14 October 2019

YESTERDAYS' FUTURES

John Wade. The Golden Age of Science Fiction. Pen and Sword, 2019.

Science-fiction from the nineteen-fifties was where it really began for many people. There were sci-fi themes and films around before World War II but the genuine science and the real-life drama of such a gigantic conflict tended to overwhelm fiction. With the nightmarish global war behind them, the type of folk who looked upward and outward for inspiration soon began to discover a genre that both captured and nurtured their imaginations. 

Books, comics and films were soon published in order to cater to this burgeoning audience. Some publishers even had specific science-fiction lines, such as Gollancz Science Fiction. Whether it was truly a Golden Age compared to today’s seemingly limitless flood of sci-fi films, e-books and graphic novels is another question. However, it seems that the fifties was the beginning of mass science-fiction fandom.

John Wade is an author whose specialities are photographic history and techniques, along with social history. He has been a freelance photographer and author for forty years. The Golden Age of Science Fiction is, according to the author himself, a personal journey through the stories of his youth. Although there are many American shows and publications mentioned, the lion’s share tend to be British. Regardless of nationality, Wade refers to films, books and comics, some of which were more accessible than others. The chapters are divided into Radio, Television, Film, Books and, finally, Comics and Magazines.

Such luminaries as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, John Wyndham and Arthur C Clarke are brought into focus. Films, including The Day The Earth Stood Still, Godzilla and the atmospheric Forbidden Planet are covered. There are even such rough diamonds as Plan Nine From Outer Space. Television programmes include US offerings recycled from comics, such as Superman and Buck Rogers, whilst the indefatigable Nigel Kneale gave the UK rather a lot of Quatermass

What has passed down to us with more difficulty are the radio shows. Journey Into Space, The Lost Planet and Dan Dare were all broadcast at this time. Firmly aimed at younger audiences than today, comics and magazines captured extraordinary and out-of-this-world tales (literally, in many cases) to pass onto a rapt audience. Here we find titles such as The Eagle, Galaxy, Nebula and somewhat surprisingly The Dandy!

Considering that this is a personal journey, and not a book that claims to examine or summarise the period, it covers some mainstream areas, particularly in respect to authors. There seems to be a boyish exuberance bubbling under the narrative. Wade clearly loved these strange tales from the past about the future, and it shines through every page. The unfiltered love attached to boyhood memories is what he is showing us here. Despite the subjective approach, there is a form of organisation at work. Facts are researched and presented. There seems to be a surprising amount about the radio series Journey Into Space, but before mainstream television ownership, the radio enraptured audiences in a way that seems strange to us now. There are many illustrations, mostly in colour, to transport the reader back to that bold and vivid period of visions of the future. There is no bibliography, but there are picture credits and an index.

This, then, is not a scholarly book or a reference work, although it has many fascinating snippets of information about a time when science-fiction began to move into the limelight. Communist scares reflected in body-snatching films, adventure stories set on Mars or in outer space and reflections of future technologies, many of which have been achieved or even surpassed by now. It is a labour of love, beautifully illustrated and worth owning just for the sheer pleasure of dipping into now and again, and as a reminder of how energetic the depiction of our future used to be. – Trevor Payne.

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