Isaac Asimov Recalls the Golden Age of Science Fiction (1937–1950)

In this short clip, Isaac Asi­mov dis­cuss­es the gold­en age of sci­ence fic­tion, which began in 1937 (and end­ed in 1950) when John W. Camp­bell Jr. took over as edi­tor of the mag­a­zine Astound­ing Sci­ence Fic­tion. Pri­or to Campbell’s edi­tor­ship, most sci-fi sto­ries were pub­lished in the “pulps,” and were in Asimov’s words “heav­i­ly adven­ture-fla­vored” because under­paid writ­ers often wrote in sev­er­al gen­res in order to com­pete in an over­crowd­ed mar­ket­place for escapist sto­ries of romance, war, jun­gle and sea adven­tures, and hor­ror tales. Unlike most of the “pulp” writ­ers, Camp­bell was a sci­en­tist who stud­ied physics at MIT and Duke, not to men­tion a pro­lif­ic writer of fic­tion. (Many of Campbell’s nov­els and short sto­ries are avail­able in full-text as ePUB and PDF files here).

Campbell’s ascen­sion was a water­shed moment for the genre since his “engi­neer­ing atti­tude” gave him a high regard for writ­ers of sci­ence fic­tion who under­stood the sci­ence of the day and could por­tray sci­en­tists authen­ti­cal­ly while still hav­ing the free­dom to “extrap­o­late wild­ly.” Astound­ing pub­lished some of the ear­li­est sto­ries by Asi­mov, Robert Hein­lein (an ear­ly sto­ry, pub­lished under the name “Anson Mac­Don­ald” in 1941 is here), and L. Ron Hub­bard. The rela­tion­ship between Camp­bell and Hub­bard is a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry. Camp­bell pub­lished a very ear­ly ver­sion of what would become the found­ing text of Sci­en­tol­ogy in March 1950, and he claimed to be an ear­ly sup­port­er of Hubbard’s “sci­ence of dia­net­ics.”

Camp­bell is a com­pli­cat­ed fig­ure. In addi­tion to sup­port­ing Hubbard’s ideas, writer Har­lan Elli­son has claimed that Camp­bell was an adher­ent of pseu­do­science who would “believe any­thing,” and he appar­ent­ly held some very objec­tion­able racist and far right polit­i­cal views which he cham­pi­oned in his edi­to­ri­als and which made Asi­mov uncom­fort­able, as Asi­mov writes in his intro­duc­tion to the gold­en age col­lec­tion Astound­ing: John W. Camp­bell Memo­r­i­al Anthol­o­gy. Nev­er­the­less, Asi­mov acknowl­edges Camp­bell as a “Father of Sci­ence Fic­tion” who was indis­pens­able in bring­ing the genre out of the pulp era.

J. David Jones is cur­rent­ly a doc­tor­al stu­dent in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Free Sci­ence Fic­tion Clas­sics on the Web: Hux­ley, Orwell, Asi­mov, Gaiman & Beyond

A Trip to the Moon (1902): Where Sci Fi Movies Began

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