by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 20, 2019
Growing up, I wanted to go to Mars. I assume the original seed of that desire came from watching science fiction movies as a little kid in the 1950s before I learned to read. When I could read, I loved reading about humans colonizing Mars. Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein was the first SF novel I can remember reading about humans living on Mars. After that, I discovered Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But the allure of Mars came way before reading science fiction. I believe I saw a copy of The Exploration of Mars by Willy Ley, Wernher von Braun, and illustrated by Chesley Bonestell before I started reading science fiction. I began searching nonfiction books about space travel when I was in the fourth grade, right after Alan Shepard’s first ride into space.
Knowing what Mars is like now, I don’t want to travel there anymore. I’m old and hate the cold, and Mars is a very frigid place. Although my agoraphobic ways would make me perfectly suitable for living in a tiny Martian habitat, and its low gravity would probably ease the pains in my back. And I love the idea of being stranded alone on Mars like the old film Robinson Crusoe on Mars or the book and film The Martian by Andy Weir.
The unfortunate reality is there’s not much on Mars beside radiation, rocks, and robots. I suppose visiting the landing site of Viking 1 might make a great tourist destination, but there’s not a whole lot on Mars to see unless you’re a geologist. Of course, sometimes the appeal of getting away from this planet makes the utopian nowhere of Ares seem very attractive.
Why does science fiction make us want to leave Earth? Where did it make you want to go as a kid? Were they real places like Ganymede or Mars, or imaginary ones like Tatooine or Arrakis? Did you want to travel on interplanetary rockets or interstellar spaceships? Or maybe the past or future was your destination and you needed a time machine? Or was science fiction always just a cheap alternative to opium?
The book that describes my childhood mindset best is the 1958 Have Space Suit–Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. As a kid, I read it straight, but I’m sure it was a pastiche on science fiction. The story is about Clifford “Kip” Russell who is dying to go to the Moon. He hates that other people can, either because they are in the military, are top scientists, or just filthy rich. As a senior in high school, Kip determines that’s he’s going to get to the Moon one way or another. He hopes to win an all-expenses-paid trip but instead gets kidnapped by a flying saucer. Not only does Kip get to the Moon, but Pluto, a planet orbiting Vega and another planet somewhere in the lesser Magellanic cloud.
I believe Heinlein wrote this book because he knew kids dreamed of leaving Earth. At the time, only a very small number of Baby Boomer had this psychological weirdo affliction. Decades later, millions do. What does that say about us? Is the desire to go into space really that different of hoping to get to heaven?
I look back over my life and see I wasted a lot of time on these fantasies. Some people really do go into space, but there’s a reality to how they live that allows that. I was never realistic enough to become an astronaut. As I got older I transferred my personal hopes to humanity in general. I thought it would be great if anybody went to Mars.
The other day I reread “The Million-Year Picnic” by Ray Bradbury. It’s the final story in The Martian Chronicles. In this lovely tale, a man and his wife, with their three sons escape to Mars as civilization collapses on Earth. They hope another family with four daughters will also make it in their rocket. The dad keeps telling his boys he will show them Martians, and in the end, he shows the kids their reflection in a Martian canal. I love this story. It was nostalgic when it was first published in Planet Stories in 1946, and it now encapsulates all my nostalgia for the science fiction I read as a kid. However, the reality is something quite different. If travelers from Earth could look into a Martian canal they would see the real Martians.
I’m not even sure we need to send people to Mars anymore. Aren’t robots our true descendants who will colonize space?
Or do you still want to go?
23 thoughts on “As a Kid, Where Did Science Fiction Make You Want to Go?”
I don’t think that the time you spent on these fantasies was a waste of time. It was something enjoyable for you to think about, and that is never a waste of time.
I too did not have the life trajectory to become an astronaut. But that is where I want to go. Put me on a space station, let me travel between planets. I don’t dream of standing on a distant planet, just of flying between them.
I went everywhere a good book took me, and still do. Lucky me.
I got my father to take me to see Robinson Crusoe on Mars. That was after I started reading SF.
I never loved Space stuff, I wanted to probably go to Krypton because I was a huge fan of Superman…Or have this time machine to go back and change some things, or being able to read people minds 🙂 I believe all fiction related to super heroes are my favorite
My SF journey was much the same as yours. The first movie I remember was “Forbidden Planet.” The draw for me was that reality is not what we first perceive or wish to perceive and not as controllable as it seems. Until the end of the movie, Dr. Morbius did not grasp what he had experienced for most of his adult life—he had become an academic, comfortable in his intellect.
Those of us on the same level of the onion see reality the same and take comfort in the unchanging sameness. One layer deeper can be frightening or intriguing, depending on our mindset—and can get one shunned by those embracing the rewards of sameness. In “Childhood’s End”, those who saw the purpose of the Overlords and refused their gifts were rejected. In “Against the Fall of Night” people feared to go where our culture had once been. Even in “The Hobbit,” on Bilbo Baggins’ return, he gets rejected for adventuring. Not something a proper Hobbit does.
In my mind, the best SF still challenges conventional thinking. Today, most of it does not.
But you didn’t see that in Forbidden Planet as a kid, did you, Keith? As a kid, I was all about the robot, the energy monster, and the sense of wonder if the dead culture. I couldn’t have understood Dr. Morbius or even the sexual tension brought on by Anne Francis. As a kid, I thought she was hot, but I didn’t understand what she meant being the only woman on a planet to a spaceship full of men. As I got older, I would have loved to have been the only guy with Altaira on that planet, with the handy robot as a servant, and a whole ancient civilization to explore. That would have been paradise.
I first saw “Forbidden Planet” in 1954. I fixated on Dr. Morbius, an adult and an academic, missing what was happening. Creatures of the Id! Robbie was great. The monster had me thinking for some time, and the fact that it had not/could not have evolved. I was in second grade, not sexually woke, so Anne Francis seemed like an OK mother figure. My mother was still the center of my world. I admit, I was a strange kid.
Forbidden Planet was a major SF film. I always wondered why it didn’t get more credit for inspiring Star Trek.
The great English poet, Philip Larkin, once said, “I wouldn’t mind seeing China if I could come back the same day.” Same here. I won’t mind seeing Mars and Venus, and the rest of the planets up close, if I could teleport right back home.
That’s a great quote, George. That’s how I feel about travel. If I go someplace, I want to either make it my home or run home.
I didn’t have a particular destination in mind, I just wanted to get away from where I was and SF gave me the tools to do it.
That’s how I used science fiction as a kid. I had alcoholic parents and science fiction was my escape.
I used to want to go to Mars because it was so mysterious, but now we are finding out so much about it that it’s losing some of its allure for me. The past couple of years I have grown more interested in setting foot on Pluto. Even with recent photos of it, there is still something mysterious about it. Of course, I’d want to have some good friends and family with me, and a specialized dome that kept in heat, generated solar energy, and grew plants, as well as having some living rooms, a kitchen, a game and movie room, and a room for a library of all the books I’d bring.
Jonathan, you must like it cold if you’re willing to go to Pluto. Isn’t it like liquid nitrogen cold there? I think science fiction makes us think of alternative communities and who’d we’d want to be with. Back in the 1970s when communes were popular, I thought they were a great idea until I visited one. Right now, my fantasy would be to live in an apartment house with all my friends having their own apartment but also having some shared community rooms.
EveryWHERE and everyWHEN of course, including the varied worlds of fantasy. And books took me to all those places. Life in the provincial Southern town I was stuck in always seemed like a pale shadow, not least because the people around me were so small minded. One SF locale you didn’t mention is underwater cities, which held more fascination for me than outer space. Remember that SeaLab, Jacque Costeau, and John Lilly were happening around the same time as Gemini and Apollo.
I was a huge fan of John Lilly. I and my buddy Connell tried to get into his dolphin lab in Coconut Grove one time. We got as far as to see a woman in the tank with a dolphin before we got kicked out. I also read about his adventures with LSD, K, and sensory deprivation. Lilly was way out there.
I can’t say I picked a specific location. I first saw Robinson Crusoe on Mars (which I love) as an adult. Most of the Heinlein juveniles where big for me, with Farmer in the Sky being a favourite, now after years of visiting my wife’s family farm I know how much work that would be just on a moon where it is even harder. Norton’s Star Rangers and Star Man’s Son were big for me but both took place on Earth, Fors did have a big Cat and the rangers were a cool group with a number of aliens as part of the party. The place that I returned to many times was not SF, but the island/world of Swiss Family Robinson with every cool plant and animal you had ever read about jumbled together. In those days even other parts of the world were exotic places for me, people collected stamps from all the romantic far off places they had heard of and never thought they could visit. Now we see/visit them anytime we want. Science has also told us that the solar system that we saw in places like Planet Stories, often a version of the sword fighting historical dramas of my youth like Robin Hood etc. don’t have aliens to visit , cool ruins or even a chance to go outside. I think you are right for now the future of exploration belongs to robots, unless we go all post-human and fly off on our solar wings. Which might be fun. But I don’t think the time I spent in those imaginary locations was any more wasted than a lot of the time I have wasted in the mundane reality of the world of CNN , or TV in general. Even though the SF of my youth was far less inclusive than today, it taught me empathy for the other, alien, mutant etc. the important of science and rational planning and that it’s not really a good idea to destroy the planet or blow ourselves up for a dumb idea. Maybe more people should have wasted their time on these fantasies.
Yeah, I’ve wasted a lot of time watching the news.
I also loved Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, The Mysterious Island, and most importantly, High Barbaree – all about being lost on an island.
I’m with you, Guy. My father used to rag me about my SF habit – fairy tale nonsense, you know. I never talked back, but what I was thinking was, “There you sit, spending most of your free time watching a bunch of overpaid jocks playing kid’s games and acting as if that had significance. At least I’m exercising my imagination and along the way maybe learning new things and expanding my horizons.” As you say, I also didn’t make much distinction between SF, historical fiction/non-fiction, anthropology, etc. and in the 50’s foreign travel still seemed as exotic as tales of galactic empires.
The future. Just the future. Mad Max style future
Yeah, I loved post-apocalyptic stories too. The fewer the people, the better. I often fantasized about being the last guy on Earth. Then I’d meet the last girl on Earth.
As a kid, I used to fantasize about living in a generational ship, on our way to some fabulous, lush planet that we would settle and then develop. I was young, so of course matters such as populating the place never occurred to me. All I wanted to do was be one of the lucky generation, be a genius and help make the new planet a wonderful place to live.
What can I say…I was young.
Generation ships are a favorite SF theme of mine.
I tend to think many SF themes are really a desire to reject what we have and start over.