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Welcome to the Digital Age, Before the Golden Age

Monday, June 7th, 2010 | Posted by John ONeill

btga2One of my favorite books — among a host of many favorites, of course, many many favorites, collected over decades of careful reading in a wide variety of genres, it’s hard to choose, depends on the time of day, naturally, and what we’re talking about, whether you want to include non-fiction, and it’s difficult to judge pleasure reading against, you know, literature like The Sound and the Fury, which was great until the part where I quit reading and pretty much gave up. That Quentin character though, man, what a dick.  Anyway. Where was I.

Aww, screw it.  My favorite book of all time, bar none, is Isaac Asimov’s Before the Golden Age.

Why is it so great?  Dude, it’s totally undiluted science fiction awesomeness. Asimov collected the early pulp stories that first hooked him on science fiction, from magazines such as Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories of Super Science, and Science Wonder Stories, in a 900-page omnibus that captured the heart and soul of early American SF.

Published between 1931 and 1938 — the year that John W. Campbell took over Astounding and ushered in what’s now generally referred to as the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” — the stories in Before the Golden Age feature brain stealers from Mars, two-fisted scientists battling monster hoards, amateur time travel  (“Kiss 1935 good-bye!”), shrink rays, civilizations in grains of sand, humans in rags taking on entrenched alien conquerors, killer robots, giant brain monsters,  and much more.

The authors Asimov selected include Edmond Hamilton, Clifford D. Simak, Charles Tanner, Jack Williamson, Murray Leinster, Raymond Z. Gallon, Stanley G. Weinbaum, John W. Campbell, Donald Wandrei, and many others.

Typical for Asimov, the stories were bracketed with lengthy autobiographical pieces that put the stories in context, describe the pre-war optimism of early science fiction, and serve as a mini-history of the pulp magazines that collectively birthed the genre.

btga4The book was a great success when it appeared in hardcover in 1974, and eventually in three volumes in paperback (four in the UK). However, it’s now long out of print and, as you might expect, getting harder to find.

Enter Johnny Pez, who has started a project to compile a virtual version of Before the Golden Age.

He’s already made a decent start of it, with links to online versions of seven of the twenty-five stories — including “Tumithak of the Corridors” by Charles R. Tanner, “The Man Who Evolved” by Edmond Hamilton, “The Parasite Planet” by Stanley G. Weinbaum, and “The Brain Stealers of Mars” by John W. Campbell — and a commitment to expand the list as more become available.

Now you can sample much of the greatness of Before the Golden Age from the comfort of your iPad. When I was your age, I had to get up from my chair and walk over to the bookshelf, damnit.  Kids today!  Don’t get me started.

And if you like what you see, you can join in the effort to complete the book. All except for the editor’s notes.  As Pez says, “If you want Asimov’s commentary on the stories, you’ll have to find yourself a dead-tree copy.”

Me, I think I’ll curl up in my big green chair and read John W. Cambell’s “Other Eyes Watching.” At least until I fall asleep, and my kids wake me up with all that dang racket.


  1. “Parasite Planet” by Weinbaum is indeed all sorts of awesomeness. Considering the success of Avatar, I’m surprised this similar wild ecosystem hasn’t got more attention. Shame that Weinbaum checked out less than two years after his premiere with “A Martian Odyssey.”

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - June 7, 2010 6:45 pm

  2. Aw, Quentin wasn’t so bad. Jason, though, now he was fully heinous. Those Compsons! What a family!

    But yeah, I read the blog post and looked over to where my Science Fiction Book Club edition of Before the Golden Age sat on the shelf, as it has been doing since 1974. Man, many school nights were compromised by my staying up past official bedtime to read into that fat volume.

    Almost too many imagination-straining tales in there to list, but my youthful eyes were most bugged-out by The Jameson Satellite by Jones, Tetrahedra of Space by Miller, and Colossus (So…very…cosmic!) by Wandrei.
    And you know, one of the ways I figured that Black Gate had to be cool was that you reprinted Tanner’s Tumithak of the Corridors. Serious pulp cred right there.

    All right, you made me get my copy off the shelf.
    Geez, the spine is awfully faded.
    Bet the stories inside aren’t, though.

    Comment by John Hocking - June 7, 2010 7:11 pm

  3. Ryan – you’re absolutely right about Weinbaum. His death was tragic. But, like Robert E. Howard, in the brief years just before his death he produced enough groundbreaking short fiction to keep him in print for decades.

    Asimov credits him with single-handedly re-inventing the alien contact tale, in “A Martian Odyssey,” and I don’t think he’s far wrong.

    “Parasite Planet” would take some extreme CGI to do justice to it on film, I think. But you’re right — a film version would be awesome.


    Comment by John ONeill - June 7, 2010 7:48 pm

  4. Hey John,

    The Compsons show up in other Faulkner boks, don’t they? It’s sorta like the Marvel Universe, when you think about it.

    I’m right there with you on the SF Book Club Edition! It was one of the first books I ordered from the Science Fiction Book Club when I was 12 (four books for a dollar!!), and it was the one that really floored me.

    Considering that two others were THE FOUNDATION TRILOGY and THE HUGO WINNERS (written and edited by Asimov – man, I thought that guy WAS science fiction at 12), that’s a pretty good endorsement.


    Comment by John ONeill - June 7, 2010 7:53 pm

  5. I’ve been meaning to start reading this collection for a few years — ever since Howard Andrew Jones sent me all three volumes in an act of characteristic awesomeness. Must move them higher on the TBR pile.

    Comment by Bill Ward - June 8, 2010 1:10 pm

  6. Bill,

    Two years ago I mailed Howard a copy of the hardcover. Right after he paid it forward by sending you the paperbacks, apparently. Move them up to the top of the pile – you won’t be sorry.


    Comment by John ONeill - June 10, 2010 11:43 pm

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  8. […] week, our esteemed editor John O’Neill posted a wonderful reminiscence of one of the key science-fiction anthologies of the 1970s: Isaac Asimov’s Before the Golden Age. […]

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