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The Big Three of Sci-Fi's Golden Age
Transcript of The Big Three of Sci-Fi's Golden Age
of Sci-Fi's Golden Age
What's So Big About the Big Three?
1919: Asimov is born in Russia
1917: Clarke is born in England
Heinlein is born in 1907 in Missouri
Heinlein dies in 1988 in California.
Clarke dies in 2008 in Sri Lanka.
He begins writing stories at age 11 and graduates HS at age 15.
Asimov dies in 1992 in New York.
Asimov writes Sci-Fi from '39 to '58 then begins writing non-fiction exclusively.
1938-'42: He publishes almost 30 stories in 5 years
He publishes his two best-regarded series, "Foundation" and "Robot," in the '50s although he would return to it in the '80s.
Asimov was a precocious child and graduated high school at age 15. Despite the somewhat violent influence of science in his lifetime he remained positive toward it. In college he switched majors from zoology to chemistry after disgust at having to dissect an alley cat. His vast array of studies (from medicine to computers) gave him a diverse range of knowledge and, under the guidance of John W. Campbell, he beeame the key figure in Hard Science Fiction.
He was drafted into the army in the late ‘40s and served despite his pacifist philosophy; after all, the most famous line in his "Foundation" series had been “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” This experience—particularly considering that he was present in the army during its atomic bomb testing—led to a rather pessimistic view on the nature of power structures.
After being honorably discharged from the army, Asimov gave up writing science fiction in 1958 to research, teach, and publish in various scientific fields until the 1970s—though his books (particularly the "Foundation" and "Robot" series) continued to sell prolifically.
He was approached in the late ‘70s about beginning a magazine, which eventually became "Asimov’s Science Fiction." After a professional fallout with Campbell, "Asimov’s SF" became the preeminent magazine for Hard Sci-Fi.
Asimov's Personal Life
Asimov's Works & Themes
: Asimov recognizes the conflict inherent in robotics/artificial intelligence: Humans will need robots/AI if we want to progress off Earth (something Asimov wanted to see in his lifetime) BUT he knew that humans psychologically fear robots will replace them or will have super-human capabilities and perhaps develop our weakness for violence. To deal with this conflict, he invented his famous "Three Laws of Robotics" and wrote a series of stories hoping to quell humanity’s anxieties and technophobia. The first of these stories was published in 1942.
Empire & Expansion
: Knowing that human beings would eventually (if we didn’t wipe ourselves out) colonize the galaxy he wrote his Galactic Empire series to bridge the Future History gap between his "Robot" saga and "Foundation" saga. In these tales his analysis of the way power structures worked showed his keen eye for the social sciences and Stucturalist insight.
: Asimov firmly believed in science as a force for good and thought very little of those who allowed their technophobia to hold back civilization’s progress. He continued his support for civil applications of nuclear power (as opposed to weaponized nuclear power) which flew in the face of Sci-Fi trends in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
—Despite writing prolifically about space travel he was afraid of flying and only flew twice in his life.
—He was a claustrophile, meaning he loved closed confined spaces and did most of his work in them.
—He is credited with introducing a variety of terms to the English language, particularly "robotics," "androids," and "positronic."
—He was a member of a number of relatively geeky groups including the Futurians (science and sci-fi enthusiasts), Trap Door Spiders (a literary group), and a Sherlock Holmes fan group.
—He was an occasional consultant on "Star Trek" and was good friends with Gene Roddenbury, the series’ creator. There, he gained friendships with Brian Aldiss, Poul Anderson, and Harlan Ellison who became among the next generation in Sci-Fi authors.
—He didn’t think much of rock music but was approached to write a sci-fi musical that would feature the music of Wings (Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles band). Because of creative differences with McCartney the project never materialized.
“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”
"Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”
“All you have to do is take a close look at yourself and you will understand everyone else."
“The saddest aspect of life right now is that society gains knowledge faster than it gains wisdom.”
"If the doctor told me I had six minutes to live, I'd type a bit faster."
“People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who actually do.”
“Isn't it sad that you can tell people that the ozone layer is being depleted, the forests are being cut down...that pollution is killing us, that nuclear war may destroy us--and they yawn and settle back for a comfortable nap. But tell them that the Martians are landing, and they scream and run.”
A lifelong humanist and atheist, Asimov thought little of the belief in divine intervention and miracles. One of his most well known quotes, “Miracles don’t happen. Sweat happens. Effort happens. Thought happens.” He believed instead in the idea that humanity needed to invest in improving itself.
Though he incorporated several experimental styles in his later works he stayed true to many Golden Age perspectives and aesthetics. However, he became a mentor to many subsequent Sci-Fi writers and maintained his influence and popularity by his generally benevolent, fan-friendly, and personable disposition.
His career was prolific: He wrote over 500 books, 90,000 letters, published in 9 out of the 10 Dewey Decimal categories, and his “personal papers” cover a total of 70 meters of shelf space. If you stacked his complete works one on top of the other it would be higher than the world’s tallest building.
1940s: Heinlein begins culling together a Future History for his texts.
1959: He authors his last "juvenile" ("Starship Troopers") and begins writing what would be known as his Classics such as "Stranger" and "Harsh Mistress."
Heinlein's Personal Life
What's So Big About the Big Three?
Heinlein was extremely liberal for the first half of his life but drifted from that later (though his opinions toward free love sexuality never changed). He avidly supported the Socialism as a cure for poverty in the 1940s but later became more interest in a world government that—by his more youthful standards—he might have considered fascist. He did always believe, however, that one held a responsibility to one’s country and believed that military service ought to be mandatory. This idea was likely solidified with his own naval experiences early in life.
He turned to science fiction relatively late in life (his thirties) compared to many of the precocious young writers of that era. For his first story he entered a sci-fi writing contest and subsequently sold the piece (titled “Life-Line”) to John W. Campbell at "Astounding." Perhaps because of Heinlein's age, Campbell considered him more of a peer than a pupil, and Heinlein earned the fatherly reputation as the “Dean of Science Fiction.”
Where Asimov was more interested in the hard sciences, Heinlein did not have as much of an interest in them. He enrolled in UCLA to study mathematics and physics but dropped out, although he did later work in aeronautics. By introducing many Social Science themes (particularly psychology, sociology, and critiques of power structures) he became a forerunner for the Soft Sci-Fi movement that replaced the Golden Age.
Heinlein's Themes & Works
: Heinlein was highly critical of fascism, the CIA, the atom bomb, and the influence of religion and business on public policy. The anxiety toward large power structures restricting one’s liberty was deeply embedded into his ideology and is present within all his texts—from his early to his late works. He often wrote and spoke about the importance for equal rights (whether for women or minorities) which made him quite ahead of his time as he did so several decades before the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s.
Sexuality and Social Science
: His works experiment with sexual identity and one of his most famous characters was Lazarus Long, a time traveler who frequently had sex with his ancestors and descendents—and even parallel universe versions of himself. As well, his most famous story “All You Zombies” focuses almost exclusively on human psychology, egocentrism, and self-obsession.
Politics & Individualism
: Heinlein was quite political throughout his life, but he rarely fit firmly into any political category, and certainly wouldn't identify with our dominant parties today. He was atheistic and critical of religion; he was a gun enthusiast and advocate of the military; he hated government overreach, but believed that we should establish a world government. His most famous novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” deals with the flaws of power structures, particularly capitalism and the problems of "ownership" as seen in the fact that one character “owns” the planet Mars.
—He suggested the term Speculative Fiction, which didn’t really take hold during his lifetime (and he did not want it to include Fantasy, though most people do today).
—His nickname was “The Dean of Science Fiction.”
—A crater on the moon is named for him.
—He popularized the phrase “There’s no such thing as a free lunch."
—Holds the record for most Hugo awards for Best Novel (four).
—Made a name for himself writing “juveniles” (a.k.a. young adult novels) but then began writing more serious texts, many of which dealt with sexuality and left-wing anti-fascist texts.
—Compared to many of the other major writers of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, he published his first work relatively late in life (at age 31) but he published 28 stories between 1938 and 1942.
—Some critics and fans say his works should be categorized into the classics, the juveniles, and the seniles, because his later work are so meandering.
—He predicted cryogenics, waterbeds, water on the moon, and aspects of the internet.
"Everything is theoretically impossible until it is done."
“I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”
“Sex without love is merely healthy exercise.”
“Any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.”
“You can have peace. You can have freedom. Don’t ever count on having both at once.”
“A competent and self-confident person is incapable of jealousy in anything. Jealousy is invariably a symptom of neurotic insecurity.”
“When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know, the end result is tyranny and oppression no matter how holy the motives.”
Heinlein made a career out of nonconformity, which made him quite popular among the hippie movement that followed Sci-Fi’s Golden Age. His point in his free love texts was not to encourage sexual “deviance” but rather to draw attention to how strange many of our traditional, conformist, and repressive sexual customs actually are.
He was one of the first writers to delve into Future History and unite the idea of the epic sagas (which had been prominent in Fantasy almost exclusively) with Science Fiction. He was quite adamant about what he considered Speculative Fiction, and was highly critical of texts that set their stories in outer space or in the future when they had no real plot-driven need to do so.
Because of his interest in the Social Sciences and sexuality, he had predicted many of the interests that later defined New Wave writing. As a man critical of the government (but fearless in opposition toward it) he was a model for many writers to follow. New Wave and Cyberpunk authors often incorporated such fearless heroes who challenged the status quo and never let “The Man” keep them from their individuality.
They completed a prolific amount of work
: When Locus, one of the most respected names in Spec-Fic, released their list of the best novels of all time the Big Three accounted for nearly 20% of the list.
They did it over a long period of time
: Each author had at least one major work published in four of the five decades from the '40s to the '80s. As well, they all completed their most well-received works later in their careers despite having made their reputations in the '40s and '50s during the Golden Age.
Their work was highly prophetic
: Taken together, their work predicted a number of diverse innovations from geosynchronous orbits to free love movements to robotic artifical intelligences.
They were experimental when the others stayed conservative
: Clarke helped write one of the most avant-garde films of all time ("2001: A Space Odyssey"), Heinlein wrote what became the bible of the hippie movement ("Stranger in a Strange Land"), and Asimov wrote in non-linear formats ("The Gods Themselves") just as such styles and topics became literarily fashionable.
They investigated both hard and soft sciences
: Whether psychology, history, or political science, each of the Big Three embraced the soft sciences at a time when "hard sci-fi" was the dominant genre in Spec-Fic. They ushered in this New Wave before their successors had even begun theorizing what the next generation of Spec-Fic should be.
Arthur C. Clarke
1917-2008 (England/Sri Lanka)
Clarke's Personal Life
Clarke's Works & Themes
Like Asimov, Clarke was quite a scientific scholar. He graduated with honors with degrees in physics and mathematics, and in the 1940s he prophesied geosynchronous orbits, which make satellites possible. In his thirties he moved to Sri Lanka, where he lived until his death half a century later; scholars frequently cite the tolerance of Sri Lanka toward homosexuality (as opposed to the West) as a reason for his relocation. He was knighted later in life, a highly unusual award for an author—particularly a science fiction writer.
Though he was the last of them to come into fame, he was arguably the most prophetic of the Big Three, and became highly annoyed when humanity didn’t achieve the reaches he knew it was capable of on time—especially when it came to space travel and space elevators (such as the one in "Foundatins of Paradise"). Another of his personal achievements included the discovery of underwater ruins of a 17th century Hindu temple in Sri Lanka.
Suspicious of religion as a moral authority in the world, he asked that his dog tags list him as “pantheist,” which was incredibly gutsy considering the religious homogeneity of the British during WWII. J.B.S. Haldane (his scientist and friend) said he should get a prize in theology because he was the first person in centuries to say anything new on the subject. He gave serious considerations to the Abrahamic faiths as well Humanism, crypto-Buddhism, and a number of others but identified ultimately as atheist.
: He strongly advocated humanity’s space program and often focused his works on the near future, such as in "2001: A Space Odyssey," which is arguably the most famous Spec-Fic work ever. This has left him open, of course, to seeming incorrect in many of his predictions but he had a great knack for understanding the intricacies of how human society progressed, particularly with the commercialization and privatization of space travel as well as the violence inherent in human progress.
: Most of his works have some serious theological considerations—which he saw as being inextricably tied to scientific concerns of the mid-20th century; his story “The Nine Billion Names of God” is perhaps his best evidence of his interest in how easy it is to think one’s personal religious beliefs make any more sense than a stranger’s. He used the terms God and Reality as synonyms, saying “whichever words one prefers to use” they were essentially inseparable.
Big Dumb Objects
: He often utilized Big Dumb Objects (BDOs) which served as points of mystery and intrigue even though they often did not do anything—hence the term. In “Rendezvous with Rama” the BDO was a cylindrical space ship that enters the solar system and exits without really telling humanity much about its origins, serving to do little else beside show humanity its primitiveness and to slap the face of arrogance at thinking we’re the only (or the pinnacle of) civilization.
—He was often vocally annoyed with society when his technological predictions did not occur though he knew they could.
—He predicted a variety of internet-like devices or practices, and prophesied methods of online banking and shopping, as well as the banality of internet news and the possibilities of video-chat.
—Of the Big Three he was the last to gain prominence since his first breakthrough novel came out in 1953 ("Childhood’s End"), but he’s now often cited as the greatest sci-fi writer of all time.
—The idea of geosynchronous orbits, which is where satellites sit, was invented by Clarke and we now call this the Clarke Belt. This is responsible for every cell phone call you make.
—He was a huge advocate of SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).
—Spaceguard, which detects near earth objects like asteroids, was first introduced in one of his novels ("Rendezvous with Rama").
—On the day we lifted off for the moon-landing Heinlein and Clarke were two guests of Walter Cronkite (the most famous reporter of the day).
—He discovered the ruins of Koneswaram temple of Trincomalee while deep sea diving off the coast of Sri Lanka.
"Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying."
“One of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion.”
“How inappropriate it is that we call this planet Earth when clearly it is Ocean.”
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
“I don’t believe in astrology. I’m a Sagittarius and we tend to be very skeptical.”
“We have to abandon the idea that schooling is something to be restricted to youth.”
“This is the first age that’s ever paid attention to the future, which is ironic since we might not have one.”
“I don’t believe in God but I’m very interested in her.”
“New ideas pass through three phases: (1) It can’t be done. (2) It probably can be done, but it’s not worth doing. (3) I knew it was a good idea all along!”
Major Works of the Big Three
Arthur C. Clarke had a vast interest in humanity’s place within the universe and often focused on macro-level concerns rather than individualism like Heinlein. For that, his work has often been criticized since so few of his characters stand out; perhaps it says something about his writing that his most famous character is HAL (from “2001”), an artificial intelligence. He believed it was a great arrogance of humanity to believe we were the only intelligent species in the universe, and many of his works explore the Social Science behind this belief of ours.
The famous director Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a Sci-Fi film that was based in science. Clarke did so with “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Until that point, most Sci-Fi movies had been anti-science in their overall moral, adhering to the belief that "Man should learn his place," which usually culminated in monstrous radioactive creatures or evil aliens. He worked with a variety of sci-fi writers after his own heyday, most notably Stephen Baxter, and his ability to stay relevant has maintained a loyal fanbase across generations.
He suggested that humankind was perhaps going to be merely remembered as the last stage of "organic" matter before "inorganic" machines could actually take over since a world cannot sustain organic matter forever (due to a lack of resources) but it can support inorganic matter for quite a while. He earned a reputation as a knowledgeable scientist, but was also an avid philosopher on humanity’s role in the universe, which allowed him to mak frequent appearances on scientific panels. He was (especially after “2001”) the most famous name in science fiction and he and Heinlein were the guests of Walter Cronkite—the most respected journalist in America at the time—during the moon landing.
1940s: He publishes a variety of stories, all of them genre fiction.
Clarke collaborates with Kubrick to write "2001."
He writes "Foundations of Paradise" and "Rendezvous," two of his most celebrated novels.
each publish their first stories in John W. Campbell’s “Astounding Science-Fiction" magazine.
1941: “Nightfall” (
): An alien world goes through mass hysteria upon discovering there are more stars just their sun.
1942: “Runaround” (
): The author first displays his “Three Laws of Robotics.”
1950: “I, Robot” (
): A story collection of his most famous robot texts (including “Robbie”) that had been published in the ‘40s.
1950: “Pebble in the Sky” (
): The author’s first full-length novel; the Galactic Empire saga would later be based around it.
1951: “The Puppet Masters” (
): The first non-juvenile Heinlein work exploring themes of oppression versus individualism.
1951: “Foundation” (
): The first novel in what would become his most celebrated saga.
1951: “The Sentinel” and 1953 “Encounters in the Dawn” (
): The two pieces of short fiction that inspire “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
1953: “Childhood's End” (
): The author’s breakthrough Golden Age novel after having published 19 short stories.
1958: “Have Spacesuit—Will Travel” (
): A text that utilizes Heinlein’s work as an aeronautics expert.
1959: “Starship Troopers” (
): The author’s last juvenile novel before moving on to more adult themes.
1961: “Stranger in a Strange Land” (
): The author’s most commercially successful and influential book.
1966: “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” (
): Celebrated as one of the most realistic portrayals of power struggle in Spec-Fic.
1968: “2001: A Space Odyssey” (
): Perhaps the most famous Spec-Fic texts ever, he collaborated with Kubrick to make the film and novel.
1972: “The Gods Themselves” (
): A rare stand-alone novel that wins the trio of awards: the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus.
1972: “Rendezvous with Rama” (
): His most awarded novel, in which an empty alien vessel flying through our solar system.
1979: "Fountains of Paradise" (
): The novel is one of the first to describe a space elevator, eliminating the need for rockets.
1980: “The Number of the Beast” (
): The author’s most polarizing work that signals his shift into what some call his “Senile” works.
1982: “Foundation’s Edge” (
): Asimov returns to this fan-favorite series after decades of barely writing any fiction.
2003: “Time's Eye” (
): One of his works with Stephen Baxter that takes place in the same Future History as the “2001” series.
Asimov and Heinlein dominate the short fiction world in the '40s.
1950s: Asimov is the most celebrated Sci-Fi figure before leaving fiction behind.
Early '60s: Heinlein's adult-themed novels dominate the market.
Late '60s and '70s: Clarke takes up the mantle as most famous Sci-Fi writer.