“When Was the Golden Age of Science Fiction?” “Twelve”

Peter Graham? Terry Carr? Avram Davidson? Barry N. Malzberg? Baird Searles? L. Sprague de Camp? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and H. G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” were milestones in the genesis and evolution of the science fiction (SF) genre. This imaginative category of literature built upon technological and other-worldly speculation makes a strong impression on young readers and viewers.

Adherents of the genre debate whether a Golden Age of creativity and exploration occurred during the 1930’s, 1940’s, 1950’s, or 1960’s. A fan who was asked to name the years of the magnificent era responded by cleverly reinterpreting the query and presenting the age of a child experiencing SF with fresh directness:

The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve.

Variant statements use the age thirteen or fourteen. Would you please explore the origin of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence located by QI appeared in editor Terry Carr’s introduction to the anthology “Universe 3”. The introduction was dated June 9, 1972, and the book was released in 1973: Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Years ago a friend of mine, Pete Graham, tersely answered the question “When was the golden age of science fiction?” by saying, “Twelve.” He didn’t have to explain further; we knew what he meant.

Carr’s comment suggested that the remark was in circulation before 1972. Shown further below is a February 1978 citation in which Carr stated that Graham made the remark circa 1960. In addition, further below is an August 1997 citation from fan Gary Farber containing the unverified claim that the saying appeared in the fanzine “VOID” circa 1957. A co-editor of the fanzine presented a dissenting viewpoint in 2020.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In October 1973 “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction” published a book review by Avram Davidson who referred to the saying. The age of the wide-eyed reader was changed from “twelve” to “thirteen”: 2

I owe it to Terry Carr for reminding us that it was Peter Scott Graham who first said that “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is thirteen.”

In January 1976 SF author Barry N. Malzberg sent a letter to the editor of “Science Fiction Review”. The letter contained Malzberg’s introduction to his forthcoming story collection titled “Down Here in the Dream Quarter”. Malzberg suggested that the saying under examination had originated as a reply to a questionnaire, but he did not specify an attribution. Malzberg spelled “questionnaire” with one “n”: 3

. . . the famous response to a questionaire puts it: “the golden age of science fiction is thirteen.”

In August 1977 “Science Fiction Review” published a letter from David Truesdale who presented the saying with an anonymous attribution: 4

It’s said the golden age of science fiction is thirteen. Perhaps the early teens are also the most impressionable age.

In October 1977 “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction” published a column by Baird Searles who tentatively credited an instance of the remark using “twelve” to Terry Carr: 5

A much heard expression is “the golden age of science fiction” (more or less meaning the 1940s). Some disillusioned science fiction person (could it have been Terry Carr?) said that “the golden age of science fiction is twelve.” I do not take this as a totally pejorative remark.

In February 1978 “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction” published a letter responding to Searles’ uncertain attribution of the saying to Carr. Carr disclaimed authorship while crediting Graham. Carr also specified the year 1960: 6

I didn’t say this, though I’ve quoted the remark a few times, such as in my Introduction to Universe 3. Actually it was said back in 1960 by Peter Graham. A lot of people besides me have quoted it, including one person who said in print that L. Sprague de Camp originally said it! Since the comment contains a measure of truth as well as wit, I’d like to see credit go to Peter Graham to whom it’s due.

In December 1979 the fanzine of the “Birmingham Science Fiction Group” employed the saying with an anonymous attribution: 7

What is the ‘golden age of science fiction’? The 1930’s? 1950’s? Or the standard answer: “When the reader was 12”? (According to a recent American survey, the average SF fan is 27 years old, white, middle-class and has a Bachelor’s degree. After Seacon I can believe this of the States – but here?)

In February 1981 the saying appeared again the pages of “Science Fiction Review” as a compressed phrase: 8

Some of the Albuquerque Science Fiction Society have set themselves to bring back the good old Golden-Age-of-SF-is-13 adventure novel, the Planet Stories story. Mike Kring has done a competent job of it in THE SPACE MAVERICKS.

In May 1981 Charles N. Brown employed the saying within a column published in “Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine”: 9

It proves the famous saying “The golden age of science fiction is twelve” — those books you read when you first discover reading for pleasure will always stay with you and will always be fondly remembered.

In 1986 sociologist William Sims Bainbridge published an examination of the SF subculture titled “Dimensions of Science Fiction”. He expressed uncertainty about whether the original saying used “twelve” or “thirteen”. The accompanying footnote pointed to “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction” issues dated October 1973 and February 1978. Those citations appeared previously in this article: 10

Peter Scott Graham has been variously quoted as saying that the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve and that it is thirteen. The point is the same whichever number is chosen. The Gold comes from the age of the judge, not from the vintage of the fiction judged.

In 1993 “The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction” edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls included an entry for “GOLDEN AGE OF SF” that began with an instance of the saying using “14” instead of “12” or “13”: 11

It has been said, cynically, that the Golden Age of sf is 14.

In 1994 historian Edward James published “Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century”, and he included an instance using “14”: 12

It has been said that the golden age of sf, for any particular reader, is when that reader was 14, but the traditionally accepted beginning of the golden age is 1938, when some of the great writers of modern American sf began to appear . . .

In 1996 “Visions of Wonder: The Science Fiction Research Association Anthology” included an essay by editor David G. Hartwell titled “The Golden Age of Science Fiction Is Twelve”. The essay was reprinted from Hartwell’s 1984 book “Age of Wonders”. The following passage has sometimes been attributed to Graham, but it was penned by Hartwell: 13

Grown men and women, sixty years old, twenty‑five years old, sit around and talk about “the golden age of science fiction,” remembering when every story in every magazine was a masterwork of daring, original thought. Some say the golden age was circa 1928; some say 1939; some favor 1953, or 1970 or 1984. The arguments rage till the small of the morning, and nothing is ever resolved.

Because the real golden age of science fiction is twelve.

In August 1997 Gary Farber posted a message about the saying to the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written. He credited Graham and suggested that the remark appeared in the fanzine “VOID” circa 1957. Unfortunately, he did not provide a precise citation, and he did not indicate how he learned this information: 14

Pete Graham wrote it circa 1957, in VOID, the fanzine he co-edited with Greg Benford and Terry Carr (Ted White didn’t become a co-editor until a couple of years later; co-founding editor Jim Benford had dropped off the team at issue 14)). Actually, Pete said it a lot at Berkeley parties, and at cons, for a few years before that, but the written cites here are more easily available.

Scans of the fanzine “VOID” are currently available on “The Fanac: Fan History Project” website. QI downloaded scans of issues 9 and 10 which were published in 1957 and applied OCR (optical character recognition) to the scans to make them searchable. QI was unable to find the quotation in these two issues. The OCR results might have been flawed. Also, the quotation may appear in some other issue.

QI would welcome help from others. The description on the index page at “The Fanac” stated that Pete Graham was not an editor in 1957. He was an editor of “VOID” from 1960 to 1962.

In 1998 SF author and critic Thomas M. Disch published “The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World”. Disch stated that he heard the saying from Carr more than thirty years in the past in 1964: 15

There used to be a truism—I heard it first from my then agent Terry Carr in 1964—that the golden age of science fiction is twelve, the age we begin to read SF and are wonderstruck. That truism is no longer true, for science fiction has come to permeate our culture to such a degree that its basic repertory of images—rocket ships and robots, aliens and dinosaurs—are standard items in the fantasy life of any preschooler.

In October 2020 SF fan Michael J. Lowrey posted a message to the Project Wombat mailing list which specializes in helping to solve difficult reference questions. Lowrey relayed a pertinent message from Ted White who had served as a coeditor of the fanzine “VOID” for several years: 16

Pete Graham became a coeditor of VOID with #22. He was not a contributor to earlier issues, certainly not in 1957. And he never uttered that quote in VOID.

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. SF fan Peter Graham deserves credit for this saying based on the testimony given by Terry Carr in 1972 and later. Carr stated that he heard it from Graham in 1960. Admittedly, this lag of more than a decade reduces the strength of the evidence.

It is also possible that the saying appeared in the fanzine “VOID”. However, a precise citation has not yet emerged, and this claim has been disputed.

Image Notes: Abstract image from insspirito (Garik Barseghyan) at Pixabay. Image has been retouched, cropped, and resized.

(In 2005 Gary Westfahl published “Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits”. Westfahl had difficulty finding solid citations for some quotations, and afterwards he posted an article to his website “World of Westfahl” listing this saying and others that were difficult to trace. Great thanks to quotation expert Fred Shapiro who mentioned Gary Westfahl’s list. Additional thanks to Michael J. Lowrey, Ivan Van Laningham, and Dennis Lien for their comments.)

Notes:

  1. 1973, Universe 3, Edited by Terry Carr, Section: Introduction by Terry Carr, Date of Introduction: June 9, 1972, Start Page vii, Quote Page viii, Random House, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1973 October, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Volume 45, Number 4, Books by Avram Davidson, (Review of “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” Volume Two A and Two B), Start Page 37, Quote Page 40, Column 1, Mercury Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1976 August, Science Fiction Review, Volume 5, Number 3, Whole Number 18, Letter From Barry N. Malzberg, Letter Date: January 22, 1976, (Introduction to “Down Here in the Dream Quarter”), Start Page 20, Quote Page 21, Column 2, Published by Richard E. Geis, Portland, Oregon. (Verified with scans at fanac.org)
  4. 1977 August, Science Fiction Review, Volume 6, Number 3, Letter From David Truesdale, Letter Date: April 27, 1977, Quote Page 13, Column 2, Published by Richard E. Geis, Portland Oregon. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1977 October, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Volume 53, Number 4, Films by Baird Searles, (Review of “Star Wars”), Start Page 61, Quote Page 62, Column 1, Mercury Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1978 February, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Volume 54, Number 2, Section: Letters, Letter from: Terry Carr, Start Page 159, Quote Page 159 and 160, Mercury Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. Website: The Fanac – Fan History Project, Fanzine: Birmingham Science Fiction Group, Location: Birmingham, England, Issue date: December 1979, Newsletter number: 100, Article title: Where Are We Going…?, Article author: David Hardy, Quote Page 6, Website description: The Fanac is devoted to the preservation and distribution of information about science fiction and science fiction fandom. (Accessed fanac.org on October 11, 2020)
  8. 1981 February (Cover: Summer 1981), Science Fiction Review, Volume 10, Number 2, (Book review by Pat Mathews of “The Space Mavericks” by Michael Kring), Quote Page 50, Column 2, Published by Richard E. Geis, Portland, Oregon. (Verified with scans archive.org)
  9. 1981 May 11, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Volume 5, Number 5, ON BOOKS; The Best of 1980 by Charles N. Brown, Start Page 11, Quote Page 11, Davis Publications Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1986, Dimensions of Science Fiction by William Sims Bainbridge, Part 2: Three Dimensions of Science Fiction, Chapter 3: The Hard Science Tradition, Quote Page 71, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  11. 1993, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, Entry: Golden Age of SF, Quote Page 506, Column 1, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1994, Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century by Edward James, Chapter 2: Victory of American SF 1940-1960, Quote Page 55, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  13. 1996, Visions of Wonder: The Science Fiction Research Association Anthology, Edited by David G. Hartwell and Milton T. Wolf, Essay: “The Golden Age of Science Fiction Is Twelve” by David G. Hartwell, Start Page 81, Quote Page 81, TOR: A Tom Doherty Associates Book, New York. (Verified with scans)
  14. 1997 August 27, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: rec.arts.sf.written, From: Gary Farber @panix.com, Subject: The Golden Age of SF (editorial). (Google Groups Search; Accessed October 13, 2020) link
  15. 1998, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World by Thomas M. Disch, Section: Introduction, Quote Page 1 and 5, The Free Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  16. October 16, 2020, Project Wombat message, From: Michael J. Lowrey, Subject: [PW] Golden Age of SF. (Mailing list message received by Garson O’Toole on October 16, 2020)