Golden Age of American Science Fiction

The entry of scientifically trained writers and editors into the science-fiction magazine market significantly increased the quality of the genre, making the 1940’s the Golden Age of American science fiction.

Summary of Event

The story of America’s Golden Age of science fiction is the story of the “pulp” magazines. Until the end of the 1940’s, little science fiction was published in book form. Novels usually were serialized in the pulps, cheap magazines named for the rough, cheap, pulpy newsprint on which they were printed. The pulps were the major forum for adventure stories of the mystery, detective, Wild West, and sea-adventure genres. In the beginning, science fiction simply followed the established pulp-adventure formula. [kw]Golden Age of American Science Fiction (1938-1950)
[kw]American Science Fiction, Golden Age of (1938-1950)
[kw]Science Fiction, Golden Age of American (1938-1950)
[kw]Fiction, Golden Age of American Science (1938-1950)
Literature;science fiction
Science fiction;literature
[g]United States;1938-1950: Golden Age of American Science Fiction[09660]
[c]Literature;1938-1950: Golden Age of American Science Fiction[09660]
Campbell, John W., Jr.
Asimov, Isaac
Heinlein, Robert A.
Sturgeon, Theodore
Van Vogt, A. E.

The roots of the Golden Age can be dated quite specifically. In April of 1926, the first magazine devoted exclusively to science fiction appeared: Amazing Stories, Amazing Stories (magazine) edited by Hugo Gernsback. Gernsback, Hugo To be sure, science fiction appeared in other periodicals, and Gernsback’s science and technology monthlies, such as Modern Electrics, had published and encouraged science stories as early as 1911. In Amazing Stories, however, science fiction for the first time could find its own identity without competing with other forms of fiction. Gernsback’s ideal was a fiction that combined literary skill with scientific plausibility. That ideal was not achieved for another decade, and then by another editor.

In September of 1937, a young engineer who had been publishing science fiction in Amazing Stories since 1930 (Gernsback was no longer editor) was invited to take over as editor of a magazine with a similar title: Astounding Stories. Astounding Stories (magazine)
Magazines;Astounding Stories His name was John W. Campbell, Jr., and he remained at the helm of the magazine—which changed its name twice during his tenure—until his death in 1971. He introduced more talented writers than any other editor of the period.

Isaac Asimov.

(Library of Congress)

The writers who dominated the Golden Age of the 1940’s were almost all first published by Campbell: Lester del Rey and L. Ron Hubbard in 1938; Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, and A. E. van Vogt in 1939; C. M. Cornbluth in 1940; Hal Clement in 1942; Arthur C. Clarke in 1946; Poul Anderson in 1947; and Judith Merril in 1948. The few science-fiction writers of any stature who did not come through Campbell’s stable in the 1940’s—James Blish, Ray Bradbury, and Damon Knight—were influenced by those who did.

Campbell’s high editorial standards were largely responsible for the quality of the work produced during the Golden Age. The pieces he chose told readers and writers what the new measure of science fiction would be. Notably, Campbell avoided the scientifically absurd travesties scornfully dubbed “space operas” by science-fiction fans. In editorials and letters pages, his principles were articulated more directly: He required solid scientific plausibility and the same basic standards of literary quality set by any other genre.

Four writers who delivered both, and who came to dominate the genre, owed their start to Campbell. Their first works in Astounding Stories all appeared in 1939. The first was Isaac Asimov, whose short story “Marooned off Vesta” appeared in the March issue. As a chemistry major at Columbia University preparing for graduate school, Asimov was confident of the scientific quality of his writing. Under Campbell’s guidance, he soon developed a literary craftsmanship to match. Campbell’s influence can be seen in Asimov’s two most important contributions to science fiction: the three laws of robotics and the psychohistory that is the basis of his Foundation series. The three laws explained how robots would be governed in their relationships with humans. Psychohistory, involving prediction of the future and guidance of its course through human psychology, was born out of a discussion Asimov had with Campbell about Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788).

The second Campbell find of 1939 was Robert A. Heinlein, an older man who also had done graduate study in the sciences. His major contribution to the Golden Age, the “future history” concept, also owed much to Campbell’s influence. Campbell had noticed that many of Heinlein’s stories referred to the same characters and events, as if Heinlein had a coherent picture of a possible future. He had, and Campbell began referring to Heinlein’s “future history” in the February, 1941, issue of Astounding Stories, in which an outline of the concept was eventually published.

Campbell’s influence on his third discovery of 1939, Theodore Sturgeon, may have been more negative than positive, in that Campbell represented the moral taboos against which Sturgeon would later struggle to break free. Sturgeon’s Golden Age work stayed within Campbell’s guidelines, but the language and style of his stories of the 1940’s pushed the limits of science fiction. Sturgeon was the first true stylist of American science fiction; he had a sophisticated ear for the sound and rhythm of prose. Sturgeon made science fiction sing without endangering its value as story or science.

A. E. van Vogt, the last science-fiction giant to emerge in 1939, is the only one of the four whose influence has not lasted. His novel Slan, serialized in Astounding Stories in 1940, introduced the first of a series of superhuman heroes persecuted by an inferior majority who feared them. The stories were tremendously popular until it became uncomfortably obvious that they presented an ugly potential for science-fiction writers and readers to see themselves as just such misfits with a supposed superiority. Nevertheless, van Vogt remained one of Campbell’s most popular writers through the end of the Golden Age.

Although the beginning of the Golden Age was signaled by Campbell’s rise as editor, its end was not dependent on Campbell’s retirement, and he remained an influential editor until his last issue of Analog (formerly Astounding Stories) in December of 1971. However, several developments conspired to lessen Campbell’s influence, and most of these had nothing to do with the nature of science fiction. The first major influence was World War II. Campbell lost his best writers to the war effort. The most scientifically gifted were assigned to war-related scientific research; Asimov and Heinlein, in fact, worked in the same laboratory in Philadelphia. Moreover, the government appropriated more than Campbell’s writers. The war effort needed paper, and science fiction, like all literary fields, lost many magazine titles during the war. In 1941, there were twenty major science-fiction magazines; by the end of the war, there were seven.

The influence of a watershed event like World War II is not, of course, limited to personnel and paper. As Asimov later pointed out in his essays on the Golden Age, a single moment at the end of the war changed the world’s attitude toward science fiction forever. That was the world’s abrupt entry into the atomic age, when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Suddenly, everything the science-fiction writers had suggested about atomic power became horribly real. The concurrent fight for Adolf Hitler’s rocket scientists and the subsequent race with the Soviets to get into space quickly made the American public aware that science had caught up with fiction.

Another boom time for science fiction came immediately after the war. The major writers from before the war began writing again, and several new writers appeared. Many influential British science-fiction magazines appeared in 1946, emulating (and sometimes reprinting) the best stories of the American Golden Age. Arthur C. Clarke was published in these British pulps, although his first publication was in Campbell’s Astounding Stories in 1946.

The American magazines that had survived the war were stronger than ever, but new developments in publishing occurred in the last years of the Golden Age that would end the pulp magazines’ exclusive hold on science fiction. The first was the advent of paperback publishing during the war. Many publishing houses at that time produced inexpensive newsprint versions of their best-selling titles, with spaces on the back cover for addressing. The intent was for civilians to buy them and mail them to servicemen overseas. The paperback form, without the address labels, remained after the war, and science fiction found a home in the paperback industry.


The end of the 1940’s also saw Golden Age science fiction published for the first time in hardcover form, as short-story anthologies and novels previously serialized in the pulps. Four small presses specializing in science fiction sprang up in the 1940’s: Advent, Fantasy, Gnome, and the horror-story publisher Arkham House. When these houses proved that it was economically feasible to publish science fiction outside pulp magazines, Doubleday became the first mainstream publisher to try it. Charles Scribner’s Sons launched a series of “boys’ books” by Robert A. Heinlein, beginning with Rocket Ship Galileo in 1947.

For the most part, paperback and hardcover science fiction continued the style and themes of the Golden Age. Hugo Gernsback’s emphasis on gadgets had changed to John Campbell’s focus on people. The scope of stories broadened, however, following the Golden Age. Instead of reading about individuals encountering new ideas and technologies, readers began to see stories about the effects of those ideas and technologies on society at large. To put it another way, the science of science fiction had been drawn from the physical sciences in the Golden Age. In the second half of the twentieth century, it would be drawn from the social sciences, including anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

To some extent, Heinlein and Asimov, both Campbell-trained Golden Age writers, had anticipated this shift. From the beginning, many of Heinlein’s stories dealt with psychological issues. Heinlein complained that editors were rejecting such stories for lack of “scientific” content. Asimov’s Foundation series, similarly, had sociological and psychological premises in its use of psychohistory. Both Heinlein and Asimov, however, were trained in the physical sciences and always had some of that orientation in their stories.

The rise of two new and different science-fiction magazines, Fantasy and Science Fiction (which began in the fall of 1949) and Galaxy (beginning in October of 1950), proclaimed the end of the Golden Age by taking science fiction in a new direction. A greater emphasis on prose style, the courting of mainstream writers, and an aim at a more adult audience characterized these two titles. Although it differed in many respects from the science fiction that preceded it, this newer fiction still showed the influence of the Golden Age, in which a successful balance was found between science and fiction. Literature;science fiction
Science fiction;literature

Further Reading

  • Aldiss, Brian W. Billion Year Spree. New York: Schocken Books, 1973. A history of science fiction that takes into account concurrent movements in literature outside the field. Written by an important science-fiction writer of the later “New Wave” movement who is not blinded by nostalgia for the Golden Age.
  • Asimov, Isaac. Asimov on Science Fiction. New York: Avon Books, 1981. A collection of periodical essays, mostly editorials from Asimov’s science-fiction magazine. Chapters are arranged by topic. Two chapters deal with the Golden Age in general, and two specifically with Campbell.
  • Disch, Thomas M. The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World. New York: Free Press, 1998. An excellent introduction to the genre. The author treats his material seriously and without bias. Among other discussions, Disch makes an interesting case for Edgar Allan Poe as the father of modern science fiction and analyzes the successful development of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology.
  • Fiedler, Leslie A., ed. In Dreams Awake. New York: Dell Books, 1975. A critical anthology of short stories, with helpful introductions to each section. Both the general introduction and the introduction to the Golden Age section contain vital insights regarding the period. Fiedler is the most important mainstream critic to write on the Golden Age.
  • Moskowitz, Sam. Seekers of Tomorrow. New York: Ballantine, 1967. A series of critical biographies of the major writers in science fiction up to the mid-1960’s. Chapters on Asimov, Campbell, Heinlein, Sturgeon, and van Vogt are included. Moskowitz, the editor of Gernsback’s last science-fiction magazine, knew most of the major writers professionally.
  • Robinson, Frank M. Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century. Tigard, Oreg.: Collector’s Press, 1999. Although some of the text lacks substance, this book’s vast array of beautiful, full-color images is worth noting. The latter sections of the book focus more on the role of science fiction in film than on its literary history.
  • Wingrove, David. The Science Fiction Source Book. New York: Van Nostrand, 1984. The bulk of this book is an encyclopedia of science-fiction writers, rarely with more than one hundred words per entry. A brief history of science fiction by Brian W. Aldiss opens the book, and an essay on science-fiction magazines by Wingrove appears as an appendix. Both essays provide insight into the Golden Age.

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