Best Music of the 1950s

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, June 22, 2017

If you use a subscription music service like Spotify you have access to tens of millions of songs, but there’s a Catch-22 to that wealth of music. You need to know what to try. I have tracked down a number of sites that use different methodologies to recognize the best music from each year, and below is a grid for the 1950s.

1950s-600px

To use this table effectively, pick a year, right-click on it, select “Open in new window.” That way you won’t lose this page, and you can have multiple windows open to compare each site. Those sites have their own methods of ranking the top album and songs for each year. Each site has different extras and unique values. For example, Discogs is best for record collectors. I like Best Albums for just finding albums to try. Tsort is great for its massive collection of hit music charts.

If you have a subscription music service start playing some of these albums. It’s like traveling back in time. When I was young, 1950s music was my parent’s music, the music I rebelled against. Now that I’ve gotten older, I’m starting to like what they liked, and like well beyond their limited musical tastes.

If you don’t have a subscription music service, click on Play Now which will take you to the Tropical Glen site. It’s a radio station based on years.

Discogs 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Best Albums 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Top Songs 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Challenges 50 51 52 53
Rate Music 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Play Now 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Tsort 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Wikipedia 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59

This is the second version of this post. I worked on it for days and the WordPress system swallowed it without a burp. I’ve done a quick recreation without all my extra commentary. I’m going to publish it out in stages because I fear losing it again.

For those of your with Spotify, here are some albums I’ve been trying. Leave a comment about whether or not you can play them. I’ve yet to determine if providing these links are worthwhile. It takes a fair amount of work to create them, but if no one is using them I’ll stop providing them when I write about music.

1950

1951

1952

1953

1954

1955

1956

1957

1958

1959

JWH

Star Trek Histories at 50

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 15, 2016

My celebration of Star Trek at 50 continues, which began with “Remembering Star Trek—50 Years” and then “Star Trek: Dystopia in the Utopia.” I was never a Trekkie/Trekker, never went to a Star Trek convention, and I’ve only read a couple of the novels, so I don’t know why I’ve developed this sudden fascination with Star Trek. For decades I’ve had a hard time watching any old TV shows again—they were just too simplistic. Only the latest and best TV keeps my attention. Then something happened, something clicked, and I didn’t hate ancient television anymore. WTF?

It all started when I caught a few episodes of Gunsmoke, and then I read Leonard by William Shatner, which described working in 1950s television. This week I’ve caught episodes of I Love Lucy, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Make Room For Daddy, and Perry Mason, all from the 1950s. And, Annie, my Star Trek buddy, and I, are chronologically going through the 1960s Star Treks. I’m in some kind of time warp, and I can’t get out. Why?

Maybe it started when I was bingeing on 1950s science fiction books, and that somehow altered my consciousness so I could enjoy the old television again. Maybe the 1950s is just a comfortable place to hide out for a while. Living in the 1950s for a while evidently prepared me to enjoy 1960s Star Trek again. After reading Leonard and beginning the systematic rewatching of ST:TOS, I began craving more data about Star Trek.

The Fifty-Year Mission v1The Fifty-Year Mission v2

That’s when I discovered the two-volume, The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years and The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams, both by Edward Gross Mark A. Altman. The first volume is even available on audio. These are beautiful books, massive in scope, that includes hundreds of new interviews, that attempt to cover the entire subject of Star Trek and its legacy. What Gross and Altman do is cut and paste thousands of quotations from everyone involved into one long, two-volume, chronological narrative. It’s both a history of Star Trek and a study in how television and movies are made, and how a cult phenomenon was created.

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

Because there was so much written about Star Trek, I wondered what are considered the most comprehensive books on just ST:TOS, so I started poking around Amazon and found this three volume set by Marc Cushman:

Because these books are an episode-by-episode history of the classic 79 ST:TOS shows, I bought the first volume to read along with my rewatching of the series. These five books should keep me busy for years. Maybe three years. I’ve been thinking of writing a review of each show on it’s 50th anniversary. Of course, that sounds like one of those projects that I’ll start and give up quickly. However, my new fascinating with these old Star Trek shows is different this time. Fifty years ago I judged each show by my then standard for science fiction. Many episodes seemed way too silly to be considered science fiction because the science didn’t seem believable. This time around, I’m seeing the shows as allegories and metaphors, and not concerning myself as much with the science.

From the handful of episodes we’ve seen again, I realize each episode makes a statement about science fiction, the social and political climate of the day, and the ambitions of their creators. Fifty years down the road, I’m using Star Trek to study what we were all like in the 1960s – a kind of cultural anthropology. With 79 episodes, I’m sure Star Trek probably said everything anyone could about what’s possible with science fiction.

Star Trek was never my vision of science fiction. I’ve never really liked television and movie science fiction as much as I love written science fiction. Quite often, visual science fiction seems silly, even demeaning to written science fiction. Now, that’s my POV, and I know it’s not a common one. For example, the first four episodes of Star Trek (as seen on Netflix streaming, including the first pilot) have stories built around aliens or humans with god-like powers. Annie and I were arguing about that last night. She claims aliens could have super-powers, because we don’t know what’s possible. I say destroying a space ship and its crew light years away with just a thought is an unbelievable god-like power. I’m an atheist – not only do I not believe in God, I don’t believe in god-like powers. But what does it say when science fiction creators and fans do?

Roddenberry was known to be an atheist, so why does he write about god-like beings? In the first pilot, humans reject any paradise the Talosians promise because we refuse to be their playthings. In the second pilot, Kirk kills the two crewmen who become gods. How symbolic! Are those stories allegories, and Gary Mitchell, and later Q, stand in for something Roddenberry wants to attack? Is this science fiction or theology? What do the Talosians stand for in the story? Are they merely powerful aliens, or metaphor for gods? The crew of Star Trek always rejects, escapes, destroys or outwits powerful god-like aliens. Hell, they have a tough time accepting Spock, and his cold logical mind. This show is amazingly pro-human. Should I even say, humanistic.

If I study these history books about Star Trek will I find out why each show was written? Are their academic books that critically analyze the stories. Or, are the stories merely cribbed from 1950s science fiction. “Charlie X” seems to borrow from Stranger in a Strange Land and “The Good Life” by Jerome Bixby. How often in the original 79 episodes of Star Trek do the the writers reprocess for the current week’s show something they read in F&SF, Galaxy, If and Astounding during the previous decade? Science fictional ideas that were spread to thousands in the 1950s with magazines, were now being spread to millions on television.

I’m currently fascinating by Star Trek for many reasons. I’m rethinking my own brain programming. I rejected God and religion back when I began embracing science fiction. But after a lifetime of accepting my science fictional faith, I’m developing skeptical thoughts. The foundation of my thinking comes from 1950s television, reading science fiction in the 1960s, and absorbing the 1960s counter culture. Strangely, I believe Star Trek did the same thing.

JWH

Who Still Reads 1950s Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 12, 2016

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

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

Defining My Task

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

New is Better

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

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

Nostalgia for the Golden Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Old Becomes Classic

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

Literary Recognition

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

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

Remembering Old Books at the Movies

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

Collecting Pulp Magazines

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

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

What Was Unique?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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

The Way We Were and The Way We Are

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 9, 2015

One of the few positive aspects of getting older is living long enough to see great changes in society. Although, a savvy young person should be able to observe the same changes by watching old movies. It’s not the same thing as living through those changes, but it’s good enough for intellectual chitchat. I’ve been watching a lot of old movies from the 1950s, especially ones from 1951, the year I was born, and struggling to understand why I like them so much now that I’m 63. It’s amazing how much different America is today than it was then. What’s far more important, is seeing how we’ve stayed the same. That takes a discerning heart, and it’s easy to overlook how we haven’t changed because all the new stuff overwhelms our senses.

To get the easy stuff out of the way quickly, in the 1950s there were no smartphones, internet, personal computers or social apps. White males dominated society, people of color were barely visible on screen. Women usually wore dresses, stayed at home defining themselves as wives and mothers. There was a double standard for sexuality back then, and women were considered tainted if they had sex outside of marriage. There wasn’t much of a youth culture. Watching these old films its easy enough to spot obvious differences between then and now, like how men wore hats and suits all the time, and cars looked like those we see in Cuba today.

There are less obvious differences that are more subtle to spot. Movies in the 1950s feel like they are made for adults, while many movies today seem to be made for adolescents or the adolescent in us. There were some science fiction and fantasy films back then, but they weren’t the norm. And even then, their science fiction and fantasy had a foundation of realism that modern genre films lacks. Partly that’s due back then because fewer movies were completely escapist, and they didn’t have CGI to make the unreal real—which tends to make the real unreal.

Like I said, it takes more work to study how we’re the same. The reason why we can still enjoy the plays of Shakespeare is not because we enjoy people talking funny and wearing weird clothes, but because how we see ourselves in those people who talk funny and wear weird clothes.

detective-story-1951

Last night I watched Detective Story (1951) about a morally rigid cop Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) learning his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker) had an abortion before they met. Detective McLeod was raised by a criminal father that McLeod despised. McLeod upbringing contra-conditioned him to demand that everyone fit an exacting black and white categorization. McLeod judged everyone that came into the precinct as righteous or evil, with no room for compassion, or understanding. I see that kind of rigid morality all the time on the nightly news, and sadly in some people I know. McLeod’s thinking was no different from members of ISIS, people living in Old Testament times or Donald Trump’s political persona.

Ace in the Hole - 1951

A more complicated example of sameness is Ace in the Hole (1951) which also starred Kirk Douglas, as Chuck Tatum, a cynical reporter capable of great compassion or cruelty depending on his personal needs. Chuck Tatum used his psychological skills to manipulate people and orchestrate sensational news stories. Tatum reminded me of Steve Jobs, because he believed it was good to push people into doing more.

The Big Heat

Many young people think terrorism is something new since 9/11. It’s always existed in human society. The Big Heat (1953) has Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) fighting terrorists who control the police force and corrupts the government. Small minded men with big guns kill Bannion’s wife with a car bomb. They kill witnesses and anyone who tries to help Bannion. Makes me think of the news from Mexico, but corruption using violence to rule is common throughout the world.

And it’s not just seeing that the bad people then are just like the bad people today. The good people then are like the good people today. Det. Lou Brody (William Bendix) in Detective Story  tries very hard to get Jim McLeod to bend and see shades of gray in the folks they arrest. In fact, if you look at every character in this film, to see what motivates them, you can find parallel characters in today’s movies and real life.

This reminds me of something I learned from anthropology. Neanderthals were a species that lived unchanging lives for hundreds of thousands of years, making the same tools in the same old way all their long species’ lifetime. Our species, Homo sapiens, have changed a lot over the millennia, yet, there are other traits that don’t change, and like the Neanderthals and their stone tools, we keep constructing similar personality traits over and over again, with the same routineness that our cousins flaked out stone scrapers.

For most of my life, the 1950s was my least favorite movie decade, but in recent months, it’s become my favorite. That will change. It always does. I stay up late watching shows that I once thought dreary and depressing, and now I find fascinating and inspiring. I remember the 1950s, just barely, since I was born in 1951, and these movies little resemble the memories I do have of those times. The closest they overlap are of a trip to New York City in 1959.

Living in Kidland in the 1950s was much different from Hollywoodland. I didn’t know any cops, mobsters, B-girls, reporters, or small-time hustlers. My world looked like those old home movies that The Center For Home Movies work to preserve. And I’d bet lots of family home movies taken today have strange similarities with home movies taken back in the 1940s and 1950s. I live in a house and neighborhood that was built in the 1950s, and sometimes on my morning walks I pretend I’m seeing the neighborhood like it was long ago. Since most people park their cars behind their homes it helps with the illusion. I see women coming out in their robes to pick up the paper, and they look like the women I saw when I delivered papers in the 1960s. I’ve read a lot of books written in the 19th century, and on the surface people appear very different, but if you look closer they don’t. Just read The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. It’s much harder, but I can even find overlap with tales as old as The Bible, Homer, Plato, or Lucretius.

Even with smartphones, Ecclesiastes was right.

JWH

Has Telepathy Become an Extinct Idea in Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Science fiction is a genre that generates far out ideas. Science fiction writers often imagine new concepts to structure into their plots. Some invented concepts are embraced by the genre and become subgenres – like space marines and military SF. Concepts like time travel, galactic empires and hyperspace travel become memes that spread to the outside world at large. At other times, real world topics, like nuclear winter and warp drives, get incorporated back into science fiction.

The Demolished Man - Signet

This gets me to wondering. Are there science fictional concepts that become extinct? Do ideas come in and out of fashion? I ask this because I’m reading The Demolished Man (1952) by Alfred Bester, which is about telepathy in society. Does anyone believe in telepathy anymore? Back in the 1950s there was a boom in ESP/Psi stories. Belief in mind reading and psychic powers have been around for thousands of years, probably crossing over from religions and beliefs in magic of our earliest ancestors. In the 1940s and 1950s, I figure SF psi-power stories became popular with the development of the idea of next stage humans, mutants or advanced aliens. For some reason people assume evolutionary advancements will confer ESP, even if it isn’t logical. Since the 1950s whenever television or movie science fiction like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek and Star Wars wanted to present advanced humans or aliens, they’d give those characters the ability to read minds or telekinetic powers.

What’s strange is we hardly read about ESP and telepathy anymore – at least in science fiction. I’m sure the ideas are still popular with fans of the occult, but not science fiction. A nice chronicle of  the use of telepathy in science fiction can be found at The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. However, checking with GoodReads I find that telepathy is still very popular with fantasy novels and paranormal romances. If you look at their list of telepathy novels very few are science fiction, and most are the classics like Slan, More than Human, Odd John, Zenna Henderson’s The People stories, and the #1 book is The Demolished Man. However, I might be wrong about telepathy becoming extinct in fantasy fiction – just check out this list of 1650 books at SciFan. However, even the titles that are science fiction, most are fantasy based.

slan-astounding oct1940

At The Science Fiction Encyclopedia they suggest that telepathy as a theme in science fiction has fallen off because of the rise of cyberspace. We now picture ourselves using computers to connect to each other. That theory feels right. One day iPhones might be implanted into our heads, and that sounds more realistic than brain cells evolving radio frequency transmitters and receivers. Technological telepathy is well underway with machine-body interfaces to allow thoughts to control muscles.

childhoods_end

So why was psi-power science fiction so popular in the 1950s science fiction? Some people claim its because John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding Science Fiction pushed the idea of psionics on his authors because it was his pet belief. Others claim Charles Fort influenced writers like Robert A. Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard. Others claim it was the Rhine experiments in the 1930s that got the ball rolling. The 1950s was a weird time in America, with “true stories” of UFOs, ESP, Bridey Murphy, and Edgar Cayce inflaming the public with nutty ideas. After the atomic bomb became famous in 1945, I think people start believing anything was possible with the help of science. Science fiction got people thinking about intelligent life on other worlds, life that might be far superior in intellect to our own. We started imagining what humans could become with the help of mutation, genetics and machines.

stranger in a strange land - 1961

I think the idea of psi-powered humans peaked in 1961 with Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, where Heinlein featured an ordinary man raised by advanced aliens capable of learning amazing feats of brain power. For me, the idea died with Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg in 1972, which showed a lonely, pathetic telepath surviving on the margins of society.

I don’t know what caused it, but for some reason I woke up in the 1970s and rejected all speculation about the paranormal. The idea of ESP just became silly. I think the reality distortion field of the 1960s wore off. Even in 1977, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind being a wonderful film, the idea of UFOs seemed just as silly too. UFOs and ESP became concepts embraced by cranks. After the Apollo Moon missions ended in 1972 and the Viking landers made it to Mars, space travel took on a realism that made 1950s science fiction seem quaint. Starting with Neuromancer in 1984, cyberpunk fiction just changed everything in the genre. We’ve been overwhelmed by the impact of computers and nanotechnology ever since. We find magic and power in machines, not minds.

Psi-powers and mutants have been replace by exploring posthumanism. And if you think about it, there are many concepts once popular in science fiction that are slowly becoming extinct. Beside Psi-powers, the idea of mutants seldom shows up. We don’t talk much about WWIII or nuclear wars. Even though the population of real robots is growing in the real world, we don’t see many robot stories anymore either. Interstellar had a nice robot. We seem to imagine AI machines being embedded into our technology rather than Asimovian robots.

I can’t say if psi-powers were just a story idea, or if people really believed back in the 1950s that humans would one day evolve to have such amazing abilities. Maybe the kids of that era hoped to grow up to be Superman and fly. If I had to guess, I would say many SF fans back then did believe in Slans, because many people today want to believe in life-extension, artificial intelligence, downloading brains and human-machine mind connections. Over time we’ll discover what’s really possible, and then many of the beliefs about those concepts will die off too, like belief in ESP powers today.

p.s.

In the late 1980s I had a BBS devoted to science fiction and I brought up the topic of telepathy and ESP then. I assumed everyone believed it a dead topic by that time, but I was proven wrong. Many of the members of my bulletin board became enraged by my attack of telepathy. They passionately wanted to believe in extrasensory perception. I wonder if that’s going to happen again with this essay?

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The Definitive 1950s Science Fiction Reading Challenge

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Over at Worlds Without End, they routinely offer reading challenges for people who use their science fiction book database. My post “The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1950s” inspired their page, “The Defining Science Fiction Books of the 1950s” which displays the books from the list in their database format, nicely illustrated by book covers. You can join and tag books you own, want to read, have read, or want to buy and read. You’ll need to sign up and set a password, but that’s no big deal.

World Without End has collected many award list and best-of book lists, so it’s a great way to find outstanding science fiction books to read.

If you click on “Roll-Your-Own” image, you’ll be taken to a list of Reading Challenges.

2015 Reading Challenge

Then look for this icon.

1950s challenge

After you sign up, you can always go directly here, where you can see a list of members in the challenge, and which books they are reading or have read. The challenge is to read one book from each year 1950-1959 from the Defining List of 1950s SF. Look through the years to select each book you want. Clicking on the cover will allow you to mark the book read, reading or unread, and you can check to use it for the challenge.

The books go in the list 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. So if you want the books to read 1950-1959, left to right, you’ll need to enter all 10 starting with the 1959 first, and go reverse order years. Otherwise, if you add them one year at a time, the final list will read 1959-1950. Since I don’t want to commit what book I’ll read for each year until I read them, I’m entering in reverse order.

This is a fun reading challenge for those people who love classic science fiction. The 1950s were when science fiction book publication ramped up, and many of the classic stories from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were reprinted in hardcover and paperback. I started 1950 by rereading The Martian Chronicles, which were short stories Bradbury wrote in the late 1940s, but collected together to create a fix-up novel of related tales. I listened to an audiobook edition read by Stephen Hoye, and it was excellent. The characters sound like I’m listening to a 1940s movie.

There is also a forum at the WWE site for discussing the books in the challenge.

If you love old SF, and want to see what other people are reading and saying about these old books, give it a try.  After the 1950s are finished, DrNefario, the creator of the challenge, plans to create one for the 1960s.

JWH

Discoverying 1950s Music with Spotify

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 21, 2017

I was born in 1951 but didn’t really get into popular music until 1962. The 1950s is mostly a mysterious world of unknown music to me. As a little kid, I remember hearing some 1950s music while riding with my dad in his 1955 Pontiac. Then in 1962 when I got my first radio they played “Oldie Goldies” from the 1950s on the weekends, but those were mostly early rock and roll hits. When I discovered Bob Dylan in 1965 I jumped back into the folk music revival that started in the late 1950s. In my twenties, I got interested in jazz and dipped into the 1950s via some famous jazz albums. But for the most part, the 1950s is an undiscovered territory.

The web has become an amazing place for virtual time travelers. There are many sites devoted to identifying the most popular music of the past. The World’s Music Charts (Tsort) has collected 225 music charting services and put them all into a database that spits out wonderful reports. I particularly like this graph of theirs showing the coverage of all those charts.

aentry_years

As you can see the 1950s are the sprinkles before the deluge. The LP was introduced in 1948, and most of the chart tracking services started after the 1950s, so information about that decade is sparse. Discogs references 161,954 records for the 1950s. Compared to 552,784 (1960s), 952,231 (1970s) … 2,148,365 (2000s). I figure I might own/heard 25-50 albums from the 1950s, so this is a potentially rich territory to explore.

Spotify has much of this old music. You don’t know that it’s there until you know what to go looking for – that’s where all the top album lists sites come in. I recently took a list of the top jazz albums of the 1950s off the web and converted it to a Spotify playlist, Best Jazz 1950s. I’d say about 90% of the albums were there. Of the albums not there, most of the songs from the original recordings are now in compilations of the artist’s work.

Here’s the thing, when I was growing up in the 1960s I hated the music my parents listened to, and they hated the music I and my sister loved. They resonated with the 1940s and 1950s music. What I’m now trying to do is get into the music headspace of my parents. I don’t think I could have done that when I was younger. It’s taken me until my sixties to start liking that kind of music, and it’s growing on me. My parents were in their forties when I was in my teens, so I don’t know why it’s taken me to me sixties to like their kind of music. But I now find it easier to move backward in time to find new music I like than searching the present.

There are many ways to measure time besides the ticking of a clock. Some folks mark periods of their lives by the houses they have lived in, or the fashions they wore, or the television shows they loved. One way that amuses me is to measure the years by the beat of popular music. By using Best Albums Ever and Spotify I can recall a specific year in music. We hear old music today in hit song compilations albums or the radio, but it’s another thing altogether to listen to the albums those hits came from.

Now that the past is being digitized, I can pick a year and then read the books, watch the movies, listen to the music, view the television shows, and sometimes even read the newspapers and magazines from that year. Wikipedia is a fabulous tool for remembering the past, suggestion artifacts of a pop culture past to consume.

I’ve been a subscription music subscriber for years, so I no longer buy albums. I have access to millions of albums online. Creating this collection of 1950s hit lists is a way to organize my memory of music and help me to discover songs to play on Spotify.

I’m going to link to a Spotify album for each year, and if you’re a subscriber or even have a free account, you should be able to play them. Make sure you’re logged in to your Spotify account.

Each year contains a hyperlink to DiscogsBest Ever Albums, List Challenges, Top Songs, and Tsort sites for that year’s list of top album or songs. I’ve also added the Wikipedia page to read a quick history of that year in music.

1950
1951
1952
1953
1954
1955
1956
1957
1958
1959

JWH