Exploring science fiction’s Radium Age

The 100 best stories from Radium Age sci-fi, which ruled the early 20th century [Annalee Newitz – Ars Technica]

The so-called “Radium Age” of science fiction, 1904-33, popularized many themes that seem contemporary today: post-humans, the Singularity, zombie-populated dystopias, and more. It was a period when smart people could still be Utopians, many of them Socialists. The later rise of Naziism and the USSR put an end to that; later writers in the so-called Golden Age of science fiction, the 1940s-50s, considered themselves wised up.

But the Radium Age writers could also be grim, writing stories that reflected the worker uprisings of the period, and the horrors of World War I.

To appreciate these novels, you have to reverse-engineer their historical context and realize that the bomb had not yet dropped and the Soviet Union hadn’t yet coalesced into an authoritarian regime. Imagine a world where we were hopeful about the future because we had no fear of weapons of mass destruction. And where we had not yet seen what fascism would do to the West but were still deeply worried about it. Instead of bombs, the spectre of World War I haunts many of these books with its senseless, overwhelming violence; there’s a good reason why some of them imagine poison gas as the ultimate horror. The Radium Age was also a time when unionization and strike violence were a part of everyday life in industrialized cities, and these conflicts gave rise to fantasies about what would happen when robots took over manual labor. Robot uprising stories begin during the Radium Age, when worker uprisings were changing the social landscape.

Evolution was still relatively new, and even more controversial than it is today. Writers then believed the misconception that evolution inevitably proceeds from inferior to superior forms, with the human race at the pinnacle. Science fiction writers of the Radium age wrote about mutant supermen who would threaten humanity; those themes continue right through until today in the X-Men series.

I recall when I was about 12 years old reading a 1935 story called “Alas, All Thinking,” by Harry Bates, where a time traveler from the present visits the Earth eons in the future, and finds the human race has evolved into a small population of gigantic, immobile heads, with shriveled bodies that can’t even support the weight of their enormous domes. The scientist, repulsed by what the human race has become, smashes the heads – killing them – and then returns to the present, driven mad by the futility of human existence. Even as a boy I thought (1) Killing people who haven’t hurt you first is wrong, even if they are giant heads and (2) It makes no sense for the events of millions of years in the future to make anybody feel life today is futile. The story puzzled me.

It’s only reading Lewitz’s essay that it occurs to me that this is really a story about good, muscular middle Americans conquering effete intellectuals, with their evil socialist and free love ideas. At about the time the story was written, Nazis were putting intellectuals in concentration camps, and not long after, the Communist Chinese and Khmer Rouge targeted intellectuals for genocide.

I don’t mean to suggest that Bates was a Nazi sympathizer, or supported the USSR, Communist China, or Pol Pot. Science fiction writers pick up ideas that are lying around on the ground and often don’t explore the roots of those ideas. Stephen King wrote about that in his book Danse Macabre, noting that many midcentury monster movies saw their monsters created by nuclear explosions. These moviemakers were tapping into fears of nuclear weapons, but it’s not like these guys were experts on nuclear policy. They were just picking up on what was lying on the ground.

Science fiction and fantasy has always had a strain of anti-intellectualism, which is baffling because writers and editors are intellectuals. Self-loathing much?

More about “Alas, All Thinking.”

Wikipedia: Harry Bates

Bates’s best-known story was “Farewell to the Master” (1940), basis for the movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

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