After learning of Arthur C. Clarke’s death, Bruce Webster wrote: “He was the last of the Big Three — Isaac Asimov, Clarke, and Robert Heinlein — to pass away, and we shall not see their like again.” He’s right, but not in the sense that today’s science fiction writers are inferior. No, the differences are qualitative. Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein all started their writing careers during the Golden Age of Science Fiction, the period during the late 1930s and early 1940s when legendary editor John W. Campbell was remaking the field into something more that a category of swashbuckling adventure stories. Campbell insisted on the use of real science, logical plots, and rational aliens in his stories: “Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man.”
Campbell’s role as the leading editor of science fiction waned after the 1940s, and he died in 1971 — but he continued to exert a profound influence over the field through the authors whose careers and writing styles he had shaped, especially the Big Three. Only now, with the death of Arthur C. Clarke, does the Golden Age really come to an end.
Bruce Webster is right in another sense; the Big Three will not be replaced. Writing in 1990, Isaac Asimov laid that notion to rest:
Now that Heinlein has died and Clarke and I are increasingly decrepit, one is bound to ask, ‘Who will be the next Big Three?’ The answer, I’m afraid, is that no one will ever be. In the early days, when the Big Three were chosen by general consent, the number of science fiction writers was small and it was easy to choose the outstanding examples. Nowadays, however, the number of science fiction writers, and even of good science fiction writers, is so great that it is simply impossible to pick three writers that everyone will agree on.
And because the field is so much larger than it was in the 1940s, no small group of leading authors can dominate it the way Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke did during the Golden Age. It’s the end of an era.