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

 

Why Do We Dream of Interstellar Travel When It’s Probably an Impossible Dream?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 4, 2018

I’ve always loved science fiction. Dreams of science fiction have felt like our species greatest ambitions. I’m not the only one that feels that way, because space travel enchanted many in the twentieth century. Humans have been imagining how to voyage across space for as long as they’ve known there were destinations to set sail across the sky. Landing on the Moon in 1969 made us believe we could go anywhere in the galaxy. But next year, the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing will only remind us we haven’t.

From the Earth to the Moon

When I bring up this subject to science fiction fans, most express a firm faith technology will find a way. I have doubts. Reading science books, rather than science fiction, gives a whole different perspective. My faith fades, and I assume humanity will never go far from Earth. At best, we might put outposts on the Moon and Mars, like those in Antarctica. It will probably never be healthy living off Earth. The more we study living in space, the more we learn that Earth is where our biological bodies are designed to dwell. Shouldn’t science fiction be exploring all these things our species could do in the next million years while stuck on Earth?

Because I’m an atheist I’ve always wondered why people waste their lives in anticipation of heaven. Now I wonder if science fiction’s hope of space travel is equally unrealistic. Strangely, we have far more books and movies about living on other worlds than fantasies about life after death. Is that a shift in faith to something we thought could be actually possible? And what if we find out that dream is just as unreal?

Or am I completely wrong? I’ve always had trouble enjoying fantasy stories because what’s the point of imagining things that can’t happen? Do most science fiction readers see their genre no different from fantasy? I read science fiction because I believe it could come true. Years ago I stopped enjoying stories about faster-than-light travel. Now I’m doubting any story about interstellar travel. I wonder if doubt is happening to science fiction writers too. Just read Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I’ve always considered Star Wars fantasy but believed Star Trek attempted to be practical science fiction. Yet, when I study the details, Star Trek is no more realistic than Marvel comics. Are all these genres stories for the child that never died in us? When do we grow up and read stories for adults? Isn’t a large portion of TV/movie content aimed at a kind of permanent arrested development in our souls?

When I was a kid I was savvy enough to distrust religion, so why did I buy into science fiction? We have a hunger for the fantastic. We want reality to be more than it is. Is it healthy to justify fantasy as only pretending? We want to aim high in imagining future possibilities, but when is ambition delusion? Why do we reject the mundane for the fantastic?

The Skylark of Space

What if our fantasies are a kind of reality? What if our fantasies are a new dimension we’re creating? A spin-off of this reality. What if all art is creation? Our conscious minds are the accidental byproduct of this universe. We have woken up becoming conscious of reality and said, “I wish it was different.” Maybe all art is fantasy, our blueprints to how we would have designed creation. What if our real desire is to put our conscious minds into our art, our self-created reality?

That philosophy would explain the drive to create VR software or the science fictional hope of downloading our brains into virtual worlds. There are folks who already believe this universe is such a construct.

I don’t know if this is good. Are we not destroying this planet by pursuing our fantasies? Should we not accept the physical reality in which we evolved? We are proud to be an evolved species with high intelligence, but what if we’re really a species with evolved fantasies? Is that creative or delusional?

Can we live in both reality and fantasy while respecting the rules of each?

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

 

The Great SF Stories 1 (1939)

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 5, 2018

I’m having BIG fun reading old science fiction short stories. However, are there valid justifications for spending so much time reading old science fiction when I could be reading shiny new stories instead?  Or even spend that time reading high-quality literary works or vastly more informative nonfiction? I have to confess a sense of guilt. I worry I’m wasting my time slumming in a pulp fiction past.

The-Great-SF-Stories-1-1939

 

For some reason, I’m being drawn into a self-imposed project of sequentially reading annual anthologies of the best science fiction short stories starting with 1939. I picked that year because The Great SF Stories #1 (1939) is the earliest annual anthology series I could find. I’ve been soul-searching trying to understand why I want to do this, but so far my psyche hasn’t provided any conclusive insight. I have made these rationalizations:

  • I’ve been reading science fiction for over a half-century and want to make sense of that obsession.
  • I’m fascinated by the evolution of science fiction and its themes.
  • I think I actually get more science fictional bang for my buck out of short stories.
  • I’m trying to decide what’s unique about science fiction literature.
  • I’m trying to decide if science fiction has any value other than entertainment.
  • I’m wondering which stories are truly worth preserving.
  • As I progress through the years I want to see how cultural change is reflected in science fiction.
  • I wonder if old science fiction is worth preserving.
  • Finally, I wonder if this is a form of exorcism, where I’m trying to wrap up my relationship with science fiction. I assume if I study it thoroughly enough I’ll learn how all the magic tricks are accomplished.

Because the web now provides access to old pulp magazines I wish I had the time and patience to just read everything from each year — but I can’t. Most of those old stories are just crap. And even the best stories aren’t really that good by modern literary standards. I figure I have the time and patience to read one or two annual anthologies per month, covering 12-24 years a year. This means that I might have a pretty good knowledge of short science fiction by the time I’m 70.

The Great SF Stories series were edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. They began in 1979 with #1 (1939) and ended in 1992 with #25 (1963). I assumed Greenberg did all the work and Asimov added a bit of pithy memory under Greenberg’s short introduction to each story. These old DAW paperbacks generally run $10-60 on eBay. I got volumes 1-12 in a reprint hardback edition that collected two years for each volume. Those 6 volumes were renamed the Golden Years of SF. I think I was able to get all six for less than $40 including shipping. I’m working on buying #13-25. There is a certain symmetry of using this series because they cover science fiction 12 years before the year I was born and continue for 12 years after. They end just about the time I started reading the then current annuals edited by Judith Merril.

Here is the table of contents of #1 from ISFDB. The story link will take you back to ISFDB where you can see where the story has been anthologized over the years. That’s a good indication of its lasting value. Many were well anthologized in the 1950s and 1960s, and have since disappeared from cultural memory.

Were these the best science fiction short stories of 1939? Did Asimov and Greenberg leave out any better SF because they couldn’t obtain the reprint rights or weren’t to their tastes? I’m mostly going to talk about the stories I liked most, and if I can find some other stories from 1939 that I liked that Asimov/Greenberg didn’t collect.

My current favorite science fiction short stories for 1939 are:

  1. “Living Fossil” by L. Sprague de Camp (not in GreatSF#1)
  2. “The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey
  3. “Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam
  4. “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt
  5. “The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp
  6. “I, Robot” by Eando Binder
  7. “Misfit” by Robert A. Heinlein
  8. “The Four-Side Triangle” by William F. Temple
  9. “Greater Than Gods” by C. L. Moore
  10. “Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein
  11. “Pilgrimage” by Nelson S. Bond
  12. “Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman

Jamie Todd Rubin discovered a letter in an April 1940 issue of Astounding by Isaac Asimov where 20-year-old Asimov listed his Top 10 stories of 1939. (Be sure to read Rubin’s “Vacation in the Golden Age of Science Fiction” if you love old SF short stories. I guess I’m not vacationing in the golden age of SF.)

Notice the overlap and difference between what was decided by Asimov/Greenberg in 1979 and the 1940 letter to the editor.

  1. One Against the Legion by Jack Williamson (serial novel)
  2. Lifeline by Robert Heinlein (in GreatSF#1)
  3. Gray Lensman by E. E. Smith (serial novel)
  4. Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak (serial novel)
  5. The Day Is Done by Lester del Rey (in GreatSF#1)
  6. Rope Trick by Eando Binder
  7. Nothing Happens on the Moon by Paul Ernst
  8. General Swamp, C.I.C. by Frederick Engelhardt
  9. Rust by Joseph E. Kelleam (in GreatSF#1)
  10. Smallest God by Lester del Rey

Back to The Great Short SF Stories 1, I wished Greenberg had not included the obvious fantasy stories. They could have included three more SF stories for 1939. “The Trouble with Water,” “The Misguided Halo,” and “Star Bright” just don’t belong in a collection called Great SF Stories.

Greenberg also included a second story by L. Sprague de Camp, “The Blue Giraffe” that had a nice science-fictional idea, but it paled in comparison to his standout story, “The Gnarly Man.” I would have used de Camp’s “Living Fossil” instead of “The Blue Giraffe” because it’s another standout story. “Living Fossil” had a much bigger SF idea — essentially prefiguring Planet of the Apes (1963). The idea was expanded by de Camp and P. Schuyler Miller in the novel Genus Homo that came out in 1941 in magazine form and 1950 in book form.

What if The Great SF Stories #1 (1939) could have included all the better SF stories from 1939 worth preserving? How many would that be? Asimov and Greenberg mainly focused on Astounding.

How is preserving worthiness decided? That’s hard to say. There are stories like “The Cloak of Aesir” by John W. Campbell that just didn’t turn me on at all. Should the personal tastes of the anthologist be the deciding factor? If we go by literary quality I’m not sure any of these stories are worth remembering.

Even though these stories entertained me I’m not sure I would recommend them to my friends my age, or younger readers. Science fiction from 1939 represents such a unique perspective on reality that I’m not sure they will be meaningful to many readers. I expect only old hardcore SF fans like myself who grew up reading these stories in the 1950s and 1960s will actually enjoy reading The Great SF Stories #1.

The only reason I can find for reading these stories is for understanding their influence on science fiction’s evolution. In terms of entertainment value, they can’t compete with modern science fiction found on Netflix or Amazon Prime. To a young person watching TV science fiction, 2018 science fiction is like shooting fentanyl and 1939 stories are like a watery Coors.

Ultimately, I decided the value of reading old science fiction comes from the pleasure of being an archeologist of science fictional ideas and themes. Think about it this way. There was a time in your life before you knew the concept of time travel. Can you remember when you first encountered it? The first time you conceive of traveling in time is mind-blowing. Of course, science fiction is so pervasive in our society that most children encounter all the classic ideas of science fiction before they go to school. They probably can’t remember the first time.

When I read these old stories I pay attention to the idea put across, and the historical context in which it was first created. I’m hoping by reading all these years of science fiction short stories will help me compile a list of themes and cite the progression of ideas through the years in the stories.

Here are briefly some of the themes I noticed from 1939. Over time I wish to expand them into full essays. I’ll try to avoid story specifics in case there are people who actually want to still read these stories. Even if you can’t find a copy of The Great SF Stories #1, most of the original magazines are available online for free. I read them with my iPad Mini by loading them in Dropbox.

Robots

There are two robot stories in this collection. The subject of “I, Robot” by Eando Binder is the first intelligent machine. “Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam is about the last three robots on Earth. Both stories use robots for their POV, with Adam Link in “I, Robot” even using the first-person. I previously wrote, “I, Robot” by Eando Binder” to explain why I thought it a standout story in the history of fictional robots. In 1939 few people knew about computers. In fact, the term computer was a job classification for humans. I also like that Adam Link tells us his limitations.

“Rust” combines several SF themes, including the extinction of humanity, the extinction of robots, the creation of artificial intelligence, and programmed behavior. The robots in the story wonder why humans couldn’t overcome their instincts and they regret that their programming makes them kill. This is an early story of fearing the consequences of military robots.

“Rust” is a wistful story about the last three intelligent robots after man has become extinct, reminding me of Clifford Simak’s stories about robots telling each other tales of mythical mankind. I assume Simak read Astounding Science Fiction since his serial novel Cosmic Engineers ran in the magazine during 1939, so he probably read “Rust.”

“I, Robot” and “Rust” make bookend robot stories to include in this anthology of 1939. “I, Robot” is about the first intelligent robot, and “Rust” is about the last. Men want to kill Adam Link, but X-120 regrets exterminating humanity but blames humans for designing him to be a weapon. At one point X-120 obliterates a poor rabbit only to feel terrible remorse.  Unlike Asimov’s robots, the robot X-120 was programmed to kill.

Neanderthals

There are two stories in The Great SF Stories #1 about Neanderthals: “The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp and “The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey. Both are about the last Neanderthal, however “The Gnarly Man” develops another science fiction theme, immortality. So in one story, the last Neanderthal was in the distant past, and the second he’s still living with us today. This idea has been bouncing around ever SF ever since, including “The Alley Man” by Philip Jose Farmer in a 1959 issue of F&SF, and recently in the 2007 film, The Man from Earth.

“The Day is Done” by Lester del Rey really grabbed me emotionally and is about the passing of a Neanderthal man who was living on Cro-Magnon charity. “The Day is Done” suggests Neanderthals interbred with modern man, which wasn’t a common belief back in 1939, but is considered fact today. It’s a lovely story that’s been often reprinted. You’d think stories Neanderthal life would be filed under historical fiction, but for some reason, science fiction has claimed them. See “5 SF/F Novels About Neanderthals That Aren’t The Clan of the Cave Bear” that barely mentions a few of them. I think the first story I remember reading on this theme was Mists of Dawn by Chad Oliver from the old Winston Science Fiction series. Asimov and Greenberg even did a whole anthology of such stories called Neanderthals.

Dangerous Aliens

This is one of the wonderful benefits of reading old science fiction is discovering the origin of popular modern SF stories. Ideas in new stories we read today are often old ideas being recycled. Anyone who knows “Black Destroyer” by A. E. van Vogt assumes the film Alien (1979) is its descendant — and Van Vogt shows us Coeurl’s POV, which is missing from H. R. Giger’s horrifying being.

“Black Destroyer” is a wonderful story on many levels. It feels like an episode of Star Trek, and this 1939 novelette includes many ideas that the 1960s TV show would explore in multiple episodes. The crew doesn’t include women, but it did have an important Japanese member.

“Cloak of Aesir” by John W. Campbell is another kind of alien invasion story, where superior beings take over the Earth and enslave humans.  It also involves the SF themes of Far Futures, Super Science, Psychic Powers, and Matriarchial Societies.

Prejudice Against Science

Both “Life-Line” by Robert A. Heinlein and “Trends” by Isaac Asimov are about anti-science prejudice. Of course, Heinlein’s idea was nutty, but he gave a decent enough explanation. I wondered if Heinlein and Asimov were reflecting anti-SF bias they felt from 1939 society. Science fiction and pulp magazines were considered trashy. Good parents didn’t let their kids reach such crap. SF fans often had to hide what they read, even though they thought of themselves as Slans (superior beings).

Both of these stories were about something else, predicting death and rocket travel, but I felt ultimately they were about prejudice to new ideas. When I was young I didn’t like “Life-Line” even though Heinlein was my favorite writer. But over the years, each time I reread “Life-Line” it gets better. For a first story, Heinlein was fairly savvy about storytelling, especially for writing for the pulps.

Mankind’s Extinction

Both “Rust” and “Living Fossil” a favorite story from 1939 not in this collection were about a time after humans went extinct. H. G. Wells started that idea I think in The Time Machine when he imagined the Eloi and Morlocks replacing us. Science fiction has often contemplated the end of humans, and well as our replacements.

“Living Fossil” did quite a lot for such a short story. De Camp nicely imagines monkeys from South America evolving our level of development millions of years after humans have disappeared. Even the interior illustration makes me wonder if Pierre Boulle ripped this story off for his novel Planet of the Apes. Evidently, L. Sprague de Camp isn’t as litigious as Harlan Ellison.

Living Fossil by L. Sprague de Camp - Astounding 1939 Feb

Matriarchial Societies

In “Pilgrimage” by Nelson Bond, we visit a far distant future after our society has long disappeared from the scene. Women rule. All the myths are about women gods. In “Cloak of Aesir” the alien invaders are ruled by the female of the species. I first encountered this idea in Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman from 1915. Goodreads lists 115 such books. Wikipedia has an article on “Single Gender Worlds.”

Psychic Powers

I thought psychic powers was an obsession of 1950s Astounding Science Fiction, but evidently, John W. Campbell had been thinking about it at least as early as “Cloak of Aesir” in 1939. “Star Bright” by Jack Williamson is a fantasy story about a man getting magical abilities from a meteorite piercing his skull and lodging in his brain.

“Greater Than Gods” by C. L. Moore is a powerful story about people in the far future projecting their thoughts to a man in our near future. Moore’s story is really about two roads the people of Earth could take in 1939. She just used psychic powers to show us two possible far-future outcomes–one a world united by power driven men (think Hitler), and the other a decadent world of peace and pleasure. Moore doesn’t want either, but she shows how both entice us.

Hard Science

There were two hard science stories in The Great SF Stories #1. The first was “Heavy Planet” by Milton A. Rothman that anticipates Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity. The second is Heinlein’s “Misfit” about a spaced based future CCC unit moving a small asteroid out of the asteroid belt into an orbit closer to Mars, making it into a long-term space station. Heinlein promotes the use of mathematics, discipline, and hard work. This could be his first juvenile SF story.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed these old stories, but I’m not sure younger people will. The storytelling is often crude. Modern science fiction on Netflix is far more sophisticated, colorful, exciting, and dynamic. I am constantly pleased while reading these old stories to unearth ideas we still use today. I feel like a science fiction archeologist piecing together the evolution of science fictional ideas. That’s very rewarding to me. Throughout this collection of 1939 stories, I found ideas that first amazed me in the 1960s when reading 1950s and 1960s science fiction. I thought those ideas were original back then. Evidently not. But were they original in 1939?

I assume if you live long enough you start thinking like the person who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes. I also assume if I could time travel back to 450 BCE I’d find people telling stories that contained the seeds of all the stories in The Great SF Stories #1 (1939).

Jim

What If Science Fiction Is Wrong About Space Travel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

Reconstructing 1966 by Watching Star Trek

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 8, 2016

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

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

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

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

1966-2016-Jim-Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the Future from 1966

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

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

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

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

1966-Science-Club026-700

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

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

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

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

Rocket landed on fins

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

Where I Got My News in 1966

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

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

Star Trek:TOS “The Man Trap”

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

The Man Trap 1

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

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

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

The Allegorical View

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

The Man Trap 2

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

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

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

The Soundtrack for 1966

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

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

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

Our-Man-FlintThe_Mamas_&_The_Papas_-_If_You_Can_Believe_Your_Eyes_And_Ears

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

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

Cars of 1966

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

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

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

What Remembering 1966 Is Teaching Me

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

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

1966-Charleston-House2016-Charleston-House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 50th Birthday, Star Trek!

classic-star-trek-montage

JWH

Rethinking Star Trek: “The Cage”

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 22, 2016

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

spock smiles the-cage

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

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

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

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

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

The Allegorical View

cage-talosian

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

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

The Science Fiction

Pike-holding-Phaser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH