"TOM SWIFT AND HIS ROCKETSHIP"
I was born in 1958. Before I reached my first birthday, the Russian SPUTNIK launched us into the spaceage. By my third birthday President John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier" speech, with some help from the cold war fear of the "Red Menace", catapulted us into an adventure which led me, just three short months from my eleventh birthday, to watch grainy black and white images on a TV without a remote, and which contained TUBES! Neil Armstrong was shown taking the first step on the moon, and uttering the now famous phrase " One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." I still get chills when I think of that moment. Science Fiction had become fact.
My lifelong reading of Science Fiction had started at around age three or four. The first book I learned to read by myself ("Fun with Dick and Jane" be damned) was "Green Eggs and Ham" by Dr. Suess. Now you may be thinking Dr. Suess isn't Science fiction, but I think it is. You see all the Suess books have "Aliens" in them. There is no better way to describe the good doctor's characters other then Aliens. If you add the surreal, other planet, illustrations of those books, you might see what I mean.
The first "true" Science Fiction book I ever read came to me as a seventh birthday gift from my mother. It's a fine old "Juvenile" called "Tom Swift and His Rocketship". That it came from my Mother is no surprise to me. She was a wonderful person and I've missed her greatly since her death in 1973. It's a comfort to me that when I read Science Fiction, I'm reading the Genre that my Mother understood would speak to me. I know by the remembered smile on her face as she handed me the book, that she just KNEW that this was the literature for me. I went on to read many other Juveniles, most notably those written by Robert Heinlein. If you have a young person in your life, perhaps you can suggest such books as these to them. I hope they find them as engrossing as I did and still do!
When I was around age 12 I was lucky enough to meet one of the keepers of the knowledge of Humankind. That person was what we that come from Brooklyn, New York call a "Liberryian". I unfortunately can't remember her name, but she took me to my next signpost, much as Rod Serling did with his "Twilight Zone". She noticed, as she checked them out, that I was borrowing several Science fiction Juveniles. She asked why I was still reading "Kid Stuff". Challenged in such a way I responded loudly that Science Fiction wasn't Kid stuff. After I got SHHUSHHED by everyone in the place, she chuckled and explained that she was also a big fan of Science Fiction. If I was then old enough, I swear I would have asked her to marry me. Here was the first person I had, up until that moment, ever met that UNDERSTOOD my love for what was then called "Escapist Trash" by many Lit Snobs. She continued by suggesting that perhaps I was ready to read adult Science Fiction. At that point, I could have kissed her. In fact I did. After she calmed down from her "Where do you get off buster" and "I never in all my life" rant, for which she was SHHUSHHED by everyone in the place, she chuckled again and suggested three books, all of which I added to my selections before leaving that day. The first two, "Fail Safe" and "On the Beach" are both about the moral implications of Nuclear war, both are excellent, even though a bit chilling. The third book led me to the third really great Science Fiction Movie I would see by that my 12th year of life. More on my fave Sci-Fi Movies later. First a bit about some of my fave writers of Science Fiction.
The following is a quote from my essay The Literary is Personal is Sociopolitical, A Monochrome Triptych in Shades of Grey: YO Mitilda, Crank Up the Barbie It's Time to Roast Some Holy Cows! Except for the excerpt below, it has little to do with Science Fiction, although since it's about literature and Science Fiction is my favorite form of such, there is a connection to the rest of the work. If you would like to read the rest of my Monochrome Triptych, Click Here. This link leads to my ESSAYS page. Simply click on the essay, poem, or story you wish to read. Included in the essay index is a science fiction short story I wrote called Another Day at the Office. You might enjoy reading that too.
"I have been shaped by many writers. The following is just the short list. Robert A. Heinlein, whose characters are so fully written I "grok" them as well as any old friend. Philip K. Dick, whose lifelong struggle with mental illness is as much of an inspiration to me as the struggles of his "Film Noir" anti-heroes. Anne McAfferty, whose strong woman characters portray the fullest hopes of feminism, and oh those dragons! Arthur C. Clark, whose insights into the spiritual effects of technological evolution are a comfort in a world more and more, measured in nanoseconds and bits. Ursula K. LeGuin, whose aliens are so alien, they seem human, and whose worlds are so poetic they speak. William Gibson, whose cyberpunk not so distant future is a dark reminder of who has power and what they might bring about if we let them. Kurt Vonnagut, whose cynical sarcasm and sense of irony is matched only by my own. Stephen King, who's characters suffer abuse at the hands of others and then either rise up in righteousness, or sink to the level of their attackers in revenge. Isaac Asimov, whose robots ironically teach us what it means to be human..." I think that says what I feel about Science Fiction Writers better then anything I've ever written.
VIXENS FROM VENUS in 3-D
Many of us that grew up in the 50's, 60's and 70's have some memory of the Sci-Fi movies of the time. Most of us have seen the type of film I allude to in the "Vixens" subtitle above. Such films as "Queen of Outerspace" fit the bill perfectly. These "B" films are considered quite camp now, but at the time I believe they were doing what Science Fiction has always done. It gives artists a chance to speak of current issues, such as feminism, but by putting such issues in a fictitious future time. In this way, it protects society from the shock of facing great change, as in the changing role of woman in society, but informs us of the change at the same time. It does so in an entertaining package and so is more palatable for many of us then the "serious" literature most of us never read.
To see how this sort of discourse comes full circle, one need only compare the portrayal of powerful woman characters in the science fiction of their time. The "Queen of Outerspace" was portrayed as an "Amazon Bitch". That is, she was a usurper of the power of men. This male supremacy was still considered the norm in the 1950's, although such gender roles were changing even then. She was of course the evil doer and had to be stopped by the righteous male characters in the film.
In the sixties, Gene Roddenberry wrote the screenplay for a series called "Star Trek". It was originally written with a woman captain. The corporate network executives had kittens! NO, NO the captain MUST be a man. A woman CAN'T be CAPTAIN! It was settled that the captain would be a man and captain Pike was written in, Kirk came later. In the original pilot, Captain Pike's first mate was a woman. This still wasn't enough for the corporate gatekeepers of gender role norms. The captain (now Kirk) and the first mate (now Spock) were rewritten as both male. It took thirty years, but even the network slime couldn't stem the tide of the rising power of woman. Roddenberry finally got to write his woman captain in the 90's. Her name is Captain Janeway and she's the kind of woman I see around me everyday here in the year 2000. These woman are a powerful and welcome equal to the middle-aged man I suddenly find myself. I'm personally thankful for how science fiction gently informed me that this was going to happen, and I'm happy it's so.
Gender roles were and are not the only sociopolitical issue science fiction portrayed. In most of the movies of the 50's aliens were evil monsters coming to invade earth and eat us, or enslave us or enslave us then eat us. Then, suddenly, in the late 60's I saw the first great science fiction movie of my life. it actually was made in the 50's. I was watching TV when a sci-fi film came on like so many others I'd seen before. A flying saucer floats gently to earth. This time it was slightly different because it landed in a field in Washington DC. As usual, the US army came rushing to the scene to protect us from the monsters. The door of the saucer opens, and out comes a 10-foot tall robot. At that point, I knew a fight was at hand. That was the end of the familiar story line. It turned out that the evil Alien wasn't in this film. The robot was "the ultimate weapon" but it was controlled by an intelligent, rational being that looked just like every other human. His purview wasn't to invade our planet, but to judge whether or not to offer us admission into a peaceful, technically advanced federation of planets. The international body, ala the UN, assembled to hear the Aliens offer as always fell into arguing among themselves. The Alien then decides it is necessary to stage a show of power. For a limited time, he turns off all machines on earth. Thus the title of the film "The Day the Earth Stood Still". Of course, the military minds in the film over react and shoot the Alien. His robot, Gort, is about to go on a rampage and destroy all life on earth. Fortunately, the alien gives the "off switch" to a friend. She utters it in Gort's presence just before the robot runs amok. The phrase is "Klatu Barrada Niktu". That phrase has come to be a call to peace for me. I even have it in my email sig file. This film planted the seeds of thought that have led me to be against all warfare anywhere. Peace is just better then war. It also led me to think about the sad state of international relations then. As for the present, here we are at the beginning of the 21st century, and we still find the need to bomb the hell out of one another.
The second great science fiction film I ever saw was also on TV, not too long after I saw the first. This film starts aboard an intergalactic spaceship en route between stars. Upon arrival at its planetary destination, the ship radios a scientific exploration group that was stranded there many years before. At landing, the ship is met by Robbie the robot. The captain, ships doctor and a crew member are whisked to the home of Dr. Mobius, who with his daughter is the only surviving member of the group sent to study the planet. We learn that underground is a huge complex left by the former inhabitants of the planet. The race called the Krell. Mobius explains that the Krell built the complex in order to instantly create, by mere thought, anything an individual Krell wanted. We later learn that the Krell, upon completion of the complex all died on the night the complex was turned on. The reason this happened is explained as "Monsters from the Id". That is, that each Krell had a hatred of another. This hatred was kept in check by the rational part of the civilized Krell mind. At night during sleep, the hatreds stored in the subconscious, uncivilized mind were released. The great complex, attuned to the Krell minds gave substance to these hatreds and each Krell was killed in a single night by the Id monster of another. This is a recurring message in science fiction. The dangers of technology run amok. I believe this is an important lesson. As our machines become more and more powerful, we must be careful of unintended and dangerous results. The film's name is "Forbidden Planet". It is what would now be called a deconstructivist version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest".
By around 1970, I would see what I would have to say is the best science fiction film I've ever seen. That film started as a short story written by Arthur C. Clark called "The Sentinel". The film is epic in its scope. It starts with the dawn of man from our distant past. It ends in orbit around Jupiter in our future. The two times are linked in one of the greatest cinematic moments of all time. A proto-human from our past tosses a bone club triumphantly into the air. ZOOM, we are then transported into our future as the spinning bone is suddenly replaced by a similarly shaped spacecraft in near earth orbit. The bone and the spacecraft are both state of the art technologies in their own time. Yet again, as in the other two movies, alien technology is present.
In the book that the Liberryian gave me, "2001: A Space Odyssey" the alien technology takes the form of a chunk of "ice" filled with multicolored lights. In the film version, it takes the form of a black monolith. The monolith is first seen as it teaches our proto-human ancestor how to use the bone club as a weapon. We next see the monolith on the moon. It has been buried for thousands of years until we find and excavate its burial site. When the lunar sunrise lights the monolith, it sends a transmission to the area of Jupiter. This is the monolith's aspect of sentinel as in the original short story. By placing the monolith underground on the moon, the alien intelligence in control of the monolith set a test. To pass the test humans had to develop space travel and unearth the monolith. Having passed this test the monolith's transmission to Jupiter is a hint for humans to follow up on. We next see the monolith orbiting Jupiter. The only surviving member of the crew of the spaceship sent to investigate the monolith's transmission enters the monolith.
The crewman, Bowman, then undergoes a transformation. This transformation is evolutional in nature. Bowman becomes a being one step higher then the humans of his time. His transformation is much like the transformation of the proto-human ancestor earlier in the film. In both cases, the alien technology teaches a member of the human race something that progresses the race. Bowman's journey requires he defeat another technology run amok in the guise of the HAL 9000 computer. As in all three films I've written about here, technology is a double-edged sword. When it works right, we are advanced as a race. When something goes wrong, it is a great danger. As I write this just about a month away from New Years eve, 2001. I wonder whether our technology will be used to bring the human race forward, or will we destroy or enslave ourselves with it? In answer I can only say: OPEN THE POD BAY DOORS HAL! And KLATU BARRADA NIKTU!
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