To Boldly Go (2)

Asimov and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

The mid 20th century ushered in a golden age for science fiction writing and space opera. Drawing from new scientific discoveries and aided by advances in cinematography, the settings for the stories became more exotic and more colourful. Science fiction began to lose its pulp image.

Now that some of the new scientific ideas of the early century such as relativity, quantum theory and nuclear fusion had become firmly rooted in the public mind, writers saw new opportunities and developed new themes. Literature had already given us rockets, space flight, Martians and even robots. However, these were poor shadows of the starships, intergalactic journeys, aliens and androids that would decorate the pages of fiction and light up the cimema screen in the following decades. Fans of the strip cartoon already knew Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and indeed the film industry had put them in movies by the end of the thirties. In the forties, they added an even more enduring (and durable) alien superhero called Superman, born on the planet Krypton some time around 1935. But it was during the twenty years beginning in 1950 that the explosion of quality and science-driven space fantasy took place.

supermanThe revolution in sci-fi literature was headed by a handful of writers who had already made names for themselves in Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction and other ‘pulp’ magazines of earlier decades.

Isaac Asimov, born in Russia in 1919 or 1920, emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1923. A graduate of Columbia University in chemistry and biochemistry, he became a science academic at the university of Boston. He began writing science fiction stories while still a schoolboy and was selling them to magazines before leaving his teens. Arguably at his best with the short story, as in his brilliant collections I, Robot and The Martian Way, Asimov published no fewer than fifteen science fiction novels in the 1950s, including the first three Foundation books (originally short stories) and two featuring his agoraphobic space detective, Elijah Baley, and humanoid robot creation, R. Daneel Olivaw.

fantvoyrobotaIn The Naked Sun, Baley is assigned to solve a murder mystery on the planet Solaria, an underpopulated paradise where the human settlers – the Spacers – are served slave-fashion by dozens of robots. Aided by Daneel and comforted by Gladia, a long-living Spacer beauty, Baley endures the open spaces and wild weather of Solaria to come up with a clever but bewildering solution to the problem. In Pebble in the Sky, Asimov explores time travel and telepathy. His protagonist, Joseph Schwartz, is projected into a dystopian future in which Earth people are victimised and euthanised if elderly or disabled by the rulers of the Galactic Empire. When Earth’s leaders plan retaliation by wiping out the rest of humanity with a deadly virus,  Schwartz uses newly-developed mental powers to foil their evil scheme.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Asimov turned away from sci-fi to write other genres and a series of books on popular science, the one notable exception being a novel based on the film Fantastic Voyage. He returned to the Foundation, and to Solaria, in the eighties to combine some of his best ideas in stories like Foundation’s Edge, The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire.

Extraterrestrials are conspicuous by their absence in Asimov’s universe. Instead, he gives us worlds on which humans have adapted and changed to become as alien as any to be found in Star Trek. The transducing hermaphrodite of Foundation and Earth is more menacing than any bug-eyed monster encountered by SS Enterprise. And in an age when artificial life cannot always be distinguished from organic, we find murderous robots who define humans by their way of speech and, in defiance of the First Law, kill those who do not conform.

***

Another scientist who made the transition to science fiction was the British writer Arthur C Clarke. He was born in Somerset in 1917 and graduated in mathematics and physics from Kings College London. He was an acknowledged authority on radar and communications satellites. Like Asimov, he contributed short stories to the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s, and achieved success as a writer of popular science books. He also wrote stories for children. His first full-length novel, The Sands of Mars, published in 1951, and Childhood’s End in 1953 established Clarke as a sci-fi writer of quality and imagination. However, it was an historic meeting in 1964 with an American film director that launched Clarke on to the world stage.

The director’s name was Stanley Kubrick and their collaboration became one of the most talked about films of the 20th century. Its title was 2001: A Space Odyssey. sentinel

[next time: Bradbury, Heinlein, Herbert and Rodenberry]
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