-Oughts (not to be confused with the 1900s), for example, run from 1904 through 1913; the Teens (not to be confused with the '10s) from 1914-23; and the Twenties (not to be confused with the '20s) from 1924-33. And so forth.

A decade, after all, is a sociocultural as well as a calendrical phenomenon. Think of the Sixties, which - pop-culturally speaking - began optimistically in '64 with the release of Meet the Beatles, and ended tragically in '73 with the death of Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen Stacy (the comic book's cover even announced a "TURNING POINT," i.e. the end of the Sixties). Still not convinced? It would be tedious to argue about my crackpot scheme here, but I've written plenty on the topic elsewhere.

If my survey of SF novels published between the beginning of the 20th century and the so-called Golden Age of SF stops short of the Thirties (1934-43), it does so with good reason. It was during the mid-1930s, after all, that "science fiction established itself, separating with a slowly increasing decisiveness from fantasy and space-opera," as Kingsley Amis approvingly put it in his 1958 critique, New Maps of Hell.

SF's Golden Age, in this analysis, didn't wait for Campbell to start buying stories from Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, but instead gave birth to itself in the years 1934-37, a transitional period or interregnum that saw the advent of the campy Flash Gordon comic strip, E.E. "Doc" Smith's pseudo-scientific Lensman series, and innumerable post-King Kong Hollywood "sci-fi" blockbusters. These escapist, fantastical, wildly popular phenomena helped disentangle literate, analytical, socially conscious "speculative fiction" (Huxley's Brave New World, which appeared in '32, had helped jump-start the trend) from mere sci-fi, a genre now understood by the public to concern itself exclusively with adventure yarns set in the future and populated with Bug-Eyed Monsters. Not that there's anything wrong with BEMs, you understand.

Science Fiction's Pre-Golden Age (1904-33), an Introduction

By the early 1940s (i.e., the midpoint of the Thirties), as SF chroniclers of a certain age never tire of crowing, the grown-up Campbell Revolution had decisively overthrown the eternally sophomoric Gernsbackians. For the next couple of decades, American genre writers born in the Oughts, who were too young to contribute to PGA SF - e.g., Heinlein, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, L. Sprague de Camp, L. Ron Hubbard, Andre Norton, Fredric Brown, Clifford D. Simak, Alfred Bester, C.L. Moore; and their immediate juniors, born in the Tens, including Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clarke, Leigh Brackett, James Blish, Frederik Pohl, Frank Herbert, and Theodore Sturgeon - would rarely mingle SF and Fantasy in the promiscuous, innocent fashion of PGA-ers like William Hope Hodgson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, or David Lindsay. Unless, of course, they did so as a deliberate experiment in what came to be called (yuck) "science fantasy."

In his introduction to a 1974 collection titled Before the Golden Age, Asimov would note, condescendingly, that although it may have possessed a certain vigor, in general PGA SF "seems, to anyone who has experienced the Campbell Revolution, to be clumsy, primitive, naive." This is certainly true of much SF from the Pulp Era, and of Hugo Gernsback's own fiction in particular. (Amis on Gernsbackian SF: "Neither culture not dreams warm it; it exists as propaganda for the wares of the inventor.") However, what I find so appealing about PGA SF is the ability of its best authors to bring thinking and dreaming (also known as the "Hmm..." and the "Oh!") together in a fraught, negative-dialectical state of productive tension. If this means that PGA SF is somehow less sophisticated than GA SF, more adolescent or immature, then we need to rethink what it means to be sophisticated and mature.

Science Fiction's Pre-Golden Age (1904-33), an Introduction

As for SF novels published in the years 1901-03, there's a sound argument to be made for overlooking them, too. Here it is: The 20th century saw the prose style of H.G. Wells, father of SF in the English-speaking world, turn increasingly didactic and shrill; however, The First Men in the Moon and The Food of the Gods, the last of Wells's "scientific romances" that are actually fun to read, appeared in '01 and '04. As Brian Aldiss laments, in Billion Year Spree, Wells's many 20th-century novels, with the exception of the two named, "do not recapture that darkly beautiful quality of imagination, or that instinctive-seeming unity of construction, which lives in his early novels, and in his science fiction particularly." This suggests that the late 19th century which Wells did so much to invent didn't expire until '04-ish - a proposition that is, I submit, six years less outlandish than Virginia Woolf's claim that the 20th century (I'm paraphrasing) didn't begin until "on or about December 1910." For the purposes of this survey, then, the handful of SF novels published from 1901-03 can be safely disregarded.

Fine! But mightn't ignoring the years 1901-03 and 1934-37 do a disservice to important, even critical SF novels published during those periods that belong - by virtue of their style and worldview, their negative-dialectical whatchamacallit - neither to the Wellsian 19th century nor to the Campbellian Golden Age?

Not so much, actually. In fact, by my count only five such novels exist. So I'm going to cheat, and include in this survey: M.P. Shiel's gorgeously written apocalypse, The Purple Cloud (1901); Joseph O'Neill's Land Under England (1935), a hollow-earth fable of telepathic totalitarianism; Olaf Stapledon's Homo Superior novel, Odd John (1935), without which David Bowie couldn't have dreamed up Ziggy Stardust; Karel Čapek's War with the Newts (1936; 1937 in English), in which Nazi-like intelligent salamanders demand Lebensraum from the human race; and Stapledon's Star Maker (1937), which defies description in a few words.

Science Fiction's Pre-Golden Age (1904-33), an Introduction

Science fiction's Pre-Golden Age (1904-33) is a cruelly neglected era. It's almost as though SF historians and scholars don't want us to read the SF of, for example, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack London, Olaf Stapledon, William Hope Hodgson, Karel Capek (who gave us the word "robot"), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, E.E. "Doc" Smith, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, and Philip Wylie. They'd like us to jump straight from the late 19th century (Edward Bellamy, William Morris, HG Wells, Jules Verne) to the Golden Age. Why? Let's find out!

Two final notes:

(1) Each post in this series will be devoted to an enduring SF theme, from Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Scenarios to Artificial Life, Lost Worlds, Utopias and Dystopias, and Homo Superior, among other things.

(2) Want to get your mitts on the novels I'll be reviewing or mentioning? Bison Books and Penguin have reissued dozens of 19th-century and PGA SF novels, while some other titles are fairly easy to find at new and used booksellers. PS: In the 1960s and '70s the now-defunct New English Library reissued some PGA SF titles as part of its SF Master Series, edited by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss. In the mid-1970s, turn-of-the-century SF scholars Douglas Menville and R. Reginald republished 62 SF books from before the Golden Age with the Arno Press. Also in the mid-70s: Lester del Rey republished a half-dozen PGA SF novels under the aegis of The Garland Library of Science Fiction; and Sam Moskowitz republished 23 "classics" of late 19th- and early 20th-century SF with Hyperion Press.

Alas, a few of the books I'll mention are impossible to purchase for a reasonable price, or even locate. Useful websites for collectors are AbeBooks and the bookseller L.W. Currey. If the full text of any of the PGA SF novels reviewed or mentioned in this series is available online, and I neglect to link to it, please post the URL to the comments on that entry.

READ THE WHOLE SERIES:

Introduction to Science Fiction's Pre-Golden Age (1904-33) | The 10 Best Apocalypse Novels | The Most Amazing Book Covers | The Coolest Robots | More TBA

Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based freelance journalist and independent scholar, who writes frequently about science fiction. His most recent book is The Idler's Glossary.