Friday, October 26, 2012

Science Fiction of the Fifties

Earlier this year, 20th Century Fox theatrically released a magnificent movie titled, Prometheus. Fans of the Alien movies obviously spotted the landmarks that presented a unique perspective from Ridley Scott: the prequel to Alien (1979). Keeping far enough away from a franchise that went haywire with the Alien vs. Predator flicks, the motion-picture barely touches on the Alien mythos and instead offers another science-fiction premise that human beings originated from DNA outsourced from the cosmos. Rod Serling explored this theory in a Twilight Zone episode, “Probe 7 -- Over and Out,” which told the tale of two people (a man and a woman) who separately crash on an uncharted planet and are forced to make do with what they have. His home planet has faced Armageddon with a nuclear holocaust the likes his kind have never seen. And as they walk away, hand in hand, Adam and Eve share an apple.

What made Prometheous one of the four or five best films of the year was the fact that it avoided every cliché in the book: most science-fiction films try to be science-fiction without actually understanding the concept. The result was, visually, eye candy. It was hypnotic space exploration that avoided futuristic pink hairdos, lava lamps, cheesy robots that obey human commands, bug eyed monsters, giant arachnids and ridiculous, unintelligent one-liners. There is even a nod to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in the musical soundtrack.

It’s been a few years since science-fiction movies actually offered something intelligent. Science-fiction became popular in post-WWII as a result of technological advancements (televisions, automobiles, telephones, etc.) and the pulps and digests that began offering stories of science fantasy without the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon juvenile fare that dominated the thirties. Motion-picture producers did not help support the genre with such ridiculous pictures as It Conquered the World (1956, a guilty pleasure of mine) and Beginning of the End (1957). Films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Thing from Another World (1951) both offered promise. But it would ultimately be the magazines that proved science-fiction was something to take serious.
Beginning in 1937, three remarkable editors helped the shape of things to come: John W. Campbell (Astounding, later renamed Analog), Anthony Boucher (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), and H.L. Gold (Galaxy). As a result of their work, the commercial science fiction field began groping its way back to the literary standards it had abandoned in the 1920s under Hugo Gernsback and others. It’s interesting to note that for years science-fiction anthologies drew very largely on material published outside the magazines. By the mid-fifties, that material became popular again. Most science-fiction anthologies of the late fifties and early sixties contained mostly stories from the magazines -- not originals.

The subject matter consisted of a variety of science probables, including, but not limited to: scientific inventions, threats from outer space, adventures in another dimension, interplanetary travels, space exploration and the world of tomorrow. What Jules Verne and H.G. Wells established in the literary field, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Frederic Brown perfected. Rarely has transmutation fascinated a reader. Rarely has the age-old theme of “great and small” been substantiated.

Mack Reynold’s debut story, The Isolationist, injects considerable political thought into his story of a patriotic farmer and the outer space visitors he confronts. Frederic Brown’s Arena was adapted into an episode of Star Trek in the late sixties, but the original story (without Captain James T. Kirk or the Starfleet) relates the story of a galactic war that must be settled in single combat between a human and an alien.

One classic novel worthy of reading, should you chose to take a couple days and enjoy a classic, is Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951). The Puppet Masters are invaders from another world who bring with them parasitic slugs which can dominate man’s physical and mental being. They come hideously close to controlling all of mankind, except that “The Old Man” and his super-secret security organization consider death a small price to pay to save the world from a mass hypnosis of the most diabolical sort. The book evokes a sense of paranoia that would come from the Red Scare of the fifties, best captured later in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). A variation-on-a-theme concept for The Brain Eaters (1958) and The Faculty (1998) remind us how good the original novel still is… regardless of the artistic changes. (The Outer Limits had an episode titled, “The Invisibles,” one of my favorites in the series, which was essentially using this same concept.)
If you are ever going to read one novel, my personal selection is The Day of the Triffids (1951) by John Wyndham. It tells the story of Bill Masen, who wakes up in the hospital one morning to discover that a spectacular light show (meteor shower) from outer space the night before blinded everyone who saw it. Most of the world’s population is now dinner for the “triffids,” tall plants capable of aggressive behavior -- and devouring humans. Bill remains optimistic -- yet realistic -- when he theorizes how mankind (what remains of it, anyway), has to start anew in the dark ages without modern conveniences. Along the way, he finds love, witnesses civilization collapsing around him, and a subsequent plague. How man is able to cope with his surroundings is more terrifying than the man-eating plants which keep multiplying by the week. The novel was adapted for a BBC reading in 1953. All other versions both radio and motion-pictures, I have watched but this one is on my “want list.” Ignore the 1962 motion-picture. It is not only the worst adaptation, but an additional subplot added to the movie (the initial filming totaled 55 minutes and producers needed more to extend the running time) doesn’t even have anything to do with the novel. Again, if you are ever going to read one fifties science-fiction novel, I recommend John Wyndam’s The Day of the Triffids. One of the ten best reads -- and you can quote me on it.

Thankfully, we have the science-fiction magazines and digests of the fifties to enjoy. They cost very little (usually about $2 or $3 a piece and you can usually talk dealers who specialize in these magazines down to a buck a piece). Avoid Star magazine. In 1953, the first volumes of Star Science Fiction Stories appeared. It was a curious, hybrid publishing format, not quite a magazine and yet not very like the ordinary varieties of book. Its plan was simply to find enough of the best science fiction stories that could be had and to print them; and the one editorial rule established was that they must never have been published before. The editor, however, knew nothing about science fiction and must have taken everything submitted to his office. There has been eight volumes or one sort or another in the Star series. Of the 75 stories published, very few are noteworthy and those have been reprinted in paperback and hardcover anthologies over time, such as Jerome Bixby’s “It’s A Good Life” and Alfred Bester’s “Disappearing Act.” Stick with the three magazines I named above and you won‘t go wrong.

In 1950, NBC Radio premiered a radio program, Dimension X. The adaptations are extremely faithful to the printed page and the acting is top notch. The stories selected were chosen with care. Many are now considered classics in the field of science-fiction. Everyone talks about “Mars in Heaven” (July 7, 1950), “The Parade” (August 25, 1950) and “There Shall Come Soft Rains/Zero Hour” (June 17, 1950). While they are certainly among the top ten episodes to listen to, I recommend two that people rarely talk about. “Universe” (November 26, 1950) and “The Martian Death March” (January 14, 1951). The former written by Robert A. Heinlein, tells the tale of a doomed society that doesn’t believe the universe exists beyond the hulls of their space ship. The ending is human morality at its best. The latter is scripted by Ernest Kinoy and warrants comparison with the prose of Ray Bradbury. The story is simply as the title suggests and I honestly thought it was a Bradbury story the first time I heard it. Only during the closing credits did my jaw drop.
Dimension X ran a full year (50 episodes) from 1950 to 1951. Perhaps it was a bit too early for serious science-fiction on network radio, especially an anthology. But in 1955, NBC resurrected the series under a different title: X Minus One. This series lasted three years. Again dramatizing stories from Galaxy science-fiction magazine, the early broadcasts featured repeat dramas from Dimension X stories, but I recommend you avoid those and focus solely on the scripts written exclusively for X Minus One. “Tunnel Under the World” (March 14, 1956) is perhaps one of the best productions. If you wanted to expose our youth to a radio broadcast that is “cool” and just might hook them into wanting more, this is the best introductory. There are a couple clever tales that most people don’t consider when asked, “What are your favorite X Minus One episodes?” and for that reason, I list them now. If you haven’t heard the series in a long while, or want to start with recommendations, try these out.

“The Discovery of Morneal Matheway” (April 17, 1957) concerns a Nobel prize winner who travels back in time to visit the artist who inspired him. But the artist is not creating the same paintings he saw in the museums and the time traveler wonders if he made a mistake. A time travel twist you won’t see coming.

“Shock Troop” (November 28, 1957) involves a war between two armies for control of a creature. If you do not figure this one out before the surprise ending is given, you need to brush up more on your science-fiction.

“Open Warfare” (January 23, 1957) concerns a professional golfer -- the best there is -- who goes up against a newly-created robot golfer that is supposedly perfect. The prize is the hand of the millionaire’s daughter and the pro accepts the challenge.

As a fan of radio drama from the “Golden Age of Radio,” the above recommendations, along with The Day of the Triffids, should give you a deeper understanding of science-fiction is -- and should be. Serious morality plays with a bit of wisdom fiction and a wee bit of goose bumps to keep you up at night.