Journeys in Early Science Fiction

“A thousand miles off, safe in the frozen, star-domed vacuum of space, the pilot cut in the rockets. At an order from Eric Ulnar, he set the cruiser’s nose for the far red speck of Mars and started the geodyne generators…. John Star enjoyed the voyage. The eternal miracles of space fascinated him through long hours. Ebon sky; frozen pinpoints of stars, many-colored, motionless; silver clouds of nebulae; the supernal Sun, blue, winged with red coronal fire.”—Jack Williamson, The Legion of Space (1935)

Like C. S. Lewis, the Christian apologist who penned his own “Space Trilogy,” I am a fan of science fiction tales even though I don’t always agree with some of the philosophical premises behind them. It all starts with the Victorian fantasies of H. G. Wells, which I have frequently mentioned on this blog. The next epoch is the “pulps” of the 1920s and ’30s, when the genre really came into its own with scores of magazines devoted to imaginative and futuristic tales. I think I enjoy this period as much for the colorful magazine covers as anything else. Many of these stories can be found in anthologies, like John W. Campbell’s superb time travel tale “Twilight.”

One cannot escape science fiction’s early and growing preoccupation with social experimentation. With few exceptions, there was a presumption on the part of writers that the future must spell progress and that progress must involve the necessary and supposedly beneficial discarding of traditional beliefs. For that reason I am selective in my reading. But so long as the outré elements don’t overpower good storytelling, then notions of space travel and fantastic worlds are an irresistible combination.

One of the best writers of the “Golden Age” was Jack Williamson, known for his epic Legion of Space trilogy (which I am reading at the moment in a 1980 omnibus edition, Three From the Legion). I also recommend such pieces as Williamson’s short story “The Cosmic Express” which is both an early take on teleportation and a good-natured spoof of contemporary adventure tales. To the best of my knowledge he may be  credited with inventing the concept of “hyperspace” drive.

Another pioneer in space fantasies is Stanley G. Weinbaum, who produced the whimsical story “A Martian Odyssey,” which was one of the first to feature a major alien character in a sympathetic manner. A favorite Golden Age author is Lester del Rey. He is best remembered for his juvenile novels like Moon of Mutiny, Step to the Stars and Mysterious Planet, which I can recommend to any young reader who delights in stories of interplanetary voyages.

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