What’s so Golden About the Golden Age of SF, Anyway?

IMG_0449Some Broad Sweeping Judgments on Golden Age Science Fiction Made a Sci-Fictioneer, 3rd Class Aboard the Great MFA Space Ark, S.S. Run Run Shaw (currently docked at Space Station Hong Kong, itself tidally locked in orbit above Planet China).

Cultural Stability Minister’s Warning: Reading this pun-riddled text may be hazardous to your mental well-being.
Not all SF is created equal as demonstrated by The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, a Hugo awarded SF author from the Golden Age of Science Fiction. His novel came to me highly recommended. Having never heard of him and wondering how that could be and being ordered to read him ASAP, I gave Bester, well, you know, I gave him my best.

Just Say No to Info-Dumpage

The novel opens with an information dump. Some people and machines break the laws of physics and some break the laws of good storytelling. Bester does both. By the time I was born right before Star Wars opened in theater galaxy-wide, most would-be sci-fictioneers would find this info-dumpage obsolete at best, and at worst this is tantamount to spraying nanite defecators upon one’s quancog fabricator. It’s like spending half your holiday on the holodeck reading travel brochures. Or reading twenty pages of side effect warnings each and every timeout take a soma holiday. Not fun. And Bester does it the worst way like a stoner with mouth diarrhea, Bester info-dumps about teleportation and how this innate ability (due to a magical substance in the brain called “Tigroid Substance”, something easily identified by a dye invented in the 19th C to visualize blood cells and bacteria) was discovered in the 24th C and how it led to the collapse of civilization as we know it. Breaking laws of physics is not a problem. Anybody can do it. Even Michio Kaku, author of Physics of the Impossible, says teleportation is only a Class I Impossibility. But it’s how you do it that matters. If you are going to break laws of physics, then you have to be cool about it. Do it like the nerd you really are, do it like a Golden Age sci-fictioneer, and then you wind up being the biggest nerd of all: Mark III Nerdist, a nerd of the third kind, whose penchant for ruining suspension of disbelief for everyone, transmutes Awesome into Bogus. And then everyone is going to laugh at you.

 
But it’s not Aster’s fault. He did not have the same kind of opportunities to board and apprentice himself aboard a great MFA space ark like us. He was writing in a time when exposition trumped character or plot or good storytelling for that matter. That was back in mid-20th C when anyone could get paid by the word re-writing classics with technobabble and wow-gee-whiz-hey-Mr-Wilson! pop science.

 

So here I am in the early 21st C, suspension of disbelief shattered and still pushing through to the first chapter. Now that Aster stole about fifteen minutes of my life to set the cosmic scene, Chapter 1 finally begins the story of the novel’s protagonist, Gulliver Foyle, “the stereotype Common Man.” After floating adrift for about 6 months in an interstellar bathtub moment, GF realizes his only chance of escaping the situation said bathtub is to—by golly—navigate the ship. Since he is the last surviving crew member and only a “Mechanic’s Mate 3rd Class” and initially described in Chapter 1 as being “too easy for trouble, too slow for fun, too empty friendship, too lazy for fun”, navigation is presumably a skill (or even a thought) that occurred to him. By the end of Chapter 1, he manages to break out of his existential brain in a bathtub. Like a Pixar version of a MacGyver-esque action hero, GF jolts to life in a flurry of activity, pushing buttons, fixing devices, and generally just floating, reading, thinking his way through space. His first step to liberation? He pushes the RESCUE button, exclaiming in 1970s era stoner dialogue tag, “‘Come on, baby you,’ Foyle crooned. ‘Hurry up, man. Come on, baby, baby you.’”

His sudden dramatic transformation from human space slug to gear monkey is triggered by–wait for it—Paleolithic emotion: “the acid of fury” (not to be confused with LSD).

Surprise!

When a passing ship chances upon his derelict ship and ignores various distress signals, GF gets very, very mad. And as we all know fury facilitates change. Just ask Anakin Skywalker. But GF zooms above and beyond the Dark Side. He is so metaphysically peeved that that he reads “engine-room manuals,” studies “theoretical gravity” and attempts to ignite the ship engines with “matches” and “flint and steel.” Of course, Foyle is foiled by basic astrophysics, which raises the question: Won’t they teach 25th C aerospace mechanics anything those days? Eventually though, GF—or rather, the omnipotent deity of this post-WWII galaxy—manages to concoct something out “a silvery bit of wire, pure sodium metal” and “wasting no time on cheers” whisks this derelict of SF towards Jupiter and Chapter 2.

 

There is probably good reason Aster is not read much today. And just because a text was interesting and “golden” in the past, does not mean it will be interesting and “golden” today. As critical readers with so much to read and so little time we must develop screening methods. Many, I have found, recommend books based on nostalgia. They read it when they were a child. But have they read it since then?

 

How to Develop Deflector Shield and Anti-Timebomb Screen Technology
Let the Imperial Data Collectors know that most recommendations are trustworthy. One fellow writer from my MFA program recommended The Bone Clocks by Dave Mitchell, and years before that somebody from my writing group told me to read his Cloud Atlas. Downloaded both SF texts into my consciousness. No consternanites detected. The Stars My Destiny and other Golden Age texts though have proved their value as case studies on how not to write SF. Still, this raises the question, how does one judge between reading recommended texts and so-called classics of a genre? So after googling quantum physics and energon flux technology, I was able to devise a primitive screening method for unenhanced sentient.

When people recommend books, one should remain skeptical—even of your closest ally or mentor: When did you first read it? How many times? Would you read it again? Basically, you are trying to gauge the text’s re-readability. If the answer to the former is something like, “a long time ago, in a suburb far, far away,” then it may be safe to assume some stories best left buried in the golden age of one’s childhood memories. With sufficient time they will degrade into silica matter, eventually coalescing into a desert planet. But if it was yesterday and you trust and respect the reader’s taste, then go for it.

One thing that I have noticed after many years of wandering the multiverse is that so few of my childhood and teenage favorites have survived as I have survived. That fresh bread crumb that nourished me as a lost child now lies fossilized and best left in the museum. Novels relished and devoured in one weekend, that seemingly defined me as a teenager, now seem bland and trite, each sentence an exasperating chore to swallow. As Jedi Master Yoda once said, “A time-traveling tachyon escape pod, nostalgia is; dead books strapped to life support, nostalgia is also.”
Dune and The Hobbit and Hello Moon, for examples, are immortal. Whomever wrote those stories probably in fact infused their prose with pharmaco-longevity. Leave the honored dead in the museum and checkout the hydroponic farms for fresh, state-of-the-art produce.

So let he who re-reads, recommend their favorite books. And maybe the Golden Age of Science Fiction should be re-branded the Stone Age of Science Fiction. And one more thing: Only unpublished, wanna-be sci-fictioneers stuck in the blogosphere should ever, ever resort to info-dumpage.