Tuesday, 8 February 2011

For intellectual meat, Golden Age Science Fiction can’t be beat

If someone told me I could never read another literary short story, I wouldn’t be particularly fussed: I never find them very satisfying. If I was told I could never read another Horror or Detective short story, I’d be quite miffed, because I enjoy the odd one now and again.

But if I were told that I would never be allowed to read another Science Fiction short story, I’d be extremely upset, because the genre’s Golden Age – roughly, the 1940s and 1950s - produced some of the 20th Century’s best short-form fiction.  
Take any reputable collection of the best tales from the era, and you will find more intelligence, wit, liveliness, inventiveness, insight, energy and verve than you will in any Booker shortlist (or longlist, come to that). In fact, the same would be true if you took the top ten SF stories for any year between 1950 and 1960. (SF novels can occasionally work - but on the whole, the shorter the better.)

True, you’ll find lots of  clumsy writing and masses of dull, derivative tosh in amongst the gold - this stuff was generally churned out fast to meet deadlines, and  SF writers were, almost without exception, prolific beyond belief (Frederick Pohl, even tried working 36 hours straight and sleeping 12 in order to increase his already prodigious rate of output). If you’re looking for subtle characterization, forget it – your average SF character makes a cardboard cut-out look rounded. As for women, it’s safe to say most SF writers never got beyond fantasizing about large-breasted blondes, and  simply have no idea how men and women interact (if you wanted real women or adult themes in SF, you had to wait until the 1960s, by which time the fun was already seeping out of the genre).  And they’re rarely any good at dialogue. 

What they produced consistently, though, were original ideas -  a joyous blizzard of the things  along with ingenious plot twists and surprise endings and intellectual pyrotechnics. Your average detective or horror writer doesn’t know much, but the best of the SF crowd knew an awful lot, and not just about science  – many of them were genuine, 24 carat  intellectuals. 

And the best stories - the ones found in anthologies - were about things that matter: how should we live, what makes us human, does God exist, is evil the product of nature or nurture, what is the origin of consciousness, is scientific progress invariably a force for good, what happens when we die, how do we get on with people and societies very different from ourselves, and quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The sort of Big Stuff that modern literature tends to ignore or treat in a self-satisfiedly glib manner. 

Here are some of the stories from my favourite compilation – Kingsley Amis’s The Golden Age of Science Fiction (1981) – with their central, high concept themes briefly sketched: 

“The Quest for St Aquin”, Anthony Boucher (1951): A post-apocalyptic priest searches for the body of a long-dead Holy Man, Aquin, whose body, it’s rumoured,  never corrupts. The priest discovers that the dead “man” was, in fact, a robot. At first, he’s disappointed, but quickly realizes that a robot, using perfect logic, accepting God’s existence will act as a more compelling spur to belief than a man reaching the same conclusion. 

“The Xi Effect”, Philip Latham (1950): Radio transmissions and wavelengths begin to disappear. Two astrophysicists realize that the earth is rapidly shrinking – as electromagnetic radiation is eliminated, colours start to disappear, and Earth is eventually plunged into utter darkness.

“The Tunnel Under the World”, Frederik Pohl (1955): a man realises that he and the other townsfolk are living the same day over and over again: he discovers he’s living in an artificial environment on a tabletop, created  for and funded by advertisers to test new marketing methods and products.

“The Nine Billion Names of God”, Arthur C. Clarke : Two computer scientists visit a Tibetan monastery to install a computer to conclude the project the priests have already spent three hundred years on – listing all the possible names of God. Once this has been completed, the Tibetans believe, the world will end. The scientists, of course, think this ridiculous -  but, as they ride away on horseback, they look up at the night sky: “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out”.

“The Streets of Askelon”, Harry Harrison (1961): A missionary priest visits an alien planet to convert the locals. He is successful, but something is lost in translation - they crucify him.

“Student Body”, F.L. Wallace (1953): Colonists on a new planet realise that the local creatures who keep attacking their encampment and eating their crops are evolving at a blistering pace: they start off as rats (the colonists use dogs to kill them), then, after a few months, reappear as tiger-like beasts (the colonists shoot them), and then, a few months laster, have taken on a human appearance – and the colonists realise that the next evolutionary leap will be the end of them.

“Sister Planet”, Poul Anderson (1959): One of a scientific team looking to exploit an alien water planet realises that its dolphin-like inhabitants are civilised in a way his fellow-colonists don’t understand. In order to stop the dolphins being murdered in a planned terra-forming exercise, he kills his colleagues, and then massacres some of the dolphins to ensure that they’ll defend themselves against any  future visitors from Earth. 

“It’s a Good Life”, Jerome Bixby (1953) : A five year-old telepath can change the world around him just by using his mind (for instance, he has removed his older sister’s mouth, and several people and many animals have died): the local inhabitants, who can’t leave, live in terror, desperately trying to control their thoughts so he won’t punish them. The beauty of the story is that Anthony is pretty much like any other five year-old boy.

It’s not in the Amis collection, surprisingly, but my favourite SF story is “The Store of the Worlds” by the great Robert Sheckley (1959), in which a suburban family man  visits an illegal seller of vacations in parallel universes. He says he’ll think about it and returns to his humdrum, everyday existence - the old work + family routine. It’s only right at the end we realise that this dull life is the vacation he was dreaming about - his old life and his family were destroyed in a nuclear war. (Oddly, the best Science Fiction tends to be both deeply pessimistic about the future and nostalgic towards the present.)

If none of the concepts at the heart of these stories even vaguely intrigue you,  Science Fiction isn’t for you: I know it leaves most people cold. But if you’ve imagined that all SF is about hunky space heroes destroying multi-armed, one-eyed monsters while defending spandex-clad Marilyn  Monroe look-alikes,  and that all its practitioners and fans are emotionally-stunted 18-year olds with personal hygiene issues who’ll give it all up as soon as they start bathing and pluck up the courage to talk to a girl, the truth is very different (though not that different). 

For me, Alfred Bester and Robert Sheckley are the most enjoyable and intellectually sprightly of the bunch, with Frederik Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, Phillip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Clifford Simak and Cordwainer Smith (a noted East Asia scholar and expert in psychological warfare) not far behind – but there are at least another dozen who are simply brilliant.  
Of course, Science Fiction didn’t come to a halt halt in 1960 – it just got a lot more serious and grown-up, and lost some of its energy in the process. Science fiction long ago conquered cinema and TV, with variable results, but in its written form it has now almost entirely morphed into  Fantasy – which I can’t bear. Traditional SF appears to be dead, and that’s a shame. (Perhaps our politicians have usurped the function of dreaming up ludicrous scenarios about the future.)

Amis’s collection is still one of the best, but Brian Aldiss’s The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, and Robert Silverberg’s The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 1: The Greatest Science Fiction Short Stores of All Timeare even better. 


  1. No thanks. My brief encounters with Science Fiction have been very disconcerting. The short stories of H.G. Wells [these disgusting Morlochs, fat and weightless guys scuttling across ceilings, cephalopods emerging from the sea to attack innocent civilians, anarchists fleeing through London clutching test tubes full of the cholera bacillus] did it for me. Then there is Jules Verne [more cephalopods with horrible beaks. What's with the squids?]] and Kafka [some poor guy wakes up transformed into a giant cockroach!] and the film Them! [giant ants devouring more civilians]. My "unconscious "is already cluttered up with nasty images and is being fed daily by the "real" world so I don't want to open up another source of horrors to feed my nightmares - no matter how well written they might be. Science Fiction - like video games - is for the imaginativelly stunted. So there you have it.
    Thursday, February 10, 2011 - 01:43 PM

  2. I doubt if the ability to read about strange creatures without ending up whimpering under the bedclothes can be taken as an indication of stuntedness in the old imagination department! Besides, as I think my rather random list demonstrates, few of the Golden Age stories actually feature hideous, slavering, malformed beasties – in fact, they’re far more likely to feature humans and robots/androids or aliens who don’t actually make the reader hurl chunks. After all, 1984, Brave New World, The Invisible Man and practically anything by Arthur C. Clarke are straight science fiction, but there isn’t a beast in sight.
    As I said, if the sort of stories I outline don’t appeal (which they evidently don’t) then SF isn’t for you – but I don’t think there’s any need to question the imaginative faculties of those who do enjoy them
    Thursday, February 10, 2011 - 05:28 PM