Travel Back into Science Fiction’s Past with Stories from the Radium Age!

Annalee Newitz loves Radium Age sci-fi, and she thinks you should, too! In a piece over at Ars Technica, she talks about the Joshua Glenn and his small press, HiLo Books, and their efforts to reissue ten titles from the Radium Age. The era lasted between 1904 and 1933, which stands out for its peculiar blend of science, optimism, and occultism—all of which was tempered by the horrors of the First World War. This led to some truly weird and fascinating works of science fiction.

One of the particular challenges of reading Radium Age sci-fi is the reader’s need to forget a century’s worth of history, but if you can take that leap, you get a glimpse of an alternate world. As Newitz explains:

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.

Perhaps most interesting is to see the way the stories interrogate ideas like consciousness, mutation, and evolution, while accepting the era’s racist and imperialist assumptions as simple facts of life. While this obviously makes for uncomfortable reading, it’s also a way to watch human society change and grow with time through the stories it tells itself. As Glenn points out, there is also a peculiar shift into occult storytelling at this time, as many sci-fi writers back away from the purer science of Wells, Shelley, and Verne and into stories of ESP, spiritualism, and even the eldritch gods of Lovecraft. Glenn talks about his reasons for wanting to bring this particular era back into the forefront:

With Radium Age sci-fi, I wanted to surface and read all the best novels from that overlooked era and then introduce the era to others—so at first, I figured that writing a series for io9 would suffice… Once I realized that some of the best sci-fi from the 1904-33 period had fallen into utter obscurity, I felt compelled to start an imprint and reissue 10 of the titles that seemed most worthy of resurrecting.

But HiLo’s reissues are only the beginning. Thanks to Glenn’s exhaustive list of the 100 best Radium Age titles, you can read your way through three decades of science fiction history! And in the meantime, check out the rest of the piece over at Ars Technica for more information about the Radium Age.


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