Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Radium-Age SF: An Introduction

A version of this post originally appeared at io9, on 11/29/08.

The Radium Age of science fiction runs from 1904-33.

Why those dates? Earlier this year, I formulated an eccentric but strict periodization scheme, in which the Nineteen-Oughts (not to be confused with the 1900s), for example, run from 1904 through 1913; the Teens (not to be confused with the '10s) from 1914-23; and the Twenties (not to be confused with the '20s) from 1924-33. The Radium Age of science fiction, then, encompasses those SF novels and stories published in the Nineteen-Oughts, Teens, and Twenties.

Doesn't a decade begin in a "0" or "1" year, though, and end in a "9" or "0" year, you ask? Not necessarily. A decade is a sociocultural as well as a calendrical phenomenon. The 1960s may run from 1960-69, or if you prefer 1961-70. But when we talk about the Sixties, pop-culturally speaking, we're talking about a decade that began optimistically in '64 with the release of Meet the Beatles, and ended tragically in '73 with the death of Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen Stacy (the comic book's cover even announced a "TURNING POINT," i.e. the end of the Sixties).

Still not convinced? It would be tedious to argue about my crackpot scheme here, but I've written plenty on the topic elsewhere.

If my survey of SF novels published between the beginning of the 20th century and the so-called Golden Age of SF stops short of the Thirties (1934-43), it does so with good reason. It was during the mid-1930s, after all, that "science fiction established itself, separating with a slowly increasing decisiveness from fantasy and space-opera," as Kingsley Amis approvingly put it in his 1958 critique, New Maps of Hell.

SF's Golden Age, in this analysis, didn't wait for Campbell to start buying stories from Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, but instead gave birth to itself in the years 1934-37, a transitional period or interregnum that saw the advent of the campy Flash Gordon comic strip, E.E. "Doc" Smith's pseudo-scientific Lensman series, and innumerable post-King Kong Hollywood "sci-fi" blockbusters. These escapist, fantastical, wildly popular phenomena helped disentangle literate, analytical, socially conscious "speculative fiction" (Huxley's Brave New World, which appeared in '32, had helped jump-start the trend) from mere sci-fi, a genre now understood by the public to concern itself exclusively with adventure yarns set in the future and populated with Bug-Eyed Monsters. Not that there's anything wrong with BEMs, you understand.

By the early 1940s (i.e., the latter part of the Thirties), as SF chroniclers of a certain age never tire of crowing, the grown-up Campbell Revolution had decisively overthrown the eternally sophomoric Gernsbackians. For the next couple of decades, American genre writers born in the Oughts, who were too young to contribute to Radium-Age SF — e.g., Heinlein, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, L. Sprague de Camp, L. Ron Hubbard, Andre Norton, Fredric Brown, Clifford D. Simak, Alfred Bester, C.L. Moore; and their immediate juniors, born in the Tens, including Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clarke, Leigh Brackett, James Blish, Frederik Pohl, Frank Herbert, and Theodore Sturgeon — would rarely mingle SF and Fantasy in the promiscuous, innocent fashion of Radium Age writers like William Hope Hodgson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, or David Lindsay. Unless, of course, they did so as a deliberate experiment in what came to be called (yuck) "science fantasy."

In his introduction to a 1974 collection titled Before the Golden Age, Asimov would note, condescendingly, that although it may have possessed a certain vigor, in general the SF published during his own formative years "seems, to anyone who has experienced the Campbell Revolution, to be clumsy, primitive, naive." This is certainly true of much SF from the Pulp Era, and of Hugo Gernsback's own fiction in particular. (Amis on Gernsbackian SF: "Neither culture not dreams warm it; it exists as propaganda for the wares of the inventor.") However, what I find so appealing about Radium-Age SF is the ability of its best authors to bring thinking and dreaming (also known as the "Hmm..." and the "Oh!") together in a fraught, negative-dialectical state of productive tension. If this means that Radium-Age SF is somehow less sophisticated than Golden-Age SF, more adolescent or immature, then we need to rethink what it means to be sophisticated and mature.

As for SF novels published in the years 1901-03, there's a sound argument to be made for overlooking them, too. Here it is: The 20th century saw the prose style of H.G. Wells, father of SF in the English-speaking world, turn increasingly didactic and shrill; however, The First Men in the Moon and The Food of the Gods, the last of Wells's "scientific romances" that are actually fun to read, appeared in '01 and '04. As Brian Aldiss laments, in Billion Year Spree, Wells's many 20th-century novels, with the exception of the two named, "do not recapture that darkly beautiful quality of imagination, or that instinctive-seeming unity of construction, which lives in his early novels, and in his science fiction particularly." This suggests that the late 19th century which Wells did so much to invent didn't expire until '04-ish — a proposition that is, I submit, six years less outlandish than Virginia Woolf's claim that the 20th century (I'm paraphrasing) didn't begin until "on or about December 1910." For the purposes of this survey, then, the handful of SF novels published from 1901-03 can be safely disregarded.

Fine! But mightn't ignoring the years 1901-03 and 1934-37 do a disservice to important, even critical SF novels published during those periods that belong — by virtue of their style and worldview, their negative-dialectical whatchamacallit — neither to the Wellsian 19th century nor to the Campbellian Golden Age?

Not so much, actually. In fact, by my count only five such novels exist. So I'm going to cheat, and include in this survey: M.P. Shiel's gorgeously written apocalypse, The Purple Cloud (1901); Joseph O'Neill's Land Under England (1935), a hollow-earth fable of telepathic totalitarianism; Olaf Stapledon's Homo Superior novel, Odd John (1935), without which David Bowie couldn't have dreamed up Ziggy Stardust; Karel Čapek's War with the Newts (1936; 1937 in English), in which Nazi-like intelligent salamanders demand Lebensraum from the human race; and Stapledon's Star Maker (1937), which defies description in a few words.

Science fiction's Radium Pre-Golden Age (1904-33) is a cruelly neglected era. It's almost as though SF historians and scholars don't want us to read the SF of, for example, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack London, Olaf Stapledon, William Hope Hodgson, Karel Capek (who gave us the word "robot"), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, and Philip Wylie. They'd like us to jump straight from the late 19th century (Edward Bellamy, William Morris, HG Wells, Jules Verne) to the Golden Age. Why? Let's find out!

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