Before the Golden Age, and memories of memories

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Before the Golden Age, a thousand-page anthology Isaac Asimov edited of his favorite stories from the pulp era of science fiction, the early 1930s, when Asimov was a teenager.  I was reading those stories at about the same age Asimov was when he read them.  Asimov put this anthology together in 1974, and remarks in his afterwords on his surprise at how well he remembered these stories.  I, reading them in my own adulthood, am surprised by the same thing.  The armored fighting suits with all the different-colored rays!  1930s science fiction was really into “rays.”

On the other hand, reading these stories again now, and thinking about whether I’d want to lend this book to CJ, I’m stopped short by, well, how super-racist a lot of these stories are?  I hadn’t remembered this at all.  Like, you write a story (“Awlo of Ulm”) about a guy who makes himself smaller than an atom and discovers an entirely new subnuclear universe, and the wildest thing you can imagine finding there is… that the black-skinned subnuclear people are cannibalistic savages, and the yellow-skinned, slant-eyed ones are hyperrational, technically advanced, and cruel, and the white-skinned ones are sort of feudal and hapless but really standup guys when you get to know them?

Anyway, then I read the story, and then I read Asimov’s 1974 afterwords, when he writes about how he was stopped short, reading the stories again then, by how super-racist a lot of the stories were, and that he hadn’t remembered that at all.

So not only did I forget the stories had a lot of racism, I also forgot about Asimov forgetting about the stories having a lot of racism!

1930s SF was really worried about (but also, I think, kind of attracted to) the idea that humans, by relying on machines for aid, would become less and less physically capable, transforming first into big-headed weaklings and finally into animate brains, maybe with tiny eyes or beaks or tentacles attached.  This image comes up in at least three of the stories I’ve read so far (but is most vividly portrayed in “The Man Who Evolved.”)

Of course, you can ask:  was this actually a dominant concern of 1930s SF, or was it a dominant concern of nerdy teen Isaac Asimov?  What I know about the pulps is what I know from this anthology, so my memory of it is my memory of his memory of it.

When I was a kid, by the way, I sent Isaac Asimov a fan letter.  I was really into his collections of popular science essays, which I read again and again.  I told him “I’ll bet I’m your only seven-year-old fan.”  He sent back a postcard that said “I’ll bet you are not my only seven-year-old fan.”  Damn, Asimov, you burned me good.

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11 thoughts on “Before the Golden Age, and memories of memories

  1. Craig Gjerde says:

    Harari’s “Homo Deus” also gets into the future of man and AI machines

  2. Richard Séguin says:

    Make passing them on to the kids a teachable moment in critical thinking. Discuss what you like about them and what you don’t, and give the kids the assignment to report back to you whatever possible objectionable racial prejudice or stereotyping they find, along, of course, with any dubious science.

    The Tintin graphic novel series, which began in 1929, were mostly great stories that could appeal to kids and adults alike, but also had the same problem as your pulp science fiction with cultural and racial stereotypes, especially having to do with South Americans, Native North Americans, Africans, and Asians. They also made humor out of Captain Haddock’s attachment to whiskey (alcoholism), Professor Calculus’ partial deafness, and an opera diva. I’ve had the complete set for at least 35 years and, despite the problems, plan to keep them and pass them on.

  3. Mark Meckes says:

    Would it be going too far out on a limb to guess that most of these stories are also quite sexist, if only in the sense of depicting worlds strangely devoid of women (except those whose narrative role specifically requires them to be female)? And that even the ones that don’t jump out as “super-racist” tend to depict worlds where everyone is, by default, white?

  4. JSE says:

    Mark’s guess is accurate; many of the stories are womanless and many of the others feature women only as love objects to be rescued and feuded over. Asimov mentions this too, writing about “The Moon Era,” one of the few which has a strong female character, though not a strong HUMAN female character.

  5. […] Ellenberg is hyperventilating over the shocking racism of science fiction from 100 years […]

  6. valuevar says:

    I remember the stories, *and* how racist (and physically incorrect) some of the stories were: there was the one that you mention (with black cyclops chasing a naked blond girl, right?) and then there was one that was even worse – the one story written by a woman, as it happens. I remember “The Moon Era” as being good, though, and ditto for the one about those giant all-swallowing amoebas in Venus, and the one about humans living underground. I have no idea of how they would fare if I read them now. It is true that juvenile novellas of ideas improve when translated – the same is true of Asimov’s own fiction, actually, and of, say, Agatha Christie, for that matter.

  7. valuevar says:

    Hey, “The Moon era” is still interesting! Yes, juvenile fiction, but still.

  8. retro active says:

    The shorter the story, the more its effectiveness relies on shared cliches, and the less of an indicator it is that the author or audience take those cliches seriously. That is more obvious in advertising, comic books, and jokes, but sci-fi short stories are as far out on that spectrum as any other form of schtick lit.

    Readers are not prone to over-notice (or remember 40 years later) the cliches because the cliches are necessary scaffolding for the actual story ; too much novelty and it’s harder to suspend disbelief.

    Seeing the past as more racist than it was is a mental process almost isomorphic with that of racism. I’ve seen this isomorph described as “presentism”.

  9. Jordan:

    There’s a hilarious scene featuring Isaac Asimov in one of Riad Sattouf’s books. I’ll never think of Asimov the same way again.

  10. sjj530 says:

    “Darkness and Dawn” by George Allan England from about 1910 is another with explicit racist themes. It was written by an avowed socialist, so the combination of anti-capitalism and pro-racism is amusing.

    However, whenever I see articles like this, I always want to ask the author a few questions.

    1) Are you sure that the writers actually believed their stereotypes, or were just using them as a literary shortcut, the way our culture use “white business man” as a shortcut for villain, or “Republican” for “racist, homophobic Nazi”?

    2) How do you know that today’s cultural mores are right and those of 100 years ago are wrong? And if people 100 years from now hold different opinions than today’s, will they be wrong? Is it possible that your opinions, today, might be wrong?

  11. JSE says:

    1) This is a great question. And indeed, when I remark on the racism present in the story, I definitely don’t mean to suggest that the authors of the stories were movement racist who spent a lot of their day thinking about how to maintain white supremacy. Rather, I think as you say, it’s more likely these were conventional shortcuts which we notice now because we’ve at least tried to move on from them, recognizing the harm they do. (I’m not totally sure what “our culture” is meant to refer to in the second sentence; where I live, at any rate, business owners, especially small business owners, are widely praised, get civic awards, run for and win elected office, etc., and if anything I’d say the stereotype of a small business owner is “someone no-nonsense who knows how to get things done.”

    2) We don’t know! And of course any one of my opinions — about morals or anything else — might be wrong. It might not even take 100 years to figure it out! As Quine said, I always think I’m right, but I don’t think I’m always right.

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