Tales From the Golden Age

Recently I’ve taken time out with books from the “Golden Age” of science fiction. The first two entries are from the Winston series of the 1950s-60s, aimed at younger readers. The stories are definitely more facile, but action packed—the sort of tales I would have loved at age twelve, and which still evince a sense of wonder and adventure.

In Lost: A Moon (1955), Paul Capon describes the Martian satellite of Phoebus as a mysterious giant robot built by a long extinct Martian race. At one point the main characters encounter strange creatures and the remains of an ancient civilization on the surface of Mars. The Secret of the Ninth Planet (1959) by Donald Wollheim involves some thoroughly enjoyable planet hopping and an extra-terrestrial finale in which the protagonists encounter dangerous Plutonians and friendly aliens from Neptune. There is even a Galactic zoo on Triton with sentient specimens who help the earthmen defeat a race which is “stealing sunlight” and endangering the solar system.

In a more serious vein there is Arthur C. Clarke’s Earthlight (1955), a tale of intrigue, war and espionage set on the earth’s moon in the 22nd century. The ending reveals Clarke’s pacifistic and progressivist optimism. Though a solidly diverting tale, I found Star Watchman (1964), by Ben Bova, to be a more realistic and nuanced treatment of Cold War themes in the guise of galactic adventure.

The book is actually a sequel to The Star Conquerors, which chronicles the Earth’s Star Watch at an earlier period of interstellar empire. Bova’s second volume introduces us to a young Star Watch officer, Emil Vorgens, dispatched on a mission to deal with unrest on the distant planet Shinar. He is faced with a number of challenges: the young rebel leader Merdon, the warlike Komani aliens, and even opposition from the Earth marine commander.

In contrast to the utopian ambitions of Merdon, who wants total independence for his insignificant agrarian world in a galaxy dominated by great empires (while allying with the ruthless and totalitarian Komani to gain his ends), Vorgens argues that for all its faults, the Terran Empire is ruled by law. And if there are disappointments and frustration, he reminds him that in any society “there’ll always be differences of opinion, problems, arguments.” The events in Bova’s universe do not fundamentally alter human nature or basic moral challenges.

Star Watchman offers convincing depictions of futurist combat and military technology, and (while also aimed at a young adult audience) it deals with greater menace, psychological tension and character development than the Winston volumes. Truly impressive is its level of acumen concerning war and politics that is atypical of Bova’s peers—a hard-headed realization that these things cannot be pondered in a vacuum, and that if the good guys aren’t always perfect, the other guys are far worse.

For additional commentary, see my posts The Infinite Worlds of Lester del Rey, Islands of Space and Journeys in Early Science Fiction.

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