What to bring, what to bring? Packing for my vacation in the Golden Age of science fiction can be as troublesome as packing for Hawaii or Europe. Or Santa Monica. The difficulty is this: what do you bring when you are travelling back in time?
Because that’s what this is: a vacation in the past. Only unlike the time travel stories told on the pages of Astounding, this trip involves real time travel, using a real time machine: old science fiction magazines. I’ve already starting, reading nearly half of the July 1939 issue and that issue really has functioned like a time machine, taking me back to a time two generations before my birth. My grandfather was about to turn 19 when that issue hit the news stands. The world was on the brink of war. Even the advertisements in the magazine tell a story, just like advertising today reveals things about our culture. As I read, I get a little bit of a shiver thinking, gee, Isaac Asimov lifted this very issue from the Street & Smith offices when he saw a stack of them on his way out from visiting Campbell. He went home read the very words that I am reading now. If that’s not time travel, I don’t know what is.
And keep in mind, this issue is nearly 72 years old. Who was the first person to possess this copy. It’s in surprisingly good condition, so it has been well-taken care of. Where did they get it? Was it sent to them via subscription? There’s no labeling of any kind which points to purchase at a magazine stand somewhere, perhaps a little mom and pop candy shop somewhere in Brooklyn. Is that first owner still alive? How old were they when they picked it up? And where has the magazine been since? They say that a generation in the science fiction world is about 3 years; that is, every three year, science fiction has an entirely new batch of readers. In the space of 72 years, that’s more than 25 generations of science fiction readers. How many scientists were born of this magazine? How many science fiction writers? How many kids learned to read because this issue fell into their hands?
We take baggage on vacation and I bring baggage into the past with me. I can’t pretend to experience the Golden Age in exactly the same way that those who lived it did. For one thing, that kind of time travel is impossible. For another, I have future knowledge. Like a true time traveler, I go back into the Golden Age knowing the course of history as it will unfold, knowing all about the dark days of World War II, and the terrible loss of life; knowing the Allied victory and the race for the atomic bomb. I go back into the past knowing what will become of the new writers whose names fill the July, August, September ’39 issues. Like the character in Heinlein’s first story, “Life-line” in the August ’39 issue, I could whisper to that young man the day on which his life would come to an end. Only I can’t, because it’s not that kind of time travel–and really, Asimov and Heinlein’s lives never really come to an end. They are preserved for future generations in the pages of Astounding… and elsewhere.
There is other baggage, the baggage that a writer of science fiction carries with them. Editorial tastes change over months and years and decades. Some of the stories from the Golden Age seem to break many of the rules that we are trained to avoid breaking (overusing adverbs and adjectives, for instance). I have to try to remember the context in which these stories were written. Hard as it is, I also have to try to remember that in many cases, particularly the earlier issues, these were the first stories of writers who eventually became giants in the field. They aren’t all spectacular. That shouldn’t be a disappointment. To a writer, that should be a relief: even the best of us started out learning and yet were able to climb to climb to the top of the field with patience and practice.
All of this must be considered to make those jaunts into the past as delightful as they can be. So far, it really does feel like a vacation, and I’m anxious to both savor and finish up the July issue so that I can report back on the first leg of this exciting journey.