The Golden Age Greats

I’ve noticed a few comments around the Web (for example, on Peter David’s blog) that with Arthur C. Clarke’s passing the last of the great SF authors of the golden age are gone and this marks the end of an era.

Although Clarke was the last of the “Big Three” to die, the label of the Big Three always seemed rather arbitrary to me, and there are in fact several popular, acclaimed and beloved science fiction writers still alive who were contemporaries of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke in the 1940s:

  • Ray Bradbury, born 1920, first published 1941.
  • Jack Vance, born 1916, first published 1945.
  • Frederick Pohl, born 1919, worked as an editor and agent in the industry starting in 1939.

I think placing these gentlemen on a lower tier or in a later generation than the Big Three is splitting hairs – or, at most, a matter of opinion. The era of the golden age greats may be nearing an end, but it’s not there yet.

R.I.P. Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke passed away today, at the age of 90.

Clarke was one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers, along with Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. As far as I could tell they were the “Big Three” because they were all prolific, popular, and had helped shape modern science fiction through the 1940s and 50s while continuing to sell well into the 1970s and 80s. (How Ray Bradbury feels about this, inasmuch as he meets all the same criteria, I don’t know.) Asimov once joked about hoping to outlive his peers to be the “Big One”, but Clarke outlived him by 16 years. (Heinlein died in 1988.)

Having been born in 1969, naturally I discovered Clarke relatively late. I actually got into science fiction through H. Beam Piper, whose “self-reliant man” stories and strong sense of historical context put him more firmly in the Heinlein tradition, but I never cared much for Heinlein’s own work. Instead I was more attracted to Asimov’s cool rationalist approach (Vernor Vinge is much in the Asimov tradition, and Vinge is one of my favorite authors), and to Clarke. Clarke – much like Bradbury, actually – had a more literary bent to his writing than did Asimov or Heinlein, some of his work perhaps even having a feel of magic realism to them.

Like many of his peers, Clarke was a prolific author of short stories (that being the most common form of SF publishing until at least the 1960s), and I read most of the ones collected at the time. He also wrote quite a few novels. His novels can be rather hit-or-miss; for example, Rendezvous with Rama is a nigh-impenetrable story of the exploration of a huge alien ship. Clarke unquestionably could present intriguing ideas clearly, but he did sometimes lose sight of actually having a story to hang on the ideas, and Rama is a good example of this. Another good example is the work he’s probably best-known for: The film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had the misfortune of being a thin story directed by a greatly overrated director (Stanley Kubrick) with a lousy ending. (To be fair, 2001 was and is a controversial film, and it was a landmark in presenting science fiction in a serious and dramatic manner. I still think it’s not even close to a good film, though.)

At his best, though, Clarke’s writing had a strong humanist bent. One of his rare late-career novels not co-written with another author was 1986’s The Songs of Distant Earth (sadly out of print, it seems, as I write this). The novel concerns a spaceship stopping at one of Earth’s many colonies, all created with robotic seeder ships centuries before, and the clash of cultures and nature of such visitations in such a future. (One chapter of Dan Simmon’s excellent novel Hyperion has much of the feel of Songs.)

But Clarke’s best work, for my money, is Childhood’s End, which concerns the transcendence of humanity beyond our Earthbound forms, a sort of biological equivalent of the technological singularity, only published in 1953, the novels largely concerns the lives of the last human generation before the transcendence. Powerful, sad, poignant, and optimistic all in one, it was one of the most moving novels I recall reading in my teenaged years, and certainly the best written by the Big Three (second place going to Asimov’s Foundation).

The grand masters of a modern genre are rarely remembered because they were more polished or more technically adept at their craft than those who came later. They’re remembered because they were the trail blazers who covered important ground before anyone else, and did so in a decisive and influential manner which shaped the genre. Clarke was certainly one of these, and you can see his influence – direct or indirect – in writers such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Karl Schroeder (well, I can see some influence, anyway!).

He’ll be missed, but we’ll always have his writing with us. Science fiction wouldn’t be what it is without his skills and efforts.