Why Science Fiction Matters

Star Trek
In the past two years, we’ve watched all the Star Trek series (on Netflix) from start to finish, and all the ST movies (on DVD). We just started watching the Battlestar Galactica series on Blu-Ray this past week (which we had seen some years back, but with long gaps between seasons). Both of us love scifi.

Although the first ST series was often more space opera than scifi (as the Star Wars series has been), it matured quickly into some complex, adult-oriented storytelling in the subsequent series (a sad failing of the first several Star Wars films was their failure to mature). BSG is even more mature, and thus more compelling. 

If wisdom comes with age, then Star Trek—the series that’s taught us diplomacy, morality, and workplace ethics since 1966—has to be up there with Kant and Nietzsche by now.

So begins “Why Star Trek Matters,” a 2016 article in Popular Mechanics, by Tom Chiarella. Or rather, a paen to Star Trek. I would say the same of science fiction generally: it matters, deeply, and across cultures and generations, and affects a wider cultural range than other literature. It matters in all its forms: written, visual, gaming, and audio.  But I also admit to a soft spot when it comes to Star Trek.

Science fiction — and the ill-defined, but closely-related speculative fiction — is a prism through which we can shine the light of modern issues and events to see how they play out in other situations and conditions, from the near to the distant future, here or on other worlds. In his book, The Future of the Mind (pp 55 and 57), Michio Kaku says,

The highest level of consciousness, which is associated primarily with Homo Sapiens, is Level III consciousness, in which we take our model of the world and then run simulations into the future… Self-awareness is creating a model of the world and simulating the future in which you appear.

Sounds like a pretty good description of science fiction, too. Wikipedia adds, “It has been called the “literature of ideas”, and often explores the potential consequences of scientific, social, and technological innovations.”

I’ve been a scifi reader for more than 60 years.  I distinctly remember standing in my backyard with my father one October night in 1957 and seeing a tiny dot of light move across the sky. It was the first satellite: Sputnik, and right then and there, I wanted to go into space. My first encounter with scifi literature, as I recall it, came soon after in the form of Tom Swift Jr. books. My parents started buying these books as birthday and Christmas gifts when I was seven. I loved those stories and collected the first 18 or 20 of them.

When I was ten, my mother suffered a stroke and went into hospital for much of the next two years. During that time, when I got out of school, I went to the local branch of the public library (Bendale, and it’s still there), only  a few blocks from my home. I would wait there until my father got home from work. During that wait, I read. A lot. I quickly went through what was age-appropriate for me in the small children’s section and turned to the books for young adults, which included a few science fiction (and fewer fantasy) novels. I don’t recall much of them although I read them all, but I can remember reading some by Andre Norton.

(The lines between fantasy and scifi are often blurred. I read both, but tended to prefer scifi. As Arthur C. Clark wrote in Profiles Of The Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible,”…any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Harry Potter fans take note.)

Back then, there wasn’t the same sort of literary machinery to produce young adult titles as there is today (no Harry Potter!). The selection of books considered age-appropriate, especially in the scifi category, even for older teens, was limited. It didn’t take me long to graduate into the adult book section and find the treasure trove of science fiction there. Ray Bradbury, A.E. van Vogt, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova, Frank Herbert, and many more. I consumed them. I’ve been reading scifi ever since, often with the same sense of amazement and wonder I had when I first began reading it. I remember reading Frank Herbert’s stunning novel, Dune, when it came out in 1965 (I’ve read it three times since).

These stories were not just promises of a future, but for a young boy faced with a troubled and unsure present, they were an escape vehicle. After my mother returned home I continued to read science fiction as one of my primary literary interests (I also discovered and read the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs; a delightful mix of scifi and fantasy).

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War for the Planet of the Apes considered

Pierre Boulle never imagined War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest film in the remade franchise. In fact, it would be fair to say the author of the original book never imagined any of the series, from the first in 1968 to the latest, released in 2017. They were far, far from what he had envisioned in the early 1960s. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Boulle’s 1963 novel, Monkey Planet, was basically a satire and a social commentary. And it wasn’t based in America: the astronauts came from France (and their last view on landing was of the Eiffel Tower not the Statue of Liberty… oops. Spoiler alert!). But it had a lot of contemporary themes common to both, including Cold War jitters.

The novel was scripted into an action movie in 1968, starring the hammy Charlton Heston, with Roddy McDowall (and others) in chimp makeup. Rod Serling of the Twilight Zone fame had a hand in the writing, but so did others, and it ended up a sort-of reflection of Boulle’s original. A fun-house mirror reflection.

While the lumbering Heston would (mercifully) only have a cameo role in the first sequel (Beneath, see below), McDowall starred in the remainder and set the tone for the series.

In the 1968 film, Heston plays a heroic American astronaut who fights to win freedom for the humans and stir up a revolution against ape dominance (ironic that the US was so hep on such concepts when they did them, but took umbrage when anyone else – such as Che Guevara – did it). (Heston went on to become a mouthpiece for the NRA.) The other films have no less histrionic plots.

Although Beneath ends with a “divine” bomb blowing up the planet (apes and mutant humans both), the series went on for three more films, the writers providing a “miraculous” escape for apes Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Milo via an astronaut’s space ship, arriving back in time to 1973. The former couple have a son they call Caesar, who becomes the lead revolutionary in the subsequent two movies, culminating in the final overthrow of humans in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
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Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship

Tom Swift and His Rocket ShipI was 8, maybe 9 years old, when my parents gave me a hardcover copy of Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship by Victor Appleton II. Probably a birthday or Xmas present. I can’t recall which. I just recall how excited I was when I read this book – my earliest experience of science fiction. I soon had a couple of dozen of the Tom Swift books in my collection.

My memory of Tom Swift (Jr) and that book came back today when I wandered into a garage sale on Cedar Street and found a copy of the same original edition (1954) of that title. Fifty cents bought all those memories for me.

I don’t know if kids today have such a series – I know about the fantasy, the magic, the vampires and werewolves in their modern books, but are there books with some science in them like we had in Tom Swift? Given the audience and the times, Tom Swift Jr. was remarkable sophisticated as far as science was concerned. It inspired a generation to pursue science as a career. Or at least a passion, as in my own case. Is there anything comparable?

Finding the book also bought me the opportunity to do some research into the books, the series and the author. According to Wikipedia,

Tom Swift Jr. is the central character in a series of 33 adventure novels for male adolescents, following in the tradition of the earlier Tom Swift (“Senior”) novels. The series was entitled The New Tom Swift Jr. Adventures… The covers were created by illustrator (J.) Graham Kaye. Covers in the later half of the series were mostly by Charles Brey. A total of 33 volumes were eventually published.
For the Tom Swift Jr. series the books were outlined mostly by Harriet (Stratemeyer) Adams, head of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, attributed to the pseudonymous Victor Appleton II, and published in hardcover by Grosset & Dunlap. Most of the books were written by James Duncan Lawrence, who had an interest in science and technology and was faithful to the canon of the previous Tom Swift series.

So there was no “Victor Appleton II.” I think I wrote a fan letter to him, in the late 1950s or early 60s. Never got a reply that I can recall. But it doesn’t matter. The tales helped inspire me to become a writer because I wanted to tell stories like those I read. Never did much in fiction, but the urge still boils and bubbles beneath the surface. They also encouraged me to study science.

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