Golden Age SciFi – Ask Allen Steele

Click here to Read Part I – When I first asked the ‘Golden Age Scifi – what is it’ question, I was only planning to publish my own research. It turns out that others have asked this question, and have definite gems of information to share. One of those people is one of my mentors – it’s time you met him – Allen Steele.

Yes, Allen’s one of the best-selling authors I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts. He’s not the only author I know, but he’s one of them and he’s been incredibly helpful. First, a little introduction. Allen Steele is the scifi writer you don’t know you know. Specializing in hard scifi, Steele’s won numerous awards for his novels and short stories. Along the way he’s graciously offered me (and others, I’m sure) helpful advice about writing and science fiction. Naturally, he’s a walking encyclopedia of information when it comes to Golden Age SciFi.

I shot my first blog post over to him and asked a few questions. The resulting conversation is too big for a single blog post, but I’m including this first chunk as an interesting piece of Golden Age Scifi that I was unaware of: Planet Stories’ contribution to Golden Age Scifi. The email convo started off with a simple question, but led quickly into other areas:

Golden Age SciFi - Ask Allen Steele

“Am I On the Right Track?”

Well, yes, I think you’ve got it nailed down, but it’s also the conventional answer (and let’s forget the tired old saw about the golden age being when you’re 12 years old; Damon Knight was responsible for that decades ago and since then it’s become a cliche that trivializes the issue). John Campbell’s Astounding represented the major thread of the literary revolution that SF went through during the late 30’s through the late 40’s, but it’s not the only thing that was going on. What’s become overlooked has been the more subtle impact caused by another magazine of the time: Planet Stories, and the rise of modern space opera.

Golden Age SciFi - Ask Allen Steele

Planet Stories’ Contribution to Golden Age Scifi

Planet has become almost forgotten except by pulp aficionados and genre historians like myself, and for good reasons. First, it was published only quarterly for most of its history, which lasted only from 1939 through 1955, about when the last of the classic pulps died. It was nearly as garish as Amazing Stories; a typical Planet cover featured a well-endowed girl wearing the least amount of clothing allowed by law being menaced by monsters or an alien horde, which she’s either fighting off with a ray gun or a sword or running away from while a masculine hero with a ray gun or sword rushes to the rescue. And the stories had titles like “The Menace from Venus” or “Air Pirates of Mars” or “Ravenous Denizens of Jupiter”, which were the three major locales for your typical Planet story: Venus, Mars, and Jupiter.

Okay, this sounds like junk. And because much of it really was junk, Planet was easy to dismiss, particularly if you were also reading Astounding during the same time. But since Planet’s forte was what came to be known as “space opera” — Bob Tucker was obviously thinking of Planet when he coined the term in his fanzine Le Zombie — it was the best place to go for that kind of story; Campbell seldom published it anymore in Astounding, and the stuff Ray Palmer published in Amazing was seldom anything but awful. But while the first two or three years of Planet were nearly as bad as Amazing, as the 40’s wore on something interesting began to occur in its pages.

‘Golden Age SciFi’ - Allen Steele Weighs In

How Planet Stories Got Us Ray Bradbury and Empire Strikes Back

Every successful magazine builds a stable of writers, ones whose work is mainly found in its pages and no where else. And this is what happened at Planet, which collected writers whose stories Campbell was too stuffy to buy but who wouldn’t be caught dead at Amazing. The most prolific of these was Leigh Brackett, who together with C.L. Moore was one of the most prominent female authors of SF’s Pulp Era. Brackett’s first story appeared in Planet’s third issue in 1939 and she had the cover story in its last issue in 1955, and during that period she became one of space opera’s grand masters. Her signature creation was Eric John Stark, one of SF’s first and best anti-heroes, sort of a darker version of Burroughs’ John Carter. Brackett was married to Edmond Hamilton, another space-opera master, and since she was also a Hollywood screenwriter, toward the end of her life she wrote the original treatment for the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back. Those of us who are Brackett fans know that the movie’s great disclosure that Luke Skywalker is actually Darth Vader’s son recognize this as just the sort of surprise development Brackett would spring on her readers.

The other great writer to come from Planet Stories was Brackett’s young protégé, a kid named Ray Bradbury. While Bradbury’s first work appeared in Weird Tales, his science fiction primarily appeared in Planet; many of the stories with which he established his reputation, including most of the ones that were collected in The Martian Chronicles, were first published there. Brackett was Bradbury’s mentor; they collaborated on a story Leigh couldn’t finish, “Lorelei of the Red Mist”, when she was unexpectedly hired to work with William Faulkner on the screen adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep — yeah, she was that good — and in time Bradbury became Planet’s star writer, and also one of its most controversial.

Golden Age Scifi’s Second Home

From the mid 40’s on, Planet became a magazine that introduced or supported some of the best writers to come from the Golden Age’s post-war period, a home for writers who either couldn’t crack Astounding because of Campbell’s seemingly endless list of rules or were tired of dealing with his demands for rewrites. Fredric Brown, one of SF’s best satirists, was a Planet mainstay. Poul Anderson’s Dominic Flandry made his first appearance there. Theodore Sturgeon, Gordon R. Dickson, and Alfred Bester also had stories in its pages. Even Isaac Asimov had an early story there, although it was certainly far from one of his best. Towards the end, after the Golden Age but before the end of the Pulp Era, another writer making his debut there was Philip K. Dick. A lot of this was due to another overlooked figure in SF’s history, the magazine’s editor, Jerome Bixby, a short story writer whose tale “It’s A Good Life” was adapted for The Twilight Zone; he later moved to Hollywood and, as Jay Lewis Bixby, cowrote the screenplay for Fantastic Voyage.

Planet was very influential during the Golden Age, particularly in the development of space opera from juvenile literature to a more sophisticated, if not always more mature, subgenre. Unfortunately, over the decades that followed its demise, Planet was lost between Astounding on one side and Amazing on the other, and in recent years only John W. Campbell and Astounding seems to have been remembered, with Campbell lately being accused of racism because of a callous remark he made late in life to Samuel R. Delany (neglected is the fact that, in the early 60’s, Campbell serialized in Analog one of the first SF novels to feature a Black protagonist, Blackman’s Burden by Mack Reynolds … hardly the act of a racist).

I think it’s time for Planet’s place in SF history to be rediscovered and examined. Astounding wasn’t the only magazine to have a major role in the Golden Age and it shouldn’t be forgotten.

Golden Age SciFi - Ask Allen Steele

Wrapping Up

I think we all benefit when a guy like Allen Steele weighs in on Golden Age Scifi. This is powerful knowledge about our genre and deserves to be captured for now, and for future generations. Allen Steele is a fountain of great information on the history of science fiction and I really appreciated his input. I hope you did, as well.

Photo by Michal Matlon on Unsplash