The Mammoth Book Golden Age Science Fiction (book, various, 2007)

This review originally appeared in Death Ray issue 1, out May 2007.

Editors: Isaac Asimov, Charles G Waugh, Martin H Greenberg


There’s a lot to love about Mammoth Books, mostly because they’re great collections of short-form fiction at a reasonable price. Great reads all round, the only thing not to love about them is the brand’s need to include “The Mammoth Book of…” in every title, which makes some of them somewhat unwieldy…

This Mammoth Book has a particularly unwieldy title. But it is also particularly interesting. It’s a reprint of a 1989 collection that brought together 10 stories SF anthologists Isaac Asimov, Martin H Greenberg and Charles Waugh regarded as being representative of the “Golden Age” of science-fiction, that period in the 1940s which saw the genre gradually begin to shake off the pulp roots epitomised by the likes of the Lensman series, and take a more hard science tack.

For us what might appear to be most interesting is that this is a selection Asimov, one of SF’s great founding fathers, made only a few years before he died. But it is more than that. Asimov himself, in his introduction, attributes the existence of the Golden Age, and therefore modern SF, to John Campbell Junior, author and editor of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. It was Campbell that spotted the talents of such authors as Asimov, Heinlein, Vogt, Clarke, Sturgeon, Del Rey and many, many others, honing the story skills of each and shaping their development. Asimov asserts rightly that Campbell was one of the giants of the genre. His influence has far outreached his own lifespan, even to the extent that when SF went off in the different directions of the New Wave, it was a deliberate move away from Campbell’s scientifically rigorous style of science fiction. Rebellion is surely a sincere form of flattery.

Eight out of the ten stories presented here are drawn from Astounding Science Fiction, so this collection, as representative as it is of Asimov’s taste, is also a fantastic glimpse into a bygone era of SF publishing. It is a direct look at the pages of a magazine that has influenced the genre to this day, and through those pages gives us an insight into the mind of the man who shaped them. This is Asimov’s tribute to Campbell, and an education to us for whom Campbell’s name has faded into the background buzz of richly inter-mingled genres. We live in a dazzling, multilayered world of SF now, a far cry from the relentlessly scientist stories of Campbell’s era, but we wouldn’t have it without these authors or their mentor.

Onto the stories, they are:

Time Wants a Skeleton, by Ross Rocklynne

The Weapons Shop, by AE Van Vogt

Nerves, by Lester Del Rey

Daymare, by Fredric Brown

Killdozer, by Theodore Sturgeon

No Woman Born, by CL Moore

The Big and The Little, by Isaac Asimov

Giant Killer, by A Bertram Chandler

E for Effort, by T L Sherred

With Folded Hands, by Jack Williamson

The stories are published in chronological order – the first dating from 1941, the last from 1947, though to be honest, this does little for the readability of the book. Time Wants a Skeleton is the weakest of the bunch. It is poorly written, and groans under a weight of expository dialogue. It’s a basic time-travel paradox, revolutionary at the time, but to modern eyes it looks so much like a bad episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Because of the story’s weakness, its numerous anachronisms become all the more obvious, further dating the tale. But the stories do improve, and massively so.

Speaking of anachronisms, they abound throughout the collection. Though Campbell insisted his authors emphasise the science as much as the fiction, it is hard to predict the future path of technology, and this goes doubly for societal changes: everyone smokes, for example, and women swoon repeatedly over square-jawed spacemen.  These visions of futures never to be, essentially the 1940’s in space, give the book much of its academic interest. Imagine a present, let alone a future, without computers, or genetics, or mobile phones. Here we have 22nd centuries where heroes have to go to the library to look things up on microfiche, where there is no method of identifying a corpse better than fingerprinting. Even in Isaac Asimov’s far-future Foundation tale The Big and the Little, which scrupulously avoids referencing contemporary mores, has one jarring moment (to 21st century eyes) where a letter is delivered via a message tube. Asimov explained all this away in later Foundation stories as science caught up with his tales, but it is still noticeable.

Then there are the atomics. Everything is atomic. Atomics was “magic science” to the writers of the 40s, and in these tales seems to be capable of pretty much anything.

Do not judge the authors harshly (a difficult task admittedly, as their world is not so distant as that of Wells or Verne, and therefore their incorrect predictions are all the more uncomfortable). We effectively live in their future, and have 20/20 hindsight, whereas the best they had was 3D glasses. Think on this, much of our current SF includes the “magic sciences” of genetics and nanotech. How foolish will our post-modern, post-human cyber-tales appear to future eyes?

There are also some quaint literary conventions that have long since fallen by the wayside. Chandler’s Giant Killer, for example, is a fine example of the “Jar of Orange Tang” story form mocked by the Turkey City Lexicon.

However, though outmoded social convention or pulp writing sometimes cause unintentional amusement, how the ideas still shine. The dodgy particle physics of Del Rey cannot undermine the tension of his story of doctors under extreme pressure, nor can Chandler’s denouement take away from the energy of his tale, while Sturgeon’s Killdozer would be equally silly, and equally as exciting, if written now. And no book that contains CL Moore’s No Woman Born, whose poetic musings on the nature of the human soul will send shivers down your spine, can be put aside no matter what the merits of the rest of the contents. There are other greats too, notably E for Effort by TL Sherred – a great warning against the dangers of knowledge, and the excellent robot-nightmare story With Folded Hands. These stories are gems, SF heritage, and should be treasured as such.

As the decades march by, entertainment is often the first aspect of literature to crumble away; and books become dry works wrought in archaic language for schoolchildren to struggle through and professors to pore over. Fortunately for us, this is not the case here. Yes, The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction will inform you of where our favourite genre comes from, and give you an insight into the mindset of the times and the hopes and fears its people had for the future, but it is also all great fun.

Astounding Science Fiction

The magazine in which the majority of the stories in this book originated has now run for over 65 years. It has had a number of different titles, and is currently called Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

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