Baby Boomer Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 17, 2017

For a small group of aficionados of old black and white movies, there’s a tiny sub-genre called “Pre-Code Hollywood” that has a passionate following. I’m fond of a certain era of science fiction which I’m currently calling Baby Boomer Science Fiction. I feel it’s slowly being recognized as a distinct sub-genre, but it doesn’t have a name yet. I’m guessing it has about as many fans as Pre-Code Hollywood.

I got hooked on science fiction in the 1950s by watching old science fiction movies on television. I found books to read with similar themes in 1962. Then in 1964, I discovered there was a genre called science fiction. I began pursuing it with a passion. At the time, science fiction was a lonely, but exciting love. It wasn’t until 1967 that I found a friend who read science fiction. I discovered fandom in 1971, thinking I had finally found my tribe. And that’s when I first met women who read science fiction. In 1977 I met my wife and went to work at my last job. My wife had read Dune and loved J. R. R. Tolkien, but wasn’t a fan. Except for couple close friends, science fiction became mostly a solitary pursuit again.

IF - Jan53

In 2002 I joined Audible.com. I discovered I loved listening to the old science fiction I first read during 1962-1975. Because of the internet, I found other people like myself who were nostalgic for science fiction from the 1950s and 1960s. I joined a small online book club at Yahoo Groups, Classic Science Fiction about ten years ago, where many of the members remembered reading the same kind of science fiction I did when they were growing up.

And there were several women in the group. Back in the 1960s, I didn’t think women read science fiction. I used to pray my atheist prayers for a girlfriend who read science fiction. I now realize there were male and female science fiction fans all around me in school and I never knew it.

I figure all across the country there are folks my age, and a few from younger generations, who love a particular kind of science fiction. It’s science fiction that was mostly published in the 1950s and 1960s, but some from the 1970s. I’ve decided to call stories of this kind, Baby Boomer Science Fiction (BB-SF). It’s not a great name like the Lost Generation or the Beats, but it’s a useful enough tag.

There are two ways to explain my label. First, people might think of baby boomers who wrote science fiction, but that’s not where I’m going, although that could be another essay. No, I categorizing these stories by the science fiction old baby boomers are nostalgic for now. I’m wondering if every generation has science fiction fans who love a particular kind of science fiction. Growing up I met older guys who gushed about the science fiction from the 1920s and 1930s, but I found their science fiction distinctively different, even quaint and dated. I wonder if young readers today find my science fiction on the moldy side?

There are no official names or dates for generations, but I like those defined in “The Six Living Generations In America.” Other sources give other date ranges. Wikipedia has even different date ranges and names. I bet there’s science fiction sub-genre for every one of these generations.

  • The Lost Generation (1883-1900)
  • GI Generation/Greatest Generation (1901-1926) (1901-1924)
  • The Silent Generation (1927-1945) (1925-1941)
  • Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
  • Generation X (1965-1980) (1965-1976)
  • Millennials (1981-2000) (1977-1995)
  • Generation Z/Boomlets/Centennials/iGen (2001- ) (1996- )

It has been said that The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12. (Before that I heard 1939-1949.) For my purposes, I’m looking at baby boomers who turned twelve during 1958-1976 and got hooked on science fiction. I turned twelve three days after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. 1958-1976 roughly coincides with Sputnik (1957) to Apollo 11 (1969), which also happens to be my 1st-12th-grade years. So Sci-Fi Baby Boomers grew up with NASA and science fiction.

Even is we discount space travel and science fiction, those years were far out times, with memorable concurrent influences that felt just as radical as science fiction, such as classic rock, the Civil Rights movement, second wave feminism, the early Gay Liberation movement, the beginning of the computer age, and the Beats/Hippies/New Age counter-cultures. Really, a lot more. The 1960s would have been science fictional if written in a novel in the 1950s.

On the internet, the kind of “classic science fiction” I’m talking about has almost become a tiny meme. I frequently stumble across websites devoted to BB-SF, but without any consistent label. I used to call it 1950s & 1960s science fiction, but once I applied the Baby Boomer generation label, I realized it stretched a few years earlier and later. I thought of calling it Space Race Science Fiction because its fans grew up with Sputnik, Project Mercury, Project Gemini and Project Apollo. It was also the science fiction that was siblings to rock music, but “Rock and Roll Sci-Fi” doesn’t work. The earlier era of science fiction centered around pulp magazines and the heart of this era’s science fiction were the digest SF magazines. “Digest SF” doesn’t work either. So I’m going with Baby Boomer Science Fiction.

Even though all the members of my science fiction book club have decidedly different personalities, we tend to prefer science fiction published in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. We all dabble in newer SF, but with no consistent preferences showing up for later SF. You can see the club’s reading history here. Nor do we all share the same favorite novels from the Baby Boomer era.

What we do share is a wistful fondness for the Baby Boomer Science Fiction we grew up reading and watching. In that era, Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were considered The Big Three of SF. Those guys were from the GI Generation. From the Silent Generation, we got Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, and Samuel R. Delaney. Those writers felt young, fresh, daring, and revolutionary when we first read their stories in the digests.

The BB-SF I’m talking about, the stuff we’re nostalgic for, was first discovered by Baby Boomers in four stages. Old books in libraries, cheap paperbacks, the Science Fiction Book Club, and the science fiction digest magazines.

Hardbacks

Before 1950 there was little science fiction published in hardback. Starting in the late 1940s a few small presses began publishing hardback SF which turned into a boom in the 1950s. These were the old books baby boomers discovered in libraries in the sixties that define science fiction for them for the rest of their lives.

Links are to sources where you can see titles and covers, and hopefully, trigger your nostalgia. The main publishers I remember were:

Paperbacks

Almost concurrent with the hardback boom, was a boom in paperback science fiction. Great reads could be bought with lunch money. I remember living in small towns in the 1960s, with a wire rack in a drugstore my only source of science fiction. Many baby boomers love to collect these paperbacks today. Others nostalgically remember their covers. The main publishers I remember were:

Science Fiction Book Club

The Science Fiction Book Club began in 1953. I joined it in 1967. That’s when I started reading new SF books the year they came out. The SFBC editions were not as well made as the publisher’s editions, but they still felt like owning a hardback. Looking at their publications schedules (Doubleday, Putnam) is a trip down memory lane, and probably a fairly accurate key to when I first read many BB-SF books.

I don’t think most fans of BB-SF books today were members of the SFBC. I don’t often read nostalgic blog essays about being in the club. I think most people who love BB-SF do so because of the books they found in libraries or the paperbacks they bought.

Digest Magazines

I discovered the digest magazines around 1965 and immediately began searching for back issues in used bookstores. I think very few BB-SF readers today got into the digests. They’ve never had a huge circulation, although for a while Publishers Clearing House pushed Analog, and I believe Asimov’s to over 100,000. I think their current circulations run 10-23k. If the digests even had that circulation in the 1960s, then the current population who might be nostalgic for BB-SF could potentially be around that size. I tend to think it’s in the hundreds, not thousands. But I’m not sure.

Another indicator of interest is websites devoted to pulp scans. IF Magazine was recently reprinted on Internet Archives. The most popular issues have had a few thousand people look at them.

I believe the definitive digest SF magazines for Baby Boomers were:

There were dozens of other titles, but most were short-lived. I subscribed to all of these at different times. Letters in Ted White’s Amazing got me into fandom. I collected F&SF, which was my favorite. I enjoyed Galaxy and IF a lot more than Analog.

Are You a Fan of BB-SF?

I believe younger science fiction readers prefer newer books. Science fiction should be cutting edge and old science fiction often feels dated, and sadly, alarmingly sexist. But science fiction from the Baby Boomer years does feel original in a way modern science fiction can’t. That’s because contemporary science fiction often feels like rewritten BB-SF. Newer SF stories are often better told, longer, and sometimes feel Baroque with details. At the online book club, many agree that we loved science fiction novels when they were around 200 pages long, and new science fiction runs several times that length, and usually the books are part of an endless series.

Plus with newer books, you seldom see little gems of weird speculation like Brainwave by Poul Anderson,  The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd, Space Chantey by R. A. Lafferty,  or Mindswap by Robert Sheckley.

Here are the books I remember:

p.s.

If you got a better name, propose it in the comments.

p.s.s.

I wanted to use this photo from Getty Images, but it costs money. But isn’t it perfect?

JWH

Waiting for Heinlein

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 14, 2017

Are you disappointed your life hasn’t turned out like the stories you love? Would I feel this way now if I had loved literary fiction instead of science fiction? In the last third of my life, I’m cherishing nineteenth-century English novels and early twentieth-century American novels, realizing they would have been better preparation for my life – the life I got instead of the one I wanted. Science fiction is as wondrous as any religion but as frustrating as a Samuel Beckett play. Of course, doesn’t religion and science fiction promise futures that will never arrive?

Robert Heinlein

I’ve been waiting a long time for the future to get here – sixty years by one reckoning. And I must admit, sometimes I feel the fringes of Tomorrowland when I use my smartphone, but for the most part, I’m still waiting for Heinlein to show up. Other writers have complained about not getting their jetpack, but they had such foolish gadgets back in the sixties.

I’m waiting for interplanetary rocketships with long sleek hulls, that land on four fins with thrusters, or interstellar spaceships like the U.S.S. Enterprise. Reading about extrasolar planets is encouraging, but it ain’t what Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke promised with tales of visiting them.

I’m also waiting for robots like Asimov and Simak promised. I do talk to Alexa, but she has no soul. And I enjoy seeing the little robots DIY people make with a Raspberry Pi board, but I think we should have robots well beyond the ones we saw in Forbidden Planet and Lost in Space.

Do we screw up kids by letting them read science fiction and fantasy? Even before I discovered Robert A. Heinlein at age 12 in 1964, I had absorbed a great deal of science fiction via an old black and white television my family bought in 1955. Should we judge reality by our dreams? Would we have invented everything that makes us human by accepting reality as it is?

Maybe fantasies are fine except we should be more discerning when creating them.

I don’t know if this is too sick to admit, but as a kid, I was disappointed that WWIII didn’t happen. All those 1950s movies about mutants and last people on Earth had its allure. Living like Harry Belafonte in The World, The Flesh and the Devil seemed great, especially after Inger Stevens arrives. (Like Harry’s character, I could have done without the Mel Ferrer’s character.)

And even though the robots in Target Earth were scary, I liked them, although I didn’t love them like I loved Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was a shame learning in the 1960s that our 1950s flying saucers dreams were flaky and fake. It was somewhat redeeming when we got to see Closer Encounters of the Third Kind in the 1970s, but it really was too late, at least for believing in Have Space Suit-Will Travel adventures.

It was crushing in 1972 when we stopped going to the Moon. From reading Heinlein I was positive humans would reach the red planet by the end of that decade and build colonies there in the 1980s. I thought before I died (which I imagined being around the mid-21st century), I’d leave life knowing that interstellar travel was in the preparation phase.

I’ve written this essay before. I’ll probably write it again many times before I die. The feelings that inspire these thoughts come out again and again. I wanted more science fictional dreams to come true in my lifetime. Of course, I also expected more of my liberal dreams to unfold before I died too, but Donald Trump has crushed them. Books, especially those we read when we’re young give us a kind of hope that never goes away. I know the hopes I got from science fiction are no more practical than the hopes the faithful get from reading The Bible. Does needing the impossible mean we’re stupid? Or do those desires shape our souls?

The thing that distinguishes science fiction from religion is the belief that humans can build rockets that will take us to the stars. The faithful believe God will take them to heaven. Maybe my frustration with the future is it takes longer than a lifetime to get where I dream of going.

I still embrace three science fictional hopes that could come true before I die. The first is SETI. I’m not sure humans will ever travel to other star systems, but we might get messages from beings living light years away. Second, even if we don’t get a message from ET, I hope astronomy will eventually detect atmospheres with spectrographic evidence of advanced life on extrasolar planets. Finally, I hope AI minds arrive. Many people fear artificial intelligence will wipe out humans, but I hope they will help us evolve. Our species is smart, but I don’t think we’re smart enough to survive self-extinction. AI minds could save us from our own stupidity.

I’ve been waiting my whole life to live my favorite stories of Robert A. Heinlein. That’s quite childish of me. On the other hand, I could have followed in my father’s footsteps. He died an alcoholic at age 49. I always assumed he drank because he couldn’t achieve his childhood aspirations. I’ve often wondered if science fiction was my alcohol. At least science fiction has kept me alive longer.

Like Vladimir and Estragon, my old friend Connell and I have been arguing about the future since 1967, waiting for Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov to arrive.

JWH

What If Science Fiction Is Wrong About Space Travel?

Science fiction is about speculation and the topic it has speculated on most is space travel. What if science fiction is wrong? What if it turns out that humans aren’t suited for living in space or colonizing other worlds? What if homo sapiens need to live on Earth? How will such knowledge affect your philosophy?

Decades ago I realized that science fiction was my substitute for religion. I didn’t believe in God, heaven, or an afterlife, but I did believe in humanity spreading across the galaxy. I don’t know why that brought meaning to my life, but it did. I grew up reading and watching science fiction during the Project Mercury, Gemini and Apollo year of the 1960s. As I covered in my last essay at Worlds Without End, “A Distance Too Far,” new research is showing the biological limitations of humans living in space. Space scientists hope to overcome those limitations but what if they can’t? What if humanity is condemned to living on Earth until we go extinct? What if we have to watch robots and AI machines live out our Star Trek dreams?

I assume most science fiction fans will react the same way the faithful react when they encounter an atheist. It’s really hard to give up a core value which gives our minds meaning. I have no idea how adaptable humans are to space but I’m wondering what it will mean if we can’t. If you’re a hardcore science fiction fan could you give up your faith in the final frontier?

What happens to us when we no longer believe in getting to heaven or other planets? Will we find meaning living vicariously through the eyes of our robots who leave Earth and become immortal among the stars? What kind of science fiction will be written in fifty years if we have tried to colonize Mars and failed? If we discover galactic radiation fries our brains and it requires 1-G to reproduce normally – will we give up on human space travel?

Or think about this. What if we do colonize Mars and adapt but discover everyone hates living there? There are thousands of people who would volunteer for a one-way mission to Mars. Have you ever wondered why? What motivates people to want to live on a barren rock, that’s bathed in solar and galactic radiation, that’s colder than anyplace on Earth, and its atmosphere is unbreathable? Is it a powerful fantasy implanted in childhood like theology? Is it a deep drive to spread our genes to new worlds? Or is it a psychological desire to escape an unhappy life here?

What if we discover that many of the hopes of science fiction won’t come true for us? Think a moment about our other science fiction dreams. What if we can only push our bodies so far before longevity research peters out and we realize immortality is impossible? What if we can’t download our minds into machines or clones? What happens when we discover that being homo sapiens comes with limits that can’t be surpassed? I’m sure we’re far from discovering those limits but what if someday we know those limits with certainty?

Science fiction has always given us hope for unlimited potential. Yet, reality suggests we’ll eventually bang into the glass walls of our aquarium. I wonder what science fiction will speculate on then.

JWH

Have We Accepted Rising Oceans as Inevitable?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, March 16, 2017

I’m reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest science fiction novel, New York 2140. The story depicts a future New York City through the eyes of a wide cast of characters, reminding me somewhat of Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. Robinson’s characters are survivors of a massive rise in sea levels. And even though they face horrible problems, their problems don’t seem any worse than those we face. The message is we always have problems, and we always solve them in a muddling way.

New York 2140

I’ve felt until now that climate change fiction warned us to avoid environmental doom. Have we already given up the battle? Are we now accepting rising seas and mass extinctions as inevitable? Donald Trump’s budget came out today, and it’s all too obvious he’s not going to fight climate change. Has everyone else given up too, including science fiction writers, of returning CO2 levels to below 350 ppm?

It is quite clear that conservatives have chosen lower taxes over action to stop global warming. Their greed knows no bounds, just look at their health care proposal. They prefer a tax cut for the rich over any Sermon on the Mount compassion. They pretend to believe climate change is not real, but I can’t believe they’re that stupid. I wonder if they haven’t psychologically accepted rising oceans in exchanged for lowering taxes and deregulation windfalls?

New York 2140 is a very entertaining novel, but I’m wondering if Robinson isn’t taking a Pollyanna view of the future. His New York City of 2140 is vibrant and alive, even after the oceans have turned it into a new world Venice. If I wrote science fiction my 2140 NYC would look a hundred times worse than New Orleans right after Katrina. My novel of a doomed city would be closer to Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren. Robinson makes 2140 NYC horrible but exciting, even attractive.

New York 2140 cover

KSM is considered a very realistic science fiction writer, but isn’t he also overly optimistic? Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, and 2312 reveal a lot of hope for the future. Is Robinson being too hopeful? We have to ask ourselves if civilization can survive runaway climate change? Robinson’s book suggests we’ll adapt and survive like our species always has in the past. But can we really bank on that trend? I’m not so sure.

I don’t think humanity will become extinct if we don’t reverse rising CO2 levels. We are adaptable. I do think we risk devastating billions of lives, and jeopardizing civilization as we know it. Our current successful civilization depends on relentless economic growth. I don’t think that’s sustainable. The real challenge of climate change is mutating our current civilization from free market capitalism to steady-state capitalism. The neo-nationalism we’re experiencing today suggests humans aren’t adaptable to such a change.

In that sense, I’m not sure Kim Stanley Robinson is right in thinking we’ll continue to succeed like we’ve had in the past. I worry we’re approaching a breaking point. That might happen yet in his novel, I haven’t finished it yet.

I’m listening to the audio version of New York 2140, but I admire it so much, I’ve decided to get the book version and read it too. I don’t think one reading will be enough.

JWH

More Sense of Wonder Than Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 20, 2017

Origami-NOVA-3

For the first two-thirds of my life sense of wonder mostly came from science fiction, but in the last third science is supplying more wonder. I have theories as to why. First, aging is making me more fascinated with reality. Second, I’ve lived long enough to feel the real world is science fictional. For example, my science fiction book club is reading Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper, a 1962 novel about the discovery of cute creatures on a distant planet that might be sapient. As a kid in the 1960s, that was an exciting idea. But in 2017 we know animals are far more intelligent than we thought and in ways far more exciting than an old science fiction novel. Learning how and why has a great sense of wonder.

The dimensions of sapient behavior have become far more fantastic than fiction, including old stories about robots. For example, The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein, published in 1957, and first read by me in 1964. Heinlein’s character Dan Davis built household robots – which dazzled me back then. But today I could build my own robot with a Raspberry Pi kit, producing a completely different kind of sense of wonder. I could also download open source machine learning toolkits. This era of Makers and DIY produces a different kind of wonder. Science fiction is great, but I believe I would now give a kid a subscription to Make Magazine before telling her to read science fiction.

More and more when I watch a great documentary I want to know the details about how things are actually done. I don’t want to just be an observer. Last night I watched a wonderful episode of NOVA on PBS that has more sense of wonder than any science fiction novel I can remember reading in a very long time.

It was about origami.

Origami?

Yes, origami. You know, paper cranes…

It was titled “The Origami Revolution” – about how the art of folding paper has inspired scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. The producers completely blew me away. Origami is a fascinating craft, even an art form, but not one I ever paid much attention to. The program began by reporting the latest developments in the art, which go way beyond making simple paper cranes. Using a single sheet of paper, it’s possible to make very elaborate 3D shapes by just folding paper (and without cutting).

Origami-NOVA-2

Cranes are simple, requiring about thirty folds. Modern advanced origami art like above requires hundreds of folds involving very complex geometry. This is where the excitement started for me – because they brought in mathematics. The program introduced Erik Demaine, showing him working on a 60-page mathematical algorithm with Tomohiro Tachi for computerized origami folding. Can you imagine the mathematics of creating the above work of origami? I can’t, but I wish I could. Tachi has developed a software program Origamizer that the two of them hope will eventually be able to create any 3D figure from a 2D piece of paper. Their theorem should prove it’s possible.

Origami-NOVA-5

“The Origami Revolution” then goes on to survey wide-ranging work in biology, genetics, chemistry, physics, astronomy that have been influenced by what we’re learning from folding. This has been happening for decades, so I feel a little left behind. The program generated a tremendous sense of wonder in me, probably because this new research offers so much far-out potential, including building robots and spacecraft, and even claiming that dark matter theoretically reveals folded shapes in the structure of the universe.

Here’s a 2008 TED Talks by Robert Lang which give more details than the episode of NOVA, including some examples that are more impressive than shown in the TV show. Follow the link in his name to his website for even more information.

Understanding how modeling 3D structures from a 2D source teaches us about nature, because once the mathematics of folding were revealed scientists began seeing folding in nature, including plants, insects, and even the cosmos. From there it goes into applied engineered structures.

(This isn’t folding per se, but I think it’s related. See SmartFlower Solar.)

If you watch “The Origami Revolution” count all the far out bits of technology. You’ll realize that many of them were never discussed in science fiction. When I was young, I thought science fiction explored ahead of science, but after all these decades I’ve learned something different. Science fiction trails science. This show could inspire countless science fiction stories. Even while watching the TV show I imagined other folks seeing it and thinking up science fiction stories as they watched. They will magnify the demonstrated concepts, extrapolate, speculate, imagine, and come up with possible future scenarios to dramatize. I’m sure they will create far-out tales.

But I think getting older is making me both more patient and less patient. I’m becoming impatient with fiction. It’s easier to skim over the drama, and just zero in on the current science. Now that I’m retired, I have more time to fool around with tech toys. I spend less time reading about imaginary futures, and more time trying to figure the details of now.

You can also watch the full episode of “The Origami Revolution” on YouTube.

JWH

Running Away to Mars

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 8, 2017

While reading The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, a handbook for processing memories, it triggered several vivid revelations about my childhood. Especially the time when I ran away to Mars in 1963. That flashback revealed why I first dropped science fiction. I wanted an antidepressant. Science fiction has proven quite effective at masking reality, because I can’t even remember being depressed. How PKDickian!

Two Mars

A lifetime of contemplating the future has been an excellent mantra for ignoring the present. I am rather disappointed that running away never got me anywhere. I’ve been to Mars many times, but never to the one that exists in reality.

Today I’m plotting my own alternate history timeline. What if I had not run away to Mars back in 1963 and stayed on Earth instead? Wow, that’s more mind-twisting than The Man in the High Castle.

Maybe it wasn’t the Mary Karr book that jarred these insights. Could it have been the election? Have we all run away to imagined worlds? Reality seems so deserted these days.

JWH

Science Fiction Books That Start Snowballing Themes

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 3, 2016

2017 Sci-Fi ExperienceOver at Stainless Steel Droppings, Carl Anderson has started his 2017 Sci-Fi Experience early. It’s based on Andrea’s Vintage Science Fiction Month. Usually, Carl reads old science fiction in January and February, but decided this year to switch to December and January. Since I’m already reading old science fiction I decided to join in. But I want to put a focus on my efforts. I recently read “17 Science Fiction Books That Forever Changed The Genre” and although I agree with some of their selections, I disagreed with others. However I really liked their idea of identifying the books that either changed the rules/direction of science fiction, or inspired other writers to explore their ideas. I like to think of certain science fiction books as snowballs rolling down a slope getting bigger and bigger – or even causing an avalanche.

James Gleick’s new book, Time Travel: A History does just that for The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Wells’ little book has started a huge snowball rolling down the decades. It might be the best example of what I’m talking about. And Gleick describes many classic time travel novels that came afterwards, but he doesn’t come close to covering all the major time travel stories, just look at this list of books, television shows and films at Wikipedia. Hasn’t every possible speculative variation on time travel been imagined by now?

I want to make my reading of vintage science fiction about studying science fiction themes. I keep wondering if there’s a limited number of science fictional concepts. But then I read something like Spin by Robert Charles Wilson or Quarantine by Greg Egan, and think speculative fiction is unlimited. I do believe we can identify snowballing books, and that will help us count up the themes.

Another good example would be Starship Troopers, a book that inspired such novels as The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, plus seems to have launched the Military SF sub-genre. When I watch movies like Aliens, I think Starship Troopers. When I watch Star Wars I think of Asimov’s Foundation books.

Under-the-Ocean-to-the-South-Pole-2What other books, or series of books inspired a sub-genre in science fiction? Did Heinlein start the YA science fiction market with Rocket Ship Galileo in 1947? But then, does anyone remember The Great Marvel Series by Roy Rockwood (1906-1935)? Carl’s reading challenge generally focuses on books from 1950-1979, but what about books from 1850-1950? Have we already forgotten the books that inspired the Golden Age writers to write those 1950-1979 classics? Older fans today can remember juvenile series by Heinlein, Norton, Asimov and Wollheim, but science fiction for young people goes way back.

Did The Last Man by Mary Shelley, The Scarlet Plague by Jack London and Earth Abides by George R. Stewart start the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction last man on Earth stories? Remember Wells hinted at that in The Time Machine. And didn’t The Time Machine set things up for Olaf Stapledon? All that stuff about future species of humans.

The Stars Are Ours - NortonI’ve been been wondering two things. One, is there a limited number of science fictional ideas, themes, subgenres? And two, how far back do they go? For my science fiction book club, we’re reading The Stars Are Ours! by Andre Norton from 1954. It presents two interesting themes. One, conservative/religious groups repress/destroy science and scientists, and two, people need to escape Earth to start over again on another planet. Both themes are relevant today.  Can we find books from the 19th century or even 18th century that first got those snowballs rolling? Do those themes ever stop being relevant? Will science fiction written in the  22nd century add to the existing snowballs? Will science fiction fans in the 2050s read many SF books from the 1950s? Or even known about them? Or will they think the science fiction they discover in adolescence as having original ideas?

At what point does vintage science fiction become forgotten science fiction, and newer, but older science fiction, become vintage? SF of the 2010s will be vintage by the 2050s. The appeal of vintage science fiction might be due to fans getting older and realizing what they once thought of as original ideas might be as old as the hills. As I’ve said before, Noah’s Ark might have been the first generation ship story. I find parts of The Book of Genesis to be very science fictional. If you squint at it in the right way, doesn’t the whole tree of knowledge of good and evil story seem like speculation about the evolution of human awareness? I can easily imagine a writer, male or female, living under Babylonian occupation, trying to imagine how everything got started, and wrote about a powerful alien being creating us. What’s really science fictional, is people think that story is the literal truth 2700 years later.

Generally, we read for story. We want to be entertained. But I think as we read and reread these vintage science fiction tales, we should examine the ideas they present. Then speculate about what inspired those ideas, and finally, evaluate how well they were implemented. As a liberal, I was rather shocked by the 2016 election results. The lesson I learned is don’t trust my assumptions. I’m applying that lesson to reading vintage science fiction. For example, should we assume that humans can leave Earth and start over on another planet if we totally screw things up here? I hated that Interstellar depended on that idea.

Some snowballs rolling down a hill just fall apart. Can we also count them as we read?

I believe science fiction represents a collection of speculative ideas that have been around a very long time. Eventually, they become real – like heavier than air flight, traveling to the Moon, cloning, constructing robots to do our work – or, we can eventually give up on the idea. I think time travel stories are now considered fantasy by most people. I hear they are remaking filmed versions of Starship Troopers and A Handmaid’s Tale. That’s a recognition that those themes are still valid to a mass audience. But are they considered fantasies or science fiction? Do we believe space marines and horrible theocracies are possible? I think we do.

I’m currently listening to The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard, a short novel that was first published in 1962. Ballard wrote several eco-apocalyptic novels back in the 1960s. They are part of a speculative snowball that now includes The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and Green Earth by Kim Stanley Robinson. In biblical times God caused such catastrophes. After Darwin, it was nature that could destroy us. Now we imagine species suicide. But the theme is the same. Either all, or nearly everyone, gets wiped out. That theme isn’t new – it might have existed in pre-history.

I want to contemplate vintage themes while reading my vintage science fiction.

drowned-world

JWH