Golden Age of Short Science Fiction Essay - Critical Essays

Golden Age of Short Science Fiction


Golden Age of Short Science Fiction, 1938–1950

The time period referred to as the Golden Age of Short Science Fiction began in 1938, when John W. Campbell, Jr. became editor of the science fiction magazine Astounding Stories, which was renamed Astounding Science Fiction in 1938 and finally Analog in 1960. Under Campbell's tenure, Astounding Science Fiction became the premier science fiction magazine in the world. Assembling a talented group of writers, Campbell set out to publish stories that were based not only on plausible and reasonable scientific and technological advances, but also on the psychological and sociological effects of these advances on the individual. Critics have contended that this fiction embodies a uniquely American utopian vision—that American ingenuity would lead humanity to an idealistic future. Under Campbell's reign, science, plot, and characterization were emphasized. Writers were provided with guidelines for quality and benefitted from Campbell's collaborative approach to editing. Astounding Science Fiction dominated the genre of science fiction until 1950, when several other magazines, such as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction appeared and paperback novels and short story collections began to challenge Astounding Science Fiction for readers.

During the Golden Age, commentators maintain that two main types of science fiction stories were prominent: “hard” science fiction, which is based primarily on scientific fact and obscure scientific theory; and “soft” science fiction, or space opera, which is regarded as a melodramatic space fantasy that often employs stock themes, settings, and characters from American Western literature and movies. These tales reflected a widespread concern about war, the devastating impact of the Great Depression, and the rapid technological progress made around the time of World War II. They also utilized a common mythos by establishing a historical framework of world history, known as the “Future History,” stretching far into the future and including galactic warfare. During the 1930s and 1940s, space flight, catastrophic threats to Earth, superhuman heroes, and universal warfare were the prevalent themes of science fiction stories. Critics have also explored the depiction of gender roles and the lack of sexual relationships in the fiction of the Golden Age.

Many tales that were published in Astounding Science Fiction were viewed as formulaic and commercial, written to appeal to the broadest audience possible. In this sense, Campbell succeeded in attracting new readers to the genre and improving the image of science fiction literature. Several of the authors Campbell published went on to become major science fiction authors, including Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. Campbell is credited with honing the work of these authors; in many cases, he was often considered as a collaborator and his influence on their work and careers is regarded as profound and incalculable. The popularity of the writers and stories from that period resulted in the proliferation of science fiction magazines and books as well as TV and film adaptations of science fiction stories. Science fiction has emerged as a potent sub-genre of American literature with a popularity that can be traced back to the influence of John W. Campbell and his stable of Golden Age science fiction authors.

Representative Works

The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology [edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.] (anthology) 1952
Tomorrow, the Stars: A Science Fiction Anthology [edited by Robert A. Heinlein] (anthology) 1952
A Treasury of Great Science Fiction [edited by Anthony Boucher] (anthology) 1959
Science Fiction Hall of Fame [edited by Robert Silverberg] (anthology) 1970
Science Fiction: The Great Years [edited by Frederik and Carol Pohl] (anthology) 1973
Before the Golden Age: A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930s [edited by Isaac Asimov] (anthology) 1974
The History of the Science Fiction Magazine [edited by Michael Ashley] (anthology) 1975
Science Fiction of the Thirties [edited by Damon Knight] (anthology) 1975
Science Fiction: The Great Years, Volume II [edited by Frederik and Carol Pohl] (anthology) 1976
Science Fiction of the Forties [edited by Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander] (anthology) 1978
The Golden Age of Science Fiction [edited by Kingsley Amis] (anthology) 1981
The Best of Astounding: Classic Short Novels from the Golden Age of Science Fiction [edited by James Gunn] (novellas) 1992

Poul Anderson
“Logic” (short story) 1947
“Tomorrow's Children” [with F. N. Waldrop] (short story) 1947

Isaac Asimov
I, Robot (short stories) 1950
*Foundation (novellas and novelettes) 1951
*Foundation and Empire (novellas and novelettes) 1952
*Second Foundation (novellas and novelettes) 1953
The Martian Way, and Other Stories (short stories) 1955

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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Patrick Parrinder (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Parrinder, Patrick. “Working Daydream, Workshop Definitions.” In Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching, pp. 1-28. London: Methuen, 1980.

[In the following essay, Parrinder surveys the history of science fiction literature in order to provide a definition of the genre.]

The idea of literature is unthinkable without the conception of genres, or conventional literary forms. Many of the forms which still dominate our literature go back to the beginnings of Western civilization; these include the lyric, the drama, the satire, and the fable. Others, such as the novel, the crime story, and science fiction, came to prominence in very recent times. To refer to...

(The entire section is 9202 words.)

John Huntington (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Huntington, John. “The Myth of Genius: The Fantasy of Unpolitical Power.” In Rationalizing Genius: Ideological Strategies in the Classic American Science Fiction Short Story, pp. 44-68. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Huntington views the identification with power as a central theme in science fiction literature.]

At the core of much SF fantasy is an identification with power. We see it rendered in recent SF by an exaltation in sheer size: empires war with ships the size of planets. A student once explained to me that SF was interesting and important because the weapons it imagined were capable of destroying a...

(The entire section is 12304 words.)

Thomas D. Clareson (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Clareson, Thomas D. “1926-1950: The Flowering of a Tradition.” In Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Formative Period (1926-1970), pp. 5-39. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Clareson provides an overview of the Golden Age of Short Science Fiction literature.]

To appreciate the complexities and significance of contemporary American science fiction, one must immediately clear away a number of problems which cloud even such central issues as the definition of the field. On the one hand science fiction belongs to a complex literary tradition going back at least to the medieval travel books; as a...

(The entire section is 8297 words.)

Brian Attebery (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Attebery, Brian. “Animating the Inert: Gender and Science in the Pulps.” In Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, pp. 39-61. New York: Routledge, 2002.

[In the following essay, Attebery considers the treatment of sexuality and gender in science fiction literature.]

Many of SF's essential tropes—from robots to time travel—were dreamed up by nineteenth-century writers such as Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, Jack London, and H. G. Wells. Yet not until Hugo Gernsback named and tamed it in the 1920s did SF consolidate into a popular genre commanding a loyal and insatiable audience. Gernsback started the first English-language...

(The entire section is 11258 words.)