Golden Age science fiction was not written as well as much of today’s but was demonstrably smarter.
With the proviso that there have always been highly literate and artful writers working in any and all genres, as well as hacks, the following will involve generalities one encounters often in discussions of this topic.
They were engineers, largely, at the start of science fiction’s halcyon days, and some were scientists. They were technical geeks. Hugo Gernsback’s seminal science fiction publication stemmed from a journal focused on electricity and its gizmos. His readers and their ilk thought well and wrote well enough. Clarity counted in getting across ideas, which was the goal of early science fiction.
New Wave science fiction writers wrote better, in academic English terms, perhaps, but did not think as well about technical and science problems as their predecessors had done, simply because they were focused more on the writing, not on engineering and applied science. They researched their fiction instead of grounding it in lab chat, work experiences, and observations made on the job involving problem solving and innovation towards a specific result.
This fundamentally shifted science fiction’s core goals from first-hand speculation stemming from lunch-break conversation to second-hand I-wanna-play-too speculation allowing a broader human insight. Hence the label change from scientifiction to science fiction to speculative fiction in a sequence that traces how things changed.
Once the genie elixir was out of the magnetic bottle once labeled Work Stuff, it was passed around with abandon, spilled and sloshed everywhere, and used in ways, and for purposes, those good old Gernsbackian engineers and science hounds had never imagined. This continues to outrage some of the Old Guard.
Now science fiction has even taken a leap from genre toward style, diluted perhaps but still potent as a story-brewing solution. What ever it is that makes science fiction special, it allows stories that cannot be told in any other way; it includes and changes our view of technology and its myriad effects on us; and it sharpens the focus on the world at large, allowing even those the Old Guard would call Mundanes to grasp at least a glimmer of how amazing is the dance between science and our apparently-holographic universe.
Tastes vary but categorical thinking remains constant. Science fiction was born of ideas and is a plot-driven genre. Character, milieu, denoument, and other literary considerations count less in science fiction than a good idea presented clearly. This is strength and weakness combined. The good news is, there is now a huge range of science fiction to choose from, and a voice, approach, and type for every reader. From its humble beginnings in Mary Shelley’s febrile dreams, through Jules Verne’s well-researched, idea-driven stories, to H. G. Wells and his social commentary and beyond, science fiction has proven itself a living, vital literature of value and relevance.
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