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.)

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...

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Criticism: Major Golden Age Short Science Fiction Authors And Editors

Donald M. Hassler (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 5283 words.)

William F. Touponce (essay date 1991)

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 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...

(The entire section is 5163 words.)

David Mogen (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 5133 words.)

David Cochran (essay date 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 8513 words.)

James Gunn (essay date 1975)

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...

(The entire section is 10220 words.)

Brian W. Aldiss (essay date 1995)

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 entire section is 1827 words.)

Eric S. Rabkin (essay date 1979)

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...

(The entire section is 3797 words.)

Patricia Ferrara (essay date summer 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 4716 words.)

Damon Knight (essay date 1967)

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...

(The entire section is 6176 words.)

Rafeeq O. McGiveron (essay date summer 2001)

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...

(The entire section is 6384 words.)

Douglas Robillard (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 9319 words.)

Thomas D. Clareson (essay date 1987)

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,...

(The entire section is 3450 words.)

Further Reading


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.


(The entire section is 774 words.)