The so-called Golden Age Of Sci Fi

My writing nook

I will declare my interest straight away.

I’ve been a fan of SF since I was a child. I can clearly remember trying to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, J Verne, by torchlight under the covers. I read all EE Doc Smith’s Lensman series, Asimov, Blish, Bradbury – the only author I could tolerate reading short stories of (because each story was like a little gem of surprise).

In my teens I read Herbert’s this and that, Ballard’s The Drought, Terminal Beach and the Drowned World. Clifford Simak, Harry Harrison and Robert Sheckley I thought were extremely humorous and wrote great stories to boot. I read plenty of van Vogt, Arthur C Clarke, Heinlein, Silverberg, PK Dick (especially A Scanner Darkly – a tour de force), Pohl, Poul Anderson, T Sturgeon, Kate Wilhelm, David Niven, Philip Jose Farmer and U Le Guin I put in a different category (which I’ll mention in a minute). Some other authors I’ve mislaid or may have forgotten after a mid-twenties upheaval when my material things went missing. I picked myself up, as we all do, and trudged on.

I would say that the authors I’ve mentioned above would easily qualify for being within the Golden Age of SF writing, to a greater or lesser extent.

I am still an avid reader of SF. I decided four years ago that I would like to write SF novels myself. The only piece of advice I carried with me was: write a novel that I, myself would like to read. A very underrated tip, I think.

Now, I spend a lot of time writing but I always try to tack reading onto the the end of a writing session. I don’t spend as much time reading SF now though I’m aware there is a lot of it about. I have become sidelined by Virginia Woolf and R Bolarno, with some Stephen King thrown in for relief.

Now I will come to the reason I’ve tapped out this missive:

I have tried and tried to make these Golden Age writers, their masterpieces, and not so much, work for me as an interested reader. I must confess that trying to turn the pages of Heinlein, Pohl, P Anderson, Arthur C, Silverberg, Sturgeon – I could go on – has been as though I’m trapped in some retrogressive goo made intolerable by their prose and dialogue. Even PK Dick’s, The Man in the High Castle, I could not cop. Is it because of the many decades that have passed? How much the style of writing, the prose, the dialogue, has become more realistic, the plots more energised? Some of the scenarios these writers have built into their novels appear, to me, to be the most banal and narrowly wooden conceived.

If I search out the best 50, or 100 SF books ever written, I can be sure to unearth – well, you know. I just do not understand this knot of SF sanctity that cannot be cut through. I still own collections of old editions of some of these classics. I pick them up now and again, and thumb through the brittle pages: no no no. I can’t bare it – I put them back.

I will give a get out clause to Ursula le Guin and PJ Farmer – they aren’t in the same boat.

I realise that we now live in a different time, many years after these writers, and allowances must be made, but this has been bothering me for a while. What better way to deal with it than writing about them.

At the Mountains of Madness – HP Lovecraft

Lovecraft was born in 1890 and died in 1937 – he wrote this novella in 1931. It was rejected as ‘too long’ by the editor of Weird Tales. It was eventually serialised by Astounding Stories over three months.

This is the first piece of Lovecraft writing I’ve read. It involves an ill-starred expedition to Antarctica to research geological samples. The story is narrated by William Dyer, a geologist from Arkham’s Miskatonic University. His hope is to stop an upcoming expedition by relating a horror-filled story of his earlier mission.

As the narrator, Lovecraft – through the voice of Dyer – tells the misfortunes of the expedition. Lovecraft obviously knew his Antarctica, his geology, the aeons of the past – though some have changed – and he’s able to give the reader, through the discovery of pre-Cambrian strata and Archean slate with fossilised impressions, the evidence that Earth’s evolutionary history is drastically wrong.

When the team’s biologist doesn’t respond to wireless calls, Dyer and his colleagues investigate. The forward drilling team has been brutally slain in their camp along with their dogs. The biologist, Lake, had been performing autopsies on creatures from a cave unlike any other beings on the planet. With a few baffling clues left at the scene – a man is missing, presumably having gone insane, and killed the rest of the party. Of the eight presumed corpses of the unlikely entities Lake was dissecting, four are missing. Have the missing bodies come back to life?

Dwyer and his man, Danforth, fly the remaining plane through a pass in a range of mountains 35,000′ high, and find an utterly alien stone city of gargantuan proportions, long ago abandoned on the far side of the range. The pair explore the endless city, covered partly by glaciation, and plumb their way deeper and further underground. They find glyphs, cartouches and bas-reliefs that tell a story. Dyer recognises the creatures because of their similarities to ‘the Elder Ones’ from a fictional occult tome, the Necronomicon. They came to Earth many millions of years ago ‘filtering down from the stars.’

The Elder Ones are followed down by the Cthulhu and they battle for their very existence. Much of the Lovecraftian mythos is on display in this story. The horror of what the pair piece together from the stone carvings, and why their fellows were slain at the forward camp come to light, or are at least speculated about. I shan’t spoil any potential reader’s of this story by mentioning more details. Suffice to say, the whole trip through the labyrinthine city – which takes up more than 60% of the novel – layers one horror on top of another.

Lovecraft obviously set out to make the alien city as forbidding, strange, unearthly, dark and nefarious as possible. But even he cannot avoid slipping into admiration for the architecture and artwork – which he mass-labels ‘decadent’ for some unexplained reason.

I’m aware Lovecraft wrote this during the Depression and that his personal circumstances were quite straightened. His views of the world being inhabited by higher beings from the stars millions of years before hominids evolved, beings that didn’t care about such lowly creatures as us, says a lot about how Lovecraft didn’t fit well into what he saw as an uncaring American society. He seems to have been a solitary man who’s many writings were never recognised in his lifetime.

Even though Dyer has Danforth to talk to as they endure the horrors of the city, Lovecraft never allows dialogue to take place. He uses Dyer to narrate any communication they have. To me, this made the descriptions of the stone city a fair chore to get through. There’s no handle on the pair – except fear and speculation, then more fear. Lovecraft’s ladling on of layers and more layers of the heaviest and most depressing prose was an effort to read. I almost felt Lovecraft himself was lost and feeling his way through the utterly alien city.

This is a novella and could be read fairly quickly if one could stay awake.