Golden Age of Short Science Fiction, 1938–1950
The time period referred to as the Golden Age of Short Science Fiction began in 1938, when John W. Campbell, Jr. became editor of the science fiction magazine Astounding Stories, which was renamed Astounding Science Fiction in 1938 and finally Analog in 1960. Under Campbell's tenure, Astounding Science Fiction became the premier science fiction magazine in the world. Assembling a talented group of writers, Campbell set out to publish stories that were based not only on plausible and reasonable scientific and technological advances, but also on the psychological and sociological effects of these advances on the individual. Critics have contended that this fiction embodies a uniquely American utopian vision—that American ingenuity would lead humanity to an idealistic future. Under Campbell's reign, science, plot, and characterization were emphasized. Writers were provided with guidelines for quality and benefitted from Campbell's collaborative approach to editing. Astounding Science Fiction dominated the genre of science fiction until 1950, when several other magazines, such as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction appeared and paperback novels and short story collections began to challenge Astounding Science Fiction for readers.
During the Golden Age, commentators maintain that two main types of science fiction stories were prominent: “hard” science fiction, which is based primarily on scientific fact and obscure scientific theory; and “soft” science fiction, or space opera, which is regarded as a melodramatic space fantasy that often employs stock themes, settings, and characters from American Western literature and movies. These tales reflected a widespread concern about war, the devastating impact of the Great Depression, and the rapid technological progress made around the time of World War II. They also utilized a common mythos by establishing a historical framework of world history, known as the “Future History,” stretching far into the future and including galactic warfare. During the 1930s and 1940s, space flight, catastrophic threats to Earth, superhuman heroes, and universal warfare were the prevalent themes of science fiction stories. Critics have also explored the depiction of gender roles and the lack of sexual relationships in the fiction of the Golden Age.
Many tales that were published in Astounding Science Fiction were viewed as formulaic and commercial, written to appeal to the broadest audience possible. In this sense, Campbell succeeded in attracting new readers to the genre and improving the image of science fiction literature. Several of the authors Campbell published went on to become major science fiction authors, including Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. Campbell is credited with honing the work of these authors; in many cases, he was often considered as a collaborator and his influence on their work and careers is regarded as profound and incalculable. The popularity of the writers and stories from that period resulted in the proliferation of science fiction magazines and books as well as TV and film adaptations of science fiction stories. Science fiction has emerged as a potent sub-genre of American literature with a popularity that can be traced back to the influence of John W. Campbell and his stable of Golden Age science fiction authors.
Tips on writing a good science fiction essay
On a good day writing an essay, a good essay at that, can be a tall order. Undoubtedly, the instructor and marker has read hundreds, maybe even thousands of essays just like yours. They have pretty much seen it all and now you are not only faced with writing a good essay, but a unique one as well. Now add to this request to write a science fiction essay and, needless to say, the stress factor is increased by a minimum of tenfold. There are challenges with writing a good essay and there are challenges with writing science fiction, so there will certainly be challenges when you need to do both simultaneously.
Fortunately, like nearly every other writing assignment, strategies and tactics can be employed to increase the likelihood of success. These tactics will mostly revolve around breaking down the essay into smaller, bite-sized, executable chunks, and putting forth a highly refined piece of writing. Novices will usually focus on quantity when it is really quality that they should be worried about, because make no mistake it is the only thing that the instructor is worried about.
With this in mind, the writer should look at their essay as a short story and not the beginnings of a multi-novel series. Doing so puts gives the writer a couple of advantages. On one hand, they don’t need as much time or space to develop their characters or focus on background. This leaves little chance for the reader’s (the markers) attention to veer off course. Moreover, it signals to the reader that there is a beginning, a middle and a definite end to the story, and that they are not about to enter a rabbit hole that will consume days of their precious time.
Before jotting down a single letter, the writer should hammer out the parameters of their story. What tense will it be told in? Will it be told in the present or will it be like a memoir that is being told in the past tense? The second parameter that should be defined would be from whose viewpoint is the story being told through. Is it being told through the eyes and mouth of the author like a narration or is it being told through a character in the story? Identifying these points right from the get go will greatly increase the speed and efficiency to which the story will be written, but more importantly it will help maintain consistency and cohesion throughout the entire paper.
Next, map the story or essay from character introductions to story development to climax and the conclusion. Outlining the narrative allows the writer to create a framework structure in which they can fill in afterwards. Speaking of the plot, conflicts always make for a good point of interest, discussion and introspection. Very few stories out there are without conflict, however what surprises most writers is that there need not only be a single point of conflict in a story. Often times there are two or more points of conflict (for example one conflict can be external – character vs character, while the other is internal – a character battling their inner demons). While this may seem like a lot of work, it actually opens up the story and increases the number of avenues that the writer can steer the plot towards.
Since this is a science fiction essay it will contain elements that are out of the ordinary (e. g. robots – a popular figure in this genre). Be sure that the element(s) can be explained or defined by science (e. g. the mechanical robot is made of gears, pulleys and levers, or if it is made of energy then the atomic bonds allow it to maintain some sort of cohesive structure). Also be sure that the element is within the realm of science, so keep dragons, elves, dwarves and magic out, there are exceptions to this but in general they are placed in the fantasy genre. Keep in mind that while these sci-fi elements may be key to driving plot, they are meant to be tools to immerse the reader into your science fiction world. Focus on using them to make the experience richer, and avoid going into so much detail as to alienate the reader because it is too technical to understand.
Less is more with these elements. Make them the cherry on top of your sci-fi cake and not the cake themselves. Saturating the story with too many strange and foreign elements makes it too easy for the reader to detach and lose context. The same can be said of the characters in the story. It doesn’t matter if they are heroes, aliens, robots or cyborgs, your characters should be relatable. A good idea to keep in mind would be that the reader should see themselves in a character in some way, no matter how big or small. This helps form bonds between the reader and the story and deepens their experience.
Finally, like with all pieces of good writing, this science fiction essay should be treated to several layers of editing, spell-checking, grammar checking and proofreading. Due to the highly subjective nature of the genre, an essay writer can also open their writing up to critiquing by their peers, mentors and advisors. The advantage of this would be to let people who are familiar with the genre to give their opinion about the quality of the story.