This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living and hard dying… but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice… but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks… but nobody loved it.
— Alfred Bester, The Stars, My Destination
Over at the Mad Genius Club yesterday, Dave Freer asked about the Golden Age:
Inevitably, when the subject of the Golden Age of SF comes up, we have a chorus of ‘Heinlein’….
Or we could try something completely different.
We could say ‘and who else’?
His list is almost nothing like mine. Except that this cannot possibly be repeated loudly or often enough:
If you haven’t read Poul Anderson and are trying to write sf/fantasy… you’re doing it wrong.
Just so. I consider Poul Anderson to be my greatest teacher, though I never corresponded with him, let alone met him. Every book, every story, everything I read by him teaches me something. (And most of them are also really damn good, to boot.)
As I understand his challenge (when I read it yesterday, the post could have stood a little proofing), what Freer wants is the golden age writers who most influenced you. Well, me, but really, I can’t imagine many people give a fig what I think. (Last weekend’s giveaway of Spring that never came made that clear.)
And as he noted, the Heinlein is obvious. Past RAH and Asimov, though, I didn’t read a whole bunch of golden age stuff when I was at the golden age. I was 14 in the ’80s, when a lot of classics were simply not in print. (As I noted to a friend last week, I could read dozens and dozens of Conan books if I wanted, but none of the original Robert E. Howard stories was available. It was a bit of a messed up time. Which is why I’m only just reading them now, in fact. But that’s another post.)
But I can scrounge a list of a few golden age names, sure.
Ray Bradbury. I’ll come clean and admit that I never much liked Bradbury. I first read Fahrenheit 451 in fourth grade (Yes, I was precocious), and while it was well-written, as is just about everything Bradbury published, I knew even from very early on that this writer hated technology, hated progress, and just always came off as a grouchy curmudgeon to me. Truly, he had a way with words. And a number of his books are certainly worth reading. And he wrote possibly the sharpest, most brutal story of school days’ humiliation avenged ever (“The Utterly Perfect Murder”). But when I first read him, he struck me as a joyless grump, and as I followed him at a distance over the years, I came to think he was, actually, a joyful grump. But I’m quite grumpy enough myself to need an infusion of it beyond that. So you could say he had an effect on me, even if it was negative, and I am not someone who thinks early 20th Century midwestern small town life is the epitome of human existence, because I happened to grow up in a midwestern small town, and no thank you, I’ll take vanilla.
Philip José Farmer. Farmer was, in style, pretty much a pure pulp writer. Reading any one of his books, you can’t help but believe that he was making it up as he went along, pulling ideas out of… the air just as fast as he was typing, and rarely going back to revise and include things like foreshadowing, scene-setting, and logical through-lines. Slam-bang all the way through, and no time to catch your breath. I started with some of his good stuff (Riverworld), then got into some of his mediocre stuff (Riverworld), then came across some really bad stuff (Dayworld). It was Dayworld Rebel that flipped the switch in my teenage brain: “It’s like he’s just writing down every ‘cool’ thing that pops into his head and then building action scenes and cliffhangers around it. This sucks. I bet I could do this!” To this day, I have that love/hate relationship to his work. When he was good, he was grand. And when he wasn’t… oy.
Alfred Bester. Quoted above. The Stars My Destination blew my mind at age 13, thanks to a yard sale and Tony Boucher’s A Treasury of Great Science Fiction two-volume set. Couple years later I chanced into a ’70s paperback of The Demolished Man (Soon A Major Motion Picture!) [Yeah, um… not so much.] and loved it very nearly as much.
Arthur C. Clarke. Inhaled a lot of his books at a certain age. Loved the worlds he created — or, rather, the way he created whole worlds, and clearly thought them the hell through — always thought he people were lacking (with a very few exceptions).
Frederick Pohl. Again, his influence on me was largely negative, as his fascination with incompetence and buffonery held no interest for me. That said, Gateway was a damn well-written book, and Man-Plus had one of the best-carried-off twists I read at the time, where it completely caught me off guard at the same time I saw immediately how it had been set up from the beginning.
Murray Leinster. This one is cheating, because I only started reading Leinster recently. But he was (unlike one or two others on my list here) inarguably a golden age writer, and what I’ve been reading has been hitting my buttons just right, taking an economic view of how future societies might work, and working through that logic of things.
How about you? Which golden age authors (loosely defined) molded you as a writer or reader?