Is this the Golden Age of SF (and if not, WHY NOT?)

I recently read (I think it was in a blog by our revered leader Tim Holman) that the urban fantasy genre is now well and truly kicking the arse of traditional epic fantasy, in terms of sales and indeed media attention.  And fantasy books, as all SF writers keep being told, regularly outsell science fiction novels by a factor of, well, several.

(For American readers of this blog, I should point out that the word ‘arse’ is our quaint British spelling of the body part which you Yanks affectionately know as the toches.)

All this is very galling for those of us who write science fiction and not sword and sorcery, or vampire books, or werewolf stories.  We have intergalactic spaceships; these guys have freelance exorcists.  We have plasma guns; they have great big double-headed axes.  We have stories written with impeccable scientific rigour (okay, okay, sometimes I just make it all up); they have magic, and prophecies, and oracles.

In short, Science Fiction is the Cinderella genre.

(But actually, is that such a bad thing? I mean, when you think about it – who would want to be the Ugly Sister genre?)

It’s not, I would argue, about sales per se; the underlying point is that at some deep subliminal level the science fiction genre has lost its lustre.  And most of the major ‘crossover’ books that have dominated the arts and news pages of our newspapers and magazines in recent years are fantasy novels – the Harry Potter books, Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and Meyer’s Twilight books, for instance, have all been become cultural phenomena, not just novels.  But it’s hard to think of an SF book for which that’s true. (Maybe The Time Traveler’s Wife? Except, the movie sucked.)

My theory is that the problem with SF is its own distinguished history; it is doomed by the fact it has a much exalted ‘Golden Age’.  This is understood to be the period from the 1930s to the 1950s, the days of Asimov, Heinlein, Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, Theodore Sturgeon, Frederick Pohl, John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, and many others.  (It’s also been brilliantly suggested by fan Peter Graham that the Golden Age of science fiction is “twelve” – i.e. the age at which most of us are afflicted with the SF bug. )

Well I’m a great fan of most of those “Golden Age” books. I love their bravura, their no-nonsense pace, their inventiveness.  But with all due respect to the person who first coined the phrase “Golden Age” – which dumb schmuck thought it would be a good idea to call the early years of SF a Golden Age?

The very term “Golden Age” is a cul de sac; a brick wall; a slap in the face.  The fact there is a Golden Age of SF means that everyone who comes after – us! this sorry tribe of contemporary SF writers – is doomed to be categorised as ‘not Golden’.  We are Pewter. We are on the downward slope of a curve that used to go upwards.  We are the also-rans.

We’re not even, sadly ‘New Wave’ (with its suggestion of radical overturning of boring old fashioned value.)  So what is the correct term for contemporary SF writers? The Not-So-Golden-Age-Post-New-Wave-New-Guys?

Boy, we’ve been suckered.

But was the Golden Age really so golden? Were books then better than they are now?

The only way to find out for sure is to read every single SF book written between 1930 and 1950, and then read every volume written since 1980, and then compare them, book by book, line by line.  That way, madness lies; so I shall merely make a wild and unsubstantiated assertion and hope I get away with it.

Here it goes:  This is the Golden Age of science fiction…

Whew.  Did I get away with it?

I have several reasons for making this claim – most of them venal. (Hey, I actually write this shit for a living.)  But I’d also argue that – much as I loved the old guys – the newer SF is more audacious in terms of style, more complex in its character development, and it’s happening now. My rule of thumb is: in every art form, now should be the golden age.  Never look back and say, ‘Things were better then.’  That’s living life as if it’s a Hovis advert.  (For American readers: Hovis is a loaf of bread that evokes The Good Old Days in English life, for reasons that pass understanding.) So forget nostalgia: Forward is the direction in which we should be pointing.

So when I claim this is the Golden Age of science fiction – I’m not just referring to all the books written in recent years by bold and upwardly ascendant writers like Morgan, Hamilton, MacLeod, Stross, Reynolds, Asher, McDonald – you can write your own list here – but all the work yet to be written. Because if we don’t all passionately believe it’s a Golden Age for our stuff – well, hell, what’s the point?

But there’s a snag.  The reason the Golden Age is thus called is because there’s a certain indefinable energy to the writing of that time, that came from the fact it was about the fresh, the new, the yet-to-happen.  Those books and stories tapped a deep well in the psyche of their readership, for they were about the dream of space, the distant promise of the far future.

But once Sputnik went into orbit – well, reality lapped imagination. And the boyish/girlish exhilaration of those 30s, 40s and 50s writers gave way to a more sedate acceptance that space is one of those things that is out there, and that will eventually be explored and exploited, by some government agency or other.  And so, basically, what?

Thus somehow – once Man had landed on the Moon, and yet the world remained unchanged – a sense of wonder started to vanish from the genre.

So how to re-evoke the wonder?  How to recapture the zeitgeist?

Let me pose the question a different way.  What are the forces that will shape and mould our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren from this point on?  Is it magic? Is it a Ring that seduces all who wear it? Or a talisman?  Or will our futures be determined by an oracle’s prediction? Or, alternatively, will mankind’s destiny be profoundly affected if dozens of valiant warriors selflessly devote their lives to seeking a Grail, or a Dark Tower, or some other object of adoration?

Guess what: the answer is no.  Our lives will be shaped by science, and scientific development.  We’ll live longer; we’ll colonise distant planets; we’ll meet alien species; we’ll face deadly jeopardy from the myriad horrors that are – that must be! – out there.  And all of this is within sight – we personally may not live to see these developments, but they are surely all going to happen.  And science fiction is a way of exploring those possibilities, and of living in these future-but-possible and extraordinary worlds.

That of course is not a reason to read SF rather than fantasy, or any other genre – pleasure is the only reason to read fiction.  But I would argue that it’s a reason why the Cinderella genre should, round about now,  be invited to the Ball.  SF has big things to say about big things.  It’s a cutting edge genre, at the very heart and soul of our society’s zeitgeist.

It’s just that the zeitgeist doesn’t know it yet.