Fri. Feb 3rd, 2023

You’ve probably heard of the Golden Age of science fiction, that incredible period in the 1940s and 1950s when masters of the genre like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, and Jack Vance were at their peak. But the early 20th century was an even weirder and more fantastic time for science fiction, when the genre was still in motion and the atomic bomb hadn’t yet forever changed our ideas about the future. Sci-fi historian and editor Joshua Glenn has just completed a multi-year project to bring what he calls the Radium Age back to the public eye. He has reprinted ten classics of the Radium era through his indie press HiLo Books, and written some fascinating guides to the great books of the era. Now, with his definitive list of the 100 best stories and novels of the Radium era (1904-33), he is rounding out the project. But the journey for you, dear reader, has only just begun.

I’ve always been intrigued by the excavation of forgotten science fiction, which is why several years ago I asked Glenn to write some of his first essays on Radium Age books for io9. “With Radium Age sci-fi, I wanted to pull out and read the best novels from that overlooked era and then introduce the era to others – so at first I thought it would be enough to make a series for io9 to write,” he told Ars via email. “But once I realized that some of the best sci-fi films of the 1904-1933 period had faded into obscurity, I felt compelled to start an imprint and review 10 of the titles that seemed most worthy of being given new life. to blow out again.” Now that other publishers have started releasing some of the novels on his best-of list, it seems Glenn was on the cutting edge of a cultural revival of futuristic stories dating back a century. The incredible thing about looking back at the Radium Age is that you realize that so many of the sci-fi themes we think of as solidly contemporary – from post-humans and the singularity to zombie-populated dystopias – actually started way back in the early days. 1900s.

Glenn describes some of these themes and told Ars:

One thing that sets Radium Age apart from Golden Age science fiction is the belief in the possibility of a post-scarcity, peaceful, tolerant, just social order. For excellent historical reasons, we became very cynical about utopianism after Stalin and Hitler; Writers of the Golden Age prided themselves on being wise, compared to their naive predecessors.

But the radium era was not naive: we find many warnings about dystopian tendencies in the cultural, political, and economic tendencies of the period: Karel Capek and Aldous Huxley worried about the drive for efficiency in all things that characterized both America and the USSR; Yevgeny Zamyatin and Edgar Rice Burroughs were concerned about the effects of Soviet-style collectivism on the individual; and Jack London’s “The Iron Heel” (1908), which is about fascist plutocrats taking over America, feels particularly relevant right now.

But we also find optimism that people can overcome their worst tendencies and build something great together: Rudyard Kipling’s “With the Night Mail” and Hugo Gernsback’s “Ralph 124C 41+” are technocratic utopias, Alexander Bogdanov’s “Red Star” portrays a successful socialist society on Mars; “Herland” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman portrays a successful socialist society without men. (The evolving role of women is also a major theme and sub-theme in Radium Age science fiction.)

In retrospect, we can find problems with these utopias, no doubt about that. But they are also admirable efforts of the imagination. My conclusion: while we remain cautious about totalizing visions of social harmony, we should not confuse ‘idealistic’ with ‘naive’, nor regard it as the opposite of ‘sensible’. Radium Age sci fi is both wise and idealistic.

To appreciate these novels you have to reverse engineer their historical context and realize that the bomb had not yet been dropped and the Soviet Union had not yet coalesced into an authoritarian regime. Imagine a world where we were hopeful about the future because we weren’t afraid of weapons of mass destruction. And where we had not yet seen what fascism would do to the West, but were still very concerned about it. Instead of bombs, the specter of World War I haunts many of these books with its senseless, overwhelming violence; there’s a good reason why some of them present poison gas as the ultimate horror. The Radium Age was also a time when unionization and strike violence were part of everyday life in industrialized cities, and these conflicts gave rise to fantasies about what would happen if robots took over manual labour. The stories of robot revolts begin during the Radium Age, when worker revolts changed the social landscape.

Glenn noted that Radium Age’s sci-fi had a lot to do with evolution, a theory that was even more controversial a century ago than it is now. This led to the first X-men-style mutant stories. Glenn said to Ars:

Radium Age science fiction is nauseatingly fascinated by the possibility that humans could evolve – mutate – into a superior species! JD Beresfords ‘The Hampdenshire Wonder’, Hugo Gernsbacks ‘Ralph 124C 41+’, Muriel Jaeger’s ‘The Man With Six Senses’, Philip Gordon Wylie’s ‘Gladiator’, John Taine’s ‘Seeds of Life’, George Bernard Shaws ‘Back to Methuselah, For example, “The Amphibians” by S. Fowler Wright, not to mention almost everything by the great British writer Olaf Stapledon (“The Last and First Men”, “Last Men in London”, “Odd John”).

This sort of thing was inspired partly by Lamarck’s philosophy of evolution, which states that organisms tend to become more perfect as they evolve (because such a change is necessary for “life”), and partly by an ardent desire of humans after the World War I to transcend. their little ideological differences and seeing things from a cosmic perspective… even if it meant growing an egg-shaped head to house our bigger brains.

He added that one of the other quirks of Radium Age sci-fi is that it deviates from the 19th century classics of HG Wells, Mary Shelley and Jules Verne by adding tropes from occult literature. Suddenly you have sci-fi that includes “communicating with the dead, ESP, magic, astral projection, mind control.” Indeed, a popular pulp magazine from the 1920s and 1930s called Strange stories– edited for a time by HP Lovecraft – specializing in this combination of cosmic horror and quintessential sci-fi tropes. Anyone who has read a Lovecraft story is familiar with the way dark magic and aliens co-exist in his work to create worlds where supernatural nightmares can spring from the mind of an ancient alien, paradoxically dead and dreaming, at the bottom of the sea. Today, Glenn said, we are “comfortable with occult themes in science fiction contexts.” But “it was new at the time and very weird.”

Many authors have said that stories about the future are essentially always about the present, which is what makes age-old science fiction both immensely interesting and sometimes very clumsy. “I fervently hope that sci-fi aficionados can shut up when faced with some of the sexist, racist, imperialist language and context that characterizes all literature of that particular era,” Glenn said. “I’m a fan of the stories of this era, not only because it’s fun to see where some of the genre’s tropes — crazed robots, telepaths, mutants, eco-disasters, lost worlds — come from. But also because the 100 stories that I’ve identified are well written, entertaining and disturbing in the best possible sense.” If you want to escape retro futures, you can do nothing better than find the books on Glenn’s list and gobble them up this summer.

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By akfire1

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