Alleviating My 8-Bit Nostalgia

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 15, 2019

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve become obsessed with watching YouTube videos about old 8-bit computers. I’ve even been shopping on eBay looking for old machines in good condition to buy. But I think I’ve cured my 8-bit nostalgia.

October 13th was the 6th anniversary of my retirement. My dream before retiring was to use my work-free years to become a science fiction writer. That hasn’t happened. Instead, I’ve chased the siren call of nostalgia. The other day I read an article about why people stop listening to new music and it gave me a clue about the nature of nostalgia. We keep listening to the music we imprinted on as a teenager because we gave that music a lot of our time. Once we got older we didn’t have that kind of time to devote to new music.

I’m wondering if nostalgia isn’t an attraction for anything we’ve already spent the time learning to love?  Now that I have a lot of free time it’s much easier to pursue old hobbies than learn new ones. This has given me an insight into my affliction. I both delight, relish and resent nostalgia. Nostalgia feels good to indulge in but it makes me also feel guilty that I’m not learning to love new stuff.

I’m nostalgic for two kinds of things. Stuff I once loved that I bought, and stuff I once wanted to do. Writing science fiction is something I’ve wanted to do my whole life. But it is much easier to love stuff that we can buy than it is to learn to love to do new things. That article didn’t realize it was saying two things. It was much easier to buy LPs than learn to play the guitar.

That article rings true because I stopped spending time with new music after the 1980s. I believe the new songs I do love are because they sound like old songs. Nostalgia is spending time enjoying things we’ve already spent the time learning to love. And the reason nostalgia was originally considered a psychological defect is because we stop learning to love something new. Over the centuries we’ve stopped considering it a flaw and turned nostalgia into a positive trait. Especially if we’re old.

However, that fits right in with our belief that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. If you indulge in nostalgia you aren’t learning new tricks. Maybe we can learn new stuff when we’re young because we don’t already have a backlog of things we already love to distract us with nostalgia. Of course, kids today seem to put thousands of hours into fun pursuits even before they start school. I now see nostalgia in people in their twenties.

I realize that in the past six years I’ve been cycling through the various periods of my life escaping into my past. Each period has something different I learned to love. I imprinted on TV watching in the 1950s and early 1960s before I became a bookworm. That’s how I got hooked on TV shows and old movies that I now collect. Starting around 1962 I got hooked on science fiction and rock and roll. I write about both. At the beginning of the 1970s, I got into SF fandom and fanzines, which eventually morphed into blogging. I started computer school in 1971 and got my first microcomputer in 1978. The 1980s were the time when I owned several 8-bit and 16-bit computers, and ran a BBS. I also got a job with computers and worked at it for 35 years.

From 1968 to 2013 I tried writing science fiction several times but I never put the needed hours into it. I wrote about thirty short stories, a couple novel first drafts, and attended a bunch of classes, including Clarion West. But it was just a few hundred hours, and for most of that time, I was in my fifties. Was I too old to learn a new trick, or was it because I didn’t put in my 10,000 hours?

So, why haven’t I bought an old 8-bit machine? It’s because I’ve watched dozens of videos by The 8-Bit Guy. Watching him demo all these old machines vicariously gave me all I needed. It reminded me why I owned so many 8-bit and 16-bit machines in the first place. I was always looking for a machine that could do more. My current machine, an Intel NUC with an i7 processor, 16GB of memory, 1TB SSD, and 4K monitor is completely satisfying. It does everything I want. The 8-Bit Guy inflames my nostalgia for old machines but also reminds me why I gave them all to Goodwill.

However, The 8-Bit Guy has also taught me something else, something about nostalgia that I have written here. There is nothing wrong with returning to retro tech, but I do have a choice. I could put those hours into doing something new. Or put them into an old ambition I never achieved. (Is that another kind of nostalgia? Pursuing old dreams.)

For the past six years, I’ve been mass consuming old hobbies. The question is, will I continue to consume nostalgia or learn a new trick? It’s so easy to stick with what we know, and it’s so hard to learn something new. There’s a reason why we have that saying about failing to train old dogs. And there’s something else I’ve learned in my six years of retirement. My energy is draining away. I’m guessing old dogs can learn new tricks but it’s ten times harder than when they were young. Maybe even a hundred.

I could say I’m expending all my dwindling energy on enjoying my old loves. That’s kind of nice (and normal). And maybe that’s what we’re supposed to do when we’re old. But theoretically, I wonder if we can break the nostalgic habit. Instead of watching The 8-Bit Guy before I go to bed I could be watching YouTube videos on the techniques of writing fiction and get up in the morning and apply them.

JWH

The Absolute Best Reason to Subscribe to Spotify (Besides the Obvious One!)

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 11, 2019

For the price of buying one album on CD each month, my wife and I rent millions of albums. That’s the obvious reason to subscribe to Spotify. But as an old guy afflicted with crippling nostalgia, listening to playlists assembled from Billboard’s Top 40 and Billboard’s Hot 100 charts for specific years is almost as good as owning a time machine. Lucky for me, there are other year nostalgic fans who diligently track down all the hundreds of songs that chart during a year and organize them into Spotify playlists. For example, here’s a playlist for 1965, with 626 songs.

1965 happens to be the pinnacle of pop music for me. For Spotify subscribers, just search on Billboard Top 40 or Billboard Hot 100 and the year you want. It might come up first in the search, or you might need to see all on the playlist listings. There are many members who make these by-the-year playlists. Some are more extensive than others. I pick the ones with several hundred songs.

If you have Spotify you should be able to click on the above playlist and listen to it now. If you don’t subscribe, I have found a couple of places where you can listen to limited subsets of a year in music.

I discovered Tropical Glen years and years ago. Go to its home page and click on your favorite music year. Here’s the direct link to 1965. Once you pick a year, you can also look at the Cash Box charts for each week. Here they are for 1965.

Recently I discovered a way to look at Billboard’s Top 100 charts by year. Go to Singles Chronology. The same people also have a Top 40 site. I learned this from Slice the Life. Blogger Hans Postcard writes a series of essays reviewing all the singles that charted on a particular year. He’s currently working through 1969, and here’s the beginning of that series. Hans writes a little bit about each song and often has a copy of the song to play.

There’s a psychological reason for listening to songs by year. Read: “What makes us stop listening to new music when as get older?” The article says our musical tastes crystalize around age 13/14, which was 1965 for me. The article says we stop liking new music as we grow older and have less time to listen to current music. Evidently, as we go to work and start families, and life gets busy, we don’t give new music the time it takes to bond with it.

The reason why I recommend occasionally playing by-the-year playlists is that most of us grow up only listening to a portion of the hits for that year. The Billboard Hot 100 charts cover rock, R&B, country, jazz, easy listening, and any single that made it to the chart. That can be around 600-700 songs each year. Quite often I discover songs I love but don’t remember. I probably love them because they are of the same style as the other songs I loved. Or they are lesser hits of artists I love.

I also thrill when a song plays that I haven’t heard for 54 years and it triggers memories I haven’t thought about since I made them. I often play these playlists very loud. That brings out details in the songs so they feel fresh and vibrant. In 1965 I listened to my music on a Sears clock radio which had a 3″ mono speaker. It was low-fi. I’m often shocked by how High-Fi the music was back then.

Listening by the year also reveals how much I was listening to the radio back then. I got my radio for Christmas of 1962 and played it from the time I got home from school till I went to school the next day. I often woke in the middle of the night to hear songs, and sometimes I would dream about the songs that were playing. That radio died in 1968, but by then I was mostly listening to albums. I stopped listening to AM or FM radio in the early 1970s because I couldn’t stand the disc jockeys or ads. But I can tell that I listened to more songs in 1963-1966 than I did in 1967-1972. That’s because in 1967 I got an after school job. I graduated high school in 1969, and when I play the 1969 playlist I’m amazed by how many great songs I just don’t remember hearing back then.

Finally, a really mind-blowing thing is to play the years before you were born. The Billboard charts seem to have begun in the 1950s, but there are users on Spotify that collect the music for earlier years. When I started listening to my radio in 1962, they played Golden Oldies on the weekends, so I am familiar with rock from 1955-1962. But if I play pop songs from 1947 or 1951 its a trip.

Not only do we stop learning to like new music after a while, but we seldom like old music before we grew up. However, if you listen enough it will grow on you. For decades I’ve been learning to like pop music all the way back to the 1920s. I don’t resonate with it like I do with music from the 1960s, but it is growing on me. Sometimes I feel getting older allows me to enjoy older music. I know I now enjoy TV programs my parents loved back when but that I hated.

I sometimes like to play music on headphones when I’m going to sleep. It’s great to wake up and be in a semi-conscious state of mind while hearing music. Often I dream that I’m floating in space with music all around me. It’s pretty damn cool when that happens. Evidently, my neurons like it too, because I can feel them dancing.

JWH

 

Ken Burns Chronologically – The History of the United States

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, September 24, 2019

While watching the new Ken Burns documentary, Country Music, I realized that his documentaries often cover the same time periods but through different subjects. For example, in this new series, I was enamored with how country music was spread in the early days of the radio in the 1920s and 1930s. Burns had also covered radio tangentially in his series Jazz, specifically in the film Empire of the Air, and to a lesser extent in such series as The Dust Bowl, Baseball, The Roosevelts, and other shows. We forget, and I guess for the young, they never imagined, that radio had the society changing impact of the smartphone.

This got me to thinking. Instead of watching Ken Burns films by subject, what if I watched them by time periods? I then made a Google Spreadsheet of all of Ken Burns’ films and sorted the episodes by date. (This is a crude start I hope to refine over time. I “borrowed” the descriptions from Wikipedia and Ken Burn’s websites.)

Let’s say I wanted to focus on the 1920s and get a multi-dimensional view of that decade, I could watch these episodes and films:

  • Empire of the Air
  • Jazz – “The Gift” – episode 2
  • Country Music – “The Rub” – episode 1
  • The Roosevelts – “The Storm” – episode 4
  • Baseball – “4th Inning: A National Heirloom” – episode 4
  • The National Parks – “Going Home” – episode 4
  • Jazz – “Our Language” – episode 3
  • Jazz – “The True Welcome” – episode 4 (first part)
  • The Dust Bowl – “The Great Plow-Up” – episode 1 (second part)

And then supplement those with parts of:

  • Frank Lloyd Wright
  • The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
  • The Mayo Clinic
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Thomas Hart Benton

Now I’m thinking about all the everyday history Burns hasn’t covered. I wish he would do documentary series on:

  • Feminism – especially the first and second-wave feminists. He’s got a start with Not For Ourselves Alone about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. I wish Burns would film the book Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith which is about the rise of feminism, abolitionists, the temperance movement, and spiritualism in America from 1848-1900. Goldsmith also covered Stanton and Anthony.
  • Science Fiction in America – how did the genre evolve. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mark Twain wrote science fiction, as did many other Americans in the 19th century. Did cowboys discuss Frankenstein and Jules Verne out on the prairie? Show how science fiction developed in the dime novel, pulp magazines, on the radio, in movie serials, newspaper comic strips,  comic books, hardbacks, paperbacks, movies, television, and video games.
  • Books, Magazines, Newspapers, and Bookstores in America. How did we become a nation of readers?
  • Rock and roll – give it the same treatment as country music and jazz.
  • The History of High Fidelity in America. About how recorded music technologically evolved.
  • The Transcendentalists. Include Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson.

There’s an unlimited supply of everyday history I’d love to see. That’s what I love most about Ken Burns’ films, they are so visual.

JWH

 

 

 

A Life in Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 23, 2019

I’ve always known that science fiction was an important aspect of my life, but I didn’t know how important until I read The Way the Future Was by Frederik Pohl, a memoir he wrote back in 1977 about his life in science fiction. This book isn’t in print, you’ll have to order it used, but the first three chapters are available online at Baen Books.

I got to spend a couple hours with Fred Pohl in the early 1970s. I wish I had known everything that was in his book then because I would have pestered him with a thousand questions. At the time I only knew him as the co-author of The Space Merchants with C. M. Kornbluth. I knew he had written several novels with Kornbluth and also with Jack Williamson. This was well before his famous books Man Plus (1976) and Gateway (1977). I think I had read his solo novel The Age of the Pussyfoot and owned a copy of A Plague of Pythons. I probably knew he had once edited Galaxy and If, a couple of my favorite magazines. Back when I met Pohl, along with James Gunn and John Brunner after they appeared at a conference at my university, my college roommate Greg Bridges and I got to sit with them at lunch. I knew Fred Pohl was fairly famous in science fiction, but I had no idea just how famous. I now understand why Brunner and Gunn question Pohl so intently. Years later, I was more impressed with Pohl for Gateway and his later novels, but he was never a big favorite of mine. He is now.

After reading The Way the Future Was I realized he was one of the major figures in the history of science fiction, at least or maybe more important than Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov or even John W. Campbell. Explaining why I now believe that will take some time. I will have to give a quick history of my own relationship with science fiction to connect the dots.

I started reading science fiction in 1962. My father was in the Air Force and I changed schools often. I generally always made a new best friend, but what kept me sane was science fiction. My parents were alcoholics, and I had rejected religion at age 12, so I used science fiction as my guide to life. The fiction part of SF was my mythology, and the genre’s history became my family history. Science fiction writers were the rock stars and founding fathers of my world. Over almost sixty years I’ve put together a rather detail history of science fiction in my head. It’s still constantly growing and expanding. Reading The Way the Future Was showed me that Fred Pohl was intimately active in most of it, almost as if he was a time traveler intentionally trying to experience it all.

Wonder-Stories-Quarterly-Summer-1930Hugo Gernsback began the science fiction genre by publishing Amazing Stories in April 1926, but soon lost control of the magazine, and started another magazine Science Wonder Stories in June 1929. Astounding Stories of Super-Science began it’s run in January 1930. The earliest science fiction fans, sometimes called First Fandom, all began reading science fiction about this time. Fred Pohl discovered science fiction in the Summer 1930 issue of Wonder Stories Quarterly. Pohl wrote, “I opened it up. The irremediable virus entered my veins.”

Over the decades I have read many memoirs and autobiographies of science fiction writers recounting the same experience of discovering science fiction in the 1930s. I discovered the science fiction magazine in the 1960s, and they often included short histories or biographies that recounted this knowledge. For almost sixty years I’ve been reading these chronicles, and The Way the Future Was is one of the best. Pohl begins with his discovery of science fiction and goes on to explain his adventures in the Science Fiction League (the first effort to organize SF fandom), of publishing fanzines in their earliest days, to starting the legendary science fiction club The Futurians, and the first World Science Fiction convention in 1939.

By the time Pohl was nineteen, he was editing Astonishing Stories and Super-Science Stories, and just before WWII, he became an assistant editor for Popular Publications, the largest publisher of pulp magazines. After the war, Pohl became a literary agent for most of the famous science fiction writers of the early 1950s. He was also one of the co-founders of the Hydra Club, another legendary SF club. His third wife was Judith Merril. That chapter also tells about his connections all the early book publishers of science fiction, including Doubleday, Gnome Press, and Ballantine Books. The in 1960 he became the editor of Galaxy, If, Worlds of Tomorrow, and International Science Fiction until 1969, buying some of the best science fiction of the decade and discovering many new writers that have since become famous. I don’t know why John W. Campbell gets all the attention as the great SF magazine editor of the genre, someone needs to write Pohl’s biography.

The Way the Future Was explores many territories, but actually stops before Pohl became really successful as an SF novelist. It’s a shame he didn’t update it before he died in 2013. However, Pohl was close friends and good friends with all the major and minor writers of science fiction and has tons of wonderful anecdotes to tell. He was also a successful lecturer and often appeared on TV and radio, which provided other great stories. All-in-all, Frederik Pohl was very close to most of the significant events and people in science fiction from 1930-1977.

One reason I liked The Way the Future Was is because I have met many of the people Pohl wrote about. Of course, just barely. In nearly all cases I saw these people at science fiction conventions. Sometimes I’d get to chat a few words with them and shake their hands after a lecture. One time I was selling books at a convention and Donald Wollheim stopped to look over my dealer’s table, even bought a book, and we chatted. I forgot what book he bought. I was always on the distant periphery of science fiction, but I still felt a kinship with these people. They were the clan I identified with most, and Pohl’s book reminded me how I felt about that kinship. I always daydreamed of becoming a science fiction writer and getting closer to the clan. I never did. The Way the Future Was has reminded me of what I missed. It made me sad but in a wistful kind of way.

JWH

 

Hope the Kittens Don’t Eat Me

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 10, 2019

At noon today, I snuck into the kitchen hoping to eat my egg salad sandwich before I had to feed the kittens. I’m doing an intermittent fast, so I haven’t eaten in 16 hours. I had already fed the kittens once this morning. I reached into the cabinet to get a saucer, but it made the tiniest of clanking noises, and the kittens thundered into the kitchen from the back bedroom, slamming their little bodies against the dishwasher to break their dash.

I had to feed them first. Damn. And Susan thinks we can get them off of Fancy Feast and onto a steady diet of crunchies. Ha!

I quickly put down their food and made my sandwich, but before I could take two bites Lily was climbing my leg. She’s gone crazy for people food lately.

K2

I was gobbling down my sandwich as fast as I could. Lily won’t take no for an answer.

K3

She’s a very determined tiny little kitten. But as she got to my waist, she saw a whole new world of the kitchen countertops. We’ve been worried when they were going to discover the counters. They’re already climbing higher and higher on everything.

K4

And then I saw she’s learned to do this:

No telling what is next.

If I’m found dead and the flesh is eaten off of me. Suspect the kittens.

JWH

What Are Your Earliest Memory Signposts?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 3, 2019

When I was young I thought people all saw the same external reality. Over time I learned that we each have a variety of different perceptional abilities, and no, the external reality didn’t look the same to everyone. I still believe there is only one external reality, and we just have limited access to perceiving it. I don’t believe we all live in our own subjective realities. But I guess those limitations give us subjective experiences.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve become obsessed with memory, and it fascinates me how varied the memory abilities are in the people I know. I’ve always known folks were smarter than I am, but that didn’t bother me. However, it does upset me that some people have vastly better memories, especially if they remembered more details about the past than I do. I guess memories seem more real than knowledge, but both are just faint shadows of the external reality.

My friend Linda and I were both born in 1951.  She in February and me in November, so she has a 10-month head start. The other day we were talking about first grade and I mentioned we started school just a month before Sputnik was launched (October 4, 1957). Linda said she remembered listening to Sputnik on the radio with her grandmother. I was incredibly envious! I have no memory of Sputnik but I wished I did because my school years were bracketed by Sputnik and Apollo 11.  We got to talking, and Linda remembers a lot more about the larger world than I did in 1st-grade. I’m so jealous.

And it wasn’t just her ten months head start. The first space launch I remember is Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961. I was in the 4th-grade and we listened to it over the PA system. Linda remembers more about the greater world than I did at the same age.

Linda says she’s always paid more attention to her surroundings than other kids. She’s an observer, I wasn’t. I think I was always focused on playing. I was like a kitten with a peanut, oblivious to the larger landscape. This got me to thinking about our earliest memories. Most people when they think about their first memories conjure up something personal. That makes me want to ask:

What are your earliest memories beyond your Charlie Brown existence?  

I’m wondering if I could make up a fun list of questions to put on Facebook that asks people what year they were born, and then the year they remember something from the world beyond toys. Here are some things I remember seeing for the first time:

Jim – 1951

  • 1st house. An upper duplex in Memphis. I think it was 1954 – I was 3+. Next a house in Miami on SW 64th Court I believe. I was 4 – I think. Memory is so unreliable. I know I lived in 2-3 houses before 64th Court. I have the vaguest memory of the one before it. It hurts to think about it because memories of that house are like thoughts on the tip of my tongue.
  • 1st teenager. At the apartment above met a teenager with a broken leg in a cast. Before that only remember my parents and my sister. The cast is what probably anchored that memory.
  • 1st time riding a bicycle. 1954-55. I was 4. at SW 64th Court. Also, remember learning to swing in a swing from the same time period. Also, the first time I saw a bow-and-arrow. And toy trucks. I loved toy trucks, even before toy guns.
  • 1st television show. Topper in 1955, I was 4-5. I saw TV before that and have vague memories, but Topper was the first show I wanted to see on my own.
  • 1st western. Gunsmoke in 1955. I was 4-5. This began a life-long love of westerns.
  • 1st car. 1955 Pontiac in Miami around 1956-57. I was 4-5. I remember being in earlier cars, but not their make and model. My heart still twinges when I see 1950s cars. I love looking at cars. My grandmother would quiz me on models and makes as I got older.
  • 1st realization of death. 1955-1956 from watching Gunsmoke. At 5 I knew what pretending to die was. You fell down and laid still. But watching Gunsmoke one night I realized that not pretending to die, to really die, meant not ever moving again. That blew my little mind.
  • 1st Coca-Cola. 1955. Probably had them earlier. But that’s when Becky and I started begging for them every time my father took us for a drive.
  • 1st real gun held. 1958. The first gun I remember holding was my father’s .22 rifle that his father gave him. We lived out in the country in South Carolina and my parents tried to raise chickens. My father would shoot at dogs who killed chickens. He never hit one though. He said he would give me the gun when I got older. When we moved to Hollywood Florida I took it outside to show the other kids and their parents complained. It disappeared.
  • 1st movie on TV. High Barbaree (1947) around 1958 in South Carolina.
  • 1st movie at the theater. Snowfire (1958) around 1958 in South Carolina.
  • 1st phone number. Yu-3-6954 – 1958 in Hollywood, Florida. Lake Forest subdivision.
  • 1st science fiction. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Around 1958. Saw earlier SF but don’t remember any details. Hollywood, Florida at babysitter’s house.
  • 1st 7-Eleven store. 1958.
  • 1st memory of music. 1958 I think, from a car radio. We didn’t have a radio or record player in the house then. Linda remembers Elvis from 1957. Another big envy.
  • 1st grocery store. Kwik Check, Hollywood, Florida. 1958. I was 6-7 and in the 2nd grade. Again I remember being in grocery stores before that, but only vaguely. I don’t think I understood what they were. I remember this Kwik Chek because my grandmother took me there to see a sock hop out front.
  • 1st book. I remember my mother reading Treasure Island to me in 1959 when we lived in New Egypt, New Jersey.
  • 1st magazine. Highlights. 1959 New Jersey again. At the dentist office.
  • 1st newspaper cartoon strip. I don’t know.
  • 1st political campaign. Kennedy-Nixon 1960. But only because I remember getting in a fight on the playground. I was for Kennedy and the other kid was for Nixon. We started shoving each other and ended up rolling around in the dirt and the teacher broke us up. Marks, Mississippi, 1960, 3rd grade.
  • 1st time watching The Twilight Zone. 1960 in Marks, Mississippi.
  • 1st library. 4th grade 1960/61. It might have been a public library in Hollywood or Ft. Lauderdale. The first library I know by name is Homestead Air Force Base Library 1962/1963. I was in 5th grade.
  • 1st book I read on my own. Kid’s version of Up Periscope by Robb White from Scholastic Books. Summer of 1961.
  • 1st time learning songs and singers. 1962 at Homestead AFB. One of the earliest songs I remember waiting to hear on the radio was “Telstar” by the Tornadoes (August 1962). I had been listening to music for years but didn’t pay attention to the song titles or who artists who created them.
  • 1st plane seen up close. An F-104 at Homestead AFB is the first specific planes I remember seeing up close in 1962. Also F-100, F-102, F-106, and B-52s. In the 5th grade. F-104 has always been my favorite plane ever since. I was told I first flew in a Constellation when I was little, but don’t remember. My father worked on the flight-line and took me to a public exhibition.
  • 1st memory of regularly watching the news. 11/22/63 – Walter Cronkite. I have vague memories of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, but not intentionally wanting to watch the news. I have even vaguer memories of the Kennedy-Nixon campaigns, but too vague to recall a specific memory. After the Kennedy assassination, I became a regular news watcher.
  • 1st time hearing The Beatles. February 7, 1964, on the Ed Sullivan show.
  • 1st time hearing Bob Dylan. July 20, 1965, on AM radio with “Like a Rolling Stone.” I’m sure I heard his folk songs but have no memories.
  • 1st used bookstore. Perrine, Florida, 1965.
  • 1st new bookstore. Now, this is a weird one. 1967 in Coconut Grove, Florida. I was in 10th grade. I don’t know why I was so late seeing a new bookstore.

This is just some of the memories of the outer world I can recall at the moment. I’m open to other suggestions that would be good signposts. I feel I really woke up as a conscious being in 1964. I turned 13 on November 25, 1964. I had rejected religion by then and was already thinking politically. The years between 1962-1964 are full of great memories, but I’m not sure how aware of the wider world I was at the time. For example, in 1962 John F. Kennedy visited Homestead Air Force Base. They let us out of school to go see him. I went fishing instead. When I got older I kicked myself for that. I was very focused on all the things I thought fun and didn’t care about the world at large.

It wasn’t until Kennedy was killed a year later that I started watching the news and began paying attention to the larger world. I was in 7th grade. Was that the normal time most people start? Or was I late? I’m sure Linda began noticing things much earlier.

JWH

Love, Death + Robots: What is Mature Science Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, March 25, 2019

Love, Death + Robots showed up on Netflix recently. It has all the hallmarks of mature entertainment – full frontal nudity, sex acts of various kinds, gory violence, and the kind of words you don’t hear on broadcast TV or in movies intended for younger audiences. There’s one problem, the maturity level of the stories is on the young adult end of the spectrum. 13-year-olds will be all over this series when it should be rated R or higher.

When I was in high school I had two science fiction reading buddies, Connell and Kurshner. One day Kurshner’s mom told us almost in passing, “All that science fiction you’re reading is so childish. One day you’ll outgrow it.” All three of us defended our belief in science fiction, but Mrs. Kurshner was adamant. That really bugged us.

Over the decades I’d occasionally read essays by literary writers attacking science fiction as crude fiction for adolescents. I vaguely remember John Updike caused a furor in fandom with an essay in The New Yorker or Harpers that outraged the genre. I wish I could track that essay down, but can’t. Needless to say, at 67 I’m also starting to wonder if science fiction is mostly for the young, or young at heart.

I enjoyed the 18 short mostly animated films in the Love, Death + Robots collection, but I have to admit they mostly appealed to the teenage boy in me, and not the adult. Nudity, sex, violence, and profanity doesn’t equate with maturity. But what does? I’ve known many science fiction fans that think adult literary works are equal to boredom.

So what are the qualities that make science fiction mature? I struggled this morning to think of science fiction novels that I’d consider adult oriented. The first that came to mind was Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Orwell died before the concept of science fiction became common, but I’m pretty sure he never would have considered himself a science fiction writer even though he used the tricks of our trade. Margaret Atwood doesn’t consider herself a science fiction writer even though books like The Handmaid’s Tale are both science fiction and mature literature. Other mature SF novels I can think of are The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. These are all novels that use science fiction techniques to tell their story but were written by literary writers.

Of course, I could be howling at the moon for no reason. Most television and movies are aimed at the young. Except for Masterpiece on PBS and a few independent films, I seldom get to enjoy stories aimed at people my own age. Which brings me back to the question: What makes for mature fiction? And it isn’t content that we want to censor from the young. If we’re honest, nudity, sex, violence, and profanity are at the core of our teenage thoughts.

Mature works of fiction are those that explore reality. Youth is inherently fantasy oriented. The reason why we’re offered so little adult fiction is that we don’t want to grow up and face reality. The world is full of reality-based problems. We want fiction that helps us forget those problems. Getting old is real. We want to think young.

Love, Death + Robots appeals to our arrested development.

Love Death + Robots - robots

I’m currently reading and reviewing the 38 science fiction stories in The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois. I’m writing one essay for each story to discuss both the story and the nature of science fiction in general. I’ve finished 10 stories so far, and one common aspect I’m seeing is a rejection of reality. These stories represent what Dozois believes is the best short science fiction published from 2002-2017. On the whole, the stories are far more mature than those in Love, Death + Robots, but that’s mainly due to their sophistication of storytelling, and not philosophy. At the heart of each story is a wish that reality was different. Those wishes are expressed in incredibly creative ways, which is the ultimate aspect of science fiction. But hoping the world could be different is not mature.

Science fiction has always been closer to comic books than Tolstoy, Woolf, or even Dickens. And now that many popular movies are based on comic books, and the whole video game industry looks like filmed comic books, comic book mentality is spreading. The science fiction in Love, Death + Robots is much closer to its comic book ancestry than its science fiction ancestry, even though many of the stories were based on original short stories written by science fiction writers. Some reviewers suggest Love, Death + Robots grew out of shows like Robot Carnival and Heavy Metal.  Even though Heavy Metal was considered animation for adults, it’s appeal was rather juvenile.

I know fully well that if Netflix offered a series of 18 animated short science fiction films that dealt with the future in a mature and realistic way it would get damn few viewers. Even when science fiction deals with real-world subjects, it seldom does so in a real way. Maybe it’s unfair to expect a genre to be mature that wants to offer hope to the young. Yet, is its hope honest? Is it a positive message tell the young we can colonize other planets if we destroy the Earth? That we can solve climate change with magical machines. That science can give us super-powers. That if we inject nanobots into our bloodstream we can be 22 again. That don’t worry about death because we’ll download your brain into a clone or computer. Doesn’t science fiction often claim that in time technology will solve all problems in the same way we rationalize to children how Santa Claus could be real?

Actually, none of the stories in Love, Death + Robots offered any hope, just escape and the belief you can sometimes shoot your way out of a bad situation. But only sometimes.

Maybe that’s not entirely true, one story, “Helping Hand” by Claudine Griggs is about a very realistic situation that is solved by logical thinking. Strangely, it’s the only story by a woman writer. A “Cold Equations” kind of story. That’s a classic 1954 short story written by Tom Godwin where the main character has to make a very difficult choice.

My favorite three stories (“When the Yogurt Took Over,” “Alternate Histories” and “Three Robots”) were all based on stories by John Scalzi and have kind of zany humor that provides needed relief from the grimness of the other tales. I actually enjoyed all the short films, but I did tire of the ones that felt inspired by video game violence. Even those films like “Secret War” and “Lucky Thirteen” which aimed for a little more maturity, rose higher than comic books, but only to pulp fiction.

The two films based on Alastair Reynolds stories, “Zima Blue” and “Beyond the Aquilla Rift” seemed to be the most science fictional in a short story way. I especially like “Zima Blue” for its visual art, and the fact the story had an Atomic Age kind of science fiction feel to it. So did the fun “Ice Age” based on a Michael Swanwick story. Mid-Century science fiction is really my favorite SF era. Finally, “Good Hunting” based on a Ken Liu has a very contemporary SF feel because it blends Chinese myths with robots. World SF is a trending wave in the genre now.

I’m still having a hard time pointing to mature short SF, ones that would make great little films like in Love, Death + Robots. Maybe “Good Mountain” by Robert Reed, which I reviewed on my other site. I guess my favorite example might be “The Star Pit” by a very young Samuel R. Delany, which is all about growing up and accepting limitations. Most of the films in Love, Death + Robots were 8-18 minutes. These stories might need 30-60. It would be great if Netflix had an ongoing anthology series of short live-action and animated science fiction because I’d like to see more previously published SF stories presented this way. Oh, I suppose they could add sex, nudity, violence, and profanity to attract the teenagers, but what I’d really want is to move away from the comic book and video game plots, and into best better SF stories we read in the digests and online SF magazines.

JWH