Aging, and Reading Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, September 23, 2016

Humans are either doing something, or thinking about doing something. Evidently as we get older, we do less, but do we also think about doing less?

Do you ever wonder why we do the things we do? Why do we read science fiction? Most people read for entertainment and escape. Most bookworms dedicated themselves to one genre, even though there are so many wonderful kinds of storytelling. Why have we fixated on science fiction? When I was young, I mass-consumed science fiction, almost shooting it in my veins. Now the craving is falling off. I’m afraid there might parallels to my sex drive. When young we want sex all the time, because our hormones are in full production. When we get old, biology begins to fail. Desire may stay, but practicality wanes. Isn’t that true of science fiction too? I don’t fantasize about young women anymore, so why should I keep reading about going to Mars? Now that I think about it, my reading tastes have changed as I’ve gotten older.

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When we were young, our hormones compelled us to procreate. What motivated us to read science fiction? Have you ever psychoanalyzed yourself about that? I have a theory. I doubt its any more scientific than dream analysis, but its worth considering. I believe we read science fiction because we wanted to exist in a different location in time and space. I think all bookworms want to be somewhere else. Literary, mystery and romance fans are quite content with this reality, maybe preferring a slightly different temporal location. Generally, they want a little more than their ordinary life gives them. SF/F fans appear to reject the mundane completely. Fantasy fans want to visit exotic places that can’t exist, and science fiction readers want to live in places that could exist, but on the edge of probability. In other words, science fiction readers want a degree of believability in their fantasies. Of course these fantasies are generally no more realistic than the sex fantasies of horny teenagers.

Strangely, as I’ve gotten older, my science fictional fantasies have become more realistic and closer to home. So have my thoughts of sex. I wonder if mystery fans who once loved thrillers now prefer cozies? If readers of romance novels imagine more realistic lovers?

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We’re motivated by what we don’t have. Few people are content to sit and claim, “I have everything I need and want right here.” Most of us are tied to the mundane routines of our life. A few bold folks enact their dreams with great effort and determination, but most of us just VR what we want with books and television. If we live on a steady diet of science fiction, shouldn’t we assume its an indication of what we really want? Or, do we really desire, to just sit in a chair, holding pulped wood and stare at black ink stains, and imagine far out ideas?

I’m getting older, but not that old. Old enough to still dream, but too old to believe. Let’s say I’ve reached that age when I can’t pretend I’m young. If NASA or a beautiful woman offered to make my youthful fantasies come true, I’d probably turn them down. No use proving myself an old fool. So why do I still love books about colonizing the Moon and Mars, or generation ships traveling to other stellar systems? Or do I? Have my science fiction fantasies changed with age? I think reading science fiction is also a kind of collective fantasizing, or collective dreaming. This still parallels the sex drive. Sex is about making children, and children are about making the future. Everyone is future oriented to a degree. Science fiction fans just project a little further than average. But as we get older, the future has less potential. So don’t our fantasies become smaller? (By the way, if they had Viagra for your science fiction drive, would you take it?)

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Of course, science fiction isn’t always about the future. For young readers who love Military SF, they could join the Army today. For readers who crave romantic science fiction, there are plenty of romantic locations on Earth, many of which are quite alien and exotic. And fans of post-apocalypse could travel to Syria, if they really wanted to live what they read. Bookworms could live more exciting lives if they made the effort, but is that what we really want? I use to think yes. Now I think no.

What we really want are spaceships, cities on Mars, brilliant chatty robots, contact with alien intelligent beings, immortality, to download ourselves to virtual computer worlds, or supplement our brains and bodies with cybernetic attachments. Or do we? I seldom chat with Alexa, my cybernetic companion. And if I had to really choose between retiring to Mars or Florida, I’m pretty sure I’d pick the Sunshine State. And I’m not looking forward to hearing aids, exoskeletons,  and cataract replacement lens.  Nor does living forever have any appeal to me.

Being old has changed my attitude towards science fiction. I’m less concerned with new science fiction, preferring to study the history of science fiction. Older people reevaluate their lives. Well, I’m an old science fiction reader, reevaluating the genre. For some reason, science fiction stories written in the 19th and 20th century are more fascinating than reading science fiction stories written in the 21st century. WTF? What a pitiful excuse I am for a science fiction fan. Well, so what.  Now, I’m just more interested in how I got here, rather than where I’m going. When I was young, where I was going was everything. Now, not so much.

I just started reading The Scarlet Plague by Jack London, from 1912, and it immediately reminded me of Earth Abides (1949) and The World Without Us (2007). How long have we been thinking up the same old science fictional ideas and assuming they are innovative? That reminds me of the essay, “The Graying Lensmen” by Alec Nevala-Lee. There is value is studying SF history. Alec is focusing on the 1940s, but I think we need to go further back.

All of this is making me rethink the common assumptions of science fiction. Maybe the future isn’t visions of science fiction coming true, but more science fiction. Science fiction that repeats itself. I used to think serious science fiction prepared us for living in the future, and less serious science fiction provided amusement and escape in the present. Now I’m wondering if the purpose of science fiction is a cognitive tool, for thinking science fictional thoughts. Religion, science, mathematics, history, logic, philosophy, journalism, etc., are all cognitive tools for understanding reality. Science fiction is not a very precise tool, more like religion than science. But thinking science fictionally, is a way to contemplate reality. I’m wondering if we think science fictionally different as teenagers, than we do collecting social security?

JWH

Where No Man Has Gone Before

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 22, 2016

Fifty years ago tonight, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the second Star Trek pilot, was the third episode of the series to be shown in the U.S. (It was the first to be shown in the United Kingdom.) This was the first Star Trek episode I really liked in 1966. Partly because it had cool ideas, partly because it had Sally Kellerman, but mainly because of Mr. Spock. Leonard Nimoy shaped his famous character over many episodes. Spock was the only main character from “The Cage,” the first pilot, to carry over to the second pilot. Its fascinating to see how the famous Vulcan evolves in these early episodes. In “Where No Man Has Gone Before” Mr. Spock wants to kill Gary Mitchell as soon as he thinks he’s a threat, and at one points strides around with a very large phaser rifle looking like a hot-headed enforcer. This aggressive nature disappears after this episode.

Last night I watched For the Love of Spock, a documentary about Nimoy and Spock made by his son Adam Nimoy. I highly recommend this film, which I rented on Amazon, as well as rewatching these early episodes to see how the Spock character emerged on the show. Mr. Spock even looks different in each of several episodes.

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For the Love of Spock is a wonderful tribute to Leonard Nimoy, and a history of a fictional character. I actually learned more details about Nimoy from William Shatner’s recent book, Leonard, but more about Spock from the documentary. Shatner’s book was about a friendship. The subtext of Adam Nimoy’s film was father and son. Nimoy was so much more interesting than his most famous creation, so I assume detail biographies in the future will be worth reading.

Mr. Spock was the only character in Star Trek that I really liked. In an interview in For the Love of Spock, William Shatner admitted feeling professional jealousy in the early days of the show, when Nimoy got the larger portion of fan attention. Shatner said Roddenberry told him that he should embrace Nimoy’s good fortune because that fan mania would make both Shatner and the show a success. I’m not sure Star Trek would have succeeded without Mr. Spock. And, this documentary could have been called Where No Man Has Gone Before, because its about a real man becoming a myth in his own lifetime. Early on Nimoy tried to escape that fate and wrote, I Am Not Spock. Eventually he wrote, I Am Spock.

For those who wish to know all the compulsive details of the episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” I recommend reading about it as Memory-Alpha. What I want to do is continue my remembering of 1966 impressions of the show and compare them with my 2016 viewing. Every time I write about these old episodes of Star Trek I feel like I’m trying to get into character, of me in 1966. Seeing photographs and home movies of Leonard Nimoy and his family from the 1950s and 1960s reminded me just how different things were back then compared to today. In just a few years, normal life changed. Television is no measure of reality, but the transition from 1966 to 1969 was somewhat like going from That Girl to All in the Family. But the fifty-year transition was like the background life you saw in The Fugitive evolving into the background life you see in Breaking Bad.

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Living from 1966 to 2016 could be filmed as “Where No Human Has Gone Before.” The fourteen-year-old kid who watched Star Trek in 1966 assumed the future would be dramatically different. I never figured we’d evolve powers like Gary Mitchell, but I expected the future would be science fictional. What’s weird is we’re living in a very science fictional era, but everyone seems to be wearing clothes fairly similar to 1966. People look about the same. Houses look about the same. Cars are different. TVs look different. But living rooms and bedrooms are very similar.

In 1966 you saw more ordinary, even homely people, on TV. Today, everyone is beautiful and buff. There were lots more character actors back then. Nimoy always said he wanted to be a great character actor. It was Shatner that wanted to be a lead. The walk-on characters you saw on Perry Mason often seemed like people you saw on the streets back then. If you want to see normal people today you have to watch the local news, or Walmart people on YouTube, because TV isn’t very representative.

To be honest, a story about flying to the edge of the galaxy and having two people become god-like in their abilities, is about as realistic in 1966 or 2016 as reading Greek Mythology or Marvel Comics. In 1966 I wished I could speed-read like Gary Mitchell, once his latent psychic powers emerge. It would have been great help with homework. But why did the writers of this episode assume Humans 2.0 would have no ethical qualms about killing 1.0 Humans? What was cool in 1966 to a 14-year-old kid, seems lame to a 64-year-old man. Why couldn’t writers imagine evolved humans actually being better beings?

Either as science fiction or allegory, the plot of “Where No Man Has Gone Before” reveals the pitiful nature of our species. Our one tool solution for every problem, no matter how smart we are, is to kill, kill, kill. In that, Star Trek pegged the future, our present.

It’s a shame we all didn’t become more like Mr. Spock, or at least more creative, like Leonard Nimoy.

JWH

Aliens With God Like Powers–“Charlie X”

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 15, 2016

Fifty years ago tonight, the second episode of Star Trek, “Charlie X” was first shown on NBC. As usual, follow the link to Wikipedia’s excellent summary. An even more extensive history is at Memory Alpha.

Charlie XI enjoyed “Charlie X” more than I did “The Man Trap,” both in 1966 and 2016, but not by much. The story is rather simple. The Enterprise rendezvous with the Antares to take on a passenger, a young man named Charlie Evans, who has been raised by aliens. He knows little of human ways. Charlie is friendly and anxious to please, but when his feelings gets hurt, he has god-like powers to punish his tormentors. On the Enterprise he meets a woman for the first time, and is smitten with her. Things don’t go well.

Even in 1966 this plot seemed borrowed. Stranger in a Strange Land was fresh in my memory. Charlie, like Valentine Michael Smith, had been raised by aliens, never seen girls before, and had god-like powers. They both could make people disappear with a thought. I had also seen “It’s A Good Life” on The Twilight Zone, based on the famous short story by Jerome Bixby. It featured a young boy with god powers who would do horrible things to people who displeased him. Much like Charlie. The story also reminded me of “The Sixth Finger,” one of the early episodes of The Outer Limits, about a man who artificially evolves to have, yes, you guess it, god-like powers.

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Science fiction has a history of aliens with immense powers, or evolved humans with superpowers (Odd John, Slan, The Hampdenshire Wonder). But are god-like powers even possible? For humans, aliens from the sky, or even gods? Charlie makes the Antares instantly disappear with a thought, while light-years away. Is this science fiction or fantasy? Did Gene Roddenberry really think humans had untapped psi-powers? Did Heinlein? As a kid I took things literally, and imagined such things might be possible, but I don’t anymore.

As I’ve written in earlier essays about Star Trek, I have to watch the show and judge it by science fiction and by allegory. Gene Roddenberry, who wrote the original story for “Charlie X” was an atheist. Star Trek often dealt with aliens with various kinds of god-like powers, and generally Captain Kirk is pitted against them. Are these stories allegories showing humans v. gods?

Sometimes we’re given stories in science fiction where the goal is to evolve to the next level – i.e., Childhood’s End, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I never liked those stories because they reject normal human existence. Who really wants to have powers like Charlie Evans or Valentine Michael Smith? I now think of these stories as philosophical tales rather than science fictional speculation, which I did as a kid. Isn’t “Charlie X” a rejection of God? Who wants to be friends with someone who can punish you with a thought? Would you even want such a person for a father figure?

Aren’t ESP powers a kind of evil? Aren’t ESP powers a Pandora’s Box we should never want to open? If you could do something with a thought, would you ever learn how to do anything for real? But what is the science of thought power? There’s none. It’s wishful thinking. Any reality where thoughts had such powers would be less than real. Like a dream, or computer simulation. When it comes down to it, don’t we actually need the limitations of reality? Remember The Matrix movies, where Neo learns earlier versions of the Matrix failed because existence was too easy and perfect.

Why did Heinlein accept the powers, but Roddenberry reject them? Why do so many crave the superpowers of superhero comics? The two classic science fiction novels by Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, deal with telepathy and teleportation. Would you really want either power? Honestly? Have you read Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg? Telepathy is a curse.

the man with the sixth fingerAre there any super-powers worth having? If you could fly, and no one else could, wouldn’t that be psychologically isolating? Even being gifted is hard on most kids. Being absolutely beautiful or sexually irresistible has its downfalls. We don’t want to be average, but we don’t want to be outliers either. Athletes who break records would find it disappointing if they had no real challengers.

If you’re too far from the norm you risk becoming another species. And on Star Trek, the aliens that humans have the most contact with are the ones that are like us – Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans. Of course that’s due to needing human actors. Could Captain Kirk be pals with a Horta, from the “The Devil in the Dark?” Once they learn the creature is only protecting its young, we relate to that, and accept it. Isn’t the whole diversity movement about realizing we’re all the same, and differences shouldn’t isolate us? I could be friends with a Horta if we found something in common – for example, like talking about science fiction. Have you ever wondered if aliens on other worlds have science fiction?

The crew of the Enterprise liked Charlie Evans as long as he was acting human. When he used his powers they feared and hated him. What does that say about us being friends with god-like beings? Was that the intended message of “Charlie X?” It’s the message I got. In the end, Charlie Evans wanted to stay with the humans, and he wanted to be human, but his powers corrupted him. Charlie had to return with the aliens that raised him.

So what’s the lesson here? Ultimately, both science fiction and allegories have something to teach. In 1966, I expected science fiction to explore actual possibilities. At the time I accepted FTL travel and matter transmitters, but I had problems with lots of the plots. Now that I’m older, I see in 2016 that Star Trek was seldom scientific speculation about the future, but often allegories about the present.

If “Charlie X” wasn’t a dig at God, who or what was it satirizing? I wonder if it was Age of Aquarius hippies, Transcendental Meditation, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, psychedelic drugs, and other 1960s movements that promised to take people to states of higher consciousness. The kind of people who were wanting to be like Valentine Michael Smith. The kind of people who read Slan and hoped they would be one?

I watch old episodes of Star Trek to fathom science fiction in 1966. I was fourteen then, and didn’t comprehend all that science fiction could be, or was trying to be. I was a gullible kid who wanted the wonders of SF to be possible. I think some of it was written to promote space exploration. On the other hand, I think most of science fiction was personal commentary on culture by quirky writers like Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. Gene Roddenberry wasn’t that different from Rod Sterling. Star Trek eventually developed a reputation for promoting a utopian view of the future. That might be true starting with Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I haven’t started rewatching it yet. So far, I see no utopian aspects of the Federation in the original series.

JWH

Why Science Fiction and Fantasy Are Fundamentally Different

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 12, 2016

I’m endlessly annoyed that science fiction and fantasy are linked together in the public’s mind. Philosophically, they are polar opposites, Science fiction is the enemy of magic, and magic is the foundation of fantasy. These two forms of literature parallel two opposing philosophies of reality: science and religion. We all exist in one reality, but we have chosen to explain reality in two contradictory ways: evolution and magic. Religious fundamentalists understand this distinction, which is why they are so fervently opposed to evolution and science. If you understand evolution there is no need for God. If you understand the Christian theology, there is no need for evolution.

Most people try to incorporate both belief systems into their world view, but that only shows they don’t understand the profound and complete differences between the two. You can’t have God and Evolution as the primary creator of life on Earth. You can’t have Science and Magic. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart is an excellent example of science fiction. Because Randall Flagg is a driving force in The Stand by Stephen King, it makes that book a fantasy novel, even though it follows in Earth Abides footsteps. Once you add the supernatural (magic) to a story it can’t be science fiction, even if it’s using a standard science fiction concept and setting. I bring up these two books because they are both nominated in polls for the best science fiction books of all time. (And yes, I know many writers want to create hybrids, like All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.)

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Even though I don’t like that science fiction and fantasy are always lumped together, I can understand why. Most people want to believe in magic, but they accept science. That’s why they pray when they fly in an airplane. Most people are clueless to how their smartphone works, but they accept technology as magical. When folks go in for surgery they ask their friends to talk to God for them, even though the outcome depends on the surgeons’ scientific knowledge and evolutionary biology of the patient.

Magic is based on the power of the word. Magicians work by incantation. They learn their spells through study of arcane knowledge. God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. God creates with the power of words.  The person who wrote The Gospel of John understood that when he said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  When primitive people tried to understand how reality worked they came up with the logic of magic, and the power of words. That’s why magical spells are so important to magicians, they are imitating the power of God. It’s also why most religions disavow magic.

Science, which came very late in human development, assumes there is no magic, and words don’t create but describe. Science assumes everything can be explained through observing reality. Technology is applied science. Science assumes there are no magical beings, no magical forces, and no magic itself. For any story to be truly science fiction it must assume magic does not exist. For any story to be fantasy, magic is an integral part of its reality. That’s why Star Wars is fantasy, and not science fiction.

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Science fiction is far from perfect, and far from scientific. Probably one reason the public lumps science fiction and fantasy together, is all to often science fiction claims magical concepts can be scientific. A great example is Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. There were many science fiction writers in the 1950s that desperately wanted to believe in extrasensory powers. Writers and editors like John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, or Theodore Sturgeon, believed humans could evolve to have god-like powers, or possessed untapped psychic potential that could be developed. Heinlein proposed that Valentine Michael Smith was raised by ancient beings on Martians that taught him to use such powers. But is that science fiction or fantasy?  Mike essentially works miracles. Stranger in a Strange Land is an anti-science fiction novel. Heinlein even melds religion and God into his story. Some have claimed Heinlein was being satirical, but Heinlein also wrote essays about his beliefs in ESP, and even predicted science would prove the existence of the afterlife one day.

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I am working on the fourth edition of the Classics of Science Fiction and I’ve come up against a problem. The Stand by Stephen King is often cited in polls where fans vote for their all-time favorite science fiction novels. But how can a novel with a character like Randall Flagg be science fiction? But then, how can Stranger in a Strange Land or Childhood’s End be science fiction? One point in Heinlein and Clarke’s favor, is back then they believed ESP type powers would be scientifically provable in the future. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s there were theories about ESP, and scientists conducted experiments to detect latent psychic powers in humans. Others theorized that future species of mankind might evolve such powers. In the years since, science has not found a shred of evidence to support such theories, and we have to assume such wild talents are only fantasy. Yet many people still want to believe. Nearly all the powers of super-hero characters represent a desire for magic. We don’t like being ordinary and powerless, so we love stories with characters who have powers. Unfortunately, science fiction writers aren’t immune to such desires for magic.

Should I delete any novel from the Classics of Science Fiction list whose theories have been shot down by science since they were written? I doubt even Stephen King thought The Stand was science fiction when he wrote it. King is an exceptional storyteller, and uses whatever ideas are useful to forward a story, but I doubt if he’s concerned with their scientific validity. And probably many science fiction writers, if not most, choose story over science. But for me, I’ve always thought the essential quality of science fiction was theorizing about the scientifically possible. I want science fiction to be anti-magic. I read science fiction to imagine what’s possible for humans to create with science, and not with magic. But all too often, science fiction is corrupted by our desires, and we ignore our understanding of science.

Many of the stories from The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Star Trek in the 1950s and 1960s dealt with ideas we thought were science fictional back then, but after a half-century of scientific advances, should be seen as fantasy today. Isn’t it about time we begin discerning magic from science?

I’ve been watching the new miniseries, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, based on the novel by Susanna Clarke. That’s what inspired this insight into what distinguishes science fiction from magic.  Like the immensely popular Harry Potter stories, we enjoy tales where magic exists. But I wonder how many fans of fantasy actually believe magic is possible? We do know that all believers in the various world religions do believe in magic. They don’t like to call their miracles magic, and often abhor talk of Earthly magic, or even claim it sinful, but all scriptures about miracles work in the same way as stories about magic.

We science fiction fans need to learn to spot the use of magic in science fiction stories. No matter how much we love The Demolished Man or The Stars My Destination, and claim they are classics of science fiction, they are fantasy. But so is the matter transmitter in Star Trek and the time machine in the classic H. G. Wells novel. The main reason the public lumps science fiction and fantasy together is because we all want to believe in magic. More than likely, faster-than-light travel will prove to a magical idea, and words like hyperspace travel, warp drives and wormhole travel are just magical incantations by writers.

Which brings me back to my problem. Should I list The Stand in the Classics of Science Fiction list? Or other books that fans routinely think of as science fiction. For example, I can’t see why so many vote for Animal Farm by George Orwell in a science fiction poll, or Alice in Wonderland. By the way, I’m only talking about polls specifically for science fiction, and not polls for science fiction and fantasy books. I can make an editorial decision and just leave them off the list. Or I could list them in red. I’ve thought of listing any book that was never meant to be science fiction in red, and books that were legitimate attempts to be science fiction in the past, but are now obviously fantasy, in blue.

JWH

Reconstructing 1966 by Watching Star Trek

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 8, 2016

[Soundtrack for this essay. Listen while you read if you were around in 1966, it may trigger some 1966 memories.]

I am obsessed with memory. Are memories lost or erased? Why do long forgotten memories return at odd moments? Are there keys to unlocking the hidden treasures of our minds?

I want to channel my fourteen-year-old self from 1966 using television as my crystal ball. “The Man Trap,” the first episode of Star Trek, which premiered fifty years ago today, will be my wormhole to the past. From there, I hope to follow links to lost memory segments – like defragging my mind. I’d love to own a time machine, and visit my younger self, but the best I can do is become a medium of memory. Generally we struggle to recall a few facts from the past – I want to strike the memory mother lode. That’s a difficult quest, because the ghosts of memory are chimeras of self-deceptions.

I rewatched “The Man Trap” to trick my brain into remembering 1966. And like panning for gold, it’s hard work for a few flecks of recollections. The internet offers a wealth of tools for triggering memories, revealing just another way 1966 is different from 2016. That’s one of the big revelations of this expedition. My assumption was 1966 would be much like 2016, with the same problems, and the same desires, but with different toys. That’s probably wrong. It seems our toys alter who we are.

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The me on the left, is what I looked like when I first watched Star Trek in 1966. The 2016 me on the right is trying to imagine how the me on the left thought about the future in 1966. The 1966 me never imagined becoming the me on the right. Some of this essay will be about watching Star Trek, but most of it will be about remembering 1966. I can watch “The Man Trap” on a 56” HDTD today, and its 100% of what I saw on a 25” RCA color TV then, probably 200% considering high resolution. The trouble is, we’re watching with our 2016 minds. What I want to remember is how I thought about science fiction with my 1966 brain.

What I’ve learned by dwelling on this past, is reality was just as complex in 1966, but both my younger mind, and our culture in general, were much simpler. I was was able to find a larger sense of wonder, but discovered my science fiction universe was smaller. When I look at the original episodes of Star Trek today, they seem quaint, even primitive, but in their day, they were adult, and even sophisticated, compared to the television I had been watching from 1955-1965. Star Trek was mostly allegories about problems folks faced in 1966. Because I was a kid with adolescent dreams about the future, I saw those shows much different then. My hopes for my future were unrealistic. Star Trek fueled those impractical desires for millions of people. Why did we all see so much we wanted in a TV show?

As with my previous essay on “The Cage,” what I viewed at fourteen and sixty-four are two different shows. The show we view doesn’t change, but how we interpret it does. No one steps in the same river twice.

All during the summer of 1966 I had been seeing ads for Star Trek on NBC. Those previews were more exciting to me than memories of Christmas morning when I was a kid. That summer I was living in Miami, but by September, my mother left my father and took me and my sister to live in Charleston, Mississippi – a very small town. That was a cultural shock. When I tuned in that Thursday evening, I was needing escape, and wanted that show to be everything the previews promised.

But watching that first episode, with my high expectations, and seeing a story about a monster sucking salt out of people, was like getting a nice school shirt under the tree. Something I could use, but not exciting. For the previous two years, I had been gorging myself on Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Norton, Wells, Verne, and that science fictional knowledge made the first episode of Star Trek feel silly in comparison. Yet, everything else about the show, promised so much. The Enterprise, interstellar travel, transporter, lost alien civilizations, Mr. Spock were marvels to me in 1966. But aren’t they the same marvels today? After fifty years, we still haven’t achieved any of those things we long for in Star Trek. Sure, cell phones are great, but I wanted to go to the stars. I wanted a razor sharp analytical mind, free of pesky emotions, like Mr. Spock. I’m now an old man, with failing memory and health, illogical and emotional, who has never left Earth. Did I really believe anything in Star Trek would come true for me? For a short while, during the 1966-1967 television season, I had hope.

But my science fiction fantasies were no more realistic than my sex fantasies. Be honest if you’re a science fiction fan. As a kid, didn’t you want to live science fiction instead of watching or reading it? Think about this. If your 1966 self could time travel to September 8, 2016, wouldn’t she think you were living in a science fiction story?

Most people can’t remember everyday life before the science fiction boom in the 1970s. It’s like asking a college freshman today to write about daily life before the Internet. And remembering 1966 is exactly that. If the science fiction world had a calendar, we should mark BST (Before Star Trek) and AST (After Star Trek), with the year 1966 becoming year zero. By 1969, the year Star Trek ended, and Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, everything was radically different. I often tell people that 1964-1969 were the longest five years of my life because so much happened.

There had been plenty of science fiction on television before Star Trek, including The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, but the world still felt like the 1950s in their stories. Those shows were in black and white. The 1960s didn’t really get going until 1965-67. It needed the space race, civil rights, psychedelic drugs, a rock and roll revolution, color television, anti-war protests, and the counter culture. Living in rural Mississippi for nine months in 1966 was Leave It To Beaver , not Dangerous Visions.

I was a weird kid in 1966. I had realized I was an atheist in 1964, while I was living in Miami. Strange, but not too strange for the times. But being a atheist in the heart of the Bible Belt was something else. I had to constantly listen the people talk about God and Jesus. It felt like I was living in The Twilight Zone. I was also frightened by their racism, but that’s another 5o,000 words. I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut, but I always felt like a stranger in a strange land. I was a liberal, but lacked the intellectual education to understand why. Science fiction was my substitute for religion. I was ready for a different world, a different reality, a revolution. The 1960s, science fiction, Star Trek, NASA, psychedelic rock, the counter culture, was the perfect storm for transformation.

I wasn’t the only one waiting for the future, but I didn’t know that at the time. I thought I was singularly weird. You know how some kids like to believe they’re adopted because they can’t relate to their parents? I secretly fantasized that Martians had impregnated my mother. My dad was stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB where I was born in 1951, and if you remember your UFO lore, that’s not too far fetch for a X-Files daydream, at least for 1966. I didn’t believe that fantasy – I just wanted to believe.

Seeing the Future from 1966

By September, 1966, all but two of the Project Gemini flights had flown. We knew Americans were going to the Moon, and hoped before the end of the decade. The Gemini capsule is my all-time favorite space ship. I was crazy about the space program and would talk my parents into letting me stay home from school when there were launches. Back then, the space program would preempt television, sometimes for days. I was starting the 10th grade that September, my first year in high school. Back in Florida, in the 9th grade, at my junior high school, my friends and I had built a series of Estes rockets. But even those guys didn’t read science fiction.

People were thinking about bright futures. The 1964 New York World’s Fair (4/22/64-10/17/65) was fresh in our memories. It was futuristic, forward looking, and even featured a Space Park. The space race thrilled Americans in the 1960s. NASA only validated our science fiction dreams. The country was ready for Star Trek. I wish I knew how many closeted science fiction fans existed then.

At this time in 1966, I assumed for the duration of my life, the nightly news would feature stories of humans going further and further into space. I expected manned missions to Mars in the 1970s. I assumed the complete manned exploration of the solar system before I died. I dreamed of being an astronaut, or working for NASA, even though I didn’t apply myself in school like the young protagonists of Heinlein stories.

Star Trek premiered as the space race was blasting off. But so much that would unfold in the future was unexpected in 1966. No glimmer of personal computers, or the Internet, much less data mining, AI, or Deep Learning. We didn’t even have pocket calculators or cell phones. I did have cable TV in 1966, only because I lived in a rural town. Cable TV was invented to bring TV to rural communities. We still only had three channels: ABC, CBS and NBS. I don’t even remember seeing public TV until 1968 or 1969. We had lots of war, poverty, terrorism, riots, crime, injustice, inequality, disease, back then, but there was plenty of hope. We have less of all those horrible things today, but we have less hope. Why?

1966-Science-Club026-700

Back then I was the only person I knew that read science fiction. I’d tell everyone about what I was reading, but they just thought I was a strange. I joined the science club that year. That’s me on the right with the sweater with vertical stripes. Most of the other boys were also in the 4-H club. I remember giving a talk about cryogenics at one of the meetings. I had recently read The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein and had started researching suspended hibernation with frogs and liquid nitrogen. My classmates just stared at me blankly. I think even the science teacher thought I was over the galactic rim. I pitched him the idea for a science fair project of buying a weather balloon to launch around town to see if any of the residents of Charleston would call in a UFO report. I eventually settled on building a controlled environment with my friend Mack Peters, to show that plants could provide oxygen in space. We built a very large plywood box with a picture window, and sealed in two mice, some plants, and a florescent light. The mice survived for weeks until they escaped by gnawing a hole through the plywood. We did win a prize at the science fair.

And even though I loved science fiction, finding it was hard. In Florida, I had discovered a large cache at the Homestead Air Force Base library in 1964. Evidently, servicemen loved science fiction. But East Tallahassee High School had little. Charleston had a tiny library on the main square, in an old storefront. It was a rental library. Most of the books were ancient. I found a couple old books about UFOs written by George Adamski – thus the science fair project. And a copy of Worlds in Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky. Other than Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, I don’t remember finding any science fiction in Charleston. I never found a paperback SF book on a twirling rack at the drugstore where I bought my copies of Popular Science and MAD Magazine. To claim the nine months I spent living in Charleston, Mississippi was living in the science fiction wilderness is not an exaggeration.

Stranger in a Strange Land AvonThe Worlds of Robert A. HeinleinThe Mysterious Island

I brought only a few paperbacks to Charleston in late August. On September 8, 1966, Star Trek was born, and for a few months it was my main source of science fiction. I had no income. My mom had brought us to Charleston, where one of her sisters lived. I had mown lawns, babysat, and had a paper route in Florida before I moved to Mississippi. I’d eventually get a paper route in Charleston, and would join the Science Fiction Book Club. That would be a major transformation, because up until then I only stumbled on old science fiction in libraries, and had little knowledge of current science fiction. The SFBC would bring me up to date, and open a much larger world of science fiction. Probably 80% of what I had read was by Heinlein. From 1964-1966 I had searched out every Heinlein book I could find, and I believe I had read nearly all that he had published. My schools had the juveniles, and the Air Base library had all the rest. I was also a fan of Arthur C. Clarke. It was at this time I read most of the Winston Science Fiction series.

Rocket landed on fins

In 1966, my image of rockets of the future were those that landed on their tail fins, as someone once said, “the way God and Bob Heinlein intended.” Most of the science fiction I had read up until then was about exploring and colonizing the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Most of the black and white science fiction movies from the 1950s I saw on TV were either about the Moon or Mars, with a few invaders from the stars. Only some of Heinlein’s books were about traveling beyond the solar system. Thus a television series dedicated to exploring the galaxy was a big deal. Star Trek was a leap of faith, telling Americans the final frontier went way beyond landing on the Moon. The U.S.S. Enterprise was a breakthrough in space ship design, taking science fiction out of the 1950s.

Where I Got My News in 1966

My sources of news in 1966 were extremely limited. I believe I can name them all: the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite on some nights, The Today Show on rare occasions when I stayed home from school, Life Magazine and The Reader’s Digest when I visited other homes, Popular Science and Popular Mechanics which I bought myself at the drugstore, TV Guide, the only family magazine we all read, and National Geographic at school (but not to read, but for finding pictures of naked women – boys today have no idea how obscure porn was in 1966). Even though I’d eventually deliver the paper, I didn’t read it. Not much news to live on. But one good story in Popular Science and I’d have something exciting to think about for days. We have too many sources of news today.

My only news of music came from AM disc jockeys. I wouldn’t have The Rolling Stone or Crawdaddy for a few years. Documentaries were almost never shown. I read nothing about movies. In November, my cousin Robert brought me to his house in Memphis, and he and his wife Charlotte took me to see Fantastic Voyage at the drive-in for my 15th birthday. One movie in nine months. Which also explains why Star Trek was so compelling. However, the 1966/67 television season was probably the most exciting in my whole life. Besides Star Trek, and old favorites, I watched several new shows: The Monkees, The Time Tunnel, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., The Smothers Brothers, Tarzan, The Rat Patrol, The Invaders, ABC Stage 67, That Girl, and The Dating Game. Most of my knowledge about the world came from fictional TV shows. Life without the internet gave us lots of time for TV. The following year, after I had moved back to Miami, I got a job in a grocery store after school, working from 4-10, and lost my TV habit.

Star Trek:TOS “The Man Trap”

“The Man Trap” is described in extensive detail at Wikipedia, so I won’t repeat what it does so well. While I thought the salt vampire of the first show was stupid, I was totally seduced by the U.S.S. Enterprise. I had not yet seen Forbidden Planet in 1966, that wouldn’t happen until my first science fiction convention in 1972, so I didn’t know about the precedent of a spaceship on a peaceful mission of galactic exploration. The diverse crew of the Enterprise was a revelation. I wanted to believe in such a future, one where humans would routinely travel between the stars. I had no idea how Star Trek would play out, or how each episode would be a story about something different. Nor did this first episode give us a sense of the crew, and who they would become.

The Man Trap 1

In terms of sense of wonder science fiction, the salt vampire had little to offer. Even in 1966 I didn’t believe aliens could shape shift, or create such illusions. That seemed like something out of mythology, and I didn’t like fantasy stories. Ever since reading After Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie, I’ve always been thrilled by stories about discovering the remains of lost alien civilizations. I was sorry “The Man Trap” didn’t go into that.

Because this was the first show, I wouldn’t learn until later, that the series focused in on certain kinds of incidents to build around plots, and it never spent too much time explaining life aboard the Enterprise, or go into details about how things existed on the planets they were visiting. The idea that two humans were left on a planet for years to do alien archeology didn’t seem practical. Where did they get their food? They only wanted salt? Realistically, they’d ask for tons of food and supplies, and hundreds of pounds of salt, just to fit the existing plot. To be realistic, it should have been about a large team of scientists and their support. But Star Trek didn’t go into such realism.

I wouldn’t learn until much later the limitations of production budgets on plots. Star Trek had to paint in extremely limited impressionistic strokes. We never see many of the Enterprise’s 400+ crew. For this first story, having the captain and doctor go down to see an old friend seemed like a logical away crew. We wouldn’t learn until later that Kirk gets most of the air time, although having the captain always lead the missions planet-side is sort of like having a general take point when a squad goes penetrating enemy lines.

The Allegorical View

In 2016 “The Man Trap” was actually a more appealing show than what my younger self saw in 1966. The plot was still broken, and actually seemed to be two plots welded together. I could easily imagine an unhappy writer using the monster as a metaphor for his spouse, maybe written during the middle of a divorce, with salt standing in for money. The idea that a woman appearing different to everyone who sees her is quite interesting. At this phase of the story the salt vampire is not a shape shifter, but puts illusions in every mind that sees her. At one point three men are looking at the salt vampire and see three different women. That’s not shape shifting. It’s revealing the same ability as the Talosians, but fans of the show wouldn’t know that until “The Menagerie.”

The Man Trap 2

In the second part of the story, which takes place on the Enterprise, the monster appears to each person in the same disguise, and thus could be a shape shifter. This is more akin to The Thing. That presents a different kind of allegorical theme, of living with people who look normal but are something else. That was a popular theme during the era of fearing communist infiltration. From what Wikipedia says, this screenplay was written and rewritten several times. Roddenberry was notorious for doctoring stories. Thus, there’s no consistent allegory like we had in “The Cage.” I assume from too many cooks in the kitchen.

“The Man Trap” has always been one of my least favorite Star Trek episodes. It’s nowhere near as bad as some to come, but it hangs in my memory as a bad first impression. It’s a shame the story didn’t stick with the first allegory, of a woman who appears different to each man who sees her. Especially if they had jettison the salt vampire idea, and just had her as the last of a race of alien sirens. “The Man Trap” has gotten better with extra viewings, because I see elements the writers intended for adults, things that would have bored my younger self.

Star Trek provided one hour of science fiction escape each week, but it was 1966 music that continues to define that year for me. I still regularly listen to songs from 1966.

The Soundtrack for 1966

The popular music for 1966 is rather funky, but not in a Bootsy Collins way, but more like this food seems kind of funky. At least for some hits like “Winchester Cathedral,” “Lil’ Red Riding Hood,” “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35,” “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,” “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron,” and many more. They were not the kind of songs you wanted stuck on continuous rotation.   I considered 1965 to be the pinnacle of pop music, even today. 1964 had been a tremendous year with The Beatles and the British invasion, but 1965 had been even more astounding with the arrival of folk rock and Bob Dylan’s transformation. For some reason, 1966 was a transition year to the psychedelic 1967.

If you look at the Cash Box Top 100 for 9/3/66 you’ll see what I mean, or look at the Cash Box Year-End Chart: 1966.

While I was in Charlestown I didn’t have access to a record store, but I may have joined the Columbia Record Club during that year. I just can’t remember. I had just started buying albums in 1966 when I lived in Miami, and the first album I bought was the soundtrack to Our Man Flint. The next album I remember getting is If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears by The Mamas and the Papas. There were many great 1966 albums that I eventually got, but I don’t think I got them before 9/8/66.

Our-Man-FlintThe_Mamas_&_The_Papas_-_If_You_Can_Believe_Your_Eyes_And_Ears

I lived musically by AM radio that year. My all-time favorite album comes from 1966, Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan, but I didn’t own a copy until 1968. My bedroom was a small attic room with slanted ceilings. I played my radio from the time I got home from school, while I slept, and until I left for school the next day. These are some of the songs that are burned into my memory bank that come from 1966.

  • “I Am a Rock” – Simon & Garfunkel
  • “California Dreamin’” – The Mamas and the Papas
  • “Lightnin’ Strikes” – Lou Christie
  • “Time Won’t Let Me” – The Outsiders
  • “Lady Godiva” – Peter and Gordon
  • “Shapes of Things” – The Yardbirds
  • “Cherish” – The Association
  • “96 Tears” – ? & the Mysterians
  • “Monday, Monday” – The Mamas and the Papas”
  • “You Can’t Hurry Love” – The Supremes
  • “Reach Out I’ll Be There” – The Four Tops
  • “Summer in the City” – Lovin’ Spoonful
  • “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” – Jimmy Ruffin
  • “Paint It, Black” – The Rolling Stones
  • “When a Man Loves a Woman” – Percy Sledge
  • “Paperback Writer” – The Beatles
  • “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” – The Supremes
  • “Kicks” – Paul Revere & the Raiders
  • “Walk Away Renée” – The Left Banke
  • “Daydream” – The Lovin’ Spoonful
  • “Sounds of Silence” – Simon and Garfunkle
  • “Secret Agent Man” – Johnny Rivers
  • “Barbara Ann” – The Beach Boys
  • “You Baby” – The Turtles
  • “These Boots are Made for Walking” – Nancy Sinatra
  • “Strangers in the Night” – Frank Sinatra
  • “Last Train to Clarksville” – The Monkees
  • “Bus Stop” – The Hollies
  • “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” – Cher
  • “Nowhere Man” – The Beatles
  • “(You’re My) Soul & Inspiration” – The Righteous Brothers
  • “God Only Knows” – The Beach Boys
  • “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” – James Brown
  • “Homeward Bound” – Simon & Garfunke“
  • “River Deep Mount High” – Ike & Tina Turner
  • “Land of 1000 Dances” – Wilson Pickett
  • “Poor Side of Town” – Johnny Rivers
  • “As Tears Go By” – The Rolling Stones
  • “Eight Miles High” – The Byrds
  • “Devil With the Blue Dress” – Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels
  • “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” – Lovin’ Spoonful
  • “Psychotic Reaction” – The Count Five
  • “Rain” – The Beatles

Cars of 1966

In Mississippi at the time, kids could get their license at 15. Because I was 14 until November, I daydreamed a lot about cars.  Not as much as I fantasized about girls, but almost as much. My parents were on the opposite end of the well-to-do spectrum, so the family car wasn’t much. Living in a small town is weird, because class distinctions are sharper. I envied my classmates whose parents could afford stylish cars. 1966 was the year of the swept back design, which was very futuristic. There was a cute blonde girl in my class whose dad owned a Oldsmobile Toronado. I sat behind this girl, who had the habit of twirling a lock of her long hair in one spot, which made small bald patch. She was still cute though, and I lusted after her, and her dad’s Toronado.

For some reason that year, I loved the way cars looked from going away.

1966-Toronado-front1966-Toronado
1966-Charger-rear1966-Charger
1966-Marlin
1966-Mustang

What Remembering 1966 Is Teaching Me

Time travel is probably absolutely impossible, but a fun concept in science fiction. In the first season of Star Trek, Kirk and crew return to 1969 via a dubious method in D. C. Fontana’s “Tomorrow is Yesterday.” The Enterprise made several visits to the past throughout the series and in a later movie. I wonder what it would really be like to return to 1966 and walk the streets of Charleston, Mississippi again, and maybe talk to my younger self. It’s a fun idea to entertain, but I truly don’t believe time travel is possible.

To me, my favorite songs, books, television shows and movies from 1966, as well as certain news events, and all my memories of what happened to me personally, define the year. I could go watch, read and listen to a completely different selection of books, songs, movies and television shows from 1966, and my concept of that year would be different. Or would it? Planet Earth had about three billion human residents back then, with each of them experiencing 1966 in a different way. Time is a funny thing. We perceive time as change, but if we can find things from 1966 that haven’t changed, say an old house that hasn’t changed much, or a place in the woods that looks the same, does it now feel like we’re returned to the past? Some physicists have claimed that time is an illusion and doesn’t exist, but that can’t possible be true. 2016 is not 1966.

1966-Charleston-House2016-Charleston-House

Top=1966, Bottom=2016. My house was the yellow one.

I got on Google Maps and did a Street View trip to where I used to live in 1966. That house is still there. I suppose if I could walk inside that house it would trigger many more memories. Ditto for walking the streets of Charleston, or the halls of my old school. It’s extremely science fictional that I can visit Charleston via Street View. Did anyone predict that? Our brains process our experiences unconsciously, and delete memories. Can you imagine being a robot that could perfectly record all it’s input from its digital senses. They could VR the past by playing those recordings, and the past should feel identical. I think many of us wish we could do that trick – but we can’t. Our brains retain only tiny bits of the past. We can supplement our ghostly memories with solid artifacts from back then, like books, albums, movies and television shows. But I’m not sure how much time we should spend in the long ago – why reject the now for the when?

My friend Annie and I are going through all the episodes of the original Star Trek series in order. It’s a fun trip down memory lane, but I’m not sure how rewarding such travels are for our souls. Remembering old hopes and dreams can be inspiring, and even regenerate new hopes. But were those hopes just another kind of opium dream? Science fiction has always been a coping tool for me, but it’s never been a cure. I’ll never travel to the Moon, Mars or worlds beyond in other solar systems. Ultimately, it might not be the dream of the final frontier that makes Star Trek worthy, but its allegories for living here and now, that is its true legacy.

I could keep writing for thousands of words. Writing this essay has proved that memories lie dormant, and can be found. The more I write, the more that well up. Before I started this experiment I didn’t think my dad had lived with us during our nine months in Charleston, but I unearthed a memory of him, of the two of us staying in a downtown hotel in Memphis. I assume he came to visit to talk my mother into returning to Miami, because we did in March of 1967. I also remember how little my father and mother told me and my sister about what was going on with them. I remember observing their fights, but not what was said. I wish I could remember if either of my parents, or my sister, had watched Star Trek with me, and what they had said.

I realize these memories I recall here were just for the Fall of 1966. Memories of Winter, Spring and Summer also came flooding back. I also remembered my time with science fiction was solitary, and I had a much larger social life then. I made two friends while I was in Charleston, Ben White and Mack Peters, plus my sister and I spent a lot of time with our cousins Gary and Liz, who were our age. And we also spent a lot of time with my aunts and uncles. My mother was one of five sisters, and her grandmother had been married to a guy who outlived several wives, making me related to about half of north Mississippi.

I hadn’t realized until now how isolated science fiction made me. Reading science fiction in 1966 was about as solitary as masturbation. Hell, my buddies and I probably spent more time joking about jacking off than talking about Star Trek. Science fiction just wasn’t on the map then. It’s strange how science fiction has become so damn popular these last fifty years. Why? Countless books have been written about the enduring success of Star Trek. Has any television show ever had such an impact? The only competition Star Trek has had for its kind of story has been Star Wars.

And I think we need to ask how science fiction appeals to us. Is it a literature that prepares us for the future because we all hope to travel to the stars? Or is science fiction like the stories the ancient Greeks told each other, the ones we now call Greek Mythology. Is science fiction just allegories for our times? Maybe literal interpretation of allegories is a product of our times, because we have the technology to make things real. Maybe the Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews of the B.C.E., all knew their stories were only stories, and just used them as entertainment and metaphor. We marvel that Star Trek communicators became flip-phones, but wasn’t that an accident? The creators of Star Trek weren’t trying to predict the future, or even inspire it. They were out to make a buck, and the writers, actors, producers, and all the other people that worked on the show, merely wanted a steady paying gig.

The more I watch Star Trek in 2016, the more I see it was about 1966. But why in 1966, did we hope Star Trek would become our future? It hasn’t. I’m sure there are young people in 2016 that hope Star Trek unfolds in their lifetime, and when they look back from 2076, lament their future didn’t turn out as expected either.

The irony of all this, is 2016 is a science fiction world, at least compared to the world of 1966. And it’s getting more science fictional every day. Soon we’ll have driverless cars, practical personal robots, and probably intelligent machines. Astronomy and SETI may make breakthroughs in the next 50 years that was astound us. But what we don’t remember is how science fictional 1966 was to people who could remember 1916. That was the year my mother was born. My mother’s mother was born in 1881. She came to Memphis to work as a secretary before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. I remember in 1966 my grandmother telling me God wouldn’t let astronauts land on the Moon, that it was too unnatural. She was born before radio, cars, television and airplanes.

I didn’t become an astronaut, but in 1971 I started studying computers at a tech school. That turned out to be my science fictional destiny. Along the way, I learned that Earth is a much better planet to live on than Mars. 2016 is a far more exciting time to live in than 1966. I can’t imagine living without the internet or smartphones. And we know so much more now. I can remember the astronomy books I read in 1966, with muddled black and white photos that amazed us. I can buy an amateur telescope and CCD camera that surpasses the photographs Mt. Palomar was taking back then. Even my toy Raspberry Pi is more powerful than the best mainframes of 1966.

We should be asking why we even bother thinking about Star Trek in 2016. What does it offer us that we can’t get in real life.

Happy 50th Birthday, Star Trek!

classic-star-trek-montage

JWH

Rethinking Star Trek: “The Cage”

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 22, 2016

“The Cage” was the first pilot for Star Trek, made in 1964-65. Wikipedia has an excellent history and plot summary, so I won’t repeat it. I’m sure most fans remember this proto Star Trek with Mr. Spock as the only main character from the regular series. The sets, special effects, costumes, models, gadgets, were are all much more primitive than what we see in later episodes. However, the story is exactly the kind of story Star Trek was known for, and was later recycled into the two-part episode “The Menagerie.”

spock smiles the-cage

What I discovered watching “The Cage” a half-century after seeing “The Man Trap” on 9/8/66, is a different impression of Star Trek. I was never a fanatical fan, but I loved the original series, and watched all the later series as they came out. To be honest, I’ve always thought of Star Trek as Sci-Fi Lite. Quite often television and movies make science fictional ideas look silly, and all too often I criticized Star Trek for not being scientific. In recent decades I found it almost impossible to sit through the old shows because I lost the patience for 20th century television. But something in me changed recently, when I began watching the old shows as a way of understanding myself as I was fifty years ago.

For some reason, I got into a headspace where Star Trek worked again. I was able to forget the limitations of 1960s television production, my skepticism about scientific plausibility, the silliness of plotting, and enjoyed the show as its creators intended. This time around I discovered Roddenberry was less into science fiction than I remembered.

As I watch each episode with my friend Annie, I’m actually looking forward to seeing Star Trek again. We’re playing the series in order the episodes were broadcast in 1966-69 using Netflix streaming. Annie and I were both born in 1951, and we watched the show when it first came out, me in Mississippi and Florida, and she in New Mexico. This time traveling is bringing back memories of discovering science fiction, first in television and movies in the 1950s, and then in books in the early 1960s. Star Trek actually repackages all the common science fictional ideas of the times. We like to think of Star Trek as being an original television series, and it was, but sometimes it was The Beatles, but quite often it was The Monkees. Don’t get me wrong, The Monkees had some great tunes, but they were manufactured hits. What fascinates me now is how Roddenberry repacked 1950s science fiction for his 1960s philosophy.

Gene Roddenberry never had the science fiction originality of science fiction writers of the 1950s. I don’t think he was even a big fan of the genre before discovering Star Trek fans in the 1970s. Except for a few episodes written by science fiction writers, Star Trek wasn’t contemporary with 1960s written science fiction. The New Wave in science fiction hit just before the series premiered. Watching these old shows again in the 21st century lets me see them differently from how they appeared in 1966. This time around, I’m focusing on the history of science fiction, and the ideas science fiction were exploring at that time.

Watching these shows again, I realized that Star Trek was less about science fiction, and more about allegory. Roddenberry was using science fiction to express his political beliefs. For those who didn’t live through 1964-1966, these were exciting years intellectually. Science fiction is the main ingredient in Star Trek, but there’s many other ingredients as well, including 1950s television, Civil Rights, feminism, anti-war, Pop Art, the Counter Culture, and so on. Each screenwriter brought something different, and Roddenberry squeezed all of it into allegories.

The Allegorical View

cage-talosian

The words Talos and Talosians sound close to theology and theologians. In “The Cage” the Talosians have god-like powers. Gene Roddenberry was an atheist, and “The Cage” seems less about aliens from outer space, and more about beings from heaven. The show is about how theologians keep us imprisoned by our thoughts and the promise of heaven. Throughout the episode, the Talosians struggle to convince Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) to accept their fantasies for reality, tempting him with a beautiful woman, Vina (Susan Oliver). They want Pike and Vina to play Adam and Eve, and repopulate their planet. To be their servants, their hands in the physical world. It’s very Biblical.

The symbolism of this first show is rather striking. Humans reject god, leaving a rundown Eden to escape into space. Vina stays home, trapped in god’s delusion, disfigured by god’s image of what she should be. Rewatch “The Cage” and think allegory rather than science fiction. Think about the last temptation of Christ.

The Science Fiction

Pike-holding-Phaser

The warp drive was one of Star Trek’s most famous science fictional ideas, and it evolved over time. Science fiction has come up with many ideas about traveling faster than light. Ultimately, they’re all gimmicks to further the plot. In Star Trek, interstellar travel takes about as much time to get between the stars as ocean liners traveling between the continents did in the 1960s. In Star Wars, interstellar travel is faster than jet travel between countries in the 1970s. Science fiction seldom deals with the reality that interstellar travel, which will probably take centuries, if we’re lucky.

The transporter was another “invention” of Star Trek,  even though matter transporters had existed in science fiction before 1966. The story that’s always told, is the producers of Star Trek couldn’t afford using a shuttle craft, so they came up with the transporter to save on production costs. That’s fine, but there is a huge logic hole in their design. Why does it take a machine to send people, but not another machine to receive people? If they could grab people off a planet, why didn’t Scotty just beam Kirk from the bridge to the planet? Why did they always have to go to the transporter room to beam down, but didn’t need a machine to beam up. Think of the jokes Scotty could have played on Kirk, beaming him to a different Yeoman’s bedroom every night after he had gone to sleep.

Also, how many exabytes of data are required to describe a human in transporter logic? And the transporter appears to beam people faster than light. Does that require warping space? And how are people decoded at a distance without a machine?

The aliens in Star Trek often had super-powers, or even god-like powers. The Talosians could create perfect delusions in humans. The first regular episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap,” the creature was called a shape shifter, but obviously that was incorrect, because it appeared in one scene to several men, looking different to each. It evidently had the same power as the Talosians. But think about what such a power means. First it means faster-than-light data communication between two minds, with very massive amounts of data transferred. And with multiple humans, means multitasking at a tremendous rate.

Our minds can create very realistic, vivid hallucinations, but only when our senses are turned off. Like when we’re asleep and dreaming, or in a sensory deprivation tank, or we’ve taken some powerful drugs. Even then, the details of hallucinations are never even close to details of how we experience reality processed through our senses. Creating perfect illusions is impossible. This is only a gimmick for the allegory.

I don’t know why, but most “advanced” aliens are always given PSI-powers in science fiction. These super-powers are always very similar to the powers we attribute to gods. There’s no scientific reasons to think such powers exist in us, or aliens. Quite often in Star Trek, Kirk and crew meet aliens with such god-like powers. In each case Kirk is required to outthink such beings, and he does, although often with silly gimmicks. I get the feeling Roddenberry hated authority, religion, and any kind of mind control, and many of his science fiction stories reflect this in allegory. Often Roddenberry is much closer to The Twilight Zone than Astounding/Analog. But then again, maybe I need to revisit 1950s/1960s science fiction to see if it was more allegorical than science fiction.

To me, real science fiction was always about preparing us to go to the stars. Fans think that’s true of Star Trek. I’m not so sure, at least for the original series. My hunch is Roddenberry didn’t get the science fiction religion until after Star Trek:TOS. As I watch the shows, I’m wondering if the fans didn’t read the pro-space theology into the original series. I’ll see as we watch.

JWH

Star Trek Histories at 50

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 15, 2016

My celebration of Star Trek at 50 continues, which began with “Remembering Star Trek—50 Years” and then “Star Trek: Dystopia in the Utopia.” I was never a Trekkie/Trekker, never went to a Star Trek convention, and I’ve only read a couple of the novels, so I don’t know why I’ve developed this sudden fascination with Star Trek. For decades I’ve had a hard time watching any old TV shows again—they were just too simplistic. Only the latest and best TV keeps my attention. Then something happened, something clicked, and I didn’t hate ancient television anymore. WTF?

It all started when I caught a few episodes of Gunsmoke, and then I read Leonard by William Shatner, which described working in 1950s television. This week I’ve caught episodes of I Love Lucy, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Make Room For Daddy, and Perry Mason, all from the 1950s. And, Annie, my Star Trek buddy, and I, are chronologically going through the 1960s Star Treks. I’m in some kind of time warp, and I can’t get out. Why?

Maybe it started when I was bingeing on 1950s science fiction books, and that somehow altered my consciousness so I could enjoy the old television again. Maybe the 1950s is just a comfortable place to hide out for a while. Living in the 1950s for a while evidently prepared me to enjoy 1960s Star Trek again. After reading Leonard and beginning the systematic rewatching of ST:TOS, I began craving more data about Star Trek.

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That’s when I discovered the two-volume, The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years and The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams, both by Edward Gross Mark A. Altman. The first volume is even available on audio. These are beautiful books, massive in scope, that includes hundreds of new interviews, that attempt to cover the entire subject of Star Trek and its legacy. What Gross and Altman do is cut and paste thousands of quotations from everyone involved into one long, two-volume, chronological narrative. It’s both a history of Star Trek and a study in how television and movies are made, and how a cult phenomenon was created.

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Because there was so much written about Star Trek, I wondered what are considered the most comprehensive books on just ST:TOS, so I started poking around Amazon and found this three volume set by Marc Cushman:

Because these books are an episode-by-episode history of the classic 79 ST:TOS shows, I bought the first volume to read along with my rewatching of the series. These five books should keep me busy for years. Maybe three years. I’ve been thinking of writing a review of each show on it’s 50th anniversary. Of course, that sounds like one of those projects that I’ll start and give up quickly. However, my new fascinating with these old Star Trek shows is different this time. Fifty years ago I judged each show by my then standard for science fiction. Many episodes seemed way too silly to be considered science fiction because the science didn’t seem believable. This time around, I’m seeing the shows as allegories and metaphors, and not concerning myself as much with the science.

From the handful of episodes we’ve seen again, I realize each episode makes a statement about science fiction, the social and political climate of the day, and the ambitions of their creators. Fifty years down the road, I’m using Star Trek to study what we were all like in the 1960s – a kind of cultural anthropology. With 79 episodes, I’m sure Star Trek probably said everything anyone could about what’s possible with science fiction.

Star Trek was never my vision of science fiction. I’ve never really liked television and movie science fiction as much as I love written science fiction. Quite often, visual science fiction seems silly, even demeaning to written science fiction. Now, that’s my POV, and I know it’s not a common one. For example, the first four episodes of Star Trek (as seen on Netflix streaming, including the first pilot) have stories built around aliens or humans with god-like powers. Annie and I were arguing about that last night. She claims aliens could have super-powers, because we don’t know what’s possible. I say destroying a space ship and its crew light years away with just a thought is an unbelievable god-like power. I’m an atheist – not only do I not believe in God, I don’t believe in god-like powers. But what does it say when science fiction creators and fans do?

Roddenberry was known to be an atheist, so why does he write about god-like beings? In the first pilot, humans reject any paradise the Talosians promise because we refuse to be their playthings. In the second pilot, Kirk kills the two crewmen who become gods. How symbolic! Are those stories allegories, and Gary Mitchell, and later Q, stand in for something Roddenberry wants to attack? Is this science fiction or theology? What do the Talosians stand for in the story? Are they merely powerful aliens, or metaphor for gods? The crew of Star Trek always rejects, escapes, destroys or outwits powerful god-like aliens. Hell, they have a tough time accepting Spock, and his cold logical mind. This show is amazingly pro-human. Should I even say, humanistic.

If I study these history books about Star Trek will I find out why each show was written? Are their academic books that critically analyze the stories. Or, are the stories merely cribbed from 1950s science fiction. “Charlie X” seems to borrow from Stranger in a Strange Land and “The Good Life” by Jerome Bixby. How often in the original 79 episodes of Star Trek do the the writers reprocess for the current week’s show something they read in F&SF, Galaxy, If and Astounding during the previous decade? Science fictional ideas that were spread to thousands in the 1950s with magazines, were now being spread to millions on television.

I’m currently fascinating by Star Trek for many reasons. I’m rethinking my own brain programming. I rejected God and religion back when I began embracing science fiction. But after a lifetime of accepting my science fictional faith, I’m developing skeptical thoughts. The foundation of my thinking comes from 1950s television, reading science fiction in the 1960s, and absorbing the 1960s counter culture. Strangely, I believe Star Trek did the same thing.

JWH