Visions of Paradise

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Best SF Writer of the Decade, part 1

Recently I was reading the local newspaper and saw an article in which sportswriters voted for the outstanding Athlete of the Decade. So naturally my immediate thought was why don’t sf writers select the outstanding SF Writer of the Decade? Since they do not, nor does any fanzine that I know of, why shouldn’t I do it myself?

Rather than limit myself to the current decade, I will go back to the start of the 20th century and select decade-by-decade in two categories: my choice as the most important writer of each decade, and my personal favorite writer as well. One qualification: a writer’s importance had to begin during the decade selected, but his or her influence might have extended past the narrow confines of that ten-year period.

Although H.G. Wells’ most important novels were originally published in the late 1890s (The Time Machine in 1895, The Island of Doctor Moreau in 1896, The War of the Worlds in 1898), his shadow towered over the early years of the 20th century so that he remained the most important sf writer of its first decade. And he continued publishing seminal sf during its years. The First Men in the Moon in 1901, In the Days of the Comet in 1906, and perhaps most importantly, "The Country of the Blind” was published in 1904. So it is easy to select H.G. Wells as the most important sf writer of the 1900s decade, as well as my favorite writer of it.

1912 saw the publication of two important serials in All-Story Magazine, Under the Moons of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. These stories caused an immediate sensation, creating the genre of “scientific romances,” thrilling several generations of schoolboys, and influencing much of the development of science fiction. Burroughs is an easy choice for most important writer of the 1910s.

But my favorite writer of that decade is A. Merritt, whose stories were only slightly less-popular than those of Burroughs, but which were much better-written, as well as having a richer emotional punch. “The Moon Pool” appeared in All-Story Weekly in 1918, followed by “Conquest of the Moon Pool” a year later. Shortly after the end of that decade came such stories as The Metal Monster, The Face in the Abyss and The Ship of Ishtar, all in Argosy.

The 1920s saw the development of “space opera” in the hands of the phenomenally-creative E.E. Smith. Skylark of Space was one of the most important novels published by Hugo Gernsback in his seminal sf magazine Amazing Stories, its influence still being felt today in the form of “New Space Opera.” Equally influential was Smith’s Lensman series which began in 1934 with the publication of Triplanetary in Amazing Stories.

But my favorite sf writer of the 1920s was Murray Leinster, whose first sf story was “The Runaway Skyscraper,” in 1919 in Argosy, followed shortly by “The Mad Planet” in 1920 and “Red Dust” in 1921. Leinster was one of the very few writers able to make the leap from the general pulps popular from 1900-1920 to such specialized sf zines as Amazing and Astounding. His stories such as “The Runaway Skyscraper” and “Sideways in Time” in 1934 created many of sf’s most popular themes, plus he was a fabulous storyteller who never forgot the human element.

Two writers dominated genre sf in the 1930s, and I have selected Stanley G. Weinbaum and John W. Campbell as co-Writers of the Decade. Both writers pushed pulp sf in new directions which laid the foundation for the immense changes of the “Golden Age” which loomed at the end of the decade. Weinbaum popularized “planetary adventures” in such stories as “A Martian Odyssey” in Wonder Stories and “The Lotus Eaters” in Astounding. His premature death in 1935 surely robbed the sf field of one of its shining lights who would likely have published considerably more outstanding and influential fiction had he lived. I also selected Weinbaum as my favorite writer of the 1930s.

John W. Campbell started writing in the galaxy-smashing tradition of E.E. Smith, but under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart he wrote a series of softer, more thoughtful stories whose emotional impact was much softer and longer-lasting. “Twilight” in Astounding in 1934 is the seminal Stuart story, but “Who Goes There?” in 1938 proved to be the most popular.

To be continued...


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