The Radium Age science fiction library

Several years ago, I read Brian Aldiss's Billion Year Spree -- his "true history of science fiction" from Mary Shelley to the early 1970s. I found Aldiss's account of the genre's development entertaining and informative... but something bothered me, long after I'd finished reading it. So much so that I've since spent hundreds of dollars on forgotten, out-of-print books; I've written dozens of long, scholarly posts about the thing that bothered me so much, for io9 and my own blog, HiLobrow; and this year I've even launched a money-losing publishing imprint in a quixotic effort to set the record straight.

Aldiss's book is terrific on the topic of science fiction from Frankenstein through the "scientific romances" of Verne, Poe, and Wells -- and also terrific on science fiction's so-called Golden Age, the start of which he, like every other sf exegete, dates to John W. Campbell's 1937 assumption of the editorship of the pulp magazine Astounding. However, regarding science fiction published between the beginning of the Golden Age and the end of the Verne-Poe-Wells "scientific romance" era, Aldiss (who rightly laments that Wells's 20th century fiction after, perhaps, 1904's The Food of the Gods, fails to recapture "that darkly beautiful quality of imagination, or that instinctive-seeming unity of construction, which lives in his early novels") has very little to say. "Hm," I thought, when I noticed that. "That's an awfully long stretch of science fiction history to overlook, isn't it?"

Aldiss seems to feel that authors of science fiction after Wells and before the Golden Age weren't very talented. He doesn't think much, for example, of the literary skills of Hugo Gernsback (sometimes called the "Father of Science Fiction") who founded Amazing Stories in 1926 and coined the phrase "science fiction" while he was at it. True, Gernsback's ideas were advanced, while his story-telling abilities were primitive. But does that really justify skipping over the 1900s through the mid-1930s? (PS: By my reckoning, Campbell and his cohort first began to develop their literate, analytical, socially conscious science fiction in reaction to the 1934 advent of the campy "Flash Gordon" comic strip, not to mention Hollywood’s innumerable mid-1930s Bug-Eyed Monster-heavy "sci-fi" blockbusters that sought to ape the success of 1933's King Kong. They were also no doubt influenced by the 1932 publication of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. In other words, the Golden Age began before 1937; if I had to choose a year, I'd say 1934.) Is Aldiss's animus against that era due solely to style and quality? I suspect not. Billion Year Spree reminds me of one of those airbrushed Soviet-era photos from which an embarrassing historical fact has been excised.

I read several other histories of science fiction, and looked at sf timelines, and discovered that Aldiss was hardly alone in sweeping pre-Golden Age science fiction under the rug. During the so-called Golden Age, which was given that moniker not after that face, but at the time, as a way of signifying the end of science fiction's post-Wells Dark Age, Campbellians took pains to distinguish their own science fiction from everything that had been published in the genre, with the sole exception of Brave New World, since 1904. In his influential 1958 critique, New Maps of Hell for example, Kingsley Amis noted that mature science fiction first established itself in the mid-1930s, “separating with a slowly increasing decisiveness from [immature] fantasy and space-opera.” And in his introduction to a 1974 collection, Before the Golden Age, editor Isaac Asimov condescendingly notes that although it certainly possessed an exuberant vigor, the pre-Golden Age science fiction he grew up reading “seems, to anyone who has experienced the Campbell Revolution, to be clumsy, primitive, naive.”

We should be suspicious of this Cold War-era rhetoric of maturity! I'm reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr's pronunciamento, at a 1952 Partisan Review symposium, that the widespread utopianism of the early 20th century ought to be regarded as "an adolescent embarrassment." Perhaps Golden Age science fiction's brightest lights -- Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Clifford D. Simak, C.L. Moore, Ray Bradbury, Frederik Pohl, and so forth -- were regarded as an improvement on their predecessors because in their stories utopian visions and schemes were treated with skepticism and cynicism. Brilliant anti-utopians like Niebuhr, Isaiah Berlin, Hannah Arendt, and Karl Popper were right to point out that pre-Cold War utopian narratives often demonstrated a naive and perhaps proto-totalitarian eagerness to force square pegs into round holes via thought control and coercion. However, I agree with those who argue that the intellectual abandonment of utopianism since the late 1930s has sapped our political options, and left us all in the helpless position of passive accomplices.

So did so-called Golden Age science fiction actually succeed a Dark Age for science fiction? I don't think so. Golden Age science fiction authors and propagandists grew up reading science fiction from the 1904-33 era; it's from that era, as I've discovered in my own reading, that we have inherited such enduring science fiction tropes as the superman, the eco-catastrophe, robots, and the telepath! Sure, some 1904-33 science fiction -- Gernsback, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and E.E. “Doc” Smith, for example -- is indeed fantastical and primitive (though it's still fun to read today). But many other European and American science fiction authors of that period -- including Olaf Stapledon, William Hope Hodgson, Karel Čapek, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Yevgeny Zamyatin, not to mention Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, and Arthur Conan Doyle -- gave us science fiction that was literate, analytical, socially conscious… and also utopian. Whatever their politics, Radium Age authors found in science fiction a fitting vehicle to express their faith, or at least their hope, that another world is possible. That worldview may have seemed embarrassingly adolescent from the late 1930s until, say, the fall of the Berlin Wall. But today it's an inspiring vision.

Since I read Billion Year Spree, I've tracked down and read scores of science fiction novels and stories from 1904-33. I've concluded that it's an era of which science fiction historians and fans ought to be proud, not ashamed! I’ve dubbed this unfairly overlooked era science fiction’s “Radium Age” because the phenomenon of radioactivity -- the 1903 discovery that matter is neither solid nor still and is, at least in part, a state of energy, constantly in movement -- is a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. I'm on a crusade to redeem this era's reputation. I've enlisted two visionary bookfuturists (my HiLobrow colleague Matthew Battles, and publisher Richard Nash) and we've started HiLoBooks. This year, we're serializing (at HiLobrow) and then publishing in paperback form six classics Radium Age science fiction titles. The first three -- Jack London's The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling's With the Night Mail, and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Poison Belt -- are coming out this spring; they are available for pre-ordering now. Join the crusade!


    1.  wow. It never occurred to me that Forster’s classic was that old. It kicked off a whole genre of utopian collapse.

    2.  Everyone should read The Machine Stops.  Including you.  Yes, you!  It is astonishingly prescient and relevant to this day and age.

  1. *cough*Lovecraft*cough*

    The period isn’t wholly forgotten, what with John Carter of Mars suddenly shewing up for his first movie at long last.

    The problem is, one stumbles over all that overt racism every other paragraph. Not really sure you can do utopias without destroying a selection of human beings. But, there you go. A challenge!

    1. I was just reading a bunch of Lovecraft and Lovecraftian stories.  Most of them seemed to be on the theme of ‘insufferably smug, wealthy white male pedants almost get killed while doing Very Important Work’.  It wasn’t until I got to Robert Bloch’s Notebook Found in a Deserted House that I stopped rooting for the soul-sucking other-dimensional entities to kill the humans.

    2. The preview lost me when he looks up at the sky and sees Earth and Moon as gibbous disks visible to the naked eye in the night sky and proclaims “I’m on Mars!”

      Way too scientifically illiterate.

      1. Ah, I see you’ve been spoiled by the Star Trek reboot…

        No, those were Mars’ moons, Phobos and Deimos. …Which in the real world aren’t spherical, but are basically large asteroids…

        John Carter takes place in the universe where Earth is hollow and has an inverse pattern of the continents on the inside, with the core floating in the center as an undying sun, and Africa is filled with cities which are remnants from intact ancient Mediterranean cultures which can only be accessed by a British earl who was adopted by apes and taught their spoken language. But you can totally access the hollow center through the 500-mile-deep hole in the North Pole.

        Plus the guns they’re firing on Mars are shooting genuine radium bullets. Go Radium Age!!

        1. D’oh. Phobos+Deimos make much more sense.  I’m certainly not going to expect complete scientific literacy out of ERB, let alone Hollywood, after that little gaffe. Looks like I’ve again demonstrated that “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I’ve forgotten.”

    1. Remember that none of the Lovecraftian “gods” are strictly speaking supernatural; they are just horrible aliens that don’t care if their actions doom humanity.

      1. Ah.  I confess I haven’t read a lot of Lovecraft, but I remember it being … suffused with dread somehow.  I guess that’s what made it seem more horror than SF.

        1.  Oh, it’s definitely horrific — he created the idea of “cosmic horror” — the idea that the truth about how the universe works is so foreign to the human mind that to even get a dim knowledge of it is to court insanity.

    2. HP was a fairly prolific writer, in a couple of areas. Some of his SF, like “Howard West, Reanimator” or “At the Mountains of Madness” are heavily tinged with horror, but not all. I would suggest “In the Walls of Eryx” as a straight SF problem solving story, not too far from what Jospeh Campbell would be printing 15 years later.

  2. I remember reading Stapledon’s “Last and First Men” , “Starmaker”, and “Odd John and Sirius” in, iirc, a Dover edition as a teenager around 1960. I enjoyed it, and was impressed by his vision.

  3. Science fiction is a big umbrella. For example Ray Bradbury would define it as meaning something that could possibly happen. He called his Martian Chronicles a fantasy. About 99.99% of writing classified as sci-fi is actually fantasy. Anytime you have a space ship accelerate to a high speed or deaccelerate quickly without having the ship and its occupants crushed to nano-particles, you’re dealing with fantasy. There are a lot of commonly used conventions  in stories that suspend the laws of physics in order to tell a tale.
    In the 1930s story writing paid about 1 to 2 cents a word.

    1. About 99.99% of writing classified as sci-fi is actually fantasy.

      Even though I’ve read a ton of science fiction, please indulge my use of only cinematic examples with my reply.

      My oldest brother defines science fiction as “begin with an outlandish premise, then develop logically from there”.  I guess that’s true, but it’s an incomplete, unsatisfying definition.

      The way I see it and at the risk of laying an oxymoronic egg here, at its’ best, sci-fi becomes a bona fide scientific mythology for the twentieth century and beyond, free of the trappings of farmboys, samurais and cowboys in space.  My go-to example of this is also my favorite film, “Space Odyssey”, curious and ironic that the word “odyssey” is in there, I think.  Another true beauty is “The Man From Earth”.  Or the final, mesmerizing scene from Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”, yowza!

      If I want or need a rousing, operatic fantasy, and I often do, I’ll put on “Empire Strikes Back” or “Excalibur”.

      For the record, I’m in the process of reading Iain Banks’ “The Player Of Games”, I’m starting to plow my way through The Culture in chronological order.

    2.  Sorry, but that definition doesn’t work for me. “Fantasy” stories would constantly be updated to “science fiction” as new things are learned, and what we know of the physics of how the universe works expands and changes. String theory, alternate universes, an item being in two places at one time- all of these would have been “fantasy” a few years ago. It seems limiting to say a story must adhere to the rules of physics (as we know them at this moment) to be science fiction.
           Now just don’t ask me MY definition of SF vs fantasy- I don’t really care what box it gets put in. Maybe we should have gone with “fantastifiction science stories”” or “Sientifantastic fiction” or one of those funny names for it they came up with back in Gernsbach’s day.

  4. The Tumithak stories aren’t much different than a lot of dystopian films and lit nowadays. I kinda like Weinbaum’s “Parasite Planet”, it has a nifty ecosystem that’s somewhat logical, and it’s a fun read.

  5. Tomorrow the Science Channel(?) is running some episodes of something called “Prophets of Science Fiction” with hourlong bios on Dick, Clarke, Asimov, Wells. Repeats Thurs night. Next week there’s one on Verne.

  6. Wells’s Tono-Bungay (1909) has that whole part about the radioactive “quap” that Ponderevo finds on Mordet Island off the coast of Africa, and how it’s poisonous and makes the men’s skin hurt and even rots the timbers of the ship that carries it back to England. Ponderevo opines on radioactivity’s likeness to cancer and decay (the decay of Old England under the onslaught of modernity, industrialism, and commerce being a major theme of the book):

    To my mind radio-activity is a real disease of matter. Moreover, it is a contagious disease. It spreads. You bring those debased and crumbling atoms near others and those too presently catch the trick of swinging themselves out of coherent existence. It is in matter exactly what the decay of our old culture is in society, a loss of traditions and distinctions and assured reactions. When I think of these inexplicable dissolvent centres that have come into being in our globe—these quap heaps are surely by far the largest that have yet been found in the world; the rest as yet mere specks in grains and crystals—I am haunted by a grotesque fancy of the ultimate eating away and dry-rotting and dispersal of all our world. So that while man still struggles and dreams his very substance will change and crumble from beneath him. I mention this here as a queer persistent fancy. Suppose, indeed, that is to be the end of our planet; no splendid climax and finale, no towering accumulation of achievements, but just—atomic decay! I add that to the ideas of the suffocating comet, the dark body out of space, the burning out of the sun, the distorted orbit, as a new and far more possible end—as Science can see ends—to this strange by-play of matter that we call human life. I do not believe this can be the end; no human soul can believe in such an end and go on living, but to it science points as a possible thing, science and reason alike. If single human beings—if one single ricketty infant—can be born as it were by accident and die futile, why not the whole race? These are questions I have never answered, that now I never attempt to answer, but the thought of quap and its mysteries brings them back to me.

    Sort of the tone of the latter parts of The Time Machine, despairing, apocalyptic, posthuman. Fun guy, that Wells.

    1. If you want to delete a comment, just edit it to say something like ‘delete me’ and I’ll take it out when I’m passing through.

  7. Loved London’s _Scarlet Plague_ when I read it as a kid.  Great fall of civilization story and still relevant today as news of antibiotic-resistant TB in India unfolds.

  8. Asimov notes that pre-Golden Age science fiction “seems, to anyone who has experienced the Campbell Revolution, to be clumsy, primitive, naive.”
    (quote edited for the sake of brevity)

    Granted that invading martians and ancient demons may be quaint artifacts of the pre-atom bomb era.
    If I want to have the living daylights scared outta me, I’ll take Harlan Ellison over Lovecraft anytime, as an example “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” holds up extraordinarily well almost fifty years later.
    Asimov’s short story “Nightfall” and the subsequent collaborative novel with Silverberg exemplify why science fiction became a true literature of ideas.  Off the top of my head, I could many more by name.

    However, in any genre and era, including Golden Age or even contemporary science fiction, there’s mostly competent material and a few true jewels scattered here and there, and it seems odd and out of character for Asimov to make a dismissive blanket statement like that.

    1. Most of the golden age authors were magazine authors. So their standard of comparison was Gernsback. The “Radium Age” SF (love that term BTW) that stands up over time appears to be books that were marketed not as SF, but as literature or at least popular fiction.

  9. I m glad that there is someone sticking up for this period in SF history; I have become quite interested some of these works,  in particular, Voyage to Arcturus is one of my all time favorites, quite a unique work and well respected.  

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