The ‘Golden Age’ of Science Fiction began in 1938 when John Campbell, as editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, encouraged a new generation of writers to develop their talents: at the forefront was Isaac Asimov. Since that time he has become one of today’s most prolific and widely read authors on science fiction and numerous other topics.
But Asimov and the other writers of the ‘Golden Age’ drew their inspiration and enthusiasm from stories written during the years which preceeded this period. Asimov was enthralled and fascinated by the science fiction magazines which he read as a teenager; indeed he regards this time as his personal golden age.
In Before the Golden Age—Trilogy he brings together a collection of vintage science fiction from this period, written by masters of the genre like Jack Williamson, Murray Leinster and Edmund Hamilton. Throughout the anthology, Asimov interweaves biographical anecdotes from his early life with the stories, which place them in their historical context. As well as recording a hitherto neglected period in the evolution of science fiction, this book is a goldmine of sheer nostalgic delight for science fiction readers of all ages.
This is an important, important anthology. Inspired by The Early Asimov and a dream, the Good Doctor took all his favorite short sf stories from the 1930’s and wrapped them inside autobiographical narrative, giving his fans a view of his early life and the stories that inspired him to be an sf writer.
Of course, much of the autobiographical information is later found, and in more detail, in In Memory Yet Green, but it is still the price of the book to get a hold of this story of a young sf fan in the 1930’s. (Heck, it’s very nearly worth the price of the book to see how Asimov coyly refers to Janet in the introduction as “my good lady” —this was before they were married, and before the term “significant other” had been invented. When I first read the book, I had no idea that he’d divorced and assumed that “my good lady” was a very strange way of referring to Gertrude.)
In fact, this is an all-but perfect anthology. It has but a single flaw:
The stories stink.
Well, not all of them. Some of them are good. In all 900+ pages, however, only Murray Leinster’s “Sideways in Time” is truly a great classic worthy of being read by all and sundry. Clifford D. Simak’s “World of the Red Sun” is OK, as are Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “Parasite Planet,” Murray Leinster’s “Proxima Centauri,” and Ross Rocklynne’s “Men and the Mirror” . None of the rest are terribly memorable, except for “Submicroscopic” and “Awlo of Ulm,” both by S.P. Meek, P. Schuyler Miller’s “Tetrahedra of Space,” and the two Charles R. Tanner’s two “Tumithak” stories—those five are a pain to reread. (Still, I’m not sure I’d rate any of them quite as low as Asimov’s own “Half-Breeds on Venus.”) The remainder are quaint and vaguely interesting in a historical kind of way, but not likely to generate any enthusiasm in a modern reader of the genre or historian of the field.
(But to admit my own prejudices, I don’t like sword-and-sorcery stories with muscular heroes. Asimov apparently did when he was young.)
The book has had an interesting publication history. It was originally published as a single, very thick volume by Doubleday. My own first copy was of the Science Fiction Book Club’s reprint of that edition, but the dust jacket has long since been damaged beyond use by young children jealous of Daddy giving a book more attention than them. This was far too much to fit comfortably in a single paperback volume, so for paperback publication it was split into three pieces, each with a special introduction explaining the situation (again following the precedent set by The Early Asimov). The English reprint, which is the source of the cover and blurb above, took the three paperback books, dropped the special introductions, and published the result as a single-volume, omnibus hardback book. The result is identical with the original Doubleday version except for the title and the internal division into “Volume I,” “Volume II,” and “Volume III.”
Before the Golden Age also contains a rare Asimovian curiosity, “Big Game,” a previously unpublished story from early in Asimov’s career which he thought had been destroyed but which was dicovered lurking in the Boston University archives. There’s no particular reason for it to be included; Before the Golden Age with its autobiographical bent was just a convenient place to expose the story to the legions of fans (like me) who would be delighted to read something pretty much of only historical interest.
Get the book, then, by all means—but just skip most of the stories in it. You may be happier that way.
|“” Big Game”|