Science Fiction: Books v. Television v. Movies

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 29, 2016

50 years ago tonight, “The Naked Time,” the fourth episode of Star Trek was shown. “The Naked Time” allowed the actors to chew the scenery, but wasn’t that science fictional. The context of Star Trek was very science fictional, with a spaceship exploring the galaxy, but often the episodes plot’s were centered around mundane conflicts or fantasies. Mostly the show liked allegories over speculation. My assumption then and now, was television and movie science fiction had to appeal to millions, and thus any real science fiction was watered down.

The Naked Now

This will reveal my media snobbery, but I’ve always felt science fiction I read was more advanced than science fiction I watched. That might be less true in 2016, because television has evolved a great deal in fifty years, but I think it’s still true. Because we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Star Trek premiering in 1966, I thought it might be fun to look at the other science fiction from that year. Were the 1966 SF novels and short stories more sophisticated than first fifteen episodes of Star Trek? I’m not comparing the quality of storytelling, but examining which science fictional ideas from 1966 was most innovative.

It’s rather ironic that the beautiful film version of Fahrenheit 451 premiered in England just days after Star Trek.  Directed by François Truffaut, Fahrenheit 451 was science fiction attacking a future where people gave up reading for television and comics. Few episodes of any version of Star Trek can compare to that film, but why haven’t we seen celebrations of its 50th anniversary? Why have we seen no public praise for the novels and stories below turning 50? Star Trek was loved by millions, and I’m afraid the science fiction books and magazines of 1966 were read by just thousands at the time.

Fahrenheit 451

We think of Star Trek as classic science fiction, but what most fans love are the characters, and the show’s allegorical content. If you compare it to the science fiction that was being written in 1966, I don’t think Star Trek was innovative, at least in terms of science fictional ideas. It was innovative television. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Star Trek. It was fun, and I’m very nostalgic about it. I’m just trying to put it into context of written science fiction of 1966.

The two Hainish Cycle novels by Ursula K. Le Guin that appeared in 1966, were far more mature science fiction than what Gene Roddenberry was pursing.  Even the two short novels published by the youthful Samuel R. Delany were far more philosophical, and intellectual. And if you compare the two tales of young men named Charlie, “Charlie X” and Flowers for Algernon, you’ll see that Star Trek went for the easy and obvious. And let’s face it, Star Trek just couldn’t take us to the strange alien headspaces that Philip K. Dick, R. A. Lafferty, and Cordwainer Smith could. Nor did it have the style of Roger Zelazny or J. G. Ballard. And it certainly didn’t have the elegant beauty of what Keith Roberts was writing. And it’s a real shame that Larry Niven, Anne McCaffrey, Keith Laumer, Gordon R. Dickson, Jack Vance and Fred Saberhagen weren’t writing for Star Trek because they had wonderfully cool ideas for galactic civilizations – although Desilu didn’t have the budget to produce what they imagined.

A great deal of science fiction from the 1960s assumed humans will be part of a galactic civilization in the future. The difference between the famous TV show and what we read was the depth of those assumptions. Star Trek existed between the two most remembered science fiction novels of the 1960s: Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969). Can you imagine Captain Kirk visiting Arrakis or Gethen? What kind of exploration of those societies could a 50 minute TV show give us? Especially, when the plots usually involved Kirk being held hostage, and centering around escape.

Television

Episode Idea
The Man Trap Alien that can shape shift, or telepathically make people think it looks different. Reminds me of “Who Goes There?” (1938) and The Body Snatchers (1954).
Charlie X Human raised by advanced aliens and taught psychic powers, must learn to live with normal humans. Reminds me of Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).
Where No Man Has Gone Before Two humans acquire god-like powers. Reminds me of Slan (1940).
The Naked Time Disease causes crew to lose their inhibitions.
The Enemy Within Transporter creates two Captain Kirks – one aggressive the other passive.
Mudd’s Women Space age mail-order brides with siren like abilities.
What Are Little Girls Made Of? Robots replace people. Reminds me of Philip K. Dick.
Miri On a mirror-Earth, the crew meet children that have very long childhoods and die when they reach puberty.
Dagger of the Mind About a penal colony and mind control.
The Corbomite Maneuver Advanced alien plays cat and mouse with Enterprise.
The Menagerie, Part I Mr. Spock commits mutiny.
The Menagerie, Part II Mr. Spock takes Enterprise to planet where aliens can control human thoughts.
The Conscience of the King Unmasking a mass murderer. Made me think of Nazi war criminals in hiding.
Balance of Terror The Enemy Below played out with Romulans.
Shore Leave Crew visits a planet where thoughts come true. This was written by Theodore Sturgeon but it felt like something Thorne Smith would have written.

Delany_Empire-Star

Novels

Title Idea
Babel-17
Samuel R. Delany
Linguistics, poetry. Language influences thought and perception. Code breaking an enemy alien language.
Empire Star
Samuel R. Delany
The novel referenced in Babel-17. About simplex, complex and multiplex thinking.
Colossus
D. F. Jones
A U.S. military supercomputer takes control and allies with a U.S.S.R. supercomputer.
Destination: Void
Frank Herbert
Developing an artificial consciousness, and cloned humans.
Earthblood
Laumer & Brown
Trying to find lost mythic Earth after humans moved to the stars.
Retief’s War
Keith Laumer
Intergalactic diplomatic hijinks and humor.
Flowers for Algernon
Daniel Keyes
Mentally challenge young man artificially evolved into a genius.
Make Room! Make Room
Harry Harrison
A 1966 extrapolation of year 1999, speculated about the horrors of an overpopulated world of 7 billion.
Mindswap
Robert Sheckley
A comedy about a man who vacations across the galaxy by swapping his mind into various alien bodies.
Now Wait for Last Year
Philip K. Dick
Drug causes time travel and addiction during a time of war with aliens.
Planet of Exile
Ursula K. Le Guin
Anthropological study, and racial conflict on a colony planet.
Rocannon’s World
Ursula K. Le Guin
An ethnological mission to another planet. The word ansible, for faster-the-light communication was coined here.
The Crystal World
J. G. Ballard
Apocalyptic novel about life on Earth turning into crystal.
The Eyes of Heisenberg
Frank Herbert
Genetically modified humans, and longevity.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Robert A. Heinlein
An artificial intelligent sentient machine evolved out of a network of computers on the Moon. The AI joins an anti-colonial rebellion against Earth.
The Solarians
Norman Spinrad
Space opera, about a star-drive that can destroy stars.
The Dream Master
Roger Zelazny
Citizens of an overpopulated Earth suffer psychologically and use dream therapy where their therapist enters their dreams.
This Immortal
Roger Zelazny
A devastated Earth is now a tourist destination for alien races to view our ruins.
The Watch Below
James White
Humans are stranded underwater. Think if The Poseidon Adventure had been science fiction.
World of Ptavvs
Larry Niven
Earth and “Belters” in a cold war, with story of ancient alien discoveries, and telepathic amplifiers.

FSFSEP66

Short Stories

Title Idea
Neutron Star
Larry Niven
Humans and aliens study a neutron star.
Light of Other Days
Bob Shaw
Invents slow glass, where light can take years to pass through, thus capturing scenes from the past.
The Last Castle
Jack Vance
Far future humans battle enslaved aliens
For a Breath I Tarry
Roger Zelazny
After the extinction of mankind, a sentient computer remembers our species
Call Him Lord
Gordon R. Dickson
Aristocrat from galactic empire visits old Earth.
Bookworm, Run!
Vernor Vinge
About an uplifted chimpanzee.
Pavane stories
Keith Roberts
About an alternate history of England where Queen Elizabeth was assassinated and Protestantism failed, and the technology we know never developed.
Day Million
Frederik Pohl
Love affair between two altered humans on what would be the millionth day AD.
In the Temple of Mars
Fred Saberhagen
Humans versus intelligent machines.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers
R. A. Lafferty
Humans visit planet and learn about a strange ontology.
Riverworld
Philip José Farmer
Humans reincarnated in another existence, one that stretches along one immensely long river.
The Ship Who Killed
Anne McCaffrey
Spaceship with a cyborg soul.
We Can Remember It for You Wholesale
Philip K. Dick
Recording false memories.
Under Old Earth
Cordwainer Smith
A visitor to an underground world without laws.
The Age of the Pussyfoot
Frederik Pohl
A man from our time visits the future via suspended animation. He is given a computerized personal assistant.
When I Was Miss Dow
Sonya Dorman
Sexless alien impersonates a woman to understand gender.
You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe
J. G. Ballard
Contemplating geometry and time
The Primary Education of the Camiroi
R. A. Lafferty
About a society where everyone is expected to be an expert.
Behold the Man
Michael Moorcock
Time traveler looks for Jesus.
The Keys to December
Roger Zelazny
Genetic modification.
The Secret Place
Richard McKenna
Science versus myth.

One-Million-Years-BC

Films

Title Idea
Fantastic Voyage Raquel Welch is made small enough to travel in tiny submarine inside a human body.
Fahrenheit 451 About a near future where books are banned, and society wants people to watch large flat-screen TVs or read comic books instead.
Seconds A rich middle-age man buys rejuvenation and attempts to be young again living with bohemians.
One Million Years B.C. Raquel Welch is cavewoman back when humans lived among the dinosaurs. (Not joking)

Is it surprising how many stories involved intelligent computers? In 1966, mainframe computers were common, but few people interacted with them. AI was a concept them emerged in the 1950s, and science fiction had grabbed it. Most of science fiction before the 1950s dealt with exploring the solar system. The idea of interstellar travel and galactic civilizations boomed in the 1950s, so by the 1960s writers were refining those ideas. Writers blended AI with spaceships. And sociology, anthropology, and psychology was embraced. Stories about human colonized worlds and aliens became richer. Much of the science fiction we read in the 21st century is based on science fictional ideas first developed in the 1950s and 1960s. What’s really evolved since then is the art of storytelling. We exist in a Baroque period of science fiction, where novels are gigantic, and often multi-part, but still exploring the same ideas science fiction fans first encountered in 1966.

JWH

Aliens With God Like Powers–“Charlie X”

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 15, 2016

Fifty years ago tonight, the second episode of Star Trek, “Charlie X” was first shown on NBC. As usual, follow the link to Wikipedia’s excellent summary. An even more extensive history is at Memory Alpha.

Charlie XI enjoyed “Charlie X” more than I did “The Man Trap,” both in 1966 and 2016, but not by much. The story is rather simple. The Enterprise rendezvous with the Antares to take on a passenger, a young man named Charlie Evans, who has been raised by aliens. He knows little of human ways. Charlie is friendly and anxious to please, but when his feelings gets hurt, he has god-like powers to punish his tormentors. On the Enterprise he meets a woman for the first time, and is smitten with her. Things don’t go well.

Even in 1966 this plot seemed borrowed. Stranger in a Strange Land was fresh in my memory. Charlie, like Valentine Michael Smith, had been raised by aliens, never seen girls before, and had god-like powers. They both could make people disappear with a thought. I had also seen “It’s A Good Life” on The Twilight Zone, based on the famous short story by Jerome Bixby. It featured a young boy with god powers who would do horrible things to people who displeased him. Much like Charlie. The story also reminded me of “The Sixth Finger,” one of the early episodes of The Outer Limits, about a man who artificially evolves to have, yes, you guess it, god-like powers.

SLAN1953

Science fiction has a history of aliens with immense powers, or evolved humans with superpowers (Odd John, Slan, The Hampdenshire Wonder). But are god-like powers even possible? For humans, aliens from the sky, or even gods? Charlie makes the Antares instantly disappear with a thought, while light-years away. Is this science fiction or fantasy? Did Gene Roddenberry really think humans had untapped psi-powers? Did Heinlein? As a kid I took things literally, and imagined such things might be possible, but I don’t anymore.

As I’ve written in earlier essays about Star Trek, I have to watch the show and judge it by science fiction and by allegory. Gene Roddenberry, who wrote the original story for “Charlie X” was an atheist. Star Trek often dealt with aliens with various kinds of god-like powers, and generally Captain Kirk is pitted against them. Are these stories allegories showing humans v. gods?

Sometimes we’re given stories in science fiction where the goal is to evolve to the next level – i.e., Childhood’s End, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I never liked those stories because they reject normal human existence. Who really wants to have powers like Charlie Evans or Valentine Michael Smith? I now think of these stories as philosophical tales rather than science fictional speculation, which I did as a kid. Isn’t “Charlie X” a rejection of God? Who wants to be friends with someone who can punish you with a thought? Would you even want such a person for a father figure?

Aren’t ESP powers a kind of evil? Aren’t ESP powers a Pandora’s Box we should never want to open? If you could do something with a thought, would you ever learn how to do anything for real? But what is the science of thought power? There’s none. It’s wishful thinking. Any reality where thoughts had such powers would be less than real. Like a dream, or computer simulation. When it comes down to it, don’t we actually need the limitations of reality? Remember The Matrix movies, where Neo learns earlier versions of the Matrix failed because existence was too easy and perfect.

Why did Heinlein accept the powers, but Roddenberry reject them? Why do so many crave the superpowers of superhero comics? The two classic science fiction novels by Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, deal with telepathy and teleportation. Would you really want either power? Honestly? Have you read Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg? Telepathy is a curse.

the man with the sixth fingerAre there any super-powers worth having? If you could fly, and no one else could, wouldn’t that be psychologically isolating? Even being gifted is hard on most kids. Being absolutely beautiful or sexually irresistible has its downfalls. We don’t want to be average, but we don’t want to be outliers either. Athletes who break records would find it disappointing if they had no real challengers.

If you’re too far from the norm you risk becoming another species. And on Star Trek, the aliens that humans have the most contact with are the ones that are like us – Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans. Of course that’s due to needing human actors. Could Captain Kirk be pals with a Horta, from the “The Devil in the Dark?” Once they learn the creature is only protecting its young, we relate to that, and accept it. Isn’t the whole diversity movement about realizing we’re all the same, and differences shouldn’t isolate us? I could be friends with a Horta if we found something in common – for example, like talking about science fiction. Have you ever wondered if aliens on other worlds have science fiction?

The crew of the Enterprise liked Charlie Evans as long as he was acting human. When he used his powers they feared and hated him. What does that say about us being friends with god-like beings? Was that the intended message of “Charlie X?” It’s the message I got. In the end, Charlie Evans wanted to stay with the humans, and he wanted to be human, but his powers corrupted him. Charlie had to return with the aliens that raised him.

So what’s the lesson here? Ultimately, both science fiction and allegories have something to teach. In 1966, I expected science fiction to explore actual possibilities. At the time I accepted FTL travel and matter transmitters, but I had problems with lots of the plots. Now that I’m older, I see in 2016 that Star Trek was seldom scientific speculation about the future, but often allegories about the present.

If “Charlie X” wasn’t a dig at God, who or what was it satirizing? I wonder if it was Age of Aquarius hippies, Transcendental Meditation, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, psychedelic drugs, and other 1960s movements that promised to take people to states of higher consciousness. The kind of people who were wanting to be like Valentine Michael Smith. The kind of people who read Slan and hoped they would be one?

I watch old episodes of Star Trek to fathom science fiction in 1966. I was fourteen then, and didn’t comprehend all that science fiction could be, or was trying to be. I was a gullible kid who wanted the wonders of SF to be possible. I think some of it was written to promote space exploration. On the other hand, I think most of science fiction was personal commentary on culture by quirky writers like Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. Gene Roddenberry wasn’t that different from Rod Sterling. Star Trek eventually developed a reputation for promoting a utopian view of the future. That might be true starting with Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I haven’t started rewatching it yet. So far, I see no utopian aspects of the Federation in the original series.

JWH

Reconstructing 1966 by Watching Star Trek

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 8, 2016

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

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

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

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

1966-2016-Jim-Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the Future from 1966

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

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

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

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

1966-Science-Club026-700

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

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

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

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

Rocket landed on fins

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

Where I Got My News in 1966

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

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

Star Trek:TOS “The Man Trap”

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

The Man Trap 1

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

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

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

The Allegorical View

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

The Man Trap 2

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

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

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

The Soundtrack for 1966

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

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

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

Our-Man-FlintThe_Mamas_&_The_Papas_-_If_You_Can_Believe_Your_Eyes_And_Ears

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

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

Cars of 1966

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

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

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

What Remembering 1966 Is Teaching Me

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

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

1966-Charleston-House2016-Charleston-House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 50th Birthday, Star Trek!

classic-star-trek-montage

JWH