We’ve officially made it ⅓ of the way through The Time Machine. If you’ve been with us since the beginning, we’re glad to have you back! If you’re new here, buckle up. You picked a good time to hop on board. When I left us in Part III, the science fiction literary genre was just starting to find its footing in the period after the first World War. Aldous Huxley was foreshadowing the self-destruction of humanity in a few centuries, and then after the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan, he was shocked to realize that we were probably going to make that happen much sooner than predicted. Spoiler alert: the destruction of the universe is still a pretty big theme in the coming eras of science fiction literature.
This month, we’re taking a deep dive into the first major wave of science fiction in the United States: the Golden Age, a time period marked by uninhibited hypothesizing of technological innovation and other-wordly exploration. It’s also home to the early works of arguably one of the greatest science fiction storytellers to ever live. Welcome to the Isaac Asimov show.
The Golden Age
As with literally everything in the study of history, there is considerable debate regarding the “official” start and end dates of the Golden Age of science fiction. Some sources claim it to be 1938-1946, others 1934-1963, and still others 1937-1950. To be frank, I don’t have the time nor interest to care about such distinctions. There are people far more intelligent and dedicated to the field of science fiction than I, who have made compelling arguments in all directions.
While this era saw the rise of numerous landmark works by American authors, such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Henlein, Ray Bradbury, L. Ron Hubbard, and Philip K. Dick, (along with Radium Age authors E.E. “doc” Smith and H.P. Lovecraft), there were still notable contributions from English authors, such as Arthur C. Clarke and George Orwell (particularly his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four).
I hesitate to even attempt to list the most influential works during the Golden Age given that one of its primary features is the overwhelming number of works produced by the authors listed above (among others). However, you need only to type “best books of the Golden Age of science fiction” into your Internet browser to find a whole host of respectable lists. A common theme among all of them is a set of stories that not only found incredible acclaim in the public eye but also inspired a generation of scientists and explorers, particularly in a Post War United States. Set against the “pulp” stories of the 1920s and 30s, the science fiction produced during the Golden Age was altogether more scientific, specialized, and widely-distributed.
A Nod to the Literary Magazines
One element of science fiction literature that I have yet to discuss is the structural limitations of publishing science fiction stories. While decades later we are able to easily find and obtain many of the genre’s most notable works, this was not initially the case.
When reading about the genre’s foundational pieces, you will quickly notice that many of them were serialized in literary magazines long before they were ever published through big box publishing companies as novels (as an important aside: this discrepancy in publishing dates is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to pinpoint exact time periods for the science fiction literary genre).
In fact, the rise of the Golden Age also owes much of its success to John W. Campbell, an American science fiction writer and editor who took over editorial duties in 1937 for one of the genre’s leading magazines, Astounding Stories of Super-Science. Under Campbell, the magazine was renamed to Astounding Science Fiction (and eventually Analog Science Fiction and Fact) and was responsible for publishing some of the Golden Age’s most notable works, including Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.
As a physics graduate from Duke University, Campbell's influence on the genre was intentional. When he took over the magazine, he sought out stories in which the science was realistic. In Isaac Asimov’s own words, “Not realistic in the sense that they couldn’t go out into the blue yonder; not realistic in the sense that they couldn’t extrapolate wildly; but realistic in the sense that people who worked with science resembled people who actually worked with science…and, in short, the scientific culture [was] represented accurately.”
However, as Asimov later wrote in the introduction to Astounding: John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology (1973), during the end of their professional relationship, he lost a considerable amount of respect for Campbell, whose beliefs had begun to descend into pseudo-science and who had started espousing questionable support for slavery and segregation in the United States.
In researching Campbell, I also learned of another editor that should have been included in Part III of this series, and honestly, one that I probably should have known about. In 1926, Hugo Gernsback started the very first science fiction literary magazine Amazing Stories. Gernsback, it should be noted, is also the namesake for the Hugo Awards, the premier annual awards for the science fiction literary genre, and he is frequently credited with coining the term “science fiction”.
Foundation (and other important works)
If I haven’t made it clear (and if you didn’t already know), Isaac Asimov is a pretty big deal in the science fiction community. He is responsible for authoring an astounding library of a variety of genres, including science fiction, with his two most well-known works: the Hugo Award-winning Foundation series and the Robot series.
In 1942, Asimov published a science fiction short story called “Runaround” in Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine that was later republished into the first book in his Robot series, I, Robot. In this story, Asimov famously lays out the Three Laws of Robotics, a concept that has had a lasting influence not only on the genre of science fiction, but also on conversations surrounding the ethics of artificial intelligence. The laws are as such:
First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
You may also recall that there is a 2004 movie called I, Robot that stars Will Smith; however, while the movie does borrow some elements from Asimov’s stories, the plot deviates quite substantially from the source material.
Additionally, Asimov’s Foundation series, which was first published as a series of eight short stories in Campbell's literary magazine in 1942-50, has also found considerable success with a wide-spread audience. The first book in the trilogy, Foundation (published in 1951 and composed of the first four short stories), tells the story of a crumbling Galactic Empire and the scientists, through the two Foundations, that are preparing to rebuild a new empire after its fall. The remaining four stories were published as the final two books in the series, which Asimov also followed up with additional sequels and prequels.
My honest review, although that’s not why we’re here, is that I thoroughly enjoyed reading Foundation. It took barely ten pages for me to be fully immersed in Asimov’s world. His prose is solid. His characters are relatable. And his storytelling is complex and nuanced but also incredibly easy to follow. I am embarrassed to say that this is actually my first time reading any of Isaac Asimov’s work, but I’m looking forward to continuing the series and moving on to the Robot series as well.
However, I am not without criticism. One of Foundation’s greatest pitfalls is its complete lack of female characters (evidently there are female characters in the second and third books of the trilogy), despite Asimov being a political liberal and an outspoken supporter of women’s rights. I cannot confirm the accuracy of this statement, but I have read that his exclusion of female characters, especially well-developed ones, from his early writing was largely due to his inexperience with women at the time.
Likewise, it seems that Asimov also had a reputation for making physical contact with and sexual advances toward women without their consent. In science fiction writer Alec Nevala-Lee’s 2018 biography on the Golden Age of Science Fiction, he quotes a few of Asimov’s contemporaries who confirm that Asimov’s behavior toward women contributed to the growing problem of sexual harassment in the science fiction community.
And, as a weird aside, according to our old friend and science-fiction theorist, Josh Glenn from HILOBROW, “After 9/11, there was a pretty compelling theory floating around that Osama bin Laden was influenced by Asimov’s Foundation series when he founded Al Qaeda… whose moniker means ‘The Foundation.’”
This is obviously not a direct critique of Asimov, but I definitely wasn’t expecting that.
On another (much more positive) note, last year, Foundation was turned into a series on a streaming platform that I refuse to outright name because this is not a paid advertisement. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s call it the “Banana Network”. I’m actually watching the first episode as I write this, and it’s going quite well so far. Much to my delight, two of the main (male) characters from the original book were changed to women (and Black women at that) for the series, a switch that works well both narratively and as a representation of how our future will most surely look.
(For anyone interested, the “Banana Network” also happens to stream my favorite science fiction show of all time: For All Mankind, an alternate history depicting a world where the Soviet Union beat the U.S. to the moon during the Cold War space race [10/10 would recommend]).
The Asshole, Isaac Asimov
I’ve been super into audio books lately. I spend a lot of time driving long distances, and audiobooks are a saving grace for those 9-hour trips. Beyond that, however, there’s something truly special about oral narration in storytelling.
Yet, as I have learned from experience, not all audiobooks are created equal. Take for example Brave New World. Sometimes, just for the fun of it, I like to jump back and forth between reading and listening to a book, as I did with last month's selection for The Time Machine. This was a mistake. The version that I listened to was narrated by the fairly well-known English actor Michael York, and while he is a very fine actor, listening to him narrate Brave New World was, for lack of a better phrase, a really uncomfortable experience. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but he made some truly unique decisions when it came to accents and vocalizations.
Regardless, in preparation for this month, I thought maybe I would listen to the audiobook of one of Asimov’s many autobiographies. But as I read review after review, I came to learn that a lot of people think Isaac Asimov is a giant, pretentious asshole. And honestly, that’s the kind of content that I’m here for.
For example, audiobook listener Will S. (in his review of I, Asimov: A Memoir) wrote, “As prolific as he is, many of us readers think of Asimov as transcendent in many ways. Somehow superhuman. Turns out he sees himself that way as well. There are so many things to like about this guy and so many things about him that I find distasteful. I can’t decide if I would have liked to have known him or not.”
OK, that’s not too bad… but it gets worse:
In the same review section, listener TDL Martin wrote, “Had I known Isaac Asimov was such a self-absorbed, self-centered, narcissistic egotist I would have never read any of his short stories or books. Actually, I wish I could get my money back. The pathetic part is that he’s proud of being ‘A legend in his own mind’ who continuously thinks he’s smarter and better than everyone else. This memoir makes it clear and obvious that he’s little more than an adult child with delusions of grandeur.”
I guess that old saying is true: never read the autobiographies of your heroes.
At the same time, I have to be completely honest here: whatever ego Asimov developed, he 100% deserved to have it. His writing is good. Like, so good that I forget that I am reading stories written in the early 1940s and 50s. There is a reason that he is consistently regarded as one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time. Likewise, he seemed to be quite aware of his own self-absorption. As successful as he was, I would have been surprised if he wasn’t a little bit conceited. However, his propensity for sexual harassment and creating a hostile environment for women in the science fiction community is still quite off-putting. So, I am very much looking forward to reading and writing about some of the female powerhouses in the science fiction genre, including Judith Merill, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Anne McCaffrey.
So, that’s it for now! Tune in next month for even more of the Golden Age as we tackle one of my favorite authors and his almost complete rejection of being called a science fiction writer: Ray Bradbury.
By JL Snyder