The Golden Age Was More Diverse Than You Think

I’m currently in the middle of reading the 2019 Hugo finalists, alternating with the 1944 Retro Hugo finalists to avoid overdosing on either contemporary or vintage SFF.

I just finished reading the finalists in the novelette category for the Hugos and Retro Hugo. And while the 2018 novelettes are all fine and worthy stories, there is no real standout among them. And indeed, I’m not the only one who has noticed that the short fiction categories at the Hugos and Nebulas are a tad weak this year with plenty of good stories, but no really outstanding ones. By contrast, the Retro Hugo novelette ballot contains three absolutely stunning stories, all of them deserved classics which have been reprinted dozens of times, one story that’s great, but not quite as great as the top three and two stories which are okay, but no longer as good as they probably were back in 1943. But in addition to how good the 1943 novelettes are and how well they hold up seventy-six years later, I was also struck by how diverse these stories were and that several of them did not match the stereotype of what a science fiction story from the so-called Golden Age was like at all.

Now we all have an idea of Golden Age science fiction in our heads. Hard science fiction with fairly rigorous science, at least by the standards of the time, the unquestioning belief in science and progress, the unquestioning acceptance of colonialism and imperialism, future histories dominated by great men (and of course, they’re always men), square-jawed space heroes and brilliant scientists, competent characters – white, male and American, of course – using their brains and occasionally, their rayguns, too, to solve problems, women – if present at all – as damsels in distress to be groped by bug-eyed monsters and rescued by the competent man, people of colour and LGBT people absent altogether, aliens as the other to be either fought and destroyed or at best patronised, humanity inevitably triumphant. In short, what has become known as Campbellian science fiction. However, John W. Campbell wasn’t the only editor working during the Golden Age, even if he was the most famous one. And even John W. Campbell didn’t only buy and publish Campbellian science fiction.

Reprint anthologies and collections of older science fiction suffer from survivorship bias. Only the best and/or most famous stories are remembered and reprinted, while the many average or just plain bad stories as well as the occasional hidden gem are forgotten. That’s why projects like Galactic Journey or SF Magazines are so valuable, because they review entire magazines, both the good stories and the bad, the classics and the forgotten, and so offer a more complete picture than the cherry-picked reprint anthologies and collections.

Survivorship bias can be found doubly in the Retro Hugos, because not only do people (and the Retro Hugo nominator base is small compared to the current year Hugos) tend to nominate the famous stories, the ones that endured, they also tend to nominate and vote for writers (and editors and artists) whose names the recognise. This is why unremarkable debut stories by future stars tend to get nominated for the Retro Hugos, while better but lesser known works and authors tend to get overlooked. That’s also why Robert A. Heinlein inevitably gets nominated and wins, even for not very good works (Beyond This Horizon, which won the 1943 Retro Hugo for Best Novel last year, is pretty weak, especially compared to some of the other novels on the ballot, and the Best Novella winner Waldo is worse than The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, but more famous), because he has the name recognition that other authors lack. I don’t even exclude myself here. When nominating for the Retro Hugos, I first check ISFDB to see what my favourite golden age authors published that year.

But even taking the known problems with the Retro Hugos into consideration, the breadth and variety of stories on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot is astounding (pun fully intended), as is the fact that quite a few of them don’t really fit into the prevailing image image of what Golden Age science fiction was like. And this doesn’t just apply to left-field finalists such as Das Glasperlenspiel by Hermann Hesse in the novel category or Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and The Magic Bed-Knob by Mary Norton in the novella category, neither of whom I would have expected to make the Hugo ballot in 1944, if only because US science fiction fans wouldn’t have been familiar with them. No, there also is a lot of variety in the stories which originated in US science fiction magazines.

So let’s take a look at the novelette category at the 1944 Retro Hugos. These are the finalists:

  • “Citadel of Lost Ships” by Leigh Brackett (Planet Stories, March 1943)
  • “The Halfling” by Leigh Brackett (Astonishing Stories, February 1943)
  • “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Lewis Padgett (C.L. Moore & Henry Kuttner) (Astounding Science-Fiction, February 1943)
  • “The Proud Robot” by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner) (Astounding Science-Fiction, February 1943)
  • “Symbiotica” by Eric Frank Russell (Astounding Science-Fiction, October 1943)
  • “Thieves’ House” by Fritz Leiber Jr. (Unknown Worlds, February 1943)

Okay, so the stories in question are seventy-six years old (plus, a thirty-one year old Fritz Leiber novella that is tangentially mentioned), but nonetheless, here is your spoiler warning:

So let’s recall the stereotype of Golden Age science fiction that I outlined above and check the actual stories against it. Let’s start with the Golden Age preferred hard science fiction with fairly rigorous science, at least for the time. Only one story, Eric Frank Russell’s “Symbiotica”, might have counted as hard science fiction in the 1940s and the science in question is biology rather than physics. Meanwhile, “Citadel of Lost Ships” is unabashed space opera with a surprising undercurrent of social criticism (more on that later). “The Halfling” is a hardboiled crime story in a science fiction setting (and of course, Leigh Brackett did write hardboiled crime fiction both in print and for the screen), which also serves as a reminder that science fiction was no more an isolated genre in 1943 than it is now, but that science fiction was always influenced by other genres and that there were always crossgenre stories.

“Mimsy Were the Borogroves” is a science fictional take on the portal fantasy genre (with a bit of metafictional commentary included), which in many ways is a companion piece to the 2019 Hugo finalist “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow, as both are stories about neglected children, whose caregivers (parents and a child psychologist in “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” and a social worker in “A Witch’s Guide to Escape”) cannot give them what they need and who eventually find salvation on the other end of a portal. In fact, the message of “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” is basically, “Parents, pay attention to your children and listen to them”. And so, “Uncle Charles” a.k.a. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll is the only useful adult in the story (and an actual mathematician), because he listens to Alice. Meanwhile, the Paradines and child psychologist Rex Holloway don’t listen to Emma and Scott and therefore lose the children.

“The Proud Robot” is humorous science fiction, part of Henry Kuttner’s Gallegher series. Coincidentally, it’s also a story about media piracy, a subject that’s still as current now as it was in 1943, though the future of media piracy did not in fact play out as envisioned by Henry Kuttner. Indeed, one aspect of the Golden Age that’s often forgotten is that it wasn’t all po-faced serious business science fiction, but that there were also a lot of funny stories. Humor doesn’t always age well, which is why the funny side of the Golden Age is not as well remembered, though funny stories do find their way onto the Retro Hugo ballot on occasion, such as Fredric Brown’s “The Star Mouse”, which was nominated for the 1943 Retro Hugo last year, or “The Roaring Trumpet”, one of the Enchanter stories by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, which was nominated for the 1941 Retro Hugo. “Victory Unintentional” and “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray”, both by Isaac Asimov, are two other examples of the funny side of the Golden Age, which sadly both missed the Retro Hugo ballot last year, even though they’re better than “Runaround”, which was nominated. On this year’s ballot, “Thieves’ House” has plenty of humor as well, though it’s primarily an adventure story.

The sixth finalist “Thieves’ House”, finally, is not science fiction at all, but fantasy, more specifically sword and sorcery, though that term wouldn’t be coined until 1961, with a generous side order of horror and a dash of humor. It’s also a cracking good story. And indeed, it is quite often forgotten today that fantasy and horror were part of the Golden Age. Of course, Weird Tales predates the Golden Age (and actually predates Amazing Stories and therefore American pulp science fiction as a distinct genre altogether). And while the heyday of Weird Tales was in the 1930s, it did run until 1954 in its original incarnation, i.e. right through the Golden Age. What is more, John W. Campbell himself edited not just Astounding Science Fiction, but also its fantasy-focussed sister magazine Unknown Worlds. Both fantasy magazines are represented on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot, Unknown with “Thieves’ House” and “Conjure Wife”, both by Fritz Leiber, and Weird Tales with Robert Bloch’s horror story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”. There’s also “The Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath” by H.P. Lovecraft (already dead for six years by 1943, but still publishing from beyond the grave) on this year’s Retro Hugo ballot, not actually published in Weird Tales, though it’s very much a Weird Tales type story, as well as “Doorway into Time”, another portal fantasy by C.L. Moore (who was a frequent Weird Tales contributor) from Famous Fantastic Mysteries, which was very much a crossgenre magazine. Fantasy, particularly from the short-lived Unknown, was also well represented on previous years’ Retro Hugo ballots, e.g. “Magic Inc.” and “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” by Robert A. Heinlein, “The Sunken Land” by Fritz Leiber, “The Compleat Werewolf” by Anthony Boucher, “The Roaring Trumpet” by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt and “Hell is Forever” by Alfred Bester. Together, these stories offer a good overview of what fantasy was like during the Golden Age. There is sword and sorcery (“The Sunken Land” and “Thieves’ House”), there is horror (“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”, “Conjure Wife”, “Hell Is Forever”), there is weird fiction (“The Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath”), there is proto urban fantasy (“Magic Inc.”, “The Compleat Werewolf” and again “Conjure Wife”).

So what about the competent man (and of course, it’s a man) protagonists of the Golden Age, the heroic scientists and spacemen? Do we find them in these stories? Not really. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser from “Thieves’ House” are definitely highly competent and very good at what they do (“the best thieves and swordsmen in Lankhmar” according to Fritz Leiber), but they’re also habitual criminals existing on the margins of their society. And indeed, every single character in “Thieves’ House” with the exception of the unnamed maid and the unnamed black kitten is a criminal of sorts. Nor are Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser the only outlaw protagonists on the 1944 Retro Hugo novelette ballot. Roy Campbell, the protagonist of “Citadel of Lost Ships”, is also an outlaw. Ironically, he’s also the most noble character on this ballot and the choice he makes at the end of the story is the sort of noble choice you could imagine Humphrey Bogart making in a 1940s movie. “The Halfling” is not just an actual science fiction crime story, all of its characters – the circus owner John “Jade” Greene, the dancers Laura Darrow and Sindi as well as Laska, the cat person from Callisto – are all carnival folks and therefore marginalised. The inventor Gallegher from “The Proud Robot” is a scientist and brilliant inventor for a change, but he’s also far from competent, since he can only invent things when drunk and promptly forgets how they work, once he sobers up. No, the competent man Gallegher is not. The far future scientist from “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” is not particularly competent either. Not only does he fail to notice that the time machine he invented actually works, he also sends educational toys into the past without considering the consequences. And while, Scott, Emma and Alice from the same story are definitely competent, they are also children. The spaceship crew from “Symbiotica”, who get marooned on a hostile alien world, are closest to traditional Golden Age protagonists, thought they don’t seem particularly competent either, probably because we’ve read and seen so many “hostile alien world” stories by now that the characters from “Symbiotica” seem like hot candidates for the Darwin Award.

So what about the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of the Golden Age? Again, reality is more complex. For two of the stories on the 1944 Retro Hugo novelette ballot are written by a woman (the same woman in this case) and a third is co-written by a woman. Of course, Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore are the best known women writers of the Golden Age and quite often the only two women writers of science fiction working before the 1960s that people know of at all, though there were other women writing SFF during this period such as Amelia Reynolds Long, Allison V. Harding, Clare Winger Harris, Leslie F. Stone, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, Dorothy Quick, Everil Worrell or Greye La Spina.

Moving from authors to characters, two of the stories feature no female characters at all. But of the four stories that do feature women and girls, none of the female characters match the damsel-in-distress stereotype so often considered te default this era. That said, Laura Darrow from “The Halfling” and Ivlis from “Thieves’ House” do match a stereotype of the era, that of the femme fatale. Imagine Rita Hayworth or Veronica Lake portraying them in a movie and you’ve got the right idea. However, there is more than meets the eye to both Laura and Ivlis and both are characters in their own right rather than voluptuous cardboard cut-outs. Stella Moore from “Citadel of Lost Ships” is not just a love interest, but also a rebel (and a telepath) who fights alongside the male protagonist. And Emma, though only five, is the smarter of the Paradine siblings from “Mimsy Were the Borogroves”, a story which also features another significant female character in young Alice (Liddell). Rounding out the list of female characters in these stories are Sindi, the Martian carnival dancer from “The Halfling”, who gets murdered because she knows too much, and Ivlis’ unnamed (at least in this story) maid, a minor character who gains much more significance as well as a name (though I’ll be damned, if I remember what it is without looking it up) in “The Mouser Goes Below”, a Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story published forty-five years later, where it is revealed Mouser’s tryst with the lady in question resulted in a son. Looking at the rest of the Retro Hugo ballot, we also have the witchy (and backstabbing) faculty wives of Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife as well as the kindly elderly witch Miss Price from The Magic Bed-Knob, which coincidentally is another Retro Hugo finalist written by a woman.

All five authors on the 1944 Retro Hugo novelette ballot are white (and as far as I can tell, there is no person of colour on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot at all). However, three of the six novelettes feature human characters of colour, while two stories have protagonists of colour. The otherwise unremarkable “Symbiotica” by Eric Frank Russell features a multi-species and multi-racial (albeit all-male) spaceship crew, which includes a black doctor. This is quite remarkable, especially considering this story was published in 1943 in Astounding, whose editor John W. Campbell was known to be rather racist and famously refused to publish Samuel R. Delany’s novel Nova in Analog some twenty-five years later, because he claimed that audiences would not be able to relate to a black protagonist.

And while we’re on the subject of John W. Campbell, he also published “Thieves’ House” as well as four other Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories in Astounding‘s sister mag Unknown Worlds between 1939 and 1943, when Unknown folded, apparently complete missing the fact that the Gray Mouser is not white. He is repeatedly described as brown-skinned in the thirtysomething stories Fritz Leiber wrote about Fafhrd and Gray Mouser in a span of almost fifty years (though I’d have to check if his skin colour is mentioned in the early stories published in Unknown), and in “Adept’s Gambit”, the one Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story set in our world rather than Nehwon, it is mentioned that the real world equivalent of the city Mouser hails from is Tyre in what is now Lebanon. Interestingly, Mouser – a thoroughly likeable and well-rounded character, even if he is a scoundrel – fits some of the stereotypes about Lebanese people, which appeared in Germany in the 1980s, when we got an influx of Lebanese refugees because of the Lebanese civil war. Now I wonder whether those stereotypes are much older than I assumed or whether it’s simply a coincidence.

Finally, Roy Campbell, the protagonist of Leigh Brackett’s story “Citadel of Lost Ships”, is described as dark-skinned in the story, though Planet Stories cover artist Jerome Rozen depicts him as white and blonde and a deadringer for Doc Savage as portrayed by Walter Baumhofer. But then, Stella is not blonde either, but has black hair in the story. Nor do Roy, Stella and Marah the Martian fight green, lizardlike aliens in the story – instead the primary antagonists are human.

Now I knew that Leigh Brackett’s most famous character, Eric John Stark, is a man of colour, even though cover artists have been ignoring that fact for seventy years. Interestingly, the most recent editions by Cirsova Publishing of all companies, are the first to actually portray Eric John Stark as Leigh Brackett described him, namely as a black man. But while I knew about Stark and must have read “Citadel of Lost Ships” at some point, I had completely forgotten that Roy Campbell is a man of colour as well. In fact, “Citadel of Lost Ships” comes across as a prototype for the later Stark stories in many ways.

ETA: I just realised that Roy Campbell, space outlaw of colour, just happens to share a surname with John W. Campbell, celebrated SFF editor with rather reactionary views about race and gender. That’s totally a coincidence, I’m sure.

“Citadel of Lost Ships” – though not the best novelette or even the best Leigh Brackett novelette on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot – was a huge surprise for me. I remembered very little of the story beyond the fact that I probably read it, since I read everything by Leigh Brackett I could get my hands on. What makes this story remarkable is not just that it features a protagonist of colour, but also that it is very critical of capitalism and imperialism and particularly of the treatment of indigenous people. What galvanises our protagonist Roy Campbell into action is the impending displacement of Kraylen people, because coal and oil have been discovered in the Venusian swamps where the Kraylen live. Campbell, who was taken in and more or less adopted by the Kraylen (much like Eric John Stark would later be adopted by Mercurians), vows to help them and heads to Romany, a wandering space station assembled from various spaceships (the citadel of the title) where all those displaced by the encroaching Terran-Venusian Coalition have found refuge. But even that refuge is threatened.

“Citadel of Lost Ships” couldn’t be further from Campbellian science fiction (and in fact Campbell did not publish it – Malcom Reiss of Planet Stories did). For starters, humans are clearly the bad guys here and the story is very concerned with the treatment of what Roy Campbell calls “the little people”, many of whom are aliens who – in a genre tradition that would last well into modern times – stand in for various marginalised groups in the real world. The plight of the Kraylen is clearly intended to criticise the treatment of Native Americans – and let’s not forget that the Wounded Knee Massacre took place only twenty-five years before Leigh Brackett was born, while the last conflicts between Native Americans and representatives of the (white) authorities happened within Brackett’s lifetime, i.e. those events were still very much within living memory, when “Citadel of Lost Ships” was published. “Romany”, the name of the space station, refers to the Romani people and indeed, Stella explains at one point that the station and its inhabitants are welcomed as traders but otherwise “hated, just as gypsies [Brackett’s word choice, not mine] always are.” And Roy Campbell himself lost the farm which had been in his family for three hundred years to a hydroelectric dam project, which clearly recalls the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933, whose hydroelectric dams displaced (and were still displacing when the story was written) farmers, families and sometimes whole towns in the name of progress. It’s very difficult to find critical voices about the Tennessee Valley Authority even today (the displaced farmers are usually just a footnote), so to find one in 1943 is quite remarkable. So much for the claim from certain quarters that “the Golden Age was unpolitical and all about fun science fiction”. Cause “Citadel of Lost Ships” is very much a story about Social Justice Warriors in the most literal sense of the word and that from Leigh Brackett, an author from whom I wouldn’t have expected progressive politics, considering that her Skaith trilogy from the 1970s has Eric John Stark dealing with evil hippies and an evil alien welfare state.

“Citadel of Lost Ships” is available online here. But now, let’s have a quote from Leigh Brackett via her character Roy Campbell about imperialism and progess:

“They’re building, Stella. When they’re finished they’ll have a big, strong, prosperous empire extending all across the System, and the people who belong to that empire will be happy.

“But before you can build you have to grade and level, destroy the things that get in your way. We’re the things – the tree-stumps and the rocks that grew in the way and can’t be changed.

“They’re building; they’re growing. You can’t stop that. In the end it’ll be a good thing, I suppose. But right now, for us…”

So much for the unquestioning belief in science and progress and the unquestioning acceptance of colonialism.

One must not forget that these stories are seventy-six years old, so of course there are anachronisms such as a swampy, cloud-shrouded Venus and a solar system teeming with life that never existed that way. Characters smoke, spaceships are tin rockets with fins, there are wooden ladders in space and jumping out of an airlock in orbit does not maroon a character in space, but instead sends them falling towards the planet. The gender politics are occasionally problematic and sometimes, there is a term such as the g-word in “Citadel of Lost Ships”, which we would not use today. But nonetheless, these stories are a lot more varied and diverse than one would expect and in some cases, they upend our idea what the so-called “Golden Age” was like.

With the heavy reading involved with Hugo voting (made even heavier by the addition of the Lodestar and the Best Series Hugo), I fully understand that many Hugo voters choose not to vote for the Retro Hugos. But whether you vote for the Retro Hugos or not, many of the stories on the ballot are well worth reading and remembering.

ETA: I have also written two follow-up posts to this one, looking at more stories from the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot and how they challenge our assumptions of what golden age science fiction is like. You can find them here and here.

ETA: I just chanced to rewatch Guardians of the Galaxy tonight and realised how very much it recalls these seventy-six year old stories. Roy Campbell is clearly a spiritual ancestor of Peter Quill, part of a long line of intergalactic outlaws that stretches from C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith and Leigh Brackett’s Roy Campbell and Eric John Stark via Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds all the way to Peter Quill. Meanwhile, the motley crew intergalactic rebels fighting by Roy Campbell’s side are not all that unlike the Guardians, though a talking raccoon and a sentient tree are maybe a bit out there. On the other hand, Citadel of Lost Ships features an alien who can send enemies to sleep with a harp. Finally, Rocket and Groot have a certain Fafhrd and Gray Mouser vibe and I’m pretty sure they would get along just wonderfully (Drax, too) over a mug of something alcoholic.

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19 Responses to The Golden Age Was More Diverse Than You Think

  1. Kip Williams says: has a lot of science fiction magazines, particularly astounding, in PDF of the original format for comparison.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the tip. is also where I found “Citadel of Lost Ships” (after ascertaining that it was not in one of the Brackett collections I own, but then I read some Brackett in the very comfortable leather armchairs of a Dutch mega-bookstore as a teen). And unlike Project Gutenberg, it is accessible in Germany.

  2. Dana Lynne says:

    Thank you for this; it’s so important to actually look at our SFF history instead of assuming we know what that history must have been like.

    I always enjoy your reviews.

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  4. Paul Fraser says:

    Interesting article, and thanks for the mention. It’s a pity that Moore’s ‘Judgement Night’ didn’t make the final ballot—it would have been a good fit for your article (in some respects anyway), a markedly atypical piece for the time and especially for Astounding.

    • Cora says:

      You’re welcome. You do great work and deserve to be recognised.

      I also think it’s a pity that Judgment Night didn’t make the ballot, especially since it’s a great story that also doesn’t match our stereotypes about the era. It’s also much better than The Weapons Shop or Perelandra (and The Glass Bead Game is a Marmite finalist anyway). I guess Perelandra was unavoidable, especially with WorldCon in Ireland, and Van Vogt has enough fans among the Retro Hugo electorate to make the ballot. Though I am a bit surprised that the Retro Hugo nominators went for Earth’s Last Citadel over Judgment Night, since the latter is IMO the better novel and better known as well. Though ideally, I’d have liked both Earth’s Last Citadel and Judgment Night on the ballot with The Weapons Shop or Perelandra kicked off.

  5. Gene says:

    Thank you for writing this!

    • Cora says:

      You’re welcome. And sorry for not approving your post, but for some reason, it landed in the spam folder.

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