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

 

The Big Trail (1930)

Yesterday I got in a Blu-ray copy of The Big Trail, an early widescreen movie from 1930.  The Big Trail has quite a fascinating history behind it.  Starting in the late 1920s Hollywood began experimenting with widescreen and Technicolor, but the depression killed off interest in these technologies, especially widescreen because it required special theaters, screens and projectors.   The Big Trail was filmed from April to August in 1930 in black and white using both 70mm and 35mm cameras, creating two unique versions from different camera angles.  The whole production was also shot in five languages using different lineup of actors for each language.

Epic production doesn’t begin to describe the making of The Big Trail.  Seven different states were used for film locations, covering 4,300 miles, traveling in 123 baggage cars, with 93 principle actors, 2,000 extras at all the locations, 725 Indians from five tribes, 12 Indian guides, 22 cameramen, 1,800 cattle, 1,400 horses, 500 buffalo, 185 wagons and a production staff of 200.  And they had the wagon train do everything wagon trains did back in those pioneering days, cross rivers, get lowered down cliffs, blaze trails through timbered lands, cross deserts, climb mountains, survive snow storms.  All other wagon train movies since have been puny in scale.  The Big Trail was a very gigantic production, but it’s not as famous as Gone With the Wind from 1939.  That’s too bad, it should be better remembered.

I had to watch The Big Trail alone last night because none of my movie friends like old black and white films and I couldn’t convince them to give The Big Trail a try.  What a loss for them.  It’s a shame because as soon as I started up The Big Trail I was stunned by it’s beauty.  Old movies are in a square format and seeing this movie in widescreen format on my 56” HDTV made my heart ache.  If only this 70mm widescreen format had caught on in 1930.  All my favorite old films from the 1930s and 1940s would have been so much more grandeur looking.  And that’s what Fox called their experimental format, the “Fox Grandeur” process.  What if Grand Hotel had been widescreen, or The Maltese Falcon, or The Wizard of Oz, just imagine how more magnificent they would have been.

The-Big-Trail-screenshot

[This screenshot is from Blu-ray.com – click for full size version]

Modern movie goers are used to high tech visual productions and when they see old movies, especially silent films and films from the 1930s, they think of them as primitive and crude, and often assume people of those days saw what we see today.  Their technology was older and less sophisticated, but the prints we have are old and in bad shape compared to the original pristine prints audiences viewed in their day.  Silent movie film goers didn’t see jerky prints with faded splotches and lines running through them.  They were sharp and vivid with wonderful contrast and the motion was as natural as modern films.  Sure the acting style is strange to us, but the acting style was normal to them.  It was great acting by the way they judged acting.

Old movies are being restored all the time now, especially for the Turner Classic Movie crowd and Blu-ray movie fans.  The restoration of The Big Trail is far from perfect, but I found it impressive to watch visually.  I expect someday that digital processing will clean up even more of these film defects, and created a print closer to the 1930 original.  For the most part the defects weren’t distracting.  A couple of times I thought it was raining because of the tiny scratches.

The Big Trail was an experiment in many ways, not only for the widescreen filming.  It was an early epic western about settlers crossing the country in a huge wagon train.  The Big Trail was the first starring role for John Wayne, but many of the actors were from Broadway, because it was an early talky and they needed actors that could project their voices to outdoor microphones.  Much of the dialog is stagey, and the cinematography is reminiscent of great silent films.  Yet, the sets and costumes look very realistic.  It would take another 60 years before citizens of the pioneering west looked so realistically dirty and grungy.  Plus the Indians were real.  Often the wagons were drawn by oxen and cattle rather than horses.

The-Big-Trail-normal

The-Big-Trail-wide

[Click for full size versions.  From Blu-Ray.com]

Westerns weren’t this good for a long time, not until Stagecoach, ten years later.  Most westerns of that era were B movies, shot full of action, produced from very small budgets.  As I watched The Big Trail, I wondered how many people living in 1930 had once traveled across the country in a wagon train.  The heyday of the wagon train was from the 1840 to the 1860s, when the continental railroad was built.  It was possible that some of these pioneers were still alive to verify the realism of the film.  I wonder if any of them wrote about it?

Westerns today, 80 years later, often work hard to appear realistic and historical.  It seems like every decade has a different view on how the old west looked.  Just compare the two versions of True Grit.  There’s also a difference in how violence was portrayed.  In The Big Trail, John Wayne only kills one of the bad guys, and with a knife.  And the bad guys were on the hesitant and cowardly side, only willing to kill when no one was looking.  Nobody was a great shot either.  Today’s westerns have heroes that kill as many people as a mass murderer.

The Big Trail was an innocent portrayal of pioneers.  At one point the John Wayne character was telling a bunch of boys what all he learned from living with the Indians and one of the kids asked, “Did they teach you were papooses come from?”  That’s about as risqué as this movie got.  But it was realistic enough to show a woman nursing a baby.  And I thought the love conflict was reasonably sophisticated for a movie of its time.  The plot of The Big Trail was gentile and slow.  I’m not sure people only used to modern films would like it.  Modern audiences are addicted to fast action, fast dialog, and lots of plot twists.  I’ve seen The Big Trail three times now and I’m looking forward to seeing it again.  It’s a classic western, and a classic 1930s film, my two favorite genres.

JWH – 12/29/12

I Try to Buy One TV Channel from AT&T U-verse

I gave up cable TV awhile back and I haven’t really missed it except for one station, Turner Classic Movies.  I love movies from the 1930s and TCM has more movies from the 1930s than any place else except the 1930s.  I grew up watching old black and white movies late at night.  In the summertime my parents let me and my sister stay up late and watch the all night movies – it kept us quiet during the day time.  One of the most intense nostalgic feelings I have is for watching old black and white movies in a dark room with the TV creating an eerie flickering light.  Now that’s escapism.

I’ve been really missing TCM.  I can’t duplicate their movie lineup with Netflix, nor can I buy the films I want from Amazon.  TCM’s vault of old flicks is truly amazing.

Today, my wife and I went to the AT&T store to talk turkey.  Their website is appallingly bad, and the only way to get good help is to visit the store and talk with a sales person.

We walk in the door and a lovely young woman is standing right there.

“Can I help you?”

I hold up one finger, “I’d like to get one cable channel please.”

“Are you an AT&T customer.”

“Yes, we have U-verse for internet and phone.”

“What channel would you like to have?”

“Turner Classic Movies in HD.”

“Let’s go look that up.”

We follow her to the counter and she begins going through her computer and foldout of TV plans.  A sales person, an older lady, at the next terminal who is selling a smartphone to a customer takes an interest and offers to help.   She tells the young lady that TCM is part of the family plan.

“That will be $59 a month,” says the younger woman.

“What is the real price after the promotion?” I ask.

“It will be $80 a month,” she replied.

I didn’t hear the exact figure, all I heard was the eighty part.  “But I just want one channel.”

“But the family package comes with 200 channels.”

“I can’t get just one?”

“No, sorry.”  She was very nice.

“Oh well, that’s more than I want to pay.  I just want one channel.”

I wasn’t mad or anything.  I had hoped they would offer me their cheapest package and tack on $10 a month for TCM, but that’s not the way it works.

I check Comcast.com when I got home.  They would be almost as much money and they don’t seem to have TCM HD.  I was willing to go $40 a month for TCM HD, but not $80.

I wish TCM would offer a pay channel on my Roku, or an internet deal like Hulu Plus.  Or even offer DVDs for $15 each at their web site, but their DVDs are more expensive than that and they don’t sell the movies I want to see.  For example, here’s a great lineup of films I’d love to see that will show April 6th.  You might need to click on the image to see a larger readable version.

tcm

I’m thinking of asking my friend Janis who has cable if I can come over to her house at 5am that day.  I’d take a vacation day.  I wish I had a time machine.  Wouldn’t it be great to go back to those years and just watch those movies in the theaters?

How weird is this?  I wonder how many people are like me and love old flicks like these?

I’d go back to cable TV if they offered a base package of no channels and a set-top box with DVR for $15 a month, with an on-screen menu listing available channels and monthly prices and I could pick exactly which channels I wanted.  And no bullshit about charging extra for HD – the world is HD now, it shouldn’t be extra!  I’d really want more than 1 channel.  I’d like CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, TCM and maybe a couple others.  Maybe not either.  I hate seeing channels I don’t want to watch.  I doubt a la carte cable TV will ever happen, but it’s what many people want.

I’ve got more TV than I can watch now with Netflix.  TV I really, really want to watch.  It’s just sometimes I’d like something Netflix doesn’t offer, especially movies before 1940.  I can buy some, but strangely the oldest movies are often way more expensive than the latest movies.  Careful shopping on the web can find me a few bargains, like double feature DVDs of pre-code Hollywood films for $15.  But all to often, like the Warner Archive DVDs, they want $25 for a single movie.  That’s nuts.  If Amazon sold digital copies of the old movies from TCM for $4.99 each, I’d buy them like crazy.

JWH – 3/31/12

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