The Golden Age

Origins of Science Fiction

Some scholars of Science Fiction have pushed back the date of the first Science Fiction story about as far as you can push it, since I have seen this label applied to the Sumerian story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, though I would argue that mythology should more properly be considered fantasy. And Lucian of Samosata (c. 125 – after 180) wrote a book that is often called the first science fiction novel called A True Story, though in many ways it is more a satire on people who tell tall tales. It does include outer space, aliens, and interplanetary warfare. But the generally recognized first science fiction story is considered to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. This is the story about a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who creates a living and intelligent person by rather unorthodox means. And of course this person is not named Frankenstein at all. He is simply “the Creature”. But it is an interesting story that does not bear much resemblance to the movies that came later.

Then came two writers who more than anyone made Science Fiction a recognized genre of literature. The first, Jules Verne (1828-1905), was a French author of seminal works such as Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (1870), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1872). His novels were set in the time they were written, and used technology that either existed or could be reasonably extrapolated, making them true Science Fiction in a way that Frankenstein, arguably, was not. The other early master was H.G. Wells (1866-1946), who wrote a number of science fiction novels including The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). Wells was more of a futurist, and his works reflect his commitment to socialism. And in America Edward Bellamy wrote a very influential novel called Looking Backward (1888) which was one of the largest selling novels published in America at that time and also reflected a strong Socialist philosophy.

Hugo Gernsback and the Pulps

As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth century, and inventors like Edison, Tesla, and Marconi were creating a new world, it should not be surprising that many people were inspired to write about the possibilities of science and technology and how they might change the world. One of the first was Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967). He was initially attracted to radio, founding the radio station WRNY. He also created the magazine Modern Electrics in 1908, The Electrical Experimenter in 1913, and Radio News in 1919. Though these were primarily science and technology publications, he began to include stories, including his own Ralph 124C 41+. Then in 1926 he started the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories. This magazine was followed by others, and they are collectively referred to as pulps due to the low quality of the paper. And the pulps were not just science fiction, there were also Western and Detective pulp magazines. What they had in common is that they were cheap to produce, and could therefore be sold cheaply. And the low rates paid to writers also made them cheap in every sense of the word. Hugo Gernsback was certainly one to employ sharp business practices, but because of his pivotal role the annual awards voted on by fans are to this day called the Hugo Awards.

John W. Campbell and the Golden Age

John W. Campbell (1910-1971) was initially a writer of science fiction. His novella Who Goes There? (1938) has been adapted for film three times under the name The Thing (1951, 1982, 2011). But his real significance derives from his role as Editor of Astounding Science Fiction, which was later renamed to Analog Science Fiction and Fact (1937). During his time at the helm, and in particular during the first decade of his editorship, he nurtured many of the best known writers of the time, so that this first decade is referred to as The Golden Age. His finds included authors like Lester Del Rey, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert A. Heinlein, and A.E. Van Vogt. When he became Editor, he basically stopped his own writing in favor of developing other authors. This is not a bad thing. I have read a number of his novels, and it is fair to say that they do not measure up to the work of the above authors he helped to develop. As an example. in one novel he has aliens arrive who come from the star Sirius. And Sirius is sometimes called The Dog Star. So of course his aliens are distinctly canine in appearance. You simply cannot imagine authors like Heinlein or Asimov doing anything of the sort. Other writers he helped develop include L. Ron Hubbard, Clifford Simak, Jack Williamson, and L. Sprague DeCamp.

Isaac Asimov had this to say about Campbell:

By his own example and by his instruction and by his undeviating and persisting insistence, he forced first Astounding and then all science fiction into his mold. He abandoned the earlier orientation of the field. He demolished the stock characters who had filled it; eradicated the penny dreadful plots; extirpated the Sunday-supplement science. In a phrase, he blotted out the purple of pulp. Instead, he demanded that science-fiction writers understand science and understand people, a hard requirement that many of the established writers of the 1930s could not meet. Campbell did not compromise because of that: those who could not meet his requirements could not sell to him, and the carnage was as great as it had been in Hollywood a decade before, while silent movies had given way to the talkies.[31]


The Golden Age was also when science fiction fandom really developed. You can read more about this in Isaac Asimov‘s autobiography In Memory Yet Green, which records not only his early experiences in fandom but also his early relationship with John W. Campbell. And Frederik Pohl wrote a nice history of his experiences in fandom called The Way The Future Was. Pohl went on to become a writer, and editor, and a literary agent, and I enjoyed reading his blog right up until he died in 2013. But the biggest fandom development in this time was starting conventions. There are many of them now, some devoted to specific properties like Doctor Who or Star Trek, others more general, but the grand-daddy of them all is the World Science Fiction Convention, usually abbreviated as Worldcon. The first of these was held in New York City in 1939, in conjunction with the World’s Fair, whose theme was The World of Tomorrow. And perhaps appropriately it had controversy when a group of fans including Frederik Pohl was specifically not invited, but you can read more about it in the book mentioned above. Among the guests were John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, Ray Bradbury, Jack Williamson, and Harry Harrison.

The Worldcon would go on to be an annual event except for the years 1942-1945, when World War II pre-empted it. In the early years it was always held in the United States, but eventually it started to live up to its name and move to other countries. The 2023 Worldcon, for instance, was held in Chengdu, China. In years when the Worldcon is outside of North America, there is another convention called the North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFIC). I attended the 11th NASFIC, called Detcon1, in Detroit, Michigan in 2014.

Worldcon is owned by the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS), which has an interesting membership. Each person who purchases a ticket to a Worldcon becomes a member with voting privileges, and the main voting issues are to select the winners of the Hugo Awards, and to select the site of Worldcon two years later. Because organizing one of these Worldcons is such a major task, you have to allow the committee two years to pull it together. So the 2023 Chengdu Worldcon selected Seattle, Washington as the site of the 2025 Worldcon, while the 2022 Chicago Worldcon selected Glasgow, Scotland as the site of the 2024 Worldcon.

There has been controversy, of course, because science fiction fans don’t agree on everything, and the Hugo Awards is one area where this has shown up. These awards are voted on by the fans who attend the Worldcon, and this has been the case since the awards were started in 1953. But in 2013 an author named Larry Correia formed a group called Sad Puppies to try and get one of his novels a Hugo Award. It started as a voting bloc, then became a slate of suggested nominations. Then a more radical offshoot called Rabid Puppies was formed. These groups did succeed in getting a number of works nominated, and even swept the nominations in two categories. The result was that the voting members decided to vote for “No Award” in both of those categories. The campaign sputtered on for several more years, then the WSFS modified the voting rules to prevent bloc voting, and that was the end of it. Then in 2023 the Chengdu Worldcon ruled that a number of prominent works were “ineligible”. At first it was thought that the Chinese Government had put pressure on the organizers, but then it came out that this was more of a self-censorship by some of the organizers. They have been dismissed, and will probably never again be involved with WSFS, and I suspect that the Glasgow Worldcon will implement some changes.

In addition to the Worldcon, there are many a local conventions. Among the ones I know are Dragoncon in Atlanta, Georgia and Boskone in Boston, Massachusetts. And near and dear to my heart is Penguicon, here in the Detroit metro area. I was on the staff of this convention for a few years, and it is my favorite. It is unusual because it combines all of the science fiction with free and open source software, which is where the penguin part comes in. I will usually be attending this each year.

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