TT: The Golden Age of Wonder

News Flash!  This week’s winner of the Help Make Artemis This Summer’s Hot Destination contest is Steven Sheeley.

Remember…  The contest ends on August 10.  Need the details?  Don’t miss out on your chance!

And now, back to our regularly scheduled Tangent.

ALAN: Okay, Jane.  Last time I asked you what sort of stories inspire “sense of wonder” in you and you weaseled on me.  No more delays!

JANE: My problem is that in order to give you a fair answer, I need to Tangent off onto a point…


Wonderfully Fortuitous

Wonderfully Fortuitous

ALAN: Ooh! A tangent! I love those.

JANE: Someone said something about the age for discovering SF or Sense of Wonder or something is twelve.  I can’t remember who, do you?

ALAN: Let me see…

A rather obscure American fan called Peter Graham apparently first used the sentence “The golden age of science fiction is twelve” in an article published in a fanzine called Void in 1957. Less obscurely, the critic David Hartwell used the saying as the title of a chapter in his collection of critical essays Age of Wonders (Walker 1984, republished by Tor in 1996). The saying is also used (without attribution) in the Clute & Nicholls encyclopedia.

Does that pin it down sufficiently for you?

JANE: Fantastically…  I suspect Hartwell was paraphrasing Graham.  Hartwell’s extraordinarily well-read in the history of SF and SF-related commentary

In any case, what I was trying to get at is that I don’t have that single moment of discovery.  As I mentioned many Tangents ago, I ambled into SF/F through random selections from the library’s paperback book racks.  I certainly was a confirmed SF/F reader by age twelve, but I don’t recall any gateway book or author.  For me, it was pretty much ALL sense of wonder.

I didn’t even have many friends who read “the stuff” until I went to college.  That’s when I both met other people who read SF/F and had access to their libraries.  So, for me, there are two stages of discovery, the random one and the one where I read a lot of books that “everyone” was reading.

I hope that helps explain why I’m having so much trouble talking about specific authors.  Until college, I simply wasn’t paying any attention.

ALAN: Time for yet another tangent. I find what you just said to be a little weird. I always know the authors of books. It doesn’t matter what genre the book comes from, the author (and often the title) invariably sticks in my head, if only so that I can search out other books by those people if I enjoyed their work or avoid them like the plague if I didn’t! I simply can’t imagine not knowing.

JANE: This trait doubtless led you to becoming the excellent book reviewer that you are…

 As for me, I rarely know the author or the title…  I think that’s one reason I find the current trend of trying to make authors into celebrities so weird.  But that’s another topic entirely…

 In any case, acknowledging my handicap, let me see what I can come up with.

Anne McCaffery’s first two “Dragonrider of Pern” books really caught my attention.  I never viewed them as Fantasy.  Threadfall was some sort of alien element, not a “monster” or “magic.”  In fact, the series lost me when it began to focus more on Pern’s larger community.  The White Dragon, which was very popular, turned me off.  Everyone shouldn’t get dragons…  Certainly not huggy, crippled dragons.

But those first two books really grabbed me.  I read the more YA Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, Dragondrums and enjoyed (especially Dragondrums).  However, I read them with my “Fantasy” hat on, if you know what I mean.

ALAN: Oh gosh! You and I have so much in common. Like you, I loved the first two dragon books and like you I considered them to be SF, not fantasy. They ended on a bit of a cliffhanger and so I was eagerly looking forward to The White Dragon. I had to wait a long time, but it eventually appeared. And I absolutely hated it. I’ve been utterly unable to read Anne McCaffery ever since.

JANE: Ah…  Your “Rama” moment.  I understand completely.

ALAN: Shortly after the publication of The White Dragon, I was at a convention where a fan asked Anne when she’d be writing some more dragon books.

“Never!” thundered Anne, and she went on to explain that she was bored by dragons and bored with Pern. Unfortunately, in later years she really needed the money, and so she returned to Pern again and again, for purely commercial reasons. But I can’t help feeling that her heart wasn’t in it.

JANE: I didn’t pursue Pern, either, although I dipped in occasionally, hoping to find some of the same feeling I’d gotten from the first couple of books. There was lots of interesting material and some nice world-building, but the Sense of Wonder wasn’t there.  If I wanted to read peasant politics, I’d rather read straight, unapologetic Fantasy.

However, I didn’t reject the books I’d liked and, in fact, a few years ago Jim and I gave them to our then high-schooled aged nephew, who apparently enjoyed them.

ALAN: Oh good – it’s always nice to introduce a new generation to the books we enjoyed.

JANE: Jim and I do a lot of that, actually.  Our nieces and nephews are resigned to receiving books as gifts for Christmas and birthdays.  Actually, “resigned” may be too strong.  I just heard from my sister that the least readerly of her children was so happy with the book we sent him (baseball anecdotes) that he’s asked for it to be his bedtime story.

ALAN: That’s my job as well – I’m in charge of books for my godson and his sister, a responsibility I take very seriously indeed.

JANE: Maybe we should form a club…  The Serious Book Givers…

But, we tangent again, which seems to be the theme of this week’s piece more than ever.  Next time, I’d really like to bring up something that occurred to me when we chatted about Arthur C. Clarke a few weeks ago.

For now, I’ll leave you wondering!


5 Responses to “TT: The Golden Age of Wonder”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    I’m a bigger McCaffrey fan, but that’s because my parents sicc’ed me on Dragonsinger, Dragonsong, and Dragondrums as a child. I’d call them YA books today. A few years later I read The White Dragon, because they had it. Then I bought copies of Dragonflight and Dragonquest so that Anne could autograph them at a signing. My parents had already read the serialized versions in Analog (?), so they didn’t have those books in the house. Perhaps I liked them because I was introduced to the series backwards?

  2. chadmerkley Says:

    A couple of points: Can I join your Serious Book Givers Club? (I’m looking for suggestions for what to give my niece when she turns seven in a couple of months).

    Also, it’s interesting to hear you guys talk about your views of some of these older authors. It reminds me of hearing older musicians and music fans talk about the Beatles. They are so enthusiastic about how novel and different and exciting they were. I can’t really relate. My entire life, I’ve been surrounded by stuff they influenced. They sound good, they have some way cool stuff, but they’re not “special” to me, because I don’t have the same context for evaluating them. The same goes for a lot of SFF authors, like Clarke, and Asimov, and even some Heinlein. They just seem kinda old-fashioned and cliched and not very interesting, stylistically and well as content-wise. I think this an effect of coming to read SFF first in the 90’s, as a young teenager. My first exposure to science fiction would have been through TV and movies (Star Wars, Star Trek: TNG, The Dark Crystal, Saturday morning cartoons like Transformers, Voltron, He-Man) and then only later did I start looking for stuff like that to read. So my view of what makes good SFF is missing a historical element that Alan and Jane consider important.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      “Cliched” is a funny word to use, because, of course the “cliche” applies to those who copied them — not to them.

      But I absolutely get your point and it’s one I’ve encountered frequently, especially when I was still teaching Lit. It was often hard to work my students around to understanding that what they were reading was the FIRST time something had been done — those who were able to “shapeshift” their perspective often had a really wonderful epiphany moment.

      I believe it’s in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” where T.S. Eliot addresses this very point… It’s a very “dense” essay, but worth working your way into — especially since you’re involved in the creative arts.

      And this doesn’t even address the absolutely personal element in “wonder” — that the first place you encounter an idea or technique or whatever will hold a special Sense of Wonder… No matter is afterwards you discover that particular place was derivative as All Get Out.

      Me? I read old stuff and new both. Why cut off the chance I’ll find something really great?

      • chadmerkley Says:

        Right. I have something of an intellectual understanding of the history of SF, but I haven’t gone through the necessary immersion in the older stuff to really internalize it. Some thing with 20th century popular music. It would take a lot of effort, and it’s not something I really want to do at this time.

        But you’re right about the personal element of wonder and excitement. As an example, my brother and I were discussing 80’s cartoons, and I brought up SILVER HAWKS, which I remembered as being the most awesome thing ever. YouTube resulted in disillusionment:

        But still, that’s the kind of thing that shaped my interest in SFF.

      • janelindskold Says:

        I remember Silver Hawks… Good idea, poorly rendered. Too many cliches (cute kid, tough military, token female, blue grass?) and dreams of action figures.

        Thing is, some familiarity with the history of a field is necessary if you want to work in it. Just yesterday, I saw a comment suggesting that young essayists who want to write about their “great thought” for print should see if someone else might have had the same idea.

        There’s a fine line between ignorance making for a “fresh take” and repetition — and sometimes the eye/ear of the editor/listener is what will define it.

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