In times of great uncertainty – and Eurovision humiliation aside, 2021 surely qualifies – many are tempted to examine ‘speculative fiction’ from the past, to understand the present. 1984 has had a good year, and seems much less dated than anything actually from 1984, such as Wham!, The Karate Kid or Roland Rat. Huxley’s Brave New World is now the standard rebuttal to Orwell – with Forster’s The Machine Stops, in at least a respectable third place. But what of the pulpier end of the market? Those privately educated literary figures were not the only ones peering into the future before The Last War and it can be illuminating to reflect on what visions were hammered out in the actual brave new world of America, on the production line of science fiction periodicals like Astounding!
Literature has no single golden age, but some genre fiction does, and Science Fiction had a long one, stretching from the mid-30s all the way up to the mid 50s – up, perhaps, to Crick and Watson and the genuinely astounding discovery of DNA with which it briefly struggled to compete. Soon, we’d been to the moon too, and the race to speculate before science could accumulate became a lot tighter.
Sci-Fi thrives off society’s sense of the unknown. The fiction of this era is worth reading as much to register the blind spots, as to applaud the bulls’ eyes. These are generally by way of under estimating the societal changes which were to sweep across the West after WW2. Many authors anticipate nuclear annihilation, and subsequent genetic mutation, but there does not appear to be a single one who saw feminism coming.
Instead, stories by Asimov, Heinlein and the like bristle with square jawed 21st century heroes, wise cracking journalists, distracted academics and Blondes, Blondes, Blondes. Some of the predicted innovations in tech are hauntingly accurate, but the action remains firmly rooted in a social milieu Raymond Chandler would recognise.