The “Golden Age” of Science Fiction

My wife and myself have been having a clear out. Our children are grown, but throughout their formative years, we kept most stuff out of harm’s way safely secured in the loft. One things I knew was up there but now I’ve had a chance to savour again is my collection of Science Fiction Books, or more correctly my collection of Science Fiction Art.

I love my kindle reader on my tablet and on my phone, but as with all things there is a price to pay for technology advances, and something that is missing now is the link between books and cover art. I still recall now the absolute wonder I felt when I saw my first “proper” Science Fiction Book in the school library way back in 1973 when I was just 11 year’s old. It was a copy of the late, great Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation”.  I was mesmerised not so much by the book contents, but by the cover.

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Asimov’s Foundation

It portrayed a strange looking craft, in a strange blue realm, with wispy, cloud-like formations. The craft looked all unbalanced, almost put together at random, no symmetry and not obvious at all which was the front and which was the back. I was enthralled.

Every other Sci-Fi movie or picture I had seen showed alien space craft as saucers or sleek, silver rockets, not this haphazard, almost space-junk vessel that seemed to defy any kind of aeronautical engineering rules.  More mysterious was that nowhere in the book was any mention made of anything like the spaceship on the front.  I’d never experienced anything like it before.  I read the book and it was good, but different from what I expected.

It was a story that spanned hundreds of years of a imagined future where one man, Hari Seldon predicts the future of fall of the Galactic Empire through his pyscho-mathematics, based on statistical analyses of human behaviour, and is banished for his heresy.  Star Wars definitely borrowed some of Asimov’s ideas such as the faster-than-light “jump” and Trantor which is a planet wide city, heart of the Empire.   Asimov wrote this in the 1940’s, way before computers were available so there are still strange references to slide-rules whilst space-ships leap across light years of space instantaneously. It’s wonderful stuff.

However I remember that whilst reading the book in bed at night, I kept looking at the cover and marvelling at the detail and the imagination of the man who created it. The man I found out was called Chris Foss. Some of you may know him now as one of the key artists who worked on Guardian’s of the Galaxy.  Check out his website, (yes he’s still alive!) at http://www.chrisfossart.com/ .  Chris was a pioneer of Sci-Fi Art and his air-brush paintings and drawings have influenced so many other artists. His imaginings have seeped into popular culture, particularly movies, where those massive spaceships with all those fiddly details all stem often from Chris’s influence.

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Asimov’s Elijah Bailey Stories

From then on I was hooked and I sought out other books, based it has to be said as much on the cover as anything.  Other Asimov books I vividly recall were “The Caves of Steel” and “The Naked Sun” two stories featuring Elijah Bailey, a detective who dwells in an underground city as earth has become so populated there is not room on the surface to live. The population has also banished robots to work only in outer space due to the fear of them. This theme is echoed in the classic cult Sci-Fi film “Blade Runner”.  Although the film is based loosely on a Philip K. Dick novelette, it owes as much to Asimov’s ideas and Chris Foss’s imagination as to anyone’s. Bailey solves one murder on Earth then in “The Naked Sun” he is ordered off -world to solve another murder on Solaria. But like all other Earthmen he suffers from crippling agoraphobia when outside the underground cities, and holds an inherent mistrust of robots which the Spacers, who live off-world, find extraordinary.

Seeking out yet more Sci-Fi, I came across the “Lensman” and “Skylark of Space” Series by E.E “Doc” Smith. The covers on these books were even more bizarre and extraordinary than I’d seen with Asimov’s books. Cone shaped spaceships above artificial looking landscapes, wreckage in the foreground of Hindenburg-like scenes and incredible detailed craft unloading smaller scout ships were some of the scenes depicted. I just couldn’t get enough of this stuff.

James Blish and A. E van Vogt were two more authors whose books and covers captivated me. “Cities in Flight” by Blish was a sprawling space odyssey where whole cities wrench themselves from the Earth to go seek their fortunes amongst the stars using the “Spin Dizzy” faster than light drive, and van Vogt’s amazing space opera “Voyage of the Space Beagle” which surely had to have influenced the creators of Star Trek in some fashion.

It wasn’t only Asimov and Smith stories fronted by Chris Foss’s art from Panther Science Fiction that attracted my eye. Robert Heinlein, Brian Aldiss, and Frank Herbert were published by New English Library who had an association with artist Bruce Pennington. I particularly recall my love of the Heinlein’s “Revolt in 2100”, Herbert’s “Dune Messiah” and Aldiss’s “Space, Time and Nathaniel” covers, even though the stories themselves have not stayed with me if I am honest.

Another classic author I enjoyed was Arthur C. Clarke who is most well known for being the visionary who first postulated the use for satellites for communication. His most famous work is his 2001: A Space Odyssey, however I felt that his other books were far superior, “Rendezvous with Rama” and “Childhood’s End” for two.

I cannot say what it is that makes me feel so fond of these books and their covers, of this art. Perhaps it’s just happy memories of childhood, recalling the wonder of exploring other people’s imagination, what was possible with colours, ideas and predictions?  What I can say is that I feel I am richer for it.  I firmly believe that overall in the world, things are much better now than they ever have been, but I can look back on this aspect of my life with much fondness, and try to remember what is was like discovering for the first time those marvellous books by Asimov, Clark, Smith, Van Vogt, Blish and so many others. That for me truly was the “Golden Age” of Science Fiction …

Cheers

 

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