Despoilers of the Golden Empire
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Categories: Modern, Not an expert

Despoilers of the Golden Empire

A full-page advertisement beginning with the words "You'll Never See it in 'Galaxy'!"
Bat Durston is in trouble, whatever genre he is in! Will he get out? The rear cover of Horace L. Gold’s Galaxy Science Fiction No. 1 (October 1950) (Wikipedia)

In another place somebody cited Randall Garrett’s “Despoilers of the Golden Empire” (John W. Campbell Jr.’s Astounding Science Fiction, March 1959). If you don’t know that story, pop over to Project Gutenberg and read it, at least for a few pages until you understand the gimmick. Because this one story tells some things that most of the people talking about Silver Age science fiction don’t want you to hear.

This story takes the fact that many science-fiction stories recycle adventure plots from sometime between Gilgamesh of Uruk and Franz Ferdinand of Austria and runs with it. A few years earlier, the main competing magazine had literally printed a passage of ‘western’ prose next to a passage of ‘science fiction’ to show that it did not want authors to take a story set in 1870s Texas, write “blaster” instead of “six-shooter,” and send it in. The reason people who like to sound smart can rattle off a list of the scientific, moral, and political crimes of Silver Age science fiction is that generations of writers and fans poked at it and found every weakness. Being able to repeat other people’s arguments in a snappy way is less worthy than doing the work the first time. And I would argue that the spirit is the same as the writers today who compose carefully anti-imperialist stories with a queer person of colour as the protagonist. It is just two different ways of making fun of genre conventions: one runs with them while laughing at them, the other does the exact opposite of what the convention requires. For some kinds of people in some places with some experiences, one approach will be easier than the other, but they are both making fun of the tropes.

Some writers carefully set up a situation according to their ideas about economics and society so it will have 17th century indentured service and 19th century shanghaied travellers (Heinlein’s “The Logic of Empire”) or Napoleonic Sailors in Space (David Webber’s Honor Harrington) or Napoleonic Sailors with Dragons (Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels), and others have characters talk about technobabel and unobtanium and Historical Documents ™. Both kinds of writer know that they are building a setting so they can tell a certain kind of story, but one encourages readers to forget that, the other encourages them to point and laugh and play along.

The science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s which I read took apart tropes as ruthlessly as a fanfiction message board, and criticized US society like the blogosphere in the 2000s. And if anyone remembers that, they are keeping it well hidden. They set the stories of the 1950s and 1960s up as a strawman to score victories against their political opponents today, and recite the sexual offences of writers who died bad deaths long ago because that’s easier than talking about the people with power in their communities who do the same things today, or they raise those old stories to the status of sacred texts whose mere names can end an argument. But as I have said before, there are plenty of live writers pushing terrible ideas to living people, so if you want someone to attack you can aim at them. Dead authors can’t fight back, but nobody reads them any more.

I hope I have a chance to finish my draft and find a venue for my post on Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding, which does a good job of placing the Golden Age writers in their place and time without hiding their less savoury aspects or burning them in effigy (see here). My understanding is that these were well known at the time- fans always loved to argue about politics and out-group each other for wrongthink- but while those writers were alive the community failed to organize to stop inviting the bullies and the men with wandering hands to their events (I hope to have time to finish my post on Valerie Aurora, Mary Gardiner, and Leigh Honeywell’s No More Rock Stars).

Edit 2024-02-14: block editor

Edit 2024-03-04: pointed forward to post on Nevala-Lee

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