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.
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
“Logic” (short story) 1947
“Tomorrow's Children” [with F. N. Waldrop] (short story) 1947
I, Robot (short stories) 1950
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
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 these new classes of writing as genres is to make a double assertion. At the very moment of insisting on their novelty and modernity, we imply that they have precursors and a history, that the contemporary practice is a combination of elements (which can now be seen with a new understanding) in the literary past.
Science fiction, though in many ways a highly conventional kind of writing, is one that cannot be defined uncontroversially. At first glance, it might appear to invite self-evident definition, as detective fiction is fiction about detectives and the art of solving crimes. Yet this is not the case, as is proved by the innumerable attempts that have been made to define it. On close inspection science fiction turns...
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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 planet, even a universe. How trivial the cowboy's six-shooter was by comparison. Such an observation is not entirely naive. In this [essay] I explore how the genre indulges just such fantasies of giganticism. What I will primarily deal with, however, is not the terms of the fantasy of power itself, but the way the fantasy manages the inevitable conflict between the powerful figure and the social world. The genius, who in classic American SF is almost always male, is an immensely rich object of identification, but the more a story tries to make the fantasy seem plausible, the more it has to engage in rationalizations. The process in turn involves distortions and repressions that together constitute what I am calling the thought process of the...
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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 result, from the outset it has inherited and cherished certain conventions, both of content and narrative strategy. Almost paradoxically, however, SF has been one of the most topical areas of fiction. What one must recall is that almost nothing has been lost. Once some motif or some narrative technique has been introduced, it may undergo innumerable permutations, but it remains a part of the so-called “science fiction furniture” which writers may rely on. In this sense—and no better example occurs than the “future history” created in the late 1930s and 1940s by such writers as Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein—the field has developed a kind of code which enthusiasts recognize immediately but to which newcomers must be...
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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 all-SF magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926 and coined the term science fiction three years later.
The taming of the mode was a result of the popular marketplace converging with Gernsback's enthusiasms. Nineteenth-century SF was a set of wild mutations from such stock as the gothic novel, the utopian tract, the travel story, and the newspaper hoax. Gernsback, in turn, was the Luther Burbank who selected and stabilized a commercially viable variety. The SF he published was more coherent and consistent than much of what had gone before, but at the expense of some distinction in style and content.
Amazing Stories and the publications that soon joined it on drugstore shelves resembled a...
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Criticism: Publishing History Of Golden Age Short Science Fiction
SOURCE: del Ray, Lester. The World of Science Fiction: 1926-1976, The History of a Subculture, pp. 91-137. New York: Ballantine Books, 1979.
[In the following excerpt, del Ray describes the proliferation of science fiction magazines in the 1930s and 1940s.]
When F. Orlin Tremaine was given directorship over several magazines, it became necessary for him to find another editor for Astounding, and his choice was John W. Campbell. Then, when Tremaine left Street & Smith in May 1938, Campbell assumed full authority for the magazine. Actually, he was responsible for the buying of stories considerably before that date.
John Wood Campbell (1910-1971) was one of the most popular writers in the field before he became an editor. But many of the readers were worried when his name replaced that of Tremaine, who had proved to be extremely capable. The fears were soon put to rest. The transition between editors was extremely smooth; by the time the magazine had used its previous inventory and began to depend solely on Campbell's selections, the readers were delighted.
February 1938 brought the conclusion of E. E. Smith's Galactic Patrol. In March came the first indication that there were to be alterations; the title of the magazine was changed to Astounding Science Fiction. Campbell felt that the old title was far too indicative of pulp-action stories, and...
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Criticism: Major Golden Age Short Science Fiction Authors And Editors
SOURCE: Hassler, Donald M. “The Campbell Years and All the Short Stories.” In Isaac Asimov, pp. 18-36. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, Inc., 1991.
[In the following essay, Hassler scrutinizes Isaac Asimov's literary origins and assesses his importance as a short fiction writer.]
Many critics writing on Asimov's fiction have argued that the shorter forms not only are where he began but also constitute his extent of narrative competence. Still others argue that science fiction itself is best seen as a short story genre.1 Asimov's mind set from the start, however, tended toward large general themes and hence toward longer and longer narratives. For example, his very short story “Black Friar of the Flame,” examined in more detail later in this [essay], is his first attempt at future history and at large social questions; thus, it is intended to be a longish story. Further, all during his early writing career when he was still at Columbia and during his long conversations with John W. Campbell, Jr., the topics and the themes of his writing are efforts at rational generalizations and at formulating and dramatizing large, important ideas. Asimov's detractors say that these are mediocre and commonplace ideas.2 Thus, my purpose in this [essay] will be two-fold: to describe Asimov's start as a fiction writer and his early associations with Campbell and Frederik Pohl and to...
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SOURCE: Touponce, William F. “The Robot Stories.” In Isaac Asimov, pp. 32-43. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
[In the following essay, Touponce characterizes the science in Isaac Asimov's robot stories, regarding them as innovative and influential tales.]
ASIMOV'S NOBLE ROBOTS
Asimov's robot stories are collected in five volumes: I, Robot (1950), The Rest of the Robots (1964), The Complete Robot (1982), Robot Dreams (1986), and Robot Visions (1990). The last two volumes contain only a few previously uncollected robot stories, and the third volume is an omnibus in which previously published stories are arranged topically. I, Robot is by most critical accounts one of the most influential books in the history of modern science fiction because it established new conventions for writing robot stories. For instance, in Asimov's stories, robots were presented as human artifacts rationally engineered for human happiness. By their very nature, Asimov's robots could not turn menacingly against their human masters and destroy them in the manner of Frankenstein's monster. But more important, and largely because of the Three Laws of Robotics, Asimov's robots seemed noble and decent—often more so than their human counterparts. Thus, Asimov did much in his stories to counter the Faustian image of science that had arisen in the public imagination....
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SOURCE: Mogen, David. “The Martian Chronicles.” In Ray Bradbury, pp. 82-93. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.
[In the following essay, Mogen discusses the critical reaction to Ray Bradbury's best-known work, The Martian Chronicles, and views the book as a thematically-linked group of stories.]
Bradbury's best-known and most powerful treatment of the space frontier theme is The Martian Chronicles, the book that first established his reputation, whose overall design evokes in a unique way the ambiguous poetry in his vision of the frontier process. In many respects Bradbury's finest single achievement, The Martian Chronicles lyrically dramatizes relationships between his most potent images: Green Town (actually Green Bluff in this book), an idealized image of an Edenic American past; and Mars, representing the ambivalent promise of Edenic New Worlds in the space age future. As Eric Rabkin points out in “To Fairyland by Rocket: Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles,” Bradbury's new frontier is deeply identified with lyricism itself, with fairyland images that refract back the heart's desires and secret fears of the pioneers. Fundamentally, Bradbury's subject here is the ambiguous promise of the American Dream, and the central symbols of his science-fiction fable represent the central conflicts that structure American mythology—the conflict between East and West (now...
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SOURCE: Cochran, David. “‘I'm Being Ironic’: Imperialism, Mass Culture, and the Fantastic World of Ray Bradbury.” In American Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era, pp. 55-72. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Cochran investigates the defining characteristics of Ray Bradbury's science fiction stories, contending that they reflect the elite cultural view of the postwar period.]
Over lunch one day, a friend asked Ray Bradbury where he got the ideas for his stories. “Anywhere,” the author replied, looking at the mushrooms on his plate. “There's a story in mushrooms.” To prove his point, Bradbury went home and wrote a frightening tale of extraterrestrial invaders coming to Earth in the form of mushrooms, taking over the bodies of those who eat them. The story appeared as a brilliant episode of the television show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” entitled “Special Delivery” (1959) and was later published as a short story, “Come into My Cellar” (1962).1
Few artists in the postwar period maintained so childlike a sense of wonder as did Bradbury. Fascinated with the possibilities created by the scientific and technological revolutions of the twentieth century, Bradbury created a fictive universe where travel to Mars and beyond (even to the sun itself), totally automated houses, and a society that...
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SOURCE: Gunn, James. “The Astounding Editor: 1938-1950.” In Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction, pp. 148-71. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975.
[In the following essay, Gunn offers an overview of John W. Campbell's seminal career as the editor of Astounding Stories.]
The dozen years between 1938 and 1950 were Astounding years. During these years the first major science fiction editor began developing the first modern science fiction magazine, the first modern science fiction writers, and, indeed, modern science fiction itself.
The editor was John W. Campbell; the magazine was Astounding Stories, a name which soon became Astounding Science Fiction and then, later, Analog Science Fact & Fiction as the magazine evolved. …
Now, as editor of the leading science fiction magazine—a pulp magazine, to be sure, but Campbell did not think of it as a pulp magazine and few of its writers and readers felt that the meanness of the form diminished the value of the contents—Campbell had the opportunity to translate his vision of science fiction into reality through the work of other writers. His fiction writing was almost finished; he would turn his talents largely to the writing of editorials and blurbs, an occasional article, and voluminous letters.
Creating a new kind of magazine was not...
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SOURCE: Aldiss, Brian W. “Campbell's Soup.” In The Detached Retina: Aspects of SF and Fantasy, pp. 145-49. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Aldiss evaluates John W. Campbell's great contribution to science fiction literature.]
Setting nostalgia aside, what was achieved by Astounding Science Fiction under the editorship of John Wood Campbell? Campbell edited this famous magazine from May 1938, when he took full charge, until he died in July 1971, at the age of sixty-one. It was a long tenure. Many of us still think of those years, particularly the magazine's rich decades of the 1940s and 1950s, as “Campbell's years”.
The situation must be faced, that the stories in which we gloried in our youth become tarnished on a disillusioned re-reading, many years later. The revelations in the stories are now part of our world-outlook; that they have become incorporated in, have formed, our way of life is a tribute to their earlier power.
It is hard to define exactly what gives a story or novel perennial appeal. We're dealing here with the fragile, things not designed to last, and sometimes written in desperation for four cents a word.
One reason why science fiction is so little regarded is because it is often ahead of its time, and therefore unpalatable to the general or even the literary reader. By “ahead of...
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SOURCE: Rabkin, Eric S. “Short Stories.” In Arthur C. Clarke, pp. 53-60. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1979.
[In the following essay, Rabkin provides an analysis of Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction stories in order to appreciate his achievement in the genre of science fiction literature.]
Under the guise of science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke has written fine examples of every kind of short fiction from the ghost story to the tall tale to the lament for lost love. In addition, he has written a number of unique stories which are among the most famous in science fiction and widely read outside the field as well. “The Star” won the Hugo Award for best short story of the year in 1956. All of his short narratives published through 1958 and most published since are readily available in six collections (Expedition to Earth, Reach For Tomorrow, Tales From The “White Hart,” The Other Side of the Sky, Tales of Ten Worlds and The Wind From The Sun), the contents of which are annotated in their due places in the next chapter. Here, however, we can take a more concentrated look at selected stories to better understand the wide range of Clarke's achievement in this quintessentially science fictional form.
Ghost stories abound in all cultures, the chilling tale meant for telling round a campfire. While it may at first seem hard to find a campfire in space, Clarke...
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SOURCE: Ferrara, Patricia. “‘Nature's Priest’: Establishing Literary Criteria for Arthur C. Clarke's ‘The Star’.” Extrapolation 28, no. 2 (summer 1987): 148-58.
[In the following essay, Ferrara considers Arthur C. Clarke's use of traditional literary techniques in his science fiction stories “A Meeting with Medusa,” “The Awakening,” and “The Star.”]
Much of Arthur C. Clarke's fiction is oriented towards rapid and simplistic plot development in the way that most pulp fiction is, frequently to the detriment of any other literary values; yet his fiction deserves more critical attention than its faults warrant. Noting this, Michael Thron has argued that we should judge the value of Clarke's fiction, not by literary standards, but by the value of the ideas it contains (82-83), and many of the other critics in Joseph Olander's collection of essays seem to agree implicitly with this judgment, mixing esthetics with scientific and philosophic appeal as criteria in applied criticism. But T. S. Eliot points out that great or even good fiction of any genre is not remarkable for the quality of the ideas embodied in it; King Lear and the Divine Comedy, he says, do not offer much in the realm of abstract thought, and their power does not come from the strength of the reader's shared belief in the social and religious philosophies presented in the works. Clarke varies only slightly...
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SOURCE: Knight, Damon. “One Sane Man: Robert A. Heinlein.” In In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction, pp. 76-89. Chicago: Advent Publishers, 1967.
[In the following essay, Knight discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Robert A. Heinlein's science fiction stories and argues that he “is the nearest thing to a great writer the science fiction field has yet produced.”]
Robert A. Heinlein has that attribute which the mathematician Hermann Weyl calls “the inexhaustibility of real things”: whatever you say about him, I find, turns out to be only partly true. If you point to his innate conservatism, as evidenced in the old-time finance of “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” you may feel smug for as much as a minute, until you remember the rampantly radical monetary system of Beyond This Horizon. One or two similar mistakes of mine are embedded in this [essay].
With due caution, then, let me say that in art, at least, Heinlein seems to be as conservative as they come. He believes in a plain tale well told. Although he fancies his own Yukon-style verses, or used to, he has no patience with poetry-in-a-garret. The people he writes about are healthy, uninhibited and positive, a totally different breed from the neurasthenic heroes of many of his colleagues. In a field whose most brilliant and well-established writers seem to flip sooner or later, Heinlein is...
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SOURCE: McGiveron, Rafeeq O. “From Free Love to the Free-Fire Zone: Heinlein's Mars, 1939-1987.” Extrapolation 42, no. 2 (summer 2001): 137-49.
[In the following essay, McGiveron investigates Robert A. Heinlein's view of Mars as found in his science fiction stories.]
s Although as early as 1942, with the inscrutable super-stratospheric ball-lightning creatures of “Goldfish Bowl,” Robert A. Heinlein undermined the pulp science fiction cliché that Mars was the nearest home of intelligent alien life, Heinlein still clung to the idea of Mars as the cradle of an alien civilization in fact for at least another decade and in fiction for a decade longer, and the planet—colonized by humans though not necessarily inhabited by Martians—appeared in the background of his works until the end of his career. In “Where To?”, an article written in 1950, but apparently not published until 1952, Heinlein seriously predicted that within the coming half century “Intelligent life will be found on Mars” (Expanded 339), and late in 1952, when Heinlein prepared to visit astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who had discovered Pluto in 1930 from the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, he wrote his agent that he hoped “perhaps, to see the canals of Mars through his telescope” (Grumbles 140). Heinlein's mistakenly confident prediction and his letter's hopeful reference to the “canals,” qualified neither...
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SOURCE: Robillard, Douglas. “Uncertain Futures: Damon Knight's Science Fiction.” Voices for the Future: Volume Three (1984): 30-51.
[In the following essay, Robillard offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Damon Knight's science fiction stories.]
Most of Damon Knight's fiction was produced during the 1950s and 1960s, and, sadly for his readers, he has published very little fiction since. Instead, he has been engaged prominently as an anthologist and editor, assembling a number of worthwhile collections of published sf and carefully exercising his editorial judgment on unpublished stories for his long series of Orbit anthologies to bring the work of innovative and interesting writers before the public. His work with the Science Fiction Writers of America and fiction workshops has been of great significance.1
But then it might be said of Knight's career that it has often taken strange turns. His engaging autobiographical account, “Knight's Piece,” places him as illustrator, short story writer, critic, reader in a literary agency, and sometime magazine editor.2 His first book, In Search of Wonder, was not fiction but science fiction criticism, “an informal record of … the Boom of 1950-1955.” In his author's note to that volume, he calls it “a period that produced some of the best science fiction ever to appear in hard covers, along with...
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SOURCE: Clareson, Thomas D. “The 1940s: Apprenticeship and Collaboration.” In Frederik Pohl, pp. 1-10. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, Inc., 1987.
[In the following essay, Clareson elucidates the defining characteristics of Fred Pohl's early science fiction stories.]
In an introductory note to “Red Moon of Danger,” an early story which Fred Pohl included in Planets Three (1982), he remarks that “the only thing a writer has to sell is his personal, idiosyncratic view of the universe” (66). Such an assertion has importance because it belies that separation which some academic critics, especially, would still make between the author and the text, be it social realism, science fiction, or fantasy. His insight applies equally well to Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, Lee Smith, Joanna Russ, Theodore Sturgeon, or Robert Bloch. In this case, of course, it provides the readers of the 1980s with a guideline to the development of Pohl's fiction, both thematically and technically, as he worked out his personal vision of humanity and its societies.
“Red Moon of Danger” was originally published by Robert Lowndes in Science Fiction Quarterly as “Danger Moon” (August 1951) under the pseudonym James MacCreigh and was issued in book form in Sydney, Australia (1953). Of the three novellas collected in Planets Three, Pohl declares, “They are...
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Aldiss, Brian W. with David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, New York: Atheneum, 1986, 511 p.
Traces the history of science fiction literature.
Ashley, Michael. “Introduction: SF Bandwagon.” In The History of the Science Fiction Magazine, Volume 2: 1936-1945, edited by Michael Ashley, pp. 11-76. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1975.
Chronicles the proliferation of pulp magazines and science fiction stories.
Baxter, Stephen. “Moon Believers: Robert A. Heinlein and America's Moon.” Foundation, no. 74 (autumn 1998): 26-37.
Contends that “nobody did more to delineate, mythologise and promote an expansive human future in space than Robert A. Heinlein.”
Bloom, Harold, ed. Ray Bradbury, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001, 159 p.
Collection of critical essays on Ray Bradbury's science fiction.
Bretnor, Reginald, ed. Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future, New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1953, 294 p.
Comprised of critical essays on science fiction issues written by prominent science fiction authors.
———, ed. The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy, New York:...
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