Science Fiction: Books v. Television v. Movies

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 29, 2016

50 years ago tonight, “The Naked Time,” the fourth episode of Star Trek was shown. “The Naked Time” allowed the actors to chew the scenery, but wasn’t that science fictional. The context of Star Trek was very science fictional, with a spaceship exploring the galaxy, but often the episodes plot’s were centered around mundane conflicts or fantasies. Mostly the show liked allegories over speculation. My assumption then and now, was television and movie science fiction had to appeal to millions, and thus any real science fiction was watered down.

The Naked Now

This will reveal my media snobbery, but I’ve always felt science fiction I read was more advanced than science fiction I watched. That might be less true in 2016, because television has evolved a great deal in fifty years, but I think it’s still true. Because we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Star Trek premiering in 1966, I thought it might be fun to look at the other science fiction from that year. Were the 1966 SF novels and short stories more sophisticated than first fifteen episodes of Star Trek? I’m not comparing the quality of storytelling, but examining which science fictional ideas from 1966 was most innovative.

It’s rather ironic that the beautiful film version of Fahrenheit 451 premiered in England just days after Star Trek.  Directed by François Truffaut, Fahrenheit 451 was science fiction attacking a future where people gave up reading for television and comics. Few episodes of any version of Star Trek can compare to that film, but why haven’t we seen celebrations of its 50th anniversary? Why have we seen no public praise for the novels and stories below turning 50? Star Trek was loved by millions, and I’m afraid the science fiction books and magazines of 1966 were read by just thousands at the time.

Fahrenheit 451

We think of Star Trek as classic science fiction, but what most fans love are the characters, and the show’s allegorical content. If you compare it to the science fiction that was being written in 1966, I don’t think Star Trek was innovative, at least in terms of science fictional ideas. It was innovative television. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Star Trek. It was fun, and I’m very nostalgic about it. I’m just trying to put it into context of written science fiction of 1966.

The two Hainish Cycle novels by Ursula K. Le Guin that appeared in 1966, were far more mature science fiction than what Gene Roddenberry was pursing.  Even the two short novels published by the youthful Samuel R. Delany were far more philosophical, and intellectual. And if you compare the two tales of young men named Charlie, “Charlie X” and Flowers for Algernon, you’ll see that Star Trek went for the easy and obvious. And let’s face it, Star Trek just couldn’t take us to the strange alien headspaces that Philip K. Dick, R. A. Lafferty, and Cordwainer Smith could. Nor did it have the style of Roger Zelazny or J. G. Ballard. And it certainly didn’t have the elegant beauty of what Keith Roberts was writing. And it’s a real shame that Larry Niven, Anne McCaffrey, Keith Laumer, Gordon R. Dickson, Jack Vance and Fred Saberhagen weren’t writing for Star Trek because they had wonderfully cool ideas for galactic civilizations – although Desilu didn’t have the budget to produce what they imagined.

A great deal of science fiction from the 1960s assumed humans will be part of a galactic civilization in the future. The difference between the famous TV show and what we read was the depth of those assumptions. Star Trek existed between the two most remembered science fiction novels of the 1960s: Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969). Can you imagine Captain Kirk visiting Arrakis or Gethen? What kind of exploration of those societies could a 50 minute TV show give us? Especially, when the plots usually involved Kirk being held hostage, and centering around escape.

Television

Episode Idea
The Man Trap Alien that can shape shift, or telepathically make people think it looks different. Reminds me of “Who Goes There?” (1938) and The Body Snatchers (1954).
Charlie X Human raised by advanced aliens and taught psychic powers, must learn to live with normal humans. Reminds me of Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).
Where No Man Has Gone Before Two humans acquire god-like powers. Reminds me of Slan (1940).
The Naked Time Disease causes crew to lose their inhibitions.
The Enemy Within Transporter creates two Captain Kirks – one aggressive the other passive.
Mudd’s Women Space age mail-order brides with siren like abilities.
What Are Little Girls Made Of? Robots replace people. Reminds me of Philip K. Dick.
Miri On a mirror-Earth, the crew meet children that have very long childhoods and die when they reach puberty.
Dagger of the Mind About a penal colony and mind control.
The Corbomite Maneuver Advanced alien plays cat and mouse with Enterprise.
The Menagerie, Part I Mr. Spock commits mutiny.
The Menagerie, Part II Mr. Spock takes Enterprise to planet where aliens can control human thoughts.
The Conscience of the King Unmasking a mass murderer. Made me think of Nazi war criminals in hiding.
Balance of Terror The Enemy Below played out with Romulans.
Shore Leave Crew visits a planet where thoughts come true. This was written by Theodore Sturgeon but it felt like something Thorne Smith would have written.

Delany_Empire-Star

Novels

Title Idea
Babel-17
Samuel R. Delany
Linguistics, poetry. Language influences thought and perception. Code breaking an enemy alien language.
Empire Star
Samuel R. Delany
The novel referenced in Babel-17. About simplex, complex and multiplex thinking.
Colossus
D. F. Jones
A U.S. military supercomputer takes control and allies with a U.S.S.R. supercomputer.
Destination: Void
Frank Herbert
Developing an artificial consciousness, and cloned humans.
Earthblood
Laumer & Brown
Trying to find lost mythic Earth after humans moved to the stars.
Retief’s War
Keith Laumer
Intergalactic diplomatic hijinks and humor.
Flowers for Algernon
Daniel Keyes
Mentally challenge young man artificially evolved into a genius.
Make Room! Make Room
Harry Harrison
A 1966 extrapolation of year 1999, speculated about the horrors of an overpopulated world of 7 billion.
Mindswap
Robert Sheckley
A comedy about a man who vacations across the galaxy by swapping his mind into various alien bodies.
Now Wait for Last Year
Philip K. Dick
Drug causes time travel and addiction during a time of war with aliens.
Planet of Exile
Ursula K. Le Guin
Anthropological study, and racial conflict on a colony planet.
Rocannon’s World
Ursula K. Le Guin
An ethnological mission to another planet. The word ansible, for faster-the-light communication was coined here.
The Crystal World
J. G. Ballard
Apocalyptic novel about life on Earth turning into crystal.
The Eyes of Heisenberg
Frank Herbert
Genetically modified humans, and longevity.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Robert A. Heinlein
An artificial intelligent sentient machine evolved out of a network of computers on the Moon. The AI joins an anti-colonial rebellion against Earth.
The Solarians
Norman Spinrad
Space opera, about a star-drive that can destroy stars.
The Dream Master
Roger Zelazny
Citizens of an overpopulated Earth suffer psychologically and use dream therapy where their therapist enters their dreams.
This Immortal
Roger Zelazny
A devastated Earth is now a tourist destination for alien races to view our ruins.
The Watch Below
James White
Humans are stranded underwater. Think if The Poseidon Adventure had been science fiction.
World of Ptavvs
Larry Niven
Earth and “Belters” in a cold war, with story of ancient alien discoveries, and telepathic amplifiers.

FSFSEP66

Short Stories

Title Idea
Neutron Star
Larry Niven
Humans and aliens study a neutron star.
Light of Other Days
Bob Shaw
Invents slow glass, where light can take years to pass through, thus capturing scenes from the past.
The Last Castle
Jack Vance
Far future humans battle enslaved aliens
For a Breath I Tarry
Roger Zelazny
After the extinction of mankind, a sentient computer remembers our species
Call Him Lord
Gordon R. Dickson
Aristocrat from galactic empire visits old Earth.
Bookworm, Run!
Vernor Vinge
About an uplifted chimpanzee.
Pavane stories
Keith Roberts
About an alternate history of England where Queen Elizabeth was assassinated and Protestantism failed, and the technology we know never developed.
Day Million
Frederik Pohl
Love affair between two altered humans on what would be the millionth day AD.
In the Temple of Mars
Fred Saberhagen
Humans versus intelligent machines.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers
R. A. Lafferty
Humans visit planet and learn about a strange ontology.
Riverworld
Philip José Farmer
Humans reincarnated in another existence, one that stretches along one immensely long river.
The Ship Who Killed
Anne McCaffrey
Spaceship with a cyborg soul.
We Can Remember It for You Wholesale
Philip K. Dick
Recording false memories.
Under Old Earth
Cordwainer Smith
A visitor to an underground world without laws.
The Age of the Pussyfoot
Frederik Pohl
A man from our time visits the future via suspended animation. He is given a computerized personal assistant.
When I Was Miss Dow
Sonya Dorman
Sexless alien impersonates a woman to understand gender.
You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe
J. G. Ballard
Contemplating geometry and time
The Primary Education of the Camiroi
R. A. Lafferty
About a society where everyone is expected to be an expert.
Behold the Man
Michael Moorcock
Time traveler looks for Jesus.
The Keys to December
Roger Zelazny
Genetic modification.
The Secret Place
Richard McKenna
Science versus myth.

One-Million-Years-BC

Films

Title Idea
Fantastic Voyage Raquel Welch is made small enough to travel in tiny submarine inside a human body.
Fahrenheit 451 About a near future where books are banned, and society wants people to watch large flat-screen TVs or read comic books instead.
Seconds A rich middle-age man buys rejuvenation and attempts to be young again living with bohemians.
One Million Years B.C. Raquel Welch is cavewoman back when humans lived among the dinosaurs. (Not joking)

Is it surprising how many stories involved intelligent computers? In 1966, mainframe computers were common, but few people interacted with them. AI was a concept them emerged in the 1950s, and science fiction had grabbed it. Most of science fiction before the 1950s dealt with exploring the solar system. The idea of interstellar travel and galactic civilizations boomed in the 1950s, so by the 1960s writers were refining those ideas. Writers blended AI with spaceships. And sociology, anthropology, and psychology was embraced. Stories about human colonized worlds and aliens became richer. Much of the science fiction we read in the 21st century is based on science fictional ideas first developed in the 1950s and 1960s. What’s really evolved since then is the art of storytelling. We exist in a Baroque period of science fiction, where novels are gigantic, and often multi-part, but still exploring the same ideas science fiction fans first encountered in 1966.

JWH

14 thoughts on “Science Fiction: Books v. Television v. Movies”

  1. I was never much into television, so never got into the Star Trek universe. Did enjoy Generations, later, but space travel wasn’t much of an interest for me. It seems to me now that early tv SF was pretty hoky and unsophisticated (like a lot of tv, really), and since I was a book reader from an early age, it just didn’t have that much appeal. You reminded me that one filmization of a book was, to my mind, beautifully done: I’ve watched Fahrenheit 451 many times, with renewed pleasure, even while I’ve grown away from Bradbury.

    1. I’ve seen Fahrenheit 451 many times, and even though I’ve read the book twice, it’s the film I remember. It is a beautiful work of art, and I wonder why it’s not talked about and admired more. It’s funny, but the science fiction films I do admire aren’t the ones people list as the best all-time science fiction movies. My favorite SF movie is Gattaca.

  2. Great article, interesting angle! Yet I do not agree on Babel 17: its content & linguistics aren’t deep at all, but a superficial joke, see my review for some arguments…

    1. Yes, I can accept that. Most written science fiction is watered down science. But relative to what we watched in 1966, Babel-17 was sophisticated. It is simplistic compared to scholarly linguistics of the time. Remember, it was written by a very young man, one who had been a somewhat of a child prodigy. Most of Delany’s early books were about coming to grips with being a smart kid and learning the grown-up world was much smarter. Most science fiction writers take a bit of enthusiasm for a science subject and blow it up into a far out speculation.

      It’s all relative. TV SF hardly has any science, written science fiction has a bit more, but not much. Popular science has more science, but it’s still not real science.

  3. Star Trek was groundbreaking in many ways — even more in style than substance — but it was never more than SF fast food, really. When I think of Classic SF in media, I still think Forbidden Planet, Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001, and Planet of the Apes. And on TV, productions like “The Architects of Fear” (Outer Limits) or “To Serve Man” (Twilight Zone). I suppose an analogy might be novels (major movies), short stories (anthology shows), and pulp serials (TV series). The results are always strongly shaped by the limits and needs of the production environment.

    When I first saw the prerelease publicity for Star Wars I was quite excited. (remember StarLog magazine?) It was obviously going to be Space Opera, but Space Opera done right, with believable and imaginative sets and special effects — all the world building stuff. I was terribly disappointed when I found they had neglected to put the same effort into the writing and acting. Not everything needs to be Serious or Deep to be of value — it just needs to be intelligent and well crafted. And don’t get me wrong — I’ve read my share of pulp serials too.

  4. I think your comparison superficial and nonsensical. They were made for two totally different audiences. Written SF was done for people who read SF, while the TV shows were made for people who never had read SF. Written SF assumes the reader was aware of other written SF. TV could not do that. In fact, that made TV writing easier because they could use old SF tropes. Its like comparing poetry to football. You can do it, but you really can’t get anything meaningful out of it.

    1. I’m not sure I buy your argument either. A concept, whether it’s science fictional or not, can be presented through books, movies and television. Does it matter if the audience has experience with the genre or not? Sure SF bookworms who have grown up with a steady diet of science fiction will be more discerning, but that doesn’t mean television can’t present the same ideas.

      I’m thinking there are two other factors involved. The format of the show and the time. The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, with their anthology format, were able to present a whole range of science fictional ideas, many comparable to what we found in the SF magazines at the time. The real limitation is time. A Star Trek episode was 50 minutes. Dune on audio is 21 hours. So a TV show needs to be compared to a short story, maybe a short novelette.

      I think what held Star Trek back from being more science fictional was its structure. Focusing on Kirk, Spock and Bones, limited what the show could do. So often their plots involved either the crew or Enterprise being captured. I think Roddenberry should have stuck with the Wagon Train to the stars idea. That combined regular characters with an anthology like format. That show focused on different people each week. Gunsmoke did the same thing. The regular cast was there, but they didn’t have to always carry the story. ST:TNG spread the stories among the cast, and that seemed to help tell more different kinds of stories.

  5. Wow. Most of you folks are way ahead of me. I got into science fiction through comic books and then Freddy the Pig stories, followed by Norton and Heinlein “juvenile” works. I was always interested in the “wonder” aspect of good stories about worlds I’d never see. By the time I got to see “Star Wars” at the Egyptian, I was way ahead of the local stream. And fairly stoned as well.

    And I dare any of you to build a coherent argument against the above science fiction heritage (except Freddy the Pig – and then you’d have to prove it).
    Neither TV nor any other projective medium can be held accountable for, nor responsible for anything more than exposing the average person in the USA to new and amazing concepts regarding the world around us. Radio did a pretty good job according to Orson Welles. Most TV was of the “Time Tunnel” ilk, and received its due as deserved.

    The science fiction core has always been about the writing and story telling. I still buy and own science fiction books and anthologies, simply for the purpose of owning unlimited access. That doesn’t mean story telling cannot exceed or supercede the written word. It just means (to me) that without the original written word everything after is somewhat suspect.

    I largely agree with JW’s lists of well written stories that could never have made it into mainstream “viewing”. Too conceptual, too controversial, and too much based on character rather than action.

    E.E.Doc Smith’s Lensman series could never have been brought to the big screen in the 50’s-70’s due to “technical issues”. Just because that no longer applies does not mean that some a**hole should ruin them by turning them into a slasher movie today.

    If anyone insists on bringing “Avatar” into the mix, well then I will bow out. Never seen it.

    Numerous authors have worked to present story lines in their works that include recognizable human issues with scientific exploration of other worlds/cultures. Neil Asher and James S. Corey come to mind. Do I expect to see any of their works in the movies? No. But I am happy with that.

    1. Since you mention it, jim, “Avatar” is well worth seeing — on the largest screen available. Yes, James Cameron puts a shiny new coat of paint on top of tropes and story that were well worn long before “Dances With Wolves” ever thought of being made, and so what? It worked for Will Shakespeare.

      I wouldn’t argue against comic books either. At least not the Silver Age stories I grew up on. The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom, Metamorpho, The Metal Men, Adam Strange and of course Superman. These were all explicitly science fictional characters and the stories were often built around some clever pseudo-scientific extrapolation of their abilities. As for Freddy the Pig, I give you “Freddy and the Spaceship”, “Freddy and the Men from Mars”, and “Freddy and the Flying Saucer Plans”. The defense rests.

  6. paintedjaguar,
    Topknot touched, and bow given.
    I really do wish I owned copies of those stories. I’d have finagled a way to get my friends’ kids reading them 25 years ago. And, of course I’d need e-book versions for the grandees.

    And maybe I could drag myself into the near past and put Avatar on the 50″ plasma.

  7. I have to say Jim,that I’m not so sure about the differences between fantasy and science fiction that you seem to think are so easy to clarify.Much of this is due to the changes to what we call the genre in modern times.It deals for a start with metaphysical or spiritual themes,that undoubtedly lie outside the realm of ordinary science,but that hasn’t stopped publishers or readers still thinking of such stuff as science fiction.Of course,due to this shape shifting and the evergreen difficulty in defining science fiction,it has become cogent to call what is published in science fiction,such non-generic names as speculative fiction,which contain elements of other genres such as fantasy.In this case,we don’t have to worry about categories,and can judge works of fiction on their own merits.

  8. Interesting points. In general I’d agree that video lends itself more to flash and less to substance, whereas written words make abstract ideas easier to convey. I’m aiming to communicate more abstract ideas in a short video format with my current series, LIFE (you can see the series from the start here: https://youtu.be/OdgWTskPYpY). I think that movies and television both share that tendency towards superficiality, although with some flexibility.

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