Sunday, January 16, 2011


Before the Golden Age -- a review

This thousand-page monster is one of the longest books I have read for a very long time. I didn't rush through it: I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop in 2003 and began reading it soon after; I finished the final story on the last day of December 2010. Seven years from beginning to end -- exactly as long as the time-frame (1931-1938) covered by the anthology itself, for this is a chronological showcase of Nineteen Thirties pulp SF edited by Isaac Asimov.

The guiding principle behind BTGA is an interesting one, namely the magazine stories (but not the novels or longer novellas) that most impressed the youthful Asimov when he was an avid reader of SF but not yet published himself. Hence the volume's title. The "Golden Age" of SF is generally said to date from August 1938 (with the publication of John Campbell's 'Who Goes There?' in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction) to the beginning of the "New Wave" in the early 1960s. Asimov was a crucial part of that Golden Age, as were Heinlein, Van Vogt and L. Sprague de Camp. None of those authors will be found in this anthology. In fact, very few pre-Golden Age writers survived into the Golden Age and many of the names in BTGA were unfamiliar to me.

Some of the authors in BTGA are represented by more than one story. Edmond Hamilton has three, all of them founded on intriguing concepts and every one solidly written. The piece that kicks off the volume is one of his, 'The Man Who Evolved', a nicely wrought tale with an inevitable but genuinely satisfying ending. Later in the volume, another Hamilton story, 'Devolution', serves as its reciprocal and answer; but the best Hamilton contribution on display here is 'The Accursed Galaxy', which is based on the fabulous conceit that the human race is a dreadful virus, a disease so terrible that our galaxy can be regarded as 'infected', causing all the other galaxies to flee in panic, which explains why the universe is expanding.

Although 'The man Who Evolved' is a powerful opener, the story that immediately follows it, 'The Jameson Satellite' by Neil R. Jones, is far more creaky; Asimov regards it as the weakest piece in the book, but in fact the core dilemma at the heart of the plot is very good: a scientist held in suspended animation in a sealed space capsule is awakened in the far future by a race of alien cyborgs. Humanity has ceased to exist: the refugee from the past is offered a choice between living out his natural span as the last relic of his race, dying a natural death and condemning the human race to oblivion, or being converted into a cyborg, losing his humanity but gaining immortality and the opportunity to acquire vast knowledge.

The conceit of a man who is put into suspension only to awake thousands or millions of years later was a popular pulp SF device. Nat Schachner contrives a situation whereby an Ancient Greek and an American from the 1930s both end up in a far future dystopia resembling the social hierarchy of Brave New World. Schachner betrays a greater grasp of social issues than most of his contemporaries and 'Past, Present and Future' is enriched by a political awareness generally lacking in the other BTGA stories. It's a worthy read, but the most startling deployment of the "sleeper awakes" theme occurs in the story 'The Man Who Awoke' by Laurence Manning, the first in a linked series that follows the adventures of one Norman Winters through vast eras of future history. This first instalment has made me curious to seek out the entire set, and they do all exist in book form: I consider this to be an essential purchase for 2011. 'The Man Who Awoke' demonstrates an acute ecological sensitivity that is startling for a story written in 1933.

Another popular theme, possibly even more overused by early pulp SF writers, is the "shrinking man" who has adventures on the surfaces of atoms. Ray Cummings specialised in this kind of story in the 1920s. Another specialist was Captain S.P. Meek, represented in BTGA by two linked novellas, 'Submicroscopic' and 'Awlo of Ulm'. Colourful, vibrant and bigoted, these display all the worst qualities of pulp SF and yet they are not without their redeeming features. Certainly they possess incredible momentum, far more than (for instance) P. Schuyler Miller's 'Tetrahedra of Space', which is reminiscent of the very first Jack Williamson story, 'The Metal Man'. Lush and overwritten, 'Tetrahedra of Space' is followed by the crisp and bitterly ironic 'The World of the Red Sun' by Clifford D. Simak, a time machine exploit with an exceptionally bleak ending.

Time travel also plays a significant role in Jack Williamson's 'The Moon Era', which rather unusually takes place on a much younger version of our Earth's satellite, a miniature world with its own atmosphere and strange flora and fauna. It's an enjoyable romp but completely overshadowed by Williamson's second contribution to BTGA, 'Born of the Sun', an astonishing example of the "thought-variant" subgenre, in which it emerges that the planets and satellites of our solar system are in fact the ready-to-hatch eggs of immense star-birds. Williamson was one of the few truly successful pre-Golden Age writers to survive intact into the Golden Age: he had a vibrant and lengthy career. Many years ago I read The Early Williamson, a showcase of the stories that first established him as a "name" in the SF field, and I was impressed: his ideas were always original and interesting and his grasp of plot relatively sophisticated.

Returning to the "shrinking man" theme, two offbeat treatments can be found in BTGA: Henry Hasse's 'He Who Shrank', which takes the concept to an extreme, its unfortunate narrator descending through uncountable submicroscopic universes nested inside each other, with the implication that the loop will eventually be closed; and Donald Wandrei's 'Colossus', which reverses the idea, the main protagonist expanding in size until he grows bigger than our universe, which turns out to be a single atom in a much larger cosmos. Hasse's prose style is dense and overwrought and reminiscent of the Weird Tales standard; Wandrei's is extremely clumsy and awkward and doesn't do justice to his concepts.

Charles R. Tanner is a forgotten name now, but Asimov cites him as a major early influence, and on the strength of 'Tumithak of the Corridors' and its sequel, 'Tumithak of Shawm', one can understand why. Both novellas are well-written and unusual, almost the sort of thing a youthful Jack Vance might have written, and indeed they are among the highlights of BTGA. Apparently Tanner wrote four 'Tumithak' novellas which combine to make a novel: it's out there somewhere, issued by a small press, and is undoubtedly worth making the effort to seek out.

I was less enthralled by Raymond Z. Gallun's 'Old Faithful', which is a sympathetic portrait of an alien being along the lines established by Stanley Weinbaum's justly famous 'A Martian Odyssey' (in the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories). That particular Weinbaum story doesn't appear in BTGA, as Asimov states that he was unaware of it at the time, but 'The Parasite Planet' does, and it's almost as good, with a traditional "hostile world" scenario rendered more special by a superior writing technique and skilfully timed dynamic. Weinbaum would surely have become a major Golden Age author had he lived long enough, but he died of cancer only eighteen months into his career at the age of 33.

Murray Leinster, as an extreme contrast to Weinbaum, enjoyed a career of immense duration. His first SF story, 'The Runaway Skyscraper', was published in 1919 in the pages of Argosy, predating Williamson by one decade and Asimov by two. 'Sideways in Time' is the first properly developed "lateral dimensions" story. Various alternate presents appear on Earth at the same moment, turning our world into a patchwork of bizarre lateral civilisations. The concept is vast and difficult to handle, but Leinster does a good job, though his prose is a little stiff. By the time of his second contribution to BTGA, 'Proxima Centauri', he has become a much more fluid and controlled writer, and in fact this tale of an alien race that has evolved from carnivorous plants and travels in wooden spaceships is one of the finest in the anthology.

A quirky story that rises above its numerous defects and becomes almost an example of unintentional surrealism is 'The Human Pets of Mars' by Leslie F. Stone, the only female writer represented in this volume and one of the few women active in the field in the 1930s (of whom the greatest was probably C.L. Moore). Asimov claims that 'The Human Pets of Mars' no longer stands up, and yet I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Owing as much to Swiftian satire as contemporary pulp SF, Stone's parable of a group of humans who are abducted by octopus-like aliens and turned into domestic pets, fed on overich food, pampered and punished, subjected to mystifying training sessions, is amusing. It reads almost like a parody of pulp SF, though almost certainly that wasn't Stone's intention. I found it even more entertaining than the story that immediately follows it, 'The Brain Stealers of Mars' by John W. Campbell.

Campbell is represented in BTGA by two stories, one of which is a sort of speculative essay in a series designed to educate the casual reader about the conditions on the various planets of the solar system. 'Other Eyes Watching' is a mildly interesting piece but nothing special. 'The Brain Stealers of Mars', on the other hand, is actually a very good story, a puzzle tale about two maverick adventurers stuck in a very nasty tight spot who must use wits rather than brawn to escape a dreadful fate.

The authentic puzzle tale is an abstruse subgenre of its own, known in German as a "gedanken". One of the finest examples of this specialised genre rounds of BTGA in fine style, Ross Rocklynne's 'The Men and the Mirror'. Rocklynne should have been as big as Asimov and Heinlein but for some reason it never quite worked for him, although he was an important part of the Golden Age and a major influence on Asimov. 'The Men and the Mirror' drops its two protagonists into a situation where only a good understanding of the laws of physics, coupled with an accurate mathematical ability, will be able to get them out. It's an ingenious tale. It also happens to be well-written and is undoubtedly the highlight of BTGA.

I have neglected to mention that Asimov includes one of his own stories in the anthology, 'Big Game', an early piece he thought had been lost. It's a slight throwaway affair, scarcely worthy of the mighty author who penned Foundation. Of vastly greater significance are the autobiographical linking pieces between each of the stories in which Asimov talks about his youthful discovery of SF, his own attempts to write it and the rocky road of his home life and education.

BTGA was worth reading, but I feel obliged to stress that it's not really an anthology that can be digested all in one go without extensive pauses between the stories. The quality of the writing is mostly competent but rarely brilliant and although there's a tendency to forgive such clumsy prose by saying "It was only the 1930s" it must be remembered that writers such as Yevgeny Zamyatin, Karel Čapek, Frigyes Karinthy and Olaf Stapledon had already produced immensely more sophisticated SF before this time. Pulp magazine SF was enjoyable and often responsible for some genuinely intriguing and original concepts, but it was still pulp fiction, not highbrow literature.

The full contents list of BTGA can be viewed here.

I have this collection in a couple of paperback volumes. I pretty much agree with you on the stories, and it's nice to see a review of them here. I suspect very few people read the old stuff these days.
Thanks for your comment, Bill! I'm love to read more '30s pulp magazine SF this year, but also stuff from the '20s and earlier as well!
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