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The Golden Age of Science Fiction

Back when I was growing up in rural America, I didn’t realize what a remarkable time period I lived in. My dreams always leapt to the future in far flung galaxies or excavated in the past amid ancient or fantastical civilizations.  I practically lived in the library where I had free access to these worlds through the pages of books.  Yet I always longed for the days when I could afford to buy my own copies, when books would be as free and plentiful and accessible as the air I breathed.

Fast forward to the 21st century when all my dreams seemed to come true: books are plentiful and accessible thanks to e-readers and publishing platforms like Createspace; however, the writers have changed.  Back in the Golden Age of science fiction, writers wrote series of books, not books of series. They created marvelous worlds and characters and spun countless episodes of adventures like an ongoing television series.

Today, however, writers take one story, pump it up with useless backstory, bland dialogue and wasted pages of description in order to stretch the one story over a dozen books. And I am left back in the exact same desert as before—unable to satisfy my thirst for imaginary worlds and larger than life characters.

But back to the Golden Age of Science Fiction.  In the decades leading up to the 1970s, science fiction had a positive outlook—even the most thought-provoking stories left the reader with a gleam of hope at the end, a chance that humanity could learn from their mistakes and move forward into a glorious age of space exploration.  Even the cautionary tales, the woeful predictions of gloom and doom were offset with stories detailing the best humanity had to offer. There was also a slew of juvie lit (not necessarily about high school kids), but written for high schoolers that showed we could overcome our base nature and rise to join the vast and glorious civilizations that spanned the galaxies.  It was a time for encouragement and enthusiasm to explore the cosmos and every kid wanted to be a huge part of it.

At least, those of us who read science fiction.

I miss those stories. Even going to the library today finds precious little on the shelves worth my time and investment. Oh, I know Tom Corbett, Andre Norton, Ray Bradbury, and the Heinlein juvie novels were formulaic – that’s what made them so great! In spite of the peril and danger we knew our heroes would succeed. In a world fraught with real dangers and problems, losing myself in an uplifting story was a sorely needed form of escapism.

I think we’ve lost something vital with today’s version of science fiction. We are breeding a generation that has no imagination, that expects aliens to plot the destruction of humanity (and thus expects humanity to plot its own demise), that hasn’t the gumption to reach outward to the stars because of all the obstacles that must first be overcome. Today’s science fiction does far more to defeat the exploration of space than to entice young people to boldly go where no one has gone before.

With our passion for “realistic” stories we have lost not only a piece of our history, but a piece of ourselves. And a society that lacks imagination, can never prepare for the future.

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To Play or Not to Play the Numbers Game

When is a story done? At what word count? Is longer better? Can a good story be told in less than 80,000 words or is that a sign of someone who can’t “go the distance?” It’s amazing that during the Golden Age of science fiction, some of my favorite novels wouldn’t even be considered by publishing companies today due to length—or lack there of.

A story is finished when the tale is told. Adding tens of thousands of words just to make up a word count is pointless. In fact, I’m one of those notorious readers with a penchant for skipping over large portions of boring description. If you can’t describe something in a sentence or two, I’m not going to waste my time reading 10 pages describing the sequence for a bomb detonation. I don’t care how famous the writer.

For me the story is all about the action and dialogue. Move it forward or lose me as a reader. My time is valuable and I have so many other things going on that I don’t want to spend seven or eight hours on one book. I’d rather read seven or eight books.

I have an imagination and I know how to use it. Tell me the character is a greasy thug and I can see what he looks like without the specific details—unless the dreadlocks, ACDC T-shirt, and scraggly beard have a purpose to the story….say identifying the perp in a particular crime for a detective novel.

Maybe it’s my journalistic background. I remember in college getting my first C on a paper—with no red marks. When pressed, the professor told me my paragraphs were too short. If I can clearly state my objective in 25 words or less, why would I want to waste my time (and the reader’s) by adding “wordiness?”

Let’s face it: not every story is going to be “literary.” Not every literary story is good, nor is every non-literary story bad.  Andre Norton’s description of scenery and character in The Beast Master still resonates in my memory even though I first read her novel more than 30 years ago. She didn’t waste any words in her 192-page novel and the story is a classic.

I also grew up with the Hardy Boys, Tom Corbett, and Rick Brant, all excellent adventure stories that were less than a two hour read and didn’t waste a lot of time on description. Yet I can see Spindrift Island and I know how to find my way from the flight deck to the power deck on the Polaris.

So don’t expect my novels to have cumbersome word counts or drag out over several books like some Borg collective. If the story can be told in 40,000 words, that’s what I’ll write. If it takes 80,000, be prepared to spend some time in my story world. At the end of the day, my goal is not a specific word count, but did I make you forget your problems for a little while and did I bring a smile to your face?

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