Golden Age of Short Science Fiction Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

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.