What’s the Legacy of the 1960s Counterculture Revolution?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Last night I watched “Summer of Love” on PBS’s American Experience. If you have a login for PBS you can follow the link and watch it. Or try your Roku PBS app. I’ve seen this documentary before, it originally appeared in 2007, but I guess PBS wanted to capitalize on the Woodstock 50th anniversary.

Watching “Summer of Love” was a bummer, a bad trip this time around. I remember back in the 1960s how badly I wanted to run away to San Francisco and become part of the counterculture. I thought a revolution was going on and I was missing out.

Over the years when I’d watch these remembrances of 1960s counterculture it would be with nostalgia. This time around I realized my nostalgia was all gone. At 15 it would have been fun for a while, but you have to watch between-the-scenes. There’s only so much prancing in the park you can do before it gets boring, and you can’t stay high forever. And I’ve lived in communal situations a number of times in the 1970s and it wasn’t all peace and love.

This past week I also watched documentaries on Woodstock and Altamont. Between Monterey Pop Festival on June 16, 1967, and Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, the 1960s counterculture reached adolescence and then died a tragically early death. However, the dreams of what people wanted from the counterculture still persist. They have haunted us for fifty years.

We kept the long hair, beards, colorful clothes, free love, music, and dope, but we never found peace and harmony, we never freed ourselves from the 9-to-5 grind, we never escaped capitalism. We foolishly believed utopia was possible. We tried very hard to integrate and free ourselves of racism but we’ve never really succeeded. Both women and minorities have made great strides in society but we haven’t reached equality. In the 1960s the counterculture believed we could all transform ourselves. We thought we could clean up the environment, treat all life on Earth with love, and redesign capitalism to be kind and just.

It just didn’t work out. We can see the counterculture legacy in the 2020 candidates for the Democratic Party. We’ve convinced half the world to care about the environment but even the most idealistic of us can’t stop using plastics. Burger King might sell veggie burgers but we still have massive factory farms of animal torture. We know the use of fossil fuels will destroy us yet we still drive cars and electrify our homes with coal.

I think there have always been hippies with dreams of living kinder lives. Jesus and his disciples are one example of keeping a counterculture dream alive for two thousand years. Yesterday I listened to “Episode 38: The new anti-capitalist science fiction” of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders. They just won the Hugo award for Best Fancast. Both are science fiction writers that are leaders in one of the many new countercultures. They assume, they dream a revolution will take place. It’s really the same revolution of 1967. They are full of hope. I still hope, but how much hope do I really have left?

For the 1960s legacy counterculture revolutionaries to succeed capitalism must be transformed. The extreme idealists have always wanted to do away with capitalism but I don’t think that’s possible. Capitalism is too basic to human nature, buying and selling are as natural as eating, even chimpanzees barter and trade. But can capitalism be tamed and civilized? Or will it always be Darwinian, the vicious survival of the fittest?

There is no doubt that society has drastically transformed since the Summer of Love in 1967. That’s proof we can change, but can we change everything about ourselves? If you study history change is constant. We never stay the same. We will never build a society or economic system and then rest with the satisfaction of achieving our goal. Human society is always boiling over with more wants.

The real question we must ask ourselves is: Can we stop being self-destructive? Conservatives want to cling to a dream of a stable past that never existed, while liberals dream of a stable future that’s a fantasy. There’s a type of insanity that grips us all — one where we believe if we all believed the same thing it will solve all our problems. In other words, we’re all revolutionaries. Christians think if everyone was Christian the world would be perfect. Conservatives think if everyone voted their party line we’d solve all our social problems. Counterculture thinkers believe we need to throw out the old for the new. The trouble is there are many counterculture revolutionaries out there now, some quite evil and nasty, and few revolutionaries share the same revolution. It’s chaos, but then isn’t it always chaos?

Read LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking. It chronicles all the revolutions that are going on right now on the internet. The amount of information in this book is staggering. It has 107 pages of notes on sources. I expect the Summer of 2020 to be more heated and dramatic than the Summers of 1967 and 1968 (and if you don’t remember, 1968 was nasty). The hippies of San Francisco were kids at play and even the fiery student activists in Chicago of 1968 were babes in the woods compared to the radical revolutionaries online today.

The real legacy of the 1960s counterculture is more counterculture. It was easy to spot the hippies on Haight-Ashbury, or Yippies of Chicago, or the Black Panthers, or the SDS, or the Weather Underground. The new countercultures are as visible as electricity in the wires of your home. Read LikeWar. Don’t wait 50 years to watch the historical documentary.

What Dylan said back then is still valid, “‘Cause something is happening and you don’t know what it is, Do you, Mr. Jones?”

JWH

 

Echo in the Canyon – Nostalgia Denied

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 6, 2019

I went to Echo in the Canyon expecting it to be a documentary about 1960s musicians who lived in Laurel Canyon. Instead, I got Jakob Dylan Sings the Oldies. Now there is nothing wrong with that, except I never got that impression when I saw the trailer at the theater last week.

Evidently, Jakob Dylan and friends Beck, Fiona Apple, Cat Powers, Norah Jones, and Regina Spektor decided to put on a concert singing old songs that came from the artists living in Laurel Canyon back when and then turned it into a film project. We see them discussing the songs over a coffee table of old albums, rehearsing the songs in the studio and then playing them live. In between this, we see Jakob Dylan driving around L.A. talking to all the old musicians that are still living and giving us some clips from the past. And for some strange reason, they kept showing clips from a 1969 film called Model Shop. Echo in the Canyon is a bit about the past, but mostly it’s about the present looking back.

Now, this is cool. Younger generations of musicians often love to pay tribute to the past by creating albums of oldies. Bob Dylan recently produced Shadows in the Night where he sings Frank Sinatra songs. Or when Natalie Cole did Unforgettable… with Love, singing her dad’s songs. Or when John Lennon did Rock ‘n’ Roll singing his favorites hits from the 1950s. I actually like covers. I loved when Bruce Springsteen would sing covers at the end of his concerts in the 1970s. And I really enjoy picking a favorite song and listening to all the covers of it on Spotify. I’ve heard about a hundred versions of “All Along the Watchtower” that way.

The trouble is, the covers for Echo in the Canyon are bland and over-produced. The whole time while watching this film I ached to hear the originals. Now that might just be me, the film is highly rated on Rotten Tomatoes and two of my younger friends have seen it and loved it.

I admire cover tunes that take an old song and redo it in a very original way, such as when Jimi Hendrix sang “All Along the Watchtower” or when Lili Haydn redid “Maggot Brains.” Jakob Dyan and friends did fairly straight covers. These are very talented artists but they don’t shine on these old songs. Part of the problem is the original songs were more delicately produced with fewer instruments, and these modern versions have too many musicians playing on them. They have a modern Americana big group sound, which I think distracts from the lyrics.

For the most part, Echo in the Canyon doesn’t cover the biggest hits but picks album cuts instead. I thought that was an excellent approach but it means they also picked songs fewer people liked. I loved all of these songs back in the day. However, many of these songs were originally idiosyncratically produced, giving them highly distinctive performances. Jakob Dylan and friends reproduce them all in the same kind of jangling-guitar stereotype of folk-rock.

I’m not sure how much these younger musicians really liked these old songs. Watching them discuss the tunes while flipping through old LPs didn’t reveal much passion. Their body language didn’t quite show enthusiasm. What I read was, “OMG, school report” as if this project was something they had to endure. They give a respectful history report on our generation but I never believed they play these albums at home.

Echo in the Canyon is worth seeing, but if you’re a Baby Boomer, don’t expect a lot of reliving the past. It’s fun to see a younger generation examine our times, but it’s also kind of disappointing. I often see young people with T-shirts celebrating musicians from the 1960s, but 95% of the time it’s The Beatles. I loved that The Byrds got a lot of recognition in this film. They were my favorite group in the 1960s, and Buffalo Springfield was second. The Beatles only came in third with me.

Echo in the Canyon has even made an official Spotify playlist with songs from the movie and soundtrack mixed in with the originals. It’s a great way to compare the two. I hope you have Spotify and can play it. By the way, everyone should have Spotify, at least the free version. It’s becoming the Adobe Acrobat of playing music on the web.

Actually, I prefer all these artists doing their own original work. That’s where they are exceptional, and one day even younger artists will be covering their tunes. And probably fans growing up with their generation will grumble about those covers too.

JWH

Why Did Martin Scorsese Donald Trump Us?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 15, 2019

After watching Martin Scorsese new film Rolling Thunder Revue on Netflix I read The New Yorker’s piece by Richard Brody entitled ‘“Rolling Thunder Revue,” Reviewed: Martin Scorsese’s Slippery Chronicle of Bob Dylan in Concert.’ It seems all my favorite parts of the film were made up. I had been lied to, I had been Donald Trumped.

When Bob Dylan showed up in New York City at the beginning of the 1960s he became infamous for lying about his past. He told such tall tales that the people around him had to constantly access his reality distortion field. Ever since then reporters, biographers, and documentary filmmakers have sought the truth about Bob Dylan in the same way modern theological scholars have tried to unearth the truth about the historical Jesus.

Whenever I read the rare book that interviews Dylan or watch an even rarer documentary featuring Bob Dylan I hope to gain a bit of insight into the Dylan enigma. So is Scorsese’s film a documentary or mockumentary? What is fact or fiction? Is it 20 Feet from Stardom or This Is Spinal Tap? Scorsese chronicles the Rolling Thunder Revue which itself was a circus of make-believe that Dylan tried to put over that might have been great performance art or a creative fiasco. Should I judge Scorsese harshly for lying to me when he was trying to make sense of a bigger lie? Or was he merely trying to join in the same kind of fun and pull Dylanesque gags too? Dylan and all his friends took on assumed names and characters during the tour – but was that that meant to entertain or divert us from thinking about Dylan as Prophet of the Babyboomers.

But here’s the thing. Ever since Donald Trump crowned himself Emperor of Lies it’s very hard to take any kind of lying in fun. When I was growing up people generally shunned anyone who lied. No one likes to discover they’ve been lied to. Donald Trump is such a large black hole of lying that his massive lies rip apart reality. We have so much fake news and deep fake films that any kind of lying for fun is hard to take. Donald Trump has made any kind of lying a horrendous offense no matter how small or innocent. As far as I’m concerned he’s even ruined Santa Claus.

What’s even worse is how Donald Trump has made lying acceptable to tens of millions of Americans. But isn’t that what we all do? We rationalize which liars we accept. Christianity has made a religion out of piling on the fantasy. What truth Jesus might have said has been distorted by two thousand years of compounded lying. Donald Trump has become the international standard for measuring liars. So when I compare Scorsese’s little lies to his, they don’t seem so big. I loathe Republicans for accepting and promoting Donald Trump’s lies, so I now hate to see myself forgiving any liars. Plus, there’s the whole A Million Little Pieces by James Frey ordeal. We really want our nonfiction to be honest.

On the other hand, we all know colorful characters who play the class clown for life and we forgive them for their fabrications. Dylan has always passed himself off as a jester. In the mid-sixties when his fans were about to turn him into a guru of political truth, a Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Dylan freaked out. He began swearing he was just a song and dance man, a roving minstrel that sang clever tunes for your amusement.

Dylan retreated from the limelight after a 1966 motorcycle accident that some claimed may or may not have happened. He knew what the world did to their saviors. That was quite wise. When he returned to touring, first with The Band in 1974, and then with the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 he had to develop a new persona. The trouble was, even after he stopped writing protest songs that inspired a generation about injustice, he still wrote songs his fans felt spoke the truth with a capital T. Everyone wanted to be near this modern-day Jesus and decode remarkable parables.

Watching the films Don’t Look Back, Eat the Document, and now Rolling Thunder Revue shows what a crazy hurricane of true friends, fake friends, crazy fans, and sycophants that swirl around the man. No wonder Dylan is sick to death of trying to explain himself and enjoys making up his own myths. We know Dylan is a genius from the lyrics of his songs. He is closer to Shakespeare than any of us. Yet, I can’t help but feel his lying makes him like Donald Trump. Trump really has ruined tall-tale-telling, at least for me, if not for everybody.

All of this is not to pan Rolling Thunder Review. If you’re a Dylan fan I highly recommend it, just be careful being taken in by Sharon Stone, Stefan Van Dorp, and other trickster characters. I plan on watching the film again after studying the actual events. The trouble is original Rolling Thunder Revue was chaos. The original tour was meant to produce a film, but the result, Renaldo and Clara was so bad it’s has been hidden away for decades. Richard Brody did get to see it and says:

But too often Scorsese seems to be joining Dylan in dancing delicately around the past. After seeing “Rolling Thunder Revue,” I watched “Renaldo and Clara” for the first time—and I wish I hadn’t, because its strengths only serve to highlight Scorsese’s failures. Dylan and Sara, as the fictional Renaldo and Clara—a couple whose relationship is thrown into turmoil by a visit from another woman, the so-called Woman in White (played by Baez)—perform in scenes of psychodramatic intensity and romantic anguish. “Renaldo and Clara” also features a remarkable set of concert performances from the Rolling Thunder tour—and Dylan (who edited the film with Alk) treats them with a finer and keener touch than Scorsese does.

Now we have Scorsese’s film that covers up the original film. I now wish they’d release Renaldo and Clara to DVD so everyone else can compare to the two accounts. Trying to decipher Dylan is like trying to solve any of the major mysteries of history. It’s a fun task, but also akin to seeking gold in El Dorado.

JWH

I Wish I Had a Time Machine to Rescue My Dad

by James Wallace Harris

One of my favorite idle fantasies is to imagine how I would relive my life if my current mind could reincarnate into my younger self. Variations of this fantasy have included using a time machine to jump back in time to warn my younger self about the future, although I doubt young Jimmy would have taken older Jim’s advice. This week I’ve been struggling to remember everything I could from 50 years ago, and a new fantasy has occurred to me.

What if I had a time machine so I could go back and rescue my dad instead of me?

I know such fantasies are impossible, so why waste my time on them? But the science fiction reader in me loves the idea of creating my own alternate histories by playing “What if?” The challenge to these fantasies is to find the right point in time to divert the time stream. It occurred to me this morning that the moment to rescue my father was in the summer of 1967, but first I guess I should explain why my father needed help.

My father died in 1970 at age 49 when I was 18. My mother and father were alcoholics. My father was a steady drinker, but my mother would only hit the bottle in times of stress from her bipolar swings. My father loved being in the Air Force but was forced to retire after 22 years when he had a heart attack in 1964. Sitting at home without work made him drink more. Dad recovered, went back to work and had another heart attack. Dad recovered again, went back to work, and had a stroke. He even recovered from the stroke before he died of his final heart attack.

My father also had emphysema in his last years, requiring oxygen. But he continued to chain smoke Camels, eat meat and potatoes, and drink Seagram 7 all day long. His death certificate reported that his liver, lungs, appendix, and stomach were shot to hell. I’ve always figured his heart was very strong to survive all that. It made me wonder if he had ever tried to get healthy if he could have survived into old age. Or at least long enough for the two of us to get to know each other.

But my dad was not a happy man. When I was a kid I used to ask myself, “Was my father a drunk because my mother bitched all the time, or did my mother bitch all the time because my father was a drunk?” I’ve never blamed my parents about my upbringing. I survived by being totally selfish, and I figured it was every family member for themselves. Now that I’m older I feel guilty for being so selfish. I know as a kid I didn’t know enough to help them, or even how to be a better person myself. I just survived the best I could. I really don’t blame my parents, but I don’t think they were suited to have children.

Over the last few decades, I’ve come to believe that I and my sister were the main sources of my parents’ unhappiness. We just weren’t what they expected, and any effort to shape us into what they wanted only caused them endless suffering. Of course, it wasn’t easy on me and Becky either, but our youth gave us a vitality to survive. My father just couldn’t handle the emotional conflicts. My mom got better after my father died, especially with 1970s anti-depressants, but she suffered endless unhappiness for the rest of her life, mostly from trying to make Becky and I do what she wanted.

The photo above is my only proof that my parents were ever happy. It was taken in 1949 before they had me and Becky.

Over the decades I’ve tried to reconstruct who my dad was from memories of the people who knew him, but I’ve had little luck. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten to talk with anyone who really knew him, and that includes my mother, who died in 2007. My father wasn’t much of a talker. He might have been before I knew him, but I now believe my mother, sister, and I drowned him out.

I have just 23 photographs of my father. All but three were taken before I was born, and two of those were with me as a toddler. I have no photographs of my father with my sister.

1936---George-Harris-photoshoppedMy father was born in Nebraska, in 1920, but moved when he was a little kid to Miami by 1923. He attended Miami Edison High School, but I’m not sure if he graduated there. I have a photo of him dressed for graduation that was taken in Homestead, Florida. Dad graduated in 1938 and I have his class photo, but I’m not sure if he graduated from Edison. I know he attended Edison for a while because I have a newspaper clipping about his class project. I know he worked as a Western Union delivery boy in high school because I have a photo of him in uniform from 1936. I have photos of my father in the service in 1942, but I’m not sure what he did between graduating in 1938 and joining the Army Air Corp in 1942. My father stayed in the Air Force after the war and married my mother in 1945.

My parents were first stationed in Washington, DC, and then Puerto Rico. I have several photographs of my mother and father living on the island and looking very happy. And when I was young they often talked fondly of life in Puerto Rico. I was born on the 6th wedding anniversary on November 25, 1951. There are two photographs of me with my father when I was a toddler, probably in 1952. The next and last photograph I have of my father was from Thanksgiving 1969. It’s blurry and everyone is almost unrecognizable. He died six months later.

I remembered something this morning that made me think the perfect time to rescue my dad would have been in the summer of 1967. 1964-1966 were bad years for my parents, and they separated from September 1966 to March 1967. My mother took me and my sister to live in Charleston, Mississippi to be near her family. We returned to Miami in March 1967 to live on West Trade Avenue, in Coconut Grove, Florida. I guess my father was trying to get his act together. He also started computer classes. I remember him coming home from class and telling me about how punch card codes worked. However, it wasn’t long before my mother and father were fighting again. And my mother and father were both on my sister case, and she was having none of it. I remember a lot of family fights. I tried to stay as far away from my family as possible. I slept on the screened-in back porch with the clothes washer. I had my radio, record player and science fiction books.

This would have been a perfect time to have tried to get to know my father. I don’t know if I could have convinced him to eat right, give up smoking and drinking, and maybe even exercise, but maybe he would have considered it on his own if someone had shown any interest in his life. I think he drank because he was lonely.

Taking computer classes in 1967 was a great time to break into the field. I started computer classes in 1971. If I had studied with him I would have had a great headstart too. We could have gotten to know each other. Maybe he would have tried harder.

Generally, when I have my time travel fantasies I’m thinking of time periods to change my life. Over the years I’ve decided the best time for me was the fall of 1963. If I could have talked my parents into letting me live with my grandmother instead of moving with them to South Carolina I believe my life would have been significantly different. In the fall of 1963, I went to three different 7th grade schools. I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like if I had lived in one place from 7th grade through the 12th. But now I see the pivotal moment in time for my dad was the summer of 1967.

I know we only get one life to live. There are no do-overs. I’m not religious, and I don’t believe in heaven. But I’ve long thought the idea of reincarnation was a wonderful concept, but not how the Hindus imagine it. I’ve always thought we should reincarnate in our own lives and have another chance of getting it right.

My father always worked two and three jobs. I hope he had great friends in the service. I know he loved bartending at NCO clubs and VFW clubs. He loved running bars, and I got to visit in some in those bars. I hope he had friends. I often wonder if he and his buddies consoled each other about wives and kids that didn’t understand them. But I’m not sure. Sometimes I imagine my father always being tight-lipped. Just holding it in.

I can only remember a handful of conversations I had with my dad. One time we were watching The Today Show before he took me to school and he went to work. This was also in that summer of 1967. They mentioned The Hobbit and my father said he knew about Bilbo Baggins. I didn’t know who Bilbo was at that time but remembered my dad saying that name, Bilbo Baggins, later when I finally read The Hobbit. It made me wonder what books my father read, what dreams he had about the future. He grew up in the heyday of the pulp magazines and old time radio. I wonder what stories and heroes he loved.

My father loved the military, and in 1967 I was very anti-war. I remember once my dad calling me a commie-pinko-faggot in anger. His dream for me was to join the ROTC and become an officer. I was having none of that. I ruined his fantasy for me. I later thought he should have been mature enough to understand me because I was too immature to understand him. But that was all part of the great generation gap. If my dad had lived he would have been a Fox News kind of guy. I don’t think we would have ever bridged the generation gap.

However, if I ever get hold of a time machine, I would try.

1969---Last-photo-of-Dad

JWH

 

Science Fiction Before NASA

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Did average Americans in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s believe that life, including intelligent beings, thrived on Venus and Mars, and maybe even the moons of Jupiter and Saturn? Folks of all ages read science fiction in the pulp magazines. Kids mostly enjoyed science fiction in newspaper strips and comic books, or watched science fiction serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon at the movies. The 1950s began with several television shows aimed at kids about space patrols which adults enjoyed too. And in the late 1940s, America went nuts for flying saucers. I would assume science fictional ideas were quite popular, and people did believe life existed throughout the solar system. Most science fiction stories assumed Venus was a steamy jungle world, and Mars a cold arid desert world.

Planet Stories 1939

However, in all the classic MGM and Warner Brothers movies from those decades, and all the classic TV shows from the 1950s, I don’t ever remember any character talking about science fiction or life on other planets. It’s as if science fiction existed as a small subculture totally isolated from the rest of American pop culture.

I wonder if Americans in the decades before NASA really believe there was life on other worlds because science fiction from that era took it for granted there was. I doubt astronomers and other scientists encouraged those ideas. For 2018 I’ve been reading the best science fiction from each year starting with 1939. I’m currently on 1943 in my systematic reading, but I’ve been jumping ahead occasionally in my random reading. There is a sharp difference between science fiction written before NASA and after. We now know all the other planets and moons in our solar system should only interest geologists. There are a few biologists hoping they will have something to research on a few moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

The robotic spacecraft Mariner IV flew by Mars on July 14, 1965, around 8pm EST. I have a memory of this event, but I don’t know the exact sequence of time, or if what I remembered was played out over days. I recall watching a special CBS news broadcast that interrupted regular television to show the flyby and first close-up photos of Mars. The grainy black and white pictures were devasting to my science fictional dreams because Mars looked just like the Moon, full of lifeless craters. There was no Old Ones living there (I had just read Stranger in a Strange Land and Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein).

Mariner IV

NASA had been established in 1958 but it was awhile before it began influencing science fiction. Sputnik (10/4/1957) and Explorer 1 (1/31/1958), the first satellites by Russia and the United States had made a tremendous cultural impact around the world. The Space Age had begun but it took a few years to begin gathering real data. Then in the early sixties, both countries sent up a series of space capsules. They were hardly the spaceships of science fiction. They were about the size of a VW Beetle, just large enough to cram one not-so-tall man inside.

I was 13 at the time of the Mariner IV flyby. I read a lot of science fiction, and I built Estes model rockets. I had been following NASA since Alan Shepard’s Project Mercury Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961. I grew up with a fantasy of space flight and the early reality.

Looking back now I can see how science fiction was changed by NASA. Before NASA science fiction fans, and maybe the public at large hoped the solar system was teaming with life. After NASA’s explorations in the 20th century, the solar system beyond Earth became a sterile bunch of rocks.

I now believe the pre-NASA science fiction era ran from April 1926 with the first issue of Amazing Stories and ended with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny in the November 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Although Zelazny’s story of Mars with intelligent beings wasn’t the last story to imagine such life on Mars, it’s how I like to remember pre-NASA science fiction ending. As the sixties progressed a New Wave of science fiction changed the genre. At the time we thought there was one new wave, but now I’m seeing two.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny cover for FSF November 1963

Yesterday I read “The Halfling” by Leigh Brackett in The Great SF Stories 5 (1943) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. “The Halfling” first appeared in Astonishing Stories February 1943 and sadly had no interior illustrations even though the tale was extremely colorful and dramatic. It read like it should have appeared in Planet Stories because the story was about an interplanetary circus full of exotic animals from all over the system, with geeks who were hybrids of humans and intelligent creatures from Mars, Venus, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn running the show. It’s strange that readers could accept so much diversity in space but not on Earth.

When I read old science fiction stories now, with the solar system teeming with lifeforms, it feels sad we’re all alone. I don’t know if the old science fiction writers invented all that colorful life because their plots needed it, or if they actually assumed life existed everywhere. I don’t think most folks want the NASA solar system. They want a Star Wars galaxy.

I often ask myself why do I keep reading the old science fiction? Hasn’t NASA invalidated those stories? I realize I’m like the faithful who hope for heaven living in a scientific world. Is waiting for The Day the Earth Stood Still to come true pretty much like waiting for The New Testament to come true? What if our respective dudes never show up?

I always choke up when I reread “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” because I still wish Mars had been like Edgar Rice Burroughs, C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Roger Zelazny imagined.

While I read old pre-NASA science fiction I admire the creative imaginations of the writers. I like to think they were speculating and extrapolating, but maybe all they were doing is playing at make-believe. Most classical art is representative. Modern art invented what nature never produced. For a while, we thought science fiction worked to be representational of possible futures. Now it seems science fiction has been modern art all along, and NASA is now making the art of science fiction realistic again.

But I have to consider another angle. Pre-NASA science fiction covered the Depression, WWII, and the Cold War. These were stressful times. I read science fiction in my teens because it was a refuge from alcoholic parents that fought constantly and dragged my sister and I all over the country constantly changing our schools.

NASA space probes today bring back dazzling views of the solar system. They might not have found alien life, but those planetary vistas are gorgeous. The Milky Way galaxy in 2018 is a far more happening place than in pre-NASA science fiction.

I’m enjoying a nostalgic visit to pre-NASA science fiction. Maybe it’s a refuge from Donald Trump, climate change, mass shootings, polarized politics, environmental collapse, and the sixth mass extinction. And that’s okay.

JWH

 

What I Loved and Hated About Lost in Space (2018)

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, April 20, 2018

I remember watching the first episode of the original Lost in Space when it premiered back in September of 1965. I was thirteen and hooked on reading Heinlein juveniles. Science fiction was my religion. Even as a kid, I thought Lost in Space rather cheesy, but I watched it every week for a few months. I have fond memories of the 1965-66 television season. My favorite show of that season was I, Spy, but I also loved Twelve O’Clock High. I was embarrassed to admit I watched Lost in Space to my friends because I didn’t have any that were into science fiction, and they made fun of it as a kid’s show — but hell, we were kids. I loved the robot and thought Penny (Angela Cartwright) awful cute (hey, I was her age at the time).

Lost in Space - Robot and Will

I was a little apprehensive about giving Lost in Space (2018) a try. I was afraid they’d make it into a campy joke like before. I was wrong. It was ten episodes of action-oriented science fiction, visually pleasing, with engaging characters who were complex. This time around I still liked the robot best, but found Maureen (Molly Parker), the mom, the most attractive female, even though I’m way too old for her. It’s a weird headspace to remember a show that I watched as a kid being remade when I was older than any of the characters.

The Robinsons of Lost in Space is inspired by Swiss Family Robinson which was inspired by Robinson Crusoe.  The Robinsonade is a very old literary type and has always been one of my favorites. I highly recommend In Search of Robinson Crusoe by Tim Severin (currently $3.99 for the Kindle) if you want to read a fascinating history of lost on deserted island stories. In the original series the Robinsons were alone in space, but in the reboot, they have some company.

Lost in Space - Mauren

This time around the female characters get a lot more screen time, and Dr. Smith is played by a woman, Parker Posey. In fact, I would call Maureen Robinson the main protagonist, with Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Judy (Taylor Russell) getting as much or more story time as Will (Maxwell Jenkins), John (Toby Stephens), and Don West (Ignacio Serricchio). Even though the characters have the same names as before, their backstory and present stories are much different. Sure, everyone is super-smart, but each has a flawed history, which the show presents in flashbacks.

Lost in Space (2018) is mostly about family dynamics, and that’s what makes the series compelling this time. Each episode has lots of science fiction action, usually with one or more Robinsons escaping death in the last few seconds. Now that’s copied from the original. Interestingly, the cliffhangers in the new series don’t fall between episodes. The original series ended each episode with a new cliffhanger, which added to its cheesiness, demanding viewers to tune in next week. 2018 episodes have a nice closure to each.

21st-century television shows, especially those with limited seasons and high production values like Westworld, The Man in the High Castle, and The Handmaids Tale, are light years ahead of 1960s television productions. Back then TV was considered crap, and movies were art. Now movies are comic books and TV is art. Lost in Space isn’t at the level of Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, but I think it’s as good as Stranger Things.

However, I do have some disappointments to register. But they aren’t unique to Lost in Space, but to current science fiction in general. Lost in Space (2018) looks very realistic. The sets, props and special effects are excellent. However, the science behind the story is rather lame. They practically don’t try. The Jupiter class spaceships are fueled by liquid methane. That’s just silly. Even sillier is when they find a substitute in high-grade alien-bat guano. Plus the apparent amount of fuel that each Jupiter holds is only a couple hundred gallons. I won’t give away the story secrets of the interstellar travel methods, but it’s closer to comic book terminology.

What disappoints me about modern science fiction is the total lack of realism regarding space travel. We’ve just given up and turned outer space into fantasyland. Spaceships are now equal to flying dragons or magical portals. Writers, if they make any effort at all to explain how we can travel in space, throw out a few gobbledygook words. The word wormhole is the new abracadabra. Man is that depressing.

I grew up reading science fiction believing that some stories were serious speculation about how humans might one day travel into space. I doubt 1-in-100 SF stories today even try to imagine something real.

Lost in Space (2018) has become a 1965 kids story for 2018 adults. Science fiction now lives on nostalgia. Hell, most visual science fiction today are remakes of films, shows, and comics from the 1960s and 1970s.  I read “What’s Going Wrong With Sci-Fi?” this morning from Esquire, which the essay opens with:

“One of the problems with science fiction,” said Ridley Scott back in 2012 ahead of the release of Prometheus, “is the fact that everything is used up. Every type of spacesuit, every type of spacecraft is vaguely familiar. The corridors are similar, the planets are similar. So what you try to do is lean more heavily on the story and the characters.”

And Scott is only complaining from a filmmaker’s perspective. I’m complaining that science fiction has practically given up on any kind of basis in science. Readers and watchers only want escapism. Lost in Space (2018) is good escapism but bad science fiction.

Half a century ago, NASA gave us Project Gemini and Project Apollo. Being a science fiction fan in the 1960s meant believing that humans would make it to Mars and beyond in our lifetimes. Well, our lifetimes are almost over and we’re still orbiting the Earth dreaming of beyond.

The new Lost in Space imagines life on Earth getting bad enough that people would want move to Alpha Centauri to start over. Suggesting that idea is wrong on so many different philosophical and scientific levels. It’s a fantasy on the level of Superman comics. A few hundred humans might one day colonize the Moon and Mars, but they won’t be places for pioneers seeking escape dismal lives on Earth. And travel to the stars is completely impossible by the science we know today. And I hate when true believers answer that with, “But we don’t know what science will discover in the future.” Study the problem. Wormholes and warp drives are only slightly more realistic for space travel than magical wardrobes in the Narnia books. Star Wars is no more science fictional than Lord of the Rings.

Lost in Space (2018) is fun television, but its science is no more advanced than Lost in Space (1965). Writers use scientific terms like magical spells in Harry Potter movies. Of course, this is the norm. I shouldn’t complain. Movies like Gattaca and Her which are at least philosophically realistic about the impact of science aren’t blockbusters. The reality is we live in a small world, orbiting an average star, in a nothing special galaxy, and the likelihood of going anywhere else is almost zero. So, is fantasizing about space travel really that bad? It is if we think we can escape Earth once we’ve trashed it.

I found a lot of pleasure watching the new Lost in Space, but I’m also depressed that after 57 years of traveling in space, spacefaring humans only live the distance from Memphis and Nashville above the Earth. I thought humans would be dwelling much further away by now. Instead, we’re still just watching unrealistic science fiction dreaming we had.

JWH

 

Christmas 2017 – Still Stuck in the 1960s

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 25, 2017

Much can be revealed about myself from examining my Christmas presents this year.

  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – Blu-ray
  • Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) – 2-CD 50th Anniversary edition
  • The Complete Monterey Pop (1967) – 3-disc Blu-ray edition
  • Trouble No More by Bob Dylan – live recordings 1979-1981

I already own various versions of these works. This is the fourth time I’ve acquired Sgt. Peppers (LP, CD, remastered CD, and now remastered again 2-CD).

beatles-sgt-pepper-50th-anniversary-2xcd_01

I wish I could say my wife knew me well enough to have picked these out, but they were all put on my Xmas-2017 wishlist at Amazon by me. Susan actually knows what I like, she just can’t keep up with what I buy. All the other items on my wishlist, except the Arduino starter kit, were pop culture items from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Is being stuck in the past a sad state of psychology, or just normal for a 66-year-old guy? One reason why I keep rebuying the past is to get higher resolution recreations of art  I resonated with from my teen years. I generally never got to experience the Sixties directly except for a few exceptions. For example, I got to see Cream live on their Farewell Tour in 1968 in Miami. I never got to see The Beatles, The Byrds, or The Beach Boys in the 1960s. I didn’t attend Monterey Pop or Woodstock. I got to see a lot of legendary bands in the 1970s and later, even ones who got their start in the 1960s, but that’s not the same.

Until I started getting Rolling Stone Magazine in 1968, most of my news of rock and roll pop culture was highly delayed. It was mostly gossip told by DJs or news items in Life, Time, or on television. The Beatles were always in the news. Most of my favorite bands didn’t make it to television except for cheesy fake performances on The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-1971), American Bandstand (1952-1989), Shindig! (1964-1966), Hullabaloo (1965-66), The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-1969). I remember one time catching a great segment on Jefferson Airplane on the Today Show, where they demonstrated the liquid light show. Made me want to run away to San Francisco.

In a way, buying these old recordings is like trying to return to the past. I know that’s impossible. Maybe a better way of looking at it is to say I admire artwork from a particular era. That too is revealing. I feel closest to all forms of pop culture from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. I also love work from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and stuff from the 1980s through today, but there’s a powerful affinity for art created for us Baby Boomers. I’m in-sync with modern television and movies but completely out-of-sync with the contemporary music scene. (Maybe I’ll catch up one day before I die.)

It’s interesting that one of my Christmas gifts is from the 1979-1981 era when Bob Dylan was going through his Christian phase. Back then I bought Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981) as they came out. I even saw Dylan live during this time period. But I didn’t feel for this era Dylan like I did for 1964-66 Dylan or 1961-1963 Dylan. Listening to this new bootleg series of 1979-1981 performances I realized I had missed out on something great. Dylan had left me behind, and now I’m catching up.

Am I really hearing the 1960s again? This time when I played the new version of Sgt. Peppers it was both the same and subtly different. In 1967 when I first heard the album, I played the LP on my little console stereo. That technology defined the sound for back then. Today I played it on a Denon AV receiver through four floor standing Infinity speakers. The sound filled the room and Susan and I felt like we were in the middle of the soundstage.

I’ve always admired Sgt. Peppers as a concept album, and loved many of its songs, but I’ve never played them heavily in repeat fashion like I do all my favorite tunes. Sgt. Peppers feels like a music hall performance that needs to be listened to from start to finish. It never sounded better than it did today. This remastered edition felt airier than the last remastered edition, and I thought in a few places I heard things that weren’t there before. Of course, that’s probably tricks of memory. I rediscovered once again what a wonderful work of art this album represents for The Beatles and the 1960s. Just buying Sgt. Peppers again and taking the time to listen to it intently with no interruptions makes it worth the dollars.

Merry Christmas! What did Santa bring Y’all?

JWH