The Golden Age of Science Fiction is a phrase that commonly has two definitions – the first of these is the era when Campbell was editing Astounding Stories and the writers included people like Isaac Asimov. The other definition is that the golden age of science fiction is 12. That the stories that you read around that sort of age when you’re just discovering your own tastes in fiction are the ones that stick with you through your life. This anthology is a selection of stories that Isaac Asimov remembers reading in the 1930s – in his own personal golden age – that had an influence on his writing and thus on “The Golden Age”.
As an aside, I’m not sure I quite agree with either definition – both that those 1940s stories of The Golden Age aren’t (in large part because of my own age) going to be the best thing ever for me. And also that I think I’m still discovering new books & stories I think are as good or better than the things I read in my teens.
But still, as a conceit for an anthology it’s a good one, and as well as reprinting the stories Asimov writes about his own life. He comes across as very full of himself, but also aware of that and poking fun at his own ego. I suspect if I’d ever met him I’d’ve found him irritatingly smug, but the tone works OK in an autobiography.
This volume covers the years 1931 & 1932, when Asimov is 11 & 12. I bought it sometime in the mid-80s, about ten years after it was published. Its been years since I last read it, and mostly what I remembered was that the stories seemed dated, a few were still quite good but most were pretty “meh” to my more modern eyes. That’s a fairly accurate summary – with the addition that some are downright bad to my more grown-up modern eyes. The science tends to be wrong (either because we now know more, or because the author didn’t know what was known then), they tend to be full of info-dumps and “As you know, Bob” conversations. Some of them work despite this.
And they all have what one might euphemistically call “the attitudes of their time”. The sexism tends to be in the absence of women, and in the lack of personality for the women in those few stories with any female characters – the sort of thing you can excuse for any one story as being that the author just happened to choose a male protagonist. But when you look at the collection as a whole there’s a pattern – nobody thought a woman to be interesting enough to be the protagonist or even a primary character (with the exception of the alien in the Williamson story at the end). The racism is … mostly of the same sort. I wrote the little notes on the stories before I wrote this intro & you’ll spot the bit where I’m suddenly taken aback. There are three stories in the middle that are appallingly explicitly racist, two of them (a duology by Meek) to a degree where if you took the racism out there’d be no story left. I skim read the second of those, and wouldn’t’ve even done that if I hadn’t been going to write about the book.
I’ll be keeping the book, but boxed up – primarily for the autobiography and for the nostalgia.
“The Man Who Evolved” Edmond Hamilton
Story about the future evolution of humanity, a morality tale of the “meddle not with things you do not understand” type. Also felt like the H. G. Wells story “The Time Machine”, in that it was a scientist building a contraption to find out how the human race developed & demonstrating it to his friends. The science is dreadful (evolution Does. Not. Work. Like. That. and I suspect even a biologist in the 1930s would wince at it) but the story is still compelling.
“The Jameson Satellite” Neil R. Jones
Another “what will it be like in the far future” tale. In this one a man works out how to perfectly preserve his body after he dies, by shooting it into space in a rocket to orbit the Earth. Much much later he’s discovered by aliens, who are metal men (Zoromes from the planet Zor, I kid you not) who were once biological but have transplanted their brains into metal bodies and now live forever. The science is equally as wince-making as the last one but I have a higher tolerance for bad orbital mechanics etc than I do for bad biology 😉 The “radium repulsion rays” to prevent meteors hitting the rocket were a bit much tho … It was still a fun story to read, I keep wanting to use the word “charming”.
“Submicroscopic”, “Awlo of Ulm” Capt. S. P. Meek
Woah, these two were very much a “product of their time” to an extent that they didn’t have anything to recommend them today. Man builds machine to shrink himself, finds submicroscopic land inhabited by beautiful white people who are being attacked by brutish black savages who want to eat them. The sequel introduces scientifically advanced cruel yellow people with slanty eyes who’d like to enslave them. The hero wins the day because he’s the WASPiest WASP that ever WASPed, and also has guns but if he hadn’t he’d still’ve won. Asimov notes in his afterword that he was uncomfortable with the “touches of racism” he noticed in his re-read, but I’d say that “touches” is inadequate to even begin to describe the level of racism. Oh, and sexist too – these are the first stories in the book to have a woman mentioned at all, but she’s not a person she’s a plot coupon. Save the princess, marry the princess, save the princess (again), duel someone to the death for the princess, duel someone (else) to the death for the princess, reflect on how you didn’t kill them brutally enough because of what they threatened to do to the princess… So I think that’s actually a step back from the woman-free state.
“Tetrahedra of Space” P. Schulyer Miller
A story in the tradition of Wells’ “War of the Worlds” – aliens land, some plucky earth men persuade them to move on when something common on Earth turns out to be poison to them. Astonishingly purple prose, which made me giggle out loud at times because it was so overwrought. Here’s a sample:
It was beyond all reason — all possibility! And yet — it was! Now I could see them clearly, rank on rank of them in orderly file, some hundred of them, strewn in great concentric rings about the softly glowing spheres — harsh as the black rock itself, hard, and glittering, and angular — a man’s height and more from summit to base — great, glittering tetrahedra — tetrahedra of terror!
Unfortunately, also a very racist story 🙁 I kept trying to give it a pass coz I was enjoying the main plot, but it kept getting worse – there’s a nasty subplot to do with a South American native/Portuguese “breed” on the “wrong side” (i.e. his mother was white). However, in contrast to Meek’s stories I feel that it could be edited to remove the racist attitudes & the racist subplot and at the end you’d have a story where the essential plot was the same, just stripped of the 1930’s unpleasantness. (The science would still mark it out as from that time period, mind you …).
“The World of the Red Sun” Clifford D. Simak
Time travel in the style of H. G. Wells – with a well thought out machine that has believable flaws. Plucky 20th Century men save the world of the far future! Given how thought through the time machine was it was startling that the men of the far future still spoke English. An enjoyable story.
“Tumithak of the Corridors” Charles R. Tanner
Far future Earth, long post-invasion by Venusians & the start of the story of how people won back their planet. The framing story is that this is a reconstruction of “how it must’ve been” told from even further in the future. This is one of the stories that had stuck in my mind from reading this book when I was a teenager and I think I like it just as much as an adult – caveats about 1930s story telling styles still apply, tho, and I can’t exactly call it non-sexist or non-racist. It does actually have a couple of women with speaking parts who have about as much personality as the male secondary characters – but that means pretty much none. No overt racism & even an explicit statement that people come in many sorts, good & bad, regardless of nation or era – but everyone’s white except the savages who live in the dark (who are slate-coloured) which is somewhat problematic. Well thought through consequences of the living arrangements of the people, tho the science/arts divide made me roll my eyes a little. My favourite of this volume.
“The Moon Era” Jack Williamson
Another man in a machine goes on an adventure story – this time the machine is invented by an old wealthy childless man who summons his never met before impoverished nephew and announces that if he takes the trip in the machine he will inherit the fortune. The trip is supposed to be to the Moon & back, and indeed he goes to the Moon but the time he arrives is not the time he left the Earth. The alien he meets is female – has to be for the plot to work, but she’s no plot coupon she has a personality of her own. A melancholy story, which I liked although I didn’t quite buy the ending.