The golden age of Science Fiction

Depending on who you ask, the “Golden Age of Science Fiction,” is either “undisputedly,” or just “widely recognized” as the 1940’s (and possibly 50’s). Of course, one person’s Golden Age is another person’s capital-E Establishment, but historically, the 40’s and 50’s are the era when a younger generation of very talented writers weaned on the pulps and unafraid of speculative-fiction-that-incorporated-science took up pen or typewriter. Among them: Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Tom Godwin, and Isaac Asimov.

It is interesting that of the three biggies I review here (Clarke, Bradbury, and Asimov), Asimov was always my favorite, but (perhaps due to story choices?) this time around, I was much more impressed with Bradbury.

All of these writers are masters of creating fully-realized portraits of everyday life in the future, or on space stations, or the Moon, in very few words.

“Reason” (1941). This is one of Isaac Asimov‘s early works that lays out his famous three laws of robotics. He wrote it when he was very young (20 or 21), and interestingly, spends much of the story exposing the holes in his own laws; that is, showing how a robot can obey the letter of these laws and be useful in its job and still show utter disregard for human beings. In short, simply saying a robot can’t harm a human or through inaction cause a human to be harmed doesn’t mean a robot has to be the least bit respectful or deferential.

The story takes place on an off-Earth space station. The two human operators assemble one of the new robots with a positronic brain* to help manage the other robots who run the station. Almost immediately, the robot, who appears very self-aware, starts to question the most basic tenants of the human’s reality. It doubts the existence of Earth, the relative intelligence of the humans, and it certainly has no plans to do their bidding.

Yet it still functions in its designated role as manager of the space station. But it does that by deciding the space station is its true master. Following the notion that intelligent creatures need an origin story for themselves that is relevantly compelling, the robots invents reinvents God in its own image—as a machine. It refuses to believe its creator could be a creature of flesh, and no evidence the men can provide is sufficient to prove otherwise**.

This story also shows vividly the shortcomings of pure rationalism: that one can follow the dictates of logic perfectly while believing things that are utterly mad. Rationalism and logic without decent first principles (i.e., without empiricism) is empty. Any Vulcan or robot who tells you differently should be resoundingly ignored.

* The notion of a “positronic brain” was later borrowed by Star Trek: The Next Generation to describe the technology Data was constructed on.

**You have to ask how the robot’s behavior could be so unpredictable. Didn’t they field test these models before shipping them out to space stations where they had their final assembly and were turned on?

I have this to say of Ray Bradbury: damn, this man can write. His words are fluid, poetic, and not without humor, even when his subject matter is the grim aftermath of global war:

“The Million-Year Picnic” (1946) was first published in 1946, which is a stunner. It reads like a classic Cold War cautionary tale of the aftermath of world atomic war, yet it is widely argued that true consciousness of the Cold War doesn’t start until 1947. Bradbury is prescient enough to take the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to heart and see how the world could end up.

This story is told from the POV of the eldest of three young boys in a family that has taken a “vacation” to Mars. This strikes the boy as odd, since though humankind has been to Mars in his time, running off millions of miles in a rocket for a vacation is not something that people do. The planet is basically empty of human presence. Shortly after they arrive on Mars, his parents remove their copious vacation supplies from their rocket ship and take the boys on a “fishing” trip. The father promises his sons that during their boat ride down a Martian canal, they will see some Martians, but as they pass one ancient ruin after another, it is clear that Mars is a dead world.

The story is told simultaneously on two levels without changing the point of view. We have the boy’s childish perspective, and an unspoken communication between the parents that the boy observes and an adult reader can interpret that makes it clear this family is one of a few families that has escaped the last echoes of global war on Earth.

Bradbury’s reputation as a master writer is well-deserved. The prose is beautiful and free of cliché. He can show so much with few words.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) is another cautionary tale of global war more firmly ensconced in the Cold War era. It is set about 100 years in the future from its publication date, and is nearly all simple description. Well, not simple simple. Bradbury’s prose is rich with detail, but the story never ventures beyond the description of an automated house that is continuing to function in the absence of its owners, and the city beyond the house, which has been almost utterly destroyed by war. There is very little in the way of “plot,” and there doesn’t need to be.

The title is taken from a poem by Sara Teasdale, the text of which Bradbury weaves into the story to astounding effect. The story is thematically similar to John W. Campbell’s “Twilight,” which shows a future where the machines have kept working even though the humans no longer use them. But “Rains” is much more visceral, because it focuses on a single-family dwelling rather than entire cities. The story is a surrealistic painting, absurdity brush-stroked with words.

Arthur C. Clarke‘s “The Sentinel” (1951) is a precursor story for his Space Odyssey series, much like “Reason” is a precursor story for Asimov’s I, Robot. These novels started out as short stories–authors trying out one small idea that would later blossom into an epic. The eponymous “sentinel” is quite simply the object we now know as the Monolith.

The Sentinel tells the tale of the opening moments from 2001: A Space Odyssey (after the early evolution bit) where a group of lunar explorers dig up an alien device on the moon, and it in turn sends out a signal to its creators that it has been unearthed (or is it “unmooned”?)

Clarke’s story takes place in 1996, rather than 2001, and depicts a 1996 of active moon bases, lunar exploration, and freighters going to and from the Moon. It also, interestingly, depicts the Moon with native (although struggling) vegetation and a thin atmosphere. Alas, I truly believe that the reason we stopped lunar exploration in the 70’s and have taken so long to get back to it is because we didn’t find vegetation or atmosphere or monoliths. We found a hunk of rock in space. It is only now, with two plus generations raised on science fiction-as-mainstream that we are again excited about the prospect of exploring the Moon and Mars. We have adjusted our vision of these places to the study of exo-geology and planetary evolution, and to the activities of tourism, settlement, and mining.

Tom Godwin‘s “The Cold Equations” (1954), I think, represents a step in the evolution towards post-“Golden Age” writing, when science fiction becomes less interested in cautionary tales or depicting richly detailed futures of space exploration and grows more nihilistic. One thing that drives me crazy about contemporary popular story-telling is the view that the artistic merit of a story should be equated with the unhappy ending. This attitude started to emerge in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.

Not that there’s anything ipso facto wrong with a story that goes for the unhappy ending. I just think that in contemporary 21st century writing, it’s overdone, and unreflectively so. Coming to “The Cold Equations” in chronological order, though, it was clear I’d crossed a line into a different attitude. I felt sure through most of the story that I knew what the ending would be. I was primed for a particular twist. But I think that twist would have ruined the point of the story.

The story is about a small freighter sent out to the frontier planets that is doomed to crash due to the extra weight of a stowaway. The lone pilot struggles with what he knows he must do – jettison the stowaway before landing.

Tom Godwin is not a big name like the others I’ve review here, at least not to me, but the story goes beyond one ethical quandary in one moment in time. Like the other authors, he depicts a fully-realized future society of space travel and outposts in a 5,000-10,000 word story. And that’s amazing. His prose and character development are also very good.

What disturbed me about the story was that the narrative never judges the attitudes of the society it depicts. In fact, it goes beyond, “this is just how life on the frontier is” to “this is just how life on the frontier is bound to be.” With Bradbury at least, you get the sense that even though he is writing about futures ravaged by war, he’s doing so in order to prevent those futures from happening. In Godwin’s story, the ending is depicted as just undisputable reality.

( Robert Heinlein )

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