More about the Golden Age

This is the third in a loose series of posts about the so-called Golden Age of science fiction and how it was less monolithic and more diverse than most people think. Parts one and two may be found here.

These observations are party based on the finalists for the 1944 Retro Hugos, which are a motly crew, even if you leave out obvious left-field finalists like The Glass Bead Game, The Little Prince or The Magic Bed-Knob.

Warning! Spoilers for some very old science fiction stories behind the cut!

So let’s take a look at some other thematic and stylistic patterns that show up on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot. One thing I noticed is that several stories on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot have twist endings, particularly in the short story category, which boasts three twist ending stories, the above mentioned “Death Sentence” by Isaac Asimov, “Exile” by Edmond Hamilton and “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch. We rarely see twist ending stories today, probably because most twist endings have been done umpteen times before and are utterly predictable these days*. And indeed, the submission guidelines of various SFF magazines specifically state that they don’t want twist ending stories. But during the Golden Age, twist endings were clearly popular. The most famous twist ending story from the era (and a 1951 Retro Hugo winner) is probably “To Serve Man” by Damon Knight. It’s an effective story (and I wholly expect the newest iteration of The Twilight Zone to adapt it once again), even though it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, because the twist relies on the double meaning “to serve”, which only exists in English. You can’t even translate “To Serve Man” into German and that an alien language would have not just the same grammatical structure, but also the exact same double meaning of “serve” as English is extremely unlikely.

Of the three twist ending stories on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot, Isaac Asimov’s “Death Sentence” is the weakest. Its twist feels tacked on nor does it fit in with the rest of Asimov’s robot stories. And indeed, it is not included in The Complete Robot, which is also why I couldn’t remember the story, because I’d never read it before. “Exile” by Edmond Hamilton is surprisingly effective for a story that’s only two pages long and basically only exists for the final punchline. “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” is the best of the twist ending stories on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot and even manages to be suspenseful, when you know the final twist. “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” is also an early example of a serial killer story, a subgenre which is depressingly common these days, but was quite unusual in the 1940s. But then, Robert Bloch is the grandfather of the serial killer genre due to his most famous work Psycho, though his interest in serial killers clearly goes back much longer.

And indeed, it is notable that while the overwhelming majority of the writers on the 2019 Hugo ballot don’t venture beyond the boundaries of the science fiction/fantasy/horror complex, plenty of 1944 Retro Hugo finalists were not just writers of SFFH, but crime and mystery writers as well. Isaac Asimov, Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch and Anthony Boucher all wrote crime fiction as well as SFF and Bloch and Boucher are better remembered as crime fiction authors today. Anthony Boucher even has a convention and a crime fiction award named after him. So genre boundaries were not nearly as rigid during the pulp era as they are today. And two stories on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot, “The Halfling” by Leigh Brackett and “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch are SF crime fiction hybrids, while “We Print the Truth” by Anthony Boucher has a murder mystery subplot, though it’s not a particularly convincing one. If the butler did it, maybe at least mention that there is a butler before he suddenly pops out of the woodwork to confess to the crime. Of course, Boucher has his characters state that it’s rather disappointing that the butler did it, even if by the law of averages the butler must occasionally turn out to be the killer. But then, the murder mystery is not the point of “We Print the Truth” anyway, which is instead a story about the power of the press and what we would now call fake news as well as about the nature of truth, how even good intentions can go bad and how with great power comes great responsibility. In fact, “We Print the Truth” was another big surprise to me, because it’s a really good story, which also has something to say. There also are two female characters of note, a plucky girl reporter in the Lois Lane/Brenda Starr mold and the daughter of a local factory owner with whom the protagonist is embroiled in a love triangle. Furthermore, “We Print the Truth” an unambiguous fantasy story that was published in Astounding – with a warning note by John W. Campbell himself – probably because Astounding‘s fantasy-focussed sister magazine Unknown Worlds had shut down two months before.

So what about the writing style? Nowadays, the stereotype about the Golden Age is that the writing was oftne clunky in an attempt at a transparent style. There is some truth about this, because on average, the stories on the 2019 Retro Hugo ballot are much better written. In general, the writing was much rougher in Golden Age science fiction and you do find plenty of clunky writing in the 1943 stories. However, you also find the more baroque and occasionally overwrought style that was common in Weird Tales in the 1930s. C.L. Moore’s “Doorway into Time” as well as parts of “Clash by Night”, likely those penned by Moore, are written in that style, as is “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” by H.P. Lovecraft, which also manages to violate every principle of modern storytelling with a passive protagonist to whom things just happen (he manages to get himself kidnapped four or five times in the same story) and in the end, it was allo a dream. No, I’m not surprised that Lovecraft couldn’t sell that one during his lifetime. And indeed “Doorway into Time” reminded me stylistically of C.L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories from Weird Tales from the 1930s. Meanwhile, the two Leigh Brackett stories and Robert Bloch’s “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” are written in the sort of style that is mostly associated with the hard-boiled crime fiction of the era these days.

And Ray Bradbury’s “R is for Rocket” is not just written in the typical poetic Bradbury style, it’s also the only story that – if you removed some of the anachronisms – wouldn’t feel out of place, if it were to pop up at Tor.com, in Lightspeed or Uncanny today. Or you could even keep the anachronisms and pass it off as a deliberately retro story. And yes, it’s telling that Ray Bradbury, who was often accused of being “not a real SF writer” during the Golden Age, has written the story on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot that feels the most timeless (in spite of some very mid-century moments), because it’s basically a story about a teen friendship torn apart due to the kids moving on to different schools. It’s a story that resonates as much in 2019 as it did in 1943 and that has been told hundreds of times since then. Stephen King’s “The Body” is another take on this theme as is George Lucas’ American Graffiti. Interestingly enough, “R is for Rocket” is a story I remember very clearly, so I must have read it at some point. Though for some reason, I couldn’t find it in any of the Bradbury collections I own. I also found that I cannot recall the ending, though I assume that Christopher, the kid chosen to go to astronaut academy, will in fact go, because these stories always end with the chosen ones going on to the better school/college and leaving their old friends behind. Because absolutely no one wants to tell a version of this story where the kid chooses friendship over further education, if only because the real world consequences of that would be hugely problematic. And in fact, I suspect that the continuing popularity of “my best friend and I are going on to different schools” stories is due to the fact that kids are still facing this situation every single year and need the reassurance that yes, life will go on, even if your best friend is at a different school and that yes, you will find new friends. Though I’ve never been quite happy with the classist implications in many of these stories that some people just simply aren’t suited to higher purposes (“The Body” is a particularly bad offender) and that it’s okay to leave them behind. And where is the version of this story which tells kids that yes, you can stay friends, even if you go to different schools and your lives follow different paths. After all, there are plenty of examples of real world friendships that lasted, even if the friends have followed wildly divergent life paths. For example, my Dad was friends with a guy who was very different from him with regard to education, career, etc… They had met as young men, when both were members of the same sailing club, and stayed friends for decades, until the friend’s somewhat untimely death two years ago, even though they’d given up sailing long before I was born.

Meanwhile, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser just scoff at the notion that any school, woman or indeed any institution is worth leaving your best friend behind for. Okay, so they do briefly split up on occasion, most notably in the hilarious “Lean Times in Lankhmar”, when Fafhrd finds God or rather a god named Issek with the Jug (not to be confused with Issek in the Jug or any number of other Isseks) and Mouser tries to become a nastier type of criminal than he normally is. The split doesn’t last long, then one of fantasy’s best duos sets sail for new adventures together. But then, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser may be many things, but they’re not role models, least of all for impressionable youngsters, though this impressionable youngster enjoyed their adventures very much, when she first read them in the comfortable leather chairs of the “built by time lords” flagship store of Donner Boeken in Rotterdam in the 1980s, because she couldn’t afford to buy the book.

Another thing that’s very notable is how many of the 1944 Retro Hugo finalists are set in our solar system, albeit a version teeming with human and alien life that never existed. Early science fiction is full of adventures in the deserts and canals of Mars, but the 1944 Retro Hugo is dominated by stories set on Venus. There are three Venus stories, “Citadel of Lost Ships” by Leigh Brackett, “Clash by Night” by C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner and Perelandra by C.S. Lewis (plus, the circus is heading to Venus in Brackett’s “The Halfling”, though the story is set on Earth). Stylistically and thematically these stories couldn’t be any more different. “Citadel of Lost Ships” is classic space opera with some surprising social criticism mixed in, “Clash by Night” is early military science fiction and Perelandra is religious preaching masquerading as SF (sorry, but I cannot abide the fiction of C.S. Lewis and am baffled by his continued popularity). But the portrayal of Venus is remarkably consistent, a permanently cloud-shrouded world of oceans, islands, jungles and swamps, which suggests that this was the scientific consensus of the day.

We now know that the cloud-shrouded Venus with its oceans, jungles and swamps is as far from the truth as can be, but the first space probes to Venus would not be launched until twenty years after these stories were written. But the stories of Martian deserts and Venusian swamps started to disappear even before science made them obsolete. By the 1950s, you find very few of them, by the 1960s they are mostly gone, as space opera moved further afield. Nowadays, we occasionally get stories set in the deserts of Mars or the swamps of Venus again, e.g. the Arabella series by David D. Levine, Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente or the Old Mars and Old Venus anthologies, but these are deliberately retro science fiction.

Considering that the stories on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot were written and published in the middle of WWII, it’s surprising how little the fact that there was a war going on is addressed in the stories themselves.  This is doubly unusual, since you do find plenty of references to WWII in the other categories on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot (dramatic presentation and graphic story most notably, but also fanzine), including some outright propaganda works. But in the fiction categories, there is hardly any mention of WWII at all. The newspaper editor with the double-edges superpower from Anthony Boucher’s “We Print the Truth” actually uses his powers to end the war, which doesn’t quite work out as intended. But since the story is set in a largely idyllic American small town far from any bombs, the WWII references mostly involve ration books, the draft board and wartime factory production rather than battles and bombs. Earth’s Last Citadel by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore actually starts in WWII, where a US army officer is trying to get a Scottish physicist out of Tunisia, while pursued by two American Nazis spies (one of them a woman). But they quickly stumble upon a time machine and find themselves in the far future, forced to help defend what’s left of humanity from alien gods. Meanwhile, “Clash by Night”, also by Kuttner and Moore, is military SF and contains extensive battle scenes – however, the war in question is one of many squirmishes between Venusian cities (where humanity retreated after the managed to destory the Earth by nuclear war) and there is a strong undercurrent of war-weariness throughout the story.

Meanwhile, the 1944 Retro Hugo finalist that actually addresses WWII most directly is one of the leftfield finalists and a children’s book of all things, namely The Magic Bed-Knob or How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons by Mary Norton. For the story starts off with three children evacuated to the countryside from wartorn London, a situation that many children in the 1940s on either side of WWII could identify with, where they encounter Miss Price who is studying to become a witch. And the first trip of the enchanted brass bed takes Miss Price and the children to London in the middle of blackouts and bombing raids, where they are promptly arrested for illegally flying a brass bed during wartime. Plenty of people also see parts of the other leftfield finalist on the Retro Hugo novella ballot, Le Petit Prince by Antoince de Saint Expéry, as metaphors for WWII. But while the story itself begins with a pilot forced to make an emergency landing in the Sahara, there is no indication that this is due to WWII. In fact, this is probably why the story is so timeless.

ETA: Apparently, later editions of The Magic Bed-Knob or How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons have been revised to remove all references to World War II in an ill-fated attempt to shield young readers from painful history. Not that the same thing hasn’t happened with some vintage German children’s books. One book of the Nesthäkchen series by Else Ury set during WWI was out of print for decades and has only been reprinted recently, while the setting of the Pucki series by Magda Trott has been changed from Silesia to Lower Saxony, which explained many incongruities I noticed in the books, because the descriptions just didn’t match the supposed settings. I understand why the changes were made, but I was still angry when I learned that the books I read as a kid were not the original versions. I really don’t get the Pucki changes anyway, especially since the Pucki books have had the same cover art since the 1930s, so everybody knew that these were not contemporary stories.

It’s also notable that quite a few psychiatrists and psychologists to be found on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot. John Carmody, the narrator of “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch is a psychiatrist and a child psychologist named Rex Holloway uncovers what has happened to the Paradine children in “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. The robot planet from Isaac Asimov’s “Death Sentence” is a psychological experiment that has gotten out of hand. And in “R is for Rocket” by Ray Bradbury, psychiatrists routinely scrub the minds of school children clean to remove “blocks”. It often assumed that science fiction didn’t develop an interest in psychology until the New Wave came along, so what’s with this surfeit of psychologists and psychiatrists in this sample of Golden Age stories?

This is one trend that can actually be blamed on John W. Campbell, because according to the Best Related Work Hugo finalist Astounding by Alex-Nevala Lee, Campbell had a keen interest in psychology and believed that it was the key to solving the world’s problems, if it could only be treated as a hard science. Dianetics and Scientology eventually grew from this belief and of course, it is also reflected in the science fiction of the day and not just in stories Campbell actually published either. And while the mind scrubbing, hypnotic conditioning and removal of mental blocks that is mentioned in “R is for Rocket” (which I suspect Bradbury was trying to sell to Campbell, even if it was eventually published in Famous Fantastic Mysteries, because it feels so very much like Bradbury trying to do an Astounding story) as a standard treatment for school children may seem incredibly creepy and dystopian to contemporary readers, these ideas were common at the time and actually show up all across the literary spectrum from the conditioning in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (where it actually is dystopian) to Doc Savage‘s crime college, which was actually enlightened for its time, because rather than locking up criminals or executing them outright (and let’s not forget that the last public executions in the US happened in 1936) Doc Savage at least tried to cure them. And talking about capital punishment in the US, also in 1943 Anthony Boucher wrote a novella called “One-Way Trip”, in which convicted criminals are sent into space to serve out their life sentences (an idea that also pops up in 2018/19 works such as S.J. Morden’s science fiction novels One Way and No Way and Claire Denis science fiction film High Life), because Boucher’s enlightened future society considers capital punishment barbaric. So no matter how creepy Doc Savage’s crime college or the school brainwashing from “R is for Rocket” may seem to us today, for their time these ideas were progressive. And yes, this is one instance where these Golden Age stories suddenly feel very old indeed.

Another thing that has changed a lot since the Golden Age is the amount of alcohol consumed in science fiction stories. Because there sure is a whole lot of drinking going on in the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot. Henry Kuttner’s hapless inventor Gallegher from “The Proud Robot”, only comes up with brilliant inventions when drunk. Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser spend a lot of time at the Silver Eel tavern in Lankmar, including some during “Thieves’ House”. John Carmody and Sir Guy Hollis visit a wild Bohemian party and a seedy bar on the South Side of Chicago in the course of their hunt for Jack the Ripper in Robert Bloch’s “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”. Edmond Hamilton’s “Exile” is basically a story told by a writer sitting at a table and drinking whiskey with some fellow writers. Several characters in Anthony Boucher’s “We Print the Truth” have an alcohol problem and one fellow drinks himself to death after wishing for a beer glass that will never get empty (there is actually a contemporary German beer commercial where a gentleman with a North Friesian accent wishes for a bottle of his favourite beer which never becomes empty). Ilene Kane, the femme fatale from the underwater city of Venus, seduces mercenary captain Brian Scott with expertly mixed cocktails in Kuttner and Moore’s “Clash by Night”. And Anthony Boucher’s “Q.U.R.” is basically a story about two engineers building a robot who’s really good at mixing cocktails, which requires plenty of experimentation and a lot of drinking.

Now the Gallegher stories and “Q.U.R.” are humorous science fiction and humor in the 1930s and 1940s (and beyond – I remember seeing drunken pratfalls in comedy skits on TV well up to the 1980s) often relied on drunkeness. In fact, this is part of the reason why the humorous stories haven’t aged well, because people being so blind drunk they fall down is no longer something we find funny. But there was also a lot of drinking going on in the more serious stories as well, because drinking alcohol is something that adults do. Or at least used to do, because it’s notable how very little drinking there is on the current year Hugo ballot. There even is a story about a banquet, the excellent “Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly, wherein we get detailed descriptions of mouthwatering magical pastries. But what are they drinking during the banquet? I have no idea, because Tina Connolly doesn’t tell us.

The fact that there was hardly any mention of anybody drinking alcohol in the current year Hugo finalists compared to the Retro Hugo finalists really surprised me. Now we rarely see any mention of smoking in contemporary fiction of any genre anymore, because smoking has fallen out of favour. And indeed descriptions of people smoking aboard spaceships are always jolting, when reading older science fiction. But I was stunned that there were no mentions of drinking alcohol in the current year stories either. Now part of this may be due to the fact that a lot of the authors are Americans and drinking alcohol is viewed more negatively in the US than in Europe. But several of Hugo nominated authors are not American and there was no mention of alcohol in their stories either. So is this just coincidence? Is there an editorial policy not to mention alcohol? At any rate, it’s certainly a curious trend.

But while there was plenty of drinking going on in the 1943 stories, there was hardly any mention of food at all. His alien captors feed the protagonist of Hal Clement’s “Attitude” with lime juice (which is actually a drink, albeit a non-alcoholic one) and there are the requisite food pills mentioned in Ray Bradbury’s “R is for Rocket” and that’s it. But then, science fiction and fantasy writers paid comparatively little attention to food until recently.

Yet in spite of all the differences between the 1944 Retro Hugo and 2019 Hugo finalists, there are also parallels. For example, both ballots feature portal fantasies, which surprised me a bit because portal stories aren’t really something I associate with the Golden Age. Yet the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot includes several portal fantasies or rather portal science fiction stories. “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” by H.P. Lovecraft, is probably the purest portal fantasy on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot. “Exile” by Edmond Hamilton is a portal fantasy in reverse. The other three are “Mimsy were the Borogroves”, “Doorway into Time” and “Earth’s Last Citadel”, all be Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, written either together or separately. Interestingly, all three are time portal stories, though in spite of the title, the portal in “Doorway into Time” is a time and space portal. So maybe Kuttner and Moore simply liked stories about time portals. And while The Magic Bed-Knob or How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons by Mary Norton and Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry are not portal fantasies per se, they certainly are portal fantasy adjacent. Meanwhile, on the 2019 Hugo ballot we have Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire and “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow, both of which are portal fantasy rather than portal science fiction.

Robots are another theme which unites the 1944 Retro Hugo and 2019 Hugo Award finalists. In recent years, we’ve seen a flurry of robot and AI stories on the Hugo and Nebula ballots, e.g. The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, “Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, “The Secret Lives of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer, A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers, the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie, “Damage” by David D. Levine, “Cat Pictures, Please” by Naomi Kritzer, etc… Meanwhile, the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot alone gives us “Death Sentence” by Isaac Asimov, “The Proud Robot” by Henry Kuttner, “Q.U.R.” by H.H. Holmes a.k.a. Anthony Boucher and “Symbiotica” by Eric Frank Russell. And these are far from the only robot stories of Golden Age. Many of Isaac Asimov’s famous robot stories, including pretty much all Susan Calvin and Powell and Donovan stories and of course, the Three Laws of Robotics, date from this era, while everybody’s favourite human/robot crime fighting duo Elijah Bailey and Daneel R. Olivaw showed up a little later in the early 1950s. Earl and Otto Binder’s Adam Link stories, Murray Leinster’s “A Logic Named Joe” and Lester del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy” also date from this era. So robots were clearly having a pop cultural moment in both the early 1940s and the 2010s.

But while it’s obvious to see why robots are having a pop cultural moment now, at a time when artificial intelligences in the form of Siri, Alexa and Cortana and robots in the form of vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, security units and assistants like the cutesy Pepper robot are making their presence felt in our daily lives, while self-driving cars are maybe just around the corner, it’s less clear why the science fiction writers of the Golden Age were so interested in robots, because the closest thing to an actual robot operating at the time was Elektro, the talking and smoking World Fair exhibit, who quite famously disappointed a young Isaac Asimov so much that he gave the poor thing a meltdown in his Retro Hugo winning short story “Robbie”. And yes, Elektro is pretty cool even from a 2019 POV (and I’m glad that he and his dog Sparko are still around and in a museum), but he alone doesn’t explain the early 1940s fascination with robots.

One thing that differentiates the 2010s robot stories from the 1940s robot stories is that the robot and AI stories of the 2010s are mostly told from the POV of the robot or artificial intelligence. And indeed, the narrative voices of Murderbot, Breq or Sidra are a large part of what makes those stories so compelling. Now there are some strong personalities among the robots of the 1940s – Adam Link, Joe from Henry Kuttner’s “The Proud Robot”, the trio of exploratory robots from Isaac Asimov’s “Victory Unintentional” and a bit later, Daneel R. Olivaw are certainly memorable characters, but we only see them through the eyes of others, for robots get no POV at all in the stories of the 1940s – even Asimov wouldn’t write robot POV stories until the 1970s. Instead, the POV characters usually are the scientists, engineers and inventors who built the robots (and Elijah Bailey who had to work with one).

Isaac Asimov, who is the most influential of the robot story writers of the 1940s, wrote in the introduction to his collection The Complete Robot that in the 1920s and 1930s robot stories used to come in two flavours, “robot as menace” (e.g. Frankenstein, Metropolis, R.U.R., Alraune and every “evil robot on a rampage” story ever) and “robot as pathos” (Adam Link and Helen O’Loy). These stories, particularly the “robots as menace” stories, annoyed him, because robots were first and foremost machines, so why didn’t anybody think to build in any safeguards? The Three Laws of Robotics eventually sprang from this idea. And so the focus in the robot stories of the 1940s and not just Asimov’s either is very much on “robots as machines and how to make them work properly”. We do have the heroic robot crewman Jay Score in Eric Frank Russell’s “Symbiotica” and Asimov clearly had a lot of sympathy for the robots left to their own devices in “Death Sentence”, but both “Q.U.R.” and “The Proud Robot” as well as most Asimov robot stories from this period, including the entire Susan Calvin and Powell and Donovan series are concerned with how to make robots work as intended and how to troubleshoot them, when things go wrong. And while it’s disturbing to watch the engineer Quimby from “Q.U.R.” chop off the limbs of poor humanoid looking robots, history has proven Quinby (and Boucher) right, because today’s industrial and household robots don’t look humanoid, but are instead designed for specific tasks.

In some ways, we are still grappling with the Three Laws and how to make robots work safely today. Murderbot’s desire to protect those stupid humans who so annoy him stems from its own version of the Three Laws. And the 2019 Hugo finalist “STET” is a story that wouldn’t have happened, if the engineers who programmed the self-driving car had applied the Three Laws of Robotics, because no Asimov robot would ever have chosen an endangered woodpecker over a kid (and of course, Isaac Asimov did write a story about self-driving cars, “Sally”, in 1953). Meanwhile, Ian McEwan, who totally does not write science fiction, blabbered in a recent German TV interview about how Adam, the robot is his new novels Machines Like Me, views justice as the strict adherence to laws with no leway for specific situations. Apparently, McEwan is completely unaware that Elijah Bailey and Daneel R. Olivaw had this very same conversation – in The Caves of Steel in 1953!

The “robot as menace” stories that so annoyed Isaac Asimov almost eighty years ago are still with us as well, though usually in visual rather than written science fiction. The Terminator series, Ex Machina and Avengers: Age of Ultron are pure “robot as menace” stories. However, the main focus of today’s robot and artificial intelligence stories is not “robot as menace”, “robot as pathos” or “robot as machine”, though we still get variations of all three, but “robot as a sentient being”. In many way, this is the next logical step in the evolution of robots and the stories we tell about them. For once we’ve figured out that robots are not out to kill us, unless we (mis)program them to, and how to make them work as intended and make sure they don’t accidentally kill anybody, the next question is, once we have highly developed robots/artificial intelligences that are actually are sentient, what – if anything – distinguishes them from us? Asimov was moving towards that question in his later robot stories such as “Segregationist” or “The Bicentennial Man” and the development of Daneel R. Olivaw. But now that actual artificial intelligence may actually be right around the corner (though AI is one of those technologies that are always 20 years away), that question has become a lot more pressing.

If there’s one thing that this overview of the 1944 Retro Hugo finalists shows, it’s  that not only was the science fiction of the so-called Golden Age more diverse than generally assumed, but also that many of the concerns and themes in the Golden Age stories are still with us today, if in somewhat altered form.

*Not that this stops authors. During the puppy years, one of the rabid puppy finalists was a John C. Wright story with the same twist ending as Asimov’s “Death Sentence”, only that it felt even more hackneyed in 2017-

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2 Responses to More about the Golden Age

  1. ambyr says:

    One thing I would add about the portrayal of alcohol in the Retro works is that Q.U.R. features a character who is explicitly a teetotaler–which is treated as not particularly more exceptional than the other characters’ affection for alcohol. You’re right that we don’t get a lot of portrayals of casual alcohol use in modern speculative fiction, but we also don’t get a lot of portrayals of people opting out of drinking or of alcohol being treated as a problem for specific people (as in We Print the Truth, and–once you get into the Dramatic portion of the ballot–I Walked with a Zombie). Instead it’s just kind of swept under the table as a subject entirely.

    • Cora says:

      Good point. I forgot about the teetotaler in Q.U.R. And of course, teetotalers wouldn’t have been exceptional neither in the 1940s nor in the modern US.

      Until fairly recently, portraying problematic alcohol use in US fiction, film and TV wasn’t uncommon, though it was usually clumsily handled and little more than an ad for Alcoholics Anonymous (whose approach I have issues with, especially when it’s treated as the only possible approach – I have family members with alcohol issues for whom the 12 steps approach just didn’t work). “We Print the Truth” and “I Walked with a Zombie” are actually more nuanced in their portrayal of problematic alcohol use than later takes on the subject.

      With some writers like Fritz Leiber you can actually see how drinking was mentioned less and less over the years. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser drink quite a lot in the stories written well up into the 1970s, but there is notably less drinking in the latter stories, probably because Leiber managed to get his own issues with alcohol under control.

      I also wonder whether there is a deliberate editorial policy against mentioning alcohol at all, because it might bother or potentially even trigger some people, or whether it’s simply a combination of alcohol being less ubiquitous than it used to be and SFF authors being less interested in writing about drinking. Though it’s something that came in in the past fifteen to twenty years, cause I do recall frequent alcohol mentions well up into the 1990s, e.g. extensive descriptions of the wine drank by the characters in Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker series from the late 1990s. I always used to call those scenes “intergalactic wine tasting”.

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