As a Kid, Where Did Science Fiction Make You Want to Go?

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.

mars rover

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?


The Zen of Hanging On

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 24, 2015

This essay will be one of those that my friends think I’m going a little squirrelly.  But anytime I point to something that can’t be touched, I do seem a little crazy. I’m actually trying to capture a fleeting feeling—a single emotion I felt when hearing an old song.

The conventional Zen wisdom is one of letting go. We are taught to be one with the moment and learn to quiet our chattering mind. The lesson being that we miss the Now because we’re not there. Our thoughts churn out virtual never-never-lands instead of focusing on the beauty of existence. We live in our heads instead of reality. Our souls are like a drop of water floating down a stream that passes through an ever changing landscape. We hang onto memories of past sceneries or imagine future sights, ignoring the current vista.

Becoming one with Now is a lovely way to exist in reality, but I’m going to be contrary here, and explore the virtues of hanging on. All animals live in the moment. For some reason reality decided to evolve Homo sapiens who are capable of stepping out of the Eternal Now. It’s impossible to paint the Sistine Chapel or the build the Curiosity Mars rover without being able to ignore the moment. It is true we throw most of lives away in mental delusions, but it’s also true that some of those air castles we build in our heads get erected in reality. But I’m not talking about that kind of hanging on.

This morning while I was doing my morning exercises “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes came on the stereo, a song that first imprinted on me fifty-two years ago. By conventional Zen wisdom I should just listen to Ronnie Spector and enjoy the song for what it is in the moment. The powerful feelings I experienced when I was eleven years old and “Be My Baby” was chemically etched in my neural pathways don’t exist anymore. Or do they? Is it possible to exist now and then?

Living in the moment is being a one-dimensional point traveling through a four dimensional reality. The Zen of hanging on is constructing a four dimensional being. Our awareness of reality lives in the moment. Time is an illusion. The past and future don’t exist. We build the past with memories and the future with speculations. One meditation technique is to watch our thoughts, usually with the goal of quieting them. Our thoughts appear to be constant chatter that dribbles out of our brain. But if your soul can step back far enough, that chatter reveals patterns. Our diarrhea of mental babble has it’s own hard reality.

The Zen of hanging on becomes one of seeing ourselves from the fourth dimension. Living in the moment is eternal. We can’t know birth or death. But we are a finite creature with a beginning and end. We can only see that by hanging on to the residue of past moments and the most rational extrapolations of what we might become.

I don’t know if any of this will make any sense, but I felt compelled to write it before I allowed myself breakfast. It’s merely an explanation of why I believe “Be My Baby” keeps something from the past existing in this moment. To hear the song now flicks on a chemical sequence in my head that shapes my sense of the moment. From that view, the past still doesn’t exist, and the song long ago hardwired something that my present self can always experience. On the other hand, does my fourth dimensional sense of self, using all those memories I’ve hung onto, sculpts a bigger view of myself that includes the past?

Another way to ask that: Is our past a complete illusion, or something we continually reconstruct in the moment with artifacts we’ve hung onto?  Yes, one kind of past no longer exists, but don’t we create another kind, that does have a reality in the moment? Aren’t the things we hang onto the colors in which we paint our personality?


Do You Dream About Dinosaur Attacks?

By James Wallace Harris, June 29, 2015

I hope this doesn’t reveal some sort of deep embarrassing Freudian complex, but my whole sleep last night was filled with dinosaur dreams.  Ever since I was about five years old I’ve had occasional dreams about dinosaurs.  They aren’t real common, but they happen now and then, and they vary in details.  Last night’s dreams was somewhat typical.  I’ll be with a bunch of other people, at home, school, work, outside in a city location, on a crosswalk, etc., and suddenly a dinosaur or dinosaurs would show up and everyone panics.


In the dream we all know the way to avoid being eaten is to be lie down, don’t move and be quiet.  But there’s always someone nearby that keeps blabbing or moving around that draws attention to the dinosaurs causing me to fear for my safety and makes me very annoyed at the noise maker.   For some reason the dinosaurs won’t notice us if we don’t move or make noise.  I never get eaten myself, or the people I know, but I’m always afraid some dumbass is going to get me, or us, killed.  I’m always annoyed in these dreams that other people are not freezing and shutting up.

The funny thing is I had these dreams all night long.  Even after I got up and went to pee, and went back to sleep.  Even very early in the morning when I was waking up over and over again, every time wondering if I should get up.  Each time I fell back asleep I had another dinosaur dream.  It was one scene after another, with different groups of people, in different locations, and in each scene there was a dinosaur attack.  One scene involved my sister, and another my wife Susan, but it was always strangers causing trouble.  I don’t think I ever saw a dinosaur eat someone, but I knew they were in the distance, so the panic to hide was strong.  These dreams last night weren’t quite nightmares, but they did involved a kind of anxiety.

If dreams are sorting through the days events and filing long term memories, what did I do yesterday to deserve dinosaurs dreams last night?  And do other people have dinosaur dreams?  I hope these dreams don’t indicate some kind of weird psychological disorder.

When I was young, I guess around five, I had my first dinosaur dream.  I lived out in the country in South Carolina in a old two-story house.  My family didn’t use the second story, but my three-year-old sister and I would go up there to play, but it was creepy.  I would dream about those upstairs rooms as if they were evil.  That was one of my earliest reoccurring dreams, along with dreams of flying.  But it was during this time that I had my first dinosaur dream.  I, and other people were working in this huge gravel pit, and we were slaves to dinosaurs, and had to stand in dinosaur shit as we worked.  Later on, when I saw The Flintstones, the pit we worked in reminded me of this show.  But this dreams was three or four years before The Flintstones appeared in 1960.

I’ve always wondered when I first learned about dinosaurs.  My oldest memories of dinosaurs are from these dreams, but how did I learn about dinosaurs to dream about them?  I remember as a kid, after I started having these dreams, of playing with plastic dinosaurs, and learning their names.  Me and my little buddies liked to collect and trade these plastic dinosaurs, and we seem to know all about them.  I don’t remember being taught about dinosaurs in school, or even reading about them.  I’ve always assumed knowledge about dinosaurs is imprinted in little boys’ brains, like some kind of ancestral memory.

I’ve written about dinosaur dreams before, back in 2008.  I had completely forgotten I had written this, and the dream I described.  The dream back then was somewhat different, a more science fictional version, because people were protected from the dinosaurs by force fields.

Does dreaming about dinosaurs mean anything?  At Dream Moods, which has a page explaining animal symbols in dreams, it says this about dinosaurs:

To see a dinosaur in your dream symbolizes an outdated attitude. You may need to discard your old ways of thinking and habits.

To dream that you are being chased by a dinosaur, indicates your fears of no longer being needed or useful. Alternatively, being chased by a dinosaur, may reflect old issues that are still coming back to haunt you.

I wonder if I have a problem with outdated attitudes?  But this commentary seems no more scientific than astrology.  I am not the only person troubled with dinosaur dreams as reflected in the Yahoo Answers column.  It’s odd, but a couple of people who replied copied the statement I quote above, and it’s repeated on other web sites.  Just shows how bullshit spreads across the internet.  At least at the Dream Dictionary they had something a bit deeper, but still on the woo-woo side.  It reassures me that other people have dinosaur dreams, so I ain’t the only crazy one here.  In fact, there are many dream interpretation sites that cover dinosaurs in dreams, and many people posting about dreaming of dinosaurs.  At Jurassic World they even have a page collecting dinosaur dreams.

Are dreams even symbolic?  I have no idea.  It seems my dreams are saying something very big will destroy me if I stand out, and that other people are constantly being destroyed for making themselves known.  Hunkering down and being quiet sounds rather cowardly to me in waking life.  When I was young and had nightmares I used to kill anything that tried to hurt me.  The violence of my dreams was disturbing because it was like the violence of modern video games, but these dreams were decades before such games were invented.

I can’t think of anything I did or experienced yesterday that would trigger dreams about avoiding death, or large issues.  I had a nice quiet day of reading books and listening to music, and then last night my friend Anne came over for dinner and we watched Empire Falls, an old HBO mini-series based on the Richard Russo book.  Empire Falls is about a man with a repressed past that never speaks his mind.  I did identify with Miles Roby, the Ed Harris character, because I hold things in to avoid emotional conflicts.  Are the dinosaurs of my dreams potential emotional conflicts?  At least this theory works with the dreams because the way to be safe in the dream is to be quiet and avoid attention.  Also, the people who get eaten by dinosaurs are the loud people who won’t shut up.

This is embarrassing, because now I am revealing something.

I guess I’ve got to wait for the dinosaurs to show up.

Table of Contents

I Had a Dream–But Was it Mine?

Are dreams a form of communication from our subconscious?  That sounds much too mystical for an atheist like myself.  Last night I awoke from a dream with a strong sense of message.  Essentially my dream was telling me that the important things we do in life are those we do with other people.  That two or more heads are better than one.  I can barely remember the dream now, but I know I was trying to do something in the dream, accomplish some goal, but it might have been as trivial as playing a game, and a woman told me we can only get ahead by working together.  That struck me as profound – at least in the context of the dream.  I have a vague memory in the dream that everyone was competing against each other and getting nowhere.  But I have no idea at what.

Now I’m not going to start a religion of cooperation, but instead I’m going to ask:  who is the author of my dreams.  Quite often I wake up and feel like I’ve been jerked out of a complexly plotted story.  I don’t feel “I” was writing the story.  I haven’t read Freud or Jung, but I get the feeling that my subconscious is more thoughtful than I’ve ever given it credit for before.  Now I don’t feel possessed, or think I have multiple personalities, but I feel there’s an unconscious thinking machine in my head processing data while I’m not paying attention.  In recent years, I feel it’s doing far more than processing random data, but is the novelist of my dreams, making sense of a random series of scenes?

Reality doesn’t come with a story.  It happens.  If a dog chases a chipmunk it’s not a scene in a story, it’s just another event in reality.  Humans want to make everything into a story.  The reason why there are so many JFK conspiracy theories is because people can’t just accept that Lee Harvey Oswald just happen to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right experience, to kill the president.  They want more, they want it to fit a story.

I need to read up on recent research into the subconscious.  I’m wondering if decades of reading and thinking about writing hasn’t affected my subconscious.  I can’t help but believe that it’s getting better at plotting.  In recent decades I feel my dreams are shaped more like stories, with good plotting.

But was my dreaming subconscious sending the conscious me a message last night?  It’s obvious that cooperation produces more success than lone wolf endeavors.  I wonder if my dream is commenting on my retired life, where I spend a lot of time alone.  I don’t know.  It could be my story telling mechanism is reading the dream that way.  It could be I was only competing in some kind of game in the dream and the woman was trying to convince me to work together to win.

JWH – 11/22/13

What’s the Resolution and Frame Rate of Dreams?

Last night I woke up with a bout of insomnia.  I was in a strange state of going in and out of consciousness and I had some very vivid dreams.  What was fascinating was I was just conscious enough to realize how my dreams were working.  An image would pop into my mind, and then very quickly my mind would provide a story for the image.  I didn’t hear words though.  It was like a telepathic storyteller was narrating my dreams and I just thought the explanations of each image as it appeared.  And those explanations animated the images into a sequence of events – so the dream felt like a movie, a story.


The first image was looking down at my legs and seeing one boot on and one foot just in a white sock – I assumed I was jogging.

I saw an image of my friend Laurie – and assumed we were jogging together.

The next image was me running down a street alone – and then telling myself I’m on a strange street and I need to turn back to find one I know.

The then I saw a series of strange streets – some urban, some suburban – and I assumed I was completely lost.

The next image was being in a movie theater – I thought I came in to ask directions

Then I saw strange people – I was asking them what street was this movie theater on but they didn’t know.

One guy looked like he had Down’s syndrome – so I thought the group was of special needs people.

The next image was of a black woman – she said something about the rules and I thought I had been committed and was on a day trip to see a movie together.

The next image was running in a corridor, and I thought I was escaping.

The next image was me running with boots on both feet – and I thought how much I loved Frye boots

There was more – but I forgot

The point was my dream was a series of images, and a narrative was added to them to make a story, which made the dream flow.  I think because the images came close together, the narrative, or narrator, tied them together, but the images really weren’t related.

Over the years as I’ve been working on writing fiction I’ve often thought my dreams came up with good story ideas.  Now I’m thinking that the dreaming mechanism in my brain is a fiction machine.  The brain generates random images while I sleep and the storytelling portion of my brain ties them together with some kind of meaningful narrative.

Some dreams are more vivid than others.  I wonder just how many pixels a dream image has?  And what is the frame rate of my mind for generating new images.  There are times when I think I am seeing a movie segment, but I think my brain is often lazy and just puts up a few images.  I’ve had some very powerful dreams, ones where I thought I was awake and everything looked and felt absolutely normal, but I was still asleep.  That suggests the brain is capable of producing HD Dreams.  However, it still might have been single images and not a movie, and the narrative was HD powerful.

Today I was listening to music with headphones and almost dozing off, and I realize the song was inspiring a video like sequence on my mind’s theater screen.  It was rather strange and small, but it was an animation of a crowd of people running, and then they all got on horses, and continued to chase something.  It was a fleeting vision.  It looked like a very low resolution YouTube video.

All of this makes me think of how often we fictionalize random images and thoughts.  If you’re laying in bed at night reading and hear the bushes rustle outside your window most people imagine all kinds of scenarios.  It’s a burglar, it’s a raccoon, it’s the neighbor’s cat – we seldom get up and look.  We just make up stuff in our head to explain the input.

Think about how often you make stuff up to explain a random stimulus.  Think how often everything we believe is just made up stuff.

JWH – 10/14/13