The Real Golden Age of
This Week on the History of Literature Podcast
For tens of thousands of years, human beings have been using fictional devices to shape their worlds and communicate with one another. Four thousand years ago they began writing down these stories, and a great flourishing of human achievement began. We know it today as literature, a term broad enough to encompass everything from ancient epic poetry to contemporary novels. How did literature develop? What forms has it taken? And what can we learn from engaging with these works today? Hosted by Jacke Wilson, an amateur scholar with a lifelong passion for literature, The History of Literature takes a fresh look at some of the most compelling examples of creative genius the world has ever known.
In Part Two of our look at great literary genres, Jacke probes the development of science fiction, from ancient Greek travels to the moon to the amazing stories of the 20th century. Along the way, he chooses four candidates for the Mount Rushmore of Science Fiction, reads a passage from science fiction’s O.G., and sees if there is a secret to science fiction that he can discover.
From the episode:
Jacke Wilson: Remember how we said that the mystery writers of America called their prize the Edgar? Well, the awards at the World Science Fiction Convention are called the Hugo. Hugo Gernsback was born in 1884 in Luxembourg, and he came to America in 1904. He was an electronics wiz. He started a radio station and broadcast some of the very first television broadcasts in 1928. Before that, he started a magazine called Modern Electrics in 1908. He was just 24 at the time, newly arrived in America, but he was smart as hell and couldn’t really be stopped.
For the next couple of decades, he started a bunch of other magazines appealing to amateur radio enthusiasts and other electrical and electronic hobbyists and then catching hold of the zeitgest. He came out with a magazine that was aimed at lovers of those ideas but who were looking for good stories, too. Amazing stories, one might say. And that was the name of the magazine. The first issue of Amazing Stories had a one-page editorial and six stories by Poe, Verne, Welles, and three contemporary writers.
He liked to call these “scientifiction,” but it was the other name he coined, science fiction, that caught on more broadly. His formula was 75 percent literature and 25 percent science, and the audience loved them. Fans organized, and Gernsback was their leader. He went through some bankruptcies, and he started up some more new science fiction magazines. He kept losing his magazine and then starting up new ones. He ended up with one called Wonder Stories. He sold that magazine too. Then he started up another one.
He had a tumultuous career as a publisher and a lousy reputation in the industry. Writers couldn’t stand him. They thought he ripped them off. They thought he was a crook. He was a little sleazy. He didn’t pay writers well and he stole their rights. He himself tried writing stories and the results were not good. But his magazine, that first magazine especially, Amazing Stories, was transformative. There’s no denying that the stories in the magazine are what launched the genre as we know it today. These magazine stories led to the Golden Age of Science Fiction. They were there for a whole generation of young people to discover.
That’s sort of the joke about the Golden Age of Science Fiction. They say, what’s the Golden Age of Science Fiction? Answer: 14. Get it? We call the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s the Golden Age as magazines thrilled readers with stories about space travel and time travel and nuclear power and everything else. And this was the era of World War II and the Cold War, and we had Sputnik and all of that to fill the need of science, fill the gap that that our confusion and fear about the world was putting into place thanks to our existential threat. Well, science was there to fill that gap, and science stories were there, too.
But 14 is the Golden Age. That’s what people say when they tell this joke. The Golden Age is that these stories hit you when you’re 14, when you’re looking for answers, looking to absorb reality, looking to make sense of it, and looking for something else, too—which is what I’ll save until the end.