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.

The Fifty-Year Mission v1The Fifty-Year Mission v2

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.

These-are-the-Voyages-v1-CushmanThese-are-the-Voyages-v2-CushmanThese-are-the-Voyages-v3-Cushman

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

Star Trek: Dystopia in the Utopia

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, August 14, 2016

Star Trek has a wonderful reputation for presenting a positive future, but do we actually see that utopia in the television shows and movies? In the new film, Star Trek Beyond, we get a few minutes viewing life on Yorktown, a space city and rest stop for the crew of the Enterprise. It represents the utopian civilization of the Star Trek universe. However, if the future is what we see from the bridge of the Enterprise, it’s quite bleak indeed. The Earth, the Federation, the galaxy are always under threat from madmen and alien beings that don’t agree with the Federation’s view of how the galaxy should be ruled.

YorkTown

In the documentary Chaos on the Bridge, William Shatner interviews many of the principle individuals who created Star Trek: The Next Generation. Many of the stories told were about Gene Roddenberry’s new utopian vision for Star Trek. Writers found utopia hard to dramatize. The writers wanted violence, and Roddenberry wanted Star Trek to showcase what humanity could be at its best. The creative battle to create ST:TNG was quite dystopian itself, with one interviewee admitting he thought about pushing Roddenberry’s lawyer out an open window. The solution for providing conflict to the utopian Federation of the 24th century, was to create the Borg. A challenge from outside the utopia. This gave the actors something to do physically, and writers an antagonist for their plots. The show became a success.

But what about Star Trek’s reputation for presenting a positive future? To the crew of Star Trek Beyond, the future is hell, even though they’re defending an idyllic civilization. This time the attack is from within, a terrorist with a bioweapon. But if you look at the history of Star Trek shows, why are there so many internal and external attacks on the Federation? It’s hard to justify you’re painting a rosy picture of the future, when so many want to destroy it.

Aren’t there ways writers could show the future with fewer threats and more civilized activities? What if Star Trek Beyond had been a different movie. Imagine no galactic terrorists, but instead, a story about how the crew  spent their time at Yorktown. Could the writers have presented a view of the future that Roddenberry wanted? One where we felt that things would turn out all right. One that gave us hope for the future. Right now, all indications are the future is going to suck big time. My most successful essay on this blog for the last two years has been “50 Reasons Why The Human Race Is Too Stupid To Survive.” I’m not sure most of us believe humanity will solve its problems. Is science fiction confirming our pessimism, or generated it?

I don’t ever expect a real utopia. But if we eventually create a sustainable society without violence, want and environmental self-destruction, I’d call it good enough for the label utopia.

If Star Trek is a positive view of the future, should we see so many phasers and space battles in a 24th century? Think about this. How many TV shows and movies do you watch that have guns? And how many that don’t. Guns are an easy way to drive the plot. But there are plenty of entertaining shows without guns. Should we consider The Big Bang Theory utopian? Look at the 100 most-watch shows of 2015-2016 season. If you subtract comedies and reality shows, it’s not easy to find shows that don’t involve violence as a plot driver. And the ones that do, like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, generally don’t appeal to guys. It’s easy to see why writers fought Gene Roddenberry over story ideas.

Of course we have to ask what we really want. Do moviegoers plunking down ten bucks want to see Sing Street, Love & Friendship, Brooklyn, or do they want to see computer generated space battles? (By the way, try and find a blockbuster movie for adults that don’t have violence.) Why are so many escapist blockbuster movies about extreme violence? When we walk into a movie theater we’re paying to leave the real reality and experience an artificial reality. Our society is far from utopian, but many people live near utopian lives. Sure a large segment of our society also live unhappy, miserable lives. But why would either type seek out escapism that involves mass killing?

Do we even want utopias in our entertainment? Fiction is driven by conflict. The easiest conflict to create is violence. That explains most television and movie plots. But what about Roddenberry’s vision? I need to rewatch the first two years of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Many claim those seasons are the worst of the series, but yet they were the ones when Roddenberry had the most influence.

Other Takes

JWH

Remembering Star Trek—50 Years

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, August 6, 2016

Leonard by William ShatnerThis is my week for revisiting Star Trek. Last weekend I saw Star Trek Beyond, and this weekend I read Leonard by William Shatner, a biography of Leonard Nimoy, explaining their fifty-year friendship. Between that movie and book I watched three old episodes of Star Trek:TOS just out of nostalgia. I have a rather love-hate relationship with Star Trek. Fifty years ago this summer, while staying with my dad in Key West, Florida, I saw the previews for a new science fiction show that would start in the fall. I can’t convey how excited I was waiting for Star Trek to premiere. Then the first episode was about a shape shifting monster that sucked the salt out of people. WTF? (Although, we didn’t talk in initials back in 1966.) The crew and ship was cool, especially Mr. Spock, but that first show disappointed me. Eventually, I saw other episodes that did wow me, so Star Trek was always a hit and miss kind of experience. To be honest, the only character I really liked was Mr. Spock, so what appealed to me were the stories, and their quality varied greatly from week-to-week.

The new Star Trek Beyond is a big hit – but not with me. Now I’m not saying it’s a bad movie, that would be silly when so many people love it. I just have some grumps, and that’s probably due to being old. I’m worn out on special effects. I’m tired of action movies. I’m sick to death of unrealistic violence in movies, especially the ones where the violence is less real than Three Stooges or Wile E Coyote. Superhero films have ruined action, thriller and modern westerns for me. They’ve all become power porn for people who fantasize that can pound people like Jack Reacher or Jason Bourne. Not my thing. I know I’m weak and gimpy, and would get my ass kicked by anyone over twelve. Especially those kids trained on action films.

I’d love to see a Star Trek film where special effects were kept to a minimum, with no martial arts, no space battles, and for god’s sake, where the damn crew don’t become hostages. How many times has Captain Kirk or crew been captured? How many times has the Enterprise been destroyed? And where’s the damn science fiction? Essentially Star Trek Beyond could be summed up as terrorist threatens civilization with bioweapon. The only sense of wonder I found in the film was when they introduced Yorktown. That was pretty cool. If they had spent the whole film just hanging out on that space habitat I would have been a happy moviegoer.

The three old TV episodes I watched were:

All three episodes were enjoyable, but none deserved an Emmy or even a Hugo. Each had a nice gimmick, and even though she didn’t do much, “Assignment: Earth” made me remember Teri Garr (although I had already seen in her in several films as an extra according to IMDb).

I’m going to give up on the Star Trek movies, and just watch the old TV shows from time to time. All three of the recent reboot films have been heavily laden with nostalgia I don’t feel. I like the new actors, and if they could break away from being clichés and caricatures of the originals, I would enjoy seeing a new Star Trek story that had some original science fiction concepts. The trouble is they have to make a film that will earn hundreds of millions and that means a cartoonish action film. I’d love to see them create a story that has the feel, pacing and creativity of Gattaca, Her and Ex Machina, but set it on Yorktown.

Now, the best for last. Leonard proved to be a surprisingly good read. I don’t know if Shatner or his co-writer David Fisher did the writing, but it’s very readable, and full of well research details. Shatner and Nimoy were born months apart to Jewish families. Both wanted to be actors and struggled for years to find success. Shatner’s chronicles of how he and Nimoy took any acting job they could get. I found that particularly interesting, especially when he covered television jobs in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Since I haven’t read any other histories of Star Trek or its actors, I’m not sure how much of the information in Leonard is new. It was enough to give me a satisfying sense of working on the original show and movies, plus memories about the Star Trek conventions. Shatner also summarized Nimoy’s work in theater, directing, poetry, singing, photography and philanthropy. Shatner convinced me that Leonard Nimoy was an exceptional person. The book is a moving eulogy to a friend. And like I said before, the book is very readable.

But Leonard is more than a biography. It’s a kind of confession. Shatner claims Nimoy was his best friend in life, and then admits that Nimoy had stopped talking to him years before he died. The psychology of this book is one for psychiatrists. Evidently the story of these two men is very complicated, and we’re only hearing Shatner’s side of things. I’m not sure if Shatner is very self-aware, but he does struggle to appear honest, and express his feelings. Even if you knew nothing about Star Trek, this book might be a worthy read because of how the story is told. It’s about acting, and what it means to become a pop icon success. Anyone interested in acting, old television, making movies, or working in the theater should find insight in this story.

The reader feels Shatner loved Nimoy, but like Shatner, can’t understand why Nimoy hated him in the end. I searched the internet for answers, but realize I’d be jumping into a black hole and quit. It would be interesting to read an impartial, definitive biography of Star Trek, its creators, writers and all the actors. Is there such a book? I’m not a Trekkie/Trekker, so I don’t know. Star Trek is a phenomenon, so that makes it an interesting subject separate from the show’s fan appeal.

From the details within Leonard, and a bit of Google research on Star Trek, I get the feeling the Star Trek universe is huge. If you count the number of TV episodes from all the series, all the movies, all the books, comics, and so on, there must be well over a thousand artifacts to study, maybe a lot more. Even though, from 1966 on, I watched most of ST shows, I never took it seriously enough to become a true fan. And even though I’d like to know more, I’m not sure I have the time, or even if the endeavor is worth while. Leonard does convey the immense success of Star Trek, and that might be all I need to know, but it’s beyond my comprehension to really understand the Star Trek universe.

Personally, I have a kind of resentment against Star Trek and Star Wars. I remember how science fiction was before 1966, and I preferred when the genre was mostly unknown. Those franchises exploded the world of science fiction twice. Science fiction was defined by magazines in 1926, began shifting to books in 1946, then in 1966 the audience expanded tremendously with television, and in 1977, it’s appeal exploded again worldwide. Even though media science fiction can be fun, it was never the science fiction I found in magazines and books. In many ways, I think the definitive science fiction has always come from magazines. Of course, my view might be age related, and I’m revealing I never kept up with the times.

The difference between me and real Star Trek fans, is I never fell in love with the characters. With both Star Trek and Star Wars, I think their fanatical fans love the characters and can’t forget them. And to me, science fiction has always been about insightful ideas – the sense of wonder at discovering something that could or should exist in reality but something I never imagined. For me, the science fiction digests of the 1950s and 1960s had more sense-of-wonder revelations then anything I ever found in television and movies.

I still like Star Trek about as much as I liked it during the 1966/67 TV season. It has its moments.

JWH

Six 2016 Best Science Fiction Anthologies Covering 2015

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, July 31, 2016

Ever since The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949, edited by Everett F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty, there have been annual collections of the best short science fiction. For many decades now, there have been two or three. For some reason, in 2016 we have at least six big anthologies looking back at the short work of the previous year. There will be at least one more, because the Nebula Showcase that covers 2015 stories hasn’t come out yet.

clarke Dozoisguran
StrahanHortonFowler-Adams

Links below are to Amazon, where you can buy, preview the table of contents, and maybe read the introductions in the Look Inside feature. I’ve already bought one ebook and one audio edition to read or listen on my iPhone. I might buy another in print. I’d buy them all if they were available on audio.

I’m the most excited about the Neil Clarke collection, because it’s also available on audio at Audible.com. I’ve been wishing for years that the Dozois, Strahan or Horton volumes would show up at Audible. Allan Kaster has been my only source of annual best short science fiction on audio, via his series The Year’s Top-Ten Tales of Science fiction (v1-7) and The Year’s Top Short SF Novels (v1-5), Kaster’s collections were never as giant as the Dozois or Strahen volumes. I wonder if Kaster has stopped his series, because his collections only cover through 2014 stories. I hope not.

Does this wealth of anthologized short science fiction represent increased interest in reading short science fiction? For decades the print magazines have struggled to survive with dwindling subscribers. Decades ago some SF magazines had over 100,000 subscribers. Now the major print magazines have only 7,500-20,000 paying readers and that’s declining. Has the internet changed the way we read?

Is the internet increasing readership of short SF? I love being able to read on my phone whenever I have a free moment, or listen to a short story while I walk or do dishes, or even have Alexa on my Amazon Echo play a story for me in the middle of night when I can’t sleep.

These stories are being collected from a much more diverse collection of sources. We’re moving away from print to digital. Here are some of the periodicals that publish science fiction short stories. Some magazines still print their issues, but my guess is buying and reading short stories on paper is going the way of the land line.

Many of these year’s best stories came from original anthologies.

I wish I had the time and patience to put all these short stories into a database and see which ones were most reprinted. For example, I noticed that “Capitalism in the 22nd Century or A.I.r.” by Geoff Ryman, is in the Clarke, Dozois and Strahan volumes.

It would also be wonderful if I could read all these stories and grok the nature of current science fiction. That probably won’t happen. Even though I’m retired, and have all my time free, I never have enough time for all the projects I want to pursue. But it sure would be fun to gorge myself on 2015 science fiction, then gorge myself on 1950s science fiction short stories, and after all that mass-consumption of short stories, write a comparison of how science fiction has evolved and changed.

I can’t imagine how these editors read so much. I wish Dozois would write a book about editing science fiction. And he could write a wonderful history of the evolution of the science fiction short story.

JWH

Who Still Reads 1950s Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why are people still reading science fiction from the 1950s? I’m always leery to read science books more than a few years old, but crave science fiction written before NASA was created. I’m not alone in preferring moldy, aged SF, but I have no idea how many other fans are like me. I belong to an online book club, Classic Science Fiction, and many of the members prefer 1950s-1970s science fiction. But then, most of us collect social security too, so it might be nostalgia. There are a few younger members, and I’ve wondered how they got hooked on reading SF meant for their parents and grandparents. I’ve been updating “The Defining Science Fiction of the 1950s” with links to Amazon. Most of the books listed are still in print, although many are only available for the Kindle, or from Audible.com.

Are these books bought by old folks remembering, or new folks discovering?

Defining My Task

I know this essay will interest damn few people. I’m going to put a lot of time and effort into writing it, and few will read it. My hope is it will be a honeypot that will attract those folks who also love reading 1950s science fiction, so please leave a comment. My theory is science fiction from this era has distinctive qualities and appeals. My goal is to begin to define those attributes and attractions. I say begin, but I’ve tried this before. Like psychoanalysis, you can’t discover all self-knowledge in one session. I don’t know why I can’t let this past go. And I don’t know how much debugging it will take before my brain will be free.

New is Better

Personally, I believe the best science fiction books written in the last twenty-five years are better crafted than the best science fiction written in the 1950s. Now I’m talking about writing, storytelling, characterization, plotting, and all the mechanics of creating a book. With every decade I believe the skills of writers are evolving. I also believe the imagination and science that goes into science fiction has constantly progressed over the decades. So, why bother reading old science fiction at all? Few science fiction readers read science fiction from the 1920s and 1930s. It’s just too primitive. Most have stopped reading science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s. The 1960s seems to be the oldest science fiction that many modern readers discover, with books like Slaughterhouse Five, Dune, A Wrinkle in Time, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Man in the High Castle.

Time is hard on science fiction. It doesn’t age well. Reading science fiction is the most exciting when you’re under twenty-one. And since every generation has its own hope for the future, the science fiction they embrace is what’s new and exciting. By its very nature, science fiction tends to invalidate its past. Except…

Nostalgia for the Golden Age

If you remain a science fiction fan long enough you come back around to where you began. Most readers go through a science fiction reading phase, and eventually move on to other genres. Most people just dabble with science fiction. The kind of reader I’m trying to identify is different. Science fiction was their childhood religion, born again into faith in the future, like the theological have a faith in the past. Sometimes I feel my obsession with comprehending old science fiction is a kind of exorcism. I’m trying to deprogram myself. Other times I assume it’s just a dynamic of getting older, and I’m merely seeking comfort reads.

I worry as I get older, I’m being sucked into a black hole of nostalgia. I fight this by reading as many nonfiction books and novels published in the current year as I can, but all too often I discover myself returning to books from the 1950s and 1960s. Lately, I’ve been watching old episodes of Gunsmoke and Perry Mason, preferring the ones that came out in the 1950s. I even bought the first season of Gunsmoke from 1955. And I started listening to Gunsmoke’s radio show that came out in 1950. I don’t think that’s typical for folks of my age, since all my friends love new television shows, movies and books. I wonder if I have some kind of time disease that makes me want to travel to the past.

When I was growing up, the Golden Age of Science Fiction was considered 1938-1946,  mostly due to the editorship of Astounding Science Fiction by John W. Campbell. Certainly many of the classic science fiction short stories I read in the early 1960s were reprints from that era. Then Peter Graham said, “The Golden Age of science fiction is 12.” That felt so right that no other age has ever usurped it. The science fiction that imprinted on me at age 12 is the atomic clock by which I’ve measured all science fiction since.

My favorite SF novel in 2015 was Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. I admire it for great intellectual speculation. But, it’s no match emotionally for my favorite generation ship story, Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein. Orphans first appeared in book form in 1963, reprinting two novellas from 1941, “Universe” and “Common Sense” that were originally published in Astounding Science Fiction.  I turned 12 in 1963. Aurora is a much more ambitious and sophisticated novel than Orphans in the Sky. Aurora had more to say about science and science fiction, but it’s the Heinlein story that resonates with my heart.

Time out of Joint by Philip K. DickAll my favorite Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke books were published in the 1950s. I came of age in the 1960s, and my favorite science fiction writers from that decade are Delany, Dick and Zelazny. All their books are dated. They weren’t always enlightened when it comes to political correctness by today’s standards. And they were all men. Two were gay, but I didn’t know that at the time.

The real question is: Are these old science fiction books still readable, still lovable, by later generations who have no nostalgic ties to the past? Who still reads 1950s science fiction?

When Old Becomes Classic

I recently wrote “The Classics of Science Fiction in 12 Lists” over at Worlds Without End. It’s fascinating to see which science fiction books from the 1950s are still being remembered. Because some of these lists were from polls, I assume many of the voters were young. Studying the lists though, show more titles from the 1960s than any other decade. Does that mean 1950s science fiction is finally fading away? Some of the 1950s SF titles are books now taught in school like The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Of the thirteen lists, here are the 1950s books that were at the top of those lists. I note how many lists each were on.

Literary Recognition

Most of the 1950s science books that are available today are from a few publishers that specialize in reprinting old science fiction. Not always. I was surprised to see The Chrysalids by John Wyndham in print from New York Review Books Classics. Does that mean the literary elite are finally accepting the genre hoi polloi? They also publish Chocky, a 1968 book also by Wyndham. What really blew my mind, was NYRBC has a collection of Robert Sheckley stories, Store of the Worlds. And just when I thought I couldn’t be anymore amazed, I saw they have reprinted The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1973) by D. G. Compton. This is about as shocking as when Library of America began reprinting Philip K. Dick. But, we’re getting away from the 1950s. On the other hand, it suggests that some science fiction is being remembered by people other than old farts who grew up reading science fiction.

I should note that The Foundation Trilogy has been reprinted by the Everyman’s Library, which is a nice distinction too.

Remembering Old Books at the Movies

Of course, the main way modern people remember old books are when they are made into movies. Childhood’s End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke, was recently shown as a SyFy miniseries. The Ray Bradbury books mentioned above have movie and television versions. The Day of the Triffids (1951), again by Wyndham, has had many visual interpretations. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959), The Puppet Masters (1951) and “All You Zombies…” (1959) have film versions to remind young people to read his books. I, Robot (1950) by Isaac Asimov was remembered in film, but only in title. It would be great if someone would film the stories. And I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson and The Body Snatcher (1954) by Jack Finney are remembered for their horror and science fiction. Most of the science fiction we remember from the 1950s actually comes from the classic SF movies of the 1950s.

Collecting Pulp Magazines

Robert A Heinlein_Have Space Suit Will Travel F-SFCollectors might be a large segment of 1950s science fiction fans. They seek out old science fiction magazines, first editions from specialty presses like Gnome and Fantasy, or first editions of what’s now consider classic science fiction of the the 1950s. Some collectors go after hardbacks with dust jackets or paperbacks with wraps by artists they love.

By the the 1950s, the magazines had switched from pulp format to digest size. So true pulp collectors mine the 1940s and earlier for their collecting habit. Some of those digest magazines are showing up on the internet. A mostly complete run of If Magazine is available at Archive.org, part of its Pulp Magazine Archive. It’s a shame that some authors felt the need to request their stories be pulled. It’s like they have erased themselves from 1950s SF history. I wish the copyright laws made an exception for magazines, so that any periodical older than 25 years could be archive online if the entire issue was scanned as one document. I doubt authors would lose sales. Evidently many people wanted to read the old If Magazines. They have over a quarter-million views. From time to time I meet pulp magazine collectors. Lately they swap digital scans, but in the old days I knew guys who owned thousands of the original magazines, but those artifacts are disintegrating. It’s great pulps and digests are being preserved online, but it’s a shame copyright laws don’t support those efforts. Many of the novels we know from the 1950s first appeared in a 1940 pulp. Another favorite title, Galaxy Magazine, is showing up at the archive. I’m waiting for F&SF and Astounding, the top venues.

What Was Unique?

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. HeinleinUltimately, any novel is about the times in which it was written. Science fiction books from the 1950s were really about the 1950s, and not the future. For those people who didn’t grow up during that decade, what does 1950s science fiction convey about those years? I was born in 1951, so the 1950s were my childhood. My memories of the 1950s were of vast suburbs filled with tiny track houses, hordes of kids playing in the streets, wearing cowboy hats, six-guns, fake coon-skin hats, or space helmets, watching Saturday morning cartoons, or Saturday afternoon Tarzan flicks, hanging around at night observing the grown-ups smoking and drinking, begging for sips, while listening to them argue about divorces and shrinks, or kooky stuff like UFOs, Bridey Murphy and Edgar Cayce, or scary stuff like atomic bombs and fall-out shelters. My 1950s wasn’t Leave It to Beaver 1950s, but we loved watching those television shows that define the 1950s today. Even back then we knew life wasn’t like television, but we wanted it to be.

My life as a kid in the 1950s was a whole lot like Peanuts. The adults lived in their world, and we kids lived in ours. By today’s standards my parents would have been jailed. I walked to school starting in the first grade. When we lived in cities I ranged for blocks on my bike, when we lived in the country, I ranged for miles hiking the woods. I discovered science fiction in the 1950s via black and white television, with tales of space patrols, alien invaders, and monsters. Even though my mother forced me to go to church, I never got Christianity. I believed in rockets and space travel. And that’s probably why I keep returning to 1950s science fiction. It was my religion.

Strangely, the book the reminds me most of my 1950s is Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick. It was written in 1959, but not published until 1975. Most people were Beat back then, not just the Beatniks. Life was simpler, but it had an edge that doesn’t come through in the old TV shows. Maybe that’s why I like Gunsmoke today, it showed more of the grit of my childhood. Actually, all of the PKD’s literary novels remind me of the 1950s. But so does his science fiction novels. Those were about nuclear war, paranoia, invasions, and alienation. Americans in the 1950s worried that Russia was going to bomb us out of existence, and commies had infiltrated our friends and associations. The pod people of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers were a perfect stand-in for fear of communism. Ditto for Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. And those writers combined fear of communism with the UFO craze. Few today remember the wackiness of UFOs.The Body Snatcher by Jack Finney

1950s science fiction spent a great many words imagining the collapse of civilization. But it also imagined colonizing the solar system, and even other solar systems. 1950 began with children’s shows about space patrols, that many adults got hooked on. Long before 1966’s Star Trek we had 1956’s Forbidden Planet. 1950s science fiction often pictured a space patrol as another branch of the American military services. 1950s imagined World Governments, United Planets, and Federations of Star Systems. You have to wonder what happened to America when in 1977, the galaxy became an evil empire.

Another common theme in 1950s science fiction was psychic powers. Science fiction writers believed supermen and superwomen would evolve any day. Childhood’s End in 1953 imagined our replacements, Homo superior, doing away with Homo sapiens. Clarke recycled that theme in the psychedelic sixties with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Theodore Sturgeon and Zenna Henderson wrote about strange people that you wondered if they were mentally ill, gifted or psychic. And John W. Campbell went overboard at Astounding promoting Psi-powers. I don’t know why so many sci-fi stories in the fifties were goo-goo for the woo-woo, but maybe it was a wish for transcendence. In many ways it prefigured the New Age movement that emerged in the 1970s. But some Americans have been hung-up on psychics since 1848, and the Fox sisters.

That’s the thing about reading 1950s science fiction today, or even other novels from that decade. I came of age in the Psychedelic Sixties, and we thought we were unique. But the more I read from the 1950s, the more I realized everything that was going to happen in the 1960s began staging in the 1950s. Before Hippies there were Beats. Before Timothy Leary and LSD there was Aldous Huxley and The Doors of Perceptions (1954). Even though I didn’t discover Jack Kerouac until the late sixties, he became a substitute father-figure when my dad died in 1970. They were about the same age, and both were drunks dying months apart. I’ve been trying to grasp their 1950s ever since.

A harder thing to explain about 1950s science fiction is the humor. You’ve just got to read Robert Sheckley to understand what I mean. Or Fredric Brown. Or the satire of Vonnegut, Tenn, Pohl and Kornbluth. Or the bizarreness of Philip K. Dick. Both F&SF and Galaxy featured lots of humor and satire. I didn’t start buying these magazines until the mid-sixties, but I grew up devouring their old annual collections I found in libraries. I began unearthing the 1950s in 1962.

So many of the great science fiction stories of the 1950s were about the end of the world, or the collapse of civilization. Some of my all-time favorite novels are about the end of the world as we know it, like Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart, On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute, or Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank.

The 1950s were strange in that people thought civilization was coming to an end and hoped to expand civilization across the galaxy. What a schizoid dichotomy.  And I grasped that as a kid. Maybe that’s the trip that got laid on me that I’m trying to understand. To me, the absolutely best inheritance I received from the 1950s were the Heinlein juveniles I first discovered in 1964, when I was still twelve (the Golden Age of Science Fiction). In fact, all my reading of science fiction feels like it’s been downhill ever since I first read Have Space Suit-Will Travel, Tunnel in the Sky, Time for the Stars, The Rolling Stones, Red Planet, Starman Jones, Farmer in the Sky, Between Planets, Space Cadet, Citizen of the Galaxy, The Star Beast and Rocketship Galileo. There were other young adult SF from the 1950s that I loved; books by Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, Donald Wolheim, and the whole series from Winston Science Fiction. But the Heinlein twelve were always the pinnacle of SF for me.

All those kid SF books from the 1950s instilled a belief I’d grow up and live in space. That didn’t happen. Maybe its that promise of a future that never came to be that keeps me reading old science fiction. In some ways I feel like a person that’s died and learns there’s no heaven. Do those of us who read old science fiction do so because we’re trying to recapture the promises of the golden age? I’ve long known science fiction was my religion substitute growing up. Even though I became an atheist to SF long ago, it still haunts me. I just can’t deprogram myself. I will never go to Mars or Heaven. Which is funny, Ray Bradbury has a story called, “Mars is Heaven!”

This self-revelation came to me in 1967, when I read “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, in the February issue of Worlds of Tomorrow. It’s about the barriers we face in life, about understanding our limitations. Delany knew in 1966 he and I were never going into space, and his story is symbolic for all of us who dreamed those 1950s science fiction dreams, but who would never leave in our space ships.

JWH

p.s.  I know this is a bone I can’t stop gnawing. Anyone who has regularly read my blog, knows I’ve covered this territory before. I write these posts as a form of psychoanalysis. I usually come to two realizations. One, I’m disappointed that the future I imagined as a child, is not the future I found as an adult. Two, I was conditioned as a kid to love certain kinds of stories, and I can’t get away from that pleasure. I’m like an addict that says, “I can stop any time I want” but I don’t. Sometimes I rationalize reading old science fiction by telling myself that I’m studying it as an academic subject. But that’s not quite honest either. One thing I keep urging myself,  is to move forward in time. To relive the science fiction of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, etc.

Cleaning Up My Kindle Library

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 23, 2016

I had 501 ebooks in my Kindle library when I started this essay. I have 401 now. After reading an article that said 40-45% of all ebooks bought are never opened, I loaded up Kindle for PC, put it in cover view, and scanned my books. Damn, they were right. I’ve been acquiring Kindle books since 2007, and many of those books I had gotten for free in promotions, downloaded for free because they were in the public domain, or ones I bought on the cheap because their authors were anxious for me to try their work. Most I had never opened. Psychologically I assume, I’m buying books for a future, for when I have 72 hours in a day for reading.

This made me contemplate my Kindle library. I love shopping for used books every week and I also love snapping up ebook bargains. But scrolling through the cover images I saw several books I thought I wanted to buy that I already own. Damn! My Kindle library has gotten completely out of hand. I’m constantly buying $1.99 specials because of BookBub, Kindle Daily Deal, Book Riot Deals, or Early Bird Books.

SF Books On Kindle

I spent a couple of hours this afternoon and permanently deleted 100 books I knew I’d never read. This has proven to me that free ebooks aren’t something I actually want. From studying the dates purchased, I had already stopped adding free books years ago. However, I switched to compulsive buying. I bought 146 Kindle ebooks in 2015, probably three-fourths of them for $1.99. Since I average reading one book a week, I’m buying three years worth of reading every year. That’s illogical! You’ll think I’m even more insane when I tell you two-thirds of the books I “read” each year are with my ears, so I’m actually buying about seven years worth of ebooks each year. (I’m not sure if that fractional math works out—haha, a word problem for you.)

It would be a huge help if Amazon created some way to mark books read or unread. I need some method of reminding myself of how many books are waiting patiently for me to spend a week with them. I’m guessing I have a decade’s worth of unread Kindle books in my library. (I need to stop buying those sale ebook!!! It’s an addiction.)

When I scroll through the Kindle library now, I see only books I want to read, or have read and want to keep. But it’s in one big jumble, ordered by title, author or recent (date last accessed). I wish Amazon would let us permanently classify books in their “Manage Your Content and Devices” web application. I can create subject collections, but only for a device, like for Kindle for PC, and sometimes it seems, when the software gets updated, I lose those collections. The photo above is part of my “SF Novels” collection.

In recent years I’ve been buying classic science fiction book when they go on sale for $1.99, and have 70 novels, and 48 short story collections and anthologies. Today, I realized that I need to browse my collection at least weekly, to remember what I own, and inspire me to read rather than shop. Between hundreds of printed books, a thousand audio books, and these 401 Kindle ebooks, I have 30-40 years worth of reading queued up. Since I’m 64, I’m covered for the rest of my life. I should stop buying books. I won’t, but I should. At least, I should browse the covers as often as possible, to remind myself of all those books waiting to be consumed, and at least stop me from buying duplicates. That might slow me down some.

Spending the afternoon working with my Kindle for PC app has shown me the value of looking through my collection. Especially in cover view mode. I wish I had similar software for viewing my Audible books, or even wish the Kindle for PC could manage my Audible collection too. Amazon does own Audible. It would also be nice if I could enter my physical books into the same system, so I’d only need one program to browse my entire collection. I like seeing the covers. There’s software for the PC, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS that allows this, but it would mean maintaining two databases, and that would be a pain-in-the-ass.

Since I buy most of my books from Amazon, it would seem they should be responsible for helping me manage my library.

JWH