Cultural Caviar

When Sci-Fi Dared to Dream

March 15, 2012

Multiple Pages
When Sci-Fi Dared to Dream

Here’s a cultural artifact of the minor sort: Issue Number 82 (July 1957) of Authentic Science Fiction, a monthly magazine of stories in that genre, 128 pages, sparsely illustrated.

You can get anything on the Internet nowadays. I got my copy from an Australian website while randomly browsing one day. I bought it because I had quite a vivid memory of it. It was the first sci-fi magazine I ever owned. I had an uncle who was a sci-fi buff; most likely he gave it to me.

A coincidence of three things prompted me to pull down that copy of Authentic from the bookshelf and browse nostalgically in it. Two of the things were news items: this report on space travel’s health hazards, and the death of Moebius.

That’s not Möbius of the famous strip, which in all fairness should be called the Listing strip. That Möbius died in 1868. (Q: Why did the chicken cross the Möbius strip? A: To get to the same side.) It’s Moebius the sci-fi comic-book artist.

“Sometime in the early 1960s sci-fi lapsed into self-consciousness and (yecchh!) ‘social relevance,’ losing its soul.”

The third of my three prompts was a post-lecture question someone asked me at an event the other day: What kind of things did I read as a kid? The short answer: Once I reached the age at which I was able to pick my own reading matter, I read science fiction.

Before that I read whatever was put in front of me, which fortunately included some good nutritious stuff: Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, R. L. Stevenson, R. M. Ballantyne, and my dad’s 1908 edition of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. (That last, a charming period piece full of little boys in sailor suits and little girls in black stockings, still had enough vitality in 1973 to incite a riot that left four people dead.)

Once I was able to choose my reading material, I read very little else except sci-fi all through my teen years. It was my great fortune to be emerging into imaginative daylight just as sci-fi was in its high summer. Heinlein was writing, as were Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg, A. E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, and C. M. Kornbluth.

We Brits were somewhat of a backwater in sci-fi as in pop music, our writers mostly playing Cliff Richard to America’s Elvis, but we had two first-magnitude stars in Arthur C. Clarke and John Wyndham, as well as several others who deserve to be better remembered than they are: Brian Aldiss, John Brunner, Eric Frank Russell, and John Christopher.

If you never felt sci-fi’s appeal, I can’t transmit it to you. Kingsley Amis caught it best when he wrote that science fiction’s purpose is “to arouse wonder, terror, and excitement.” I still feel a trace of the old thrill while turning the yellowing pages of that 1957 Authentic. It was a British magazine, struggling in a tiny market, yet that random issue (one of the last: Authentic folded later that year) had stories by Asimov, Silverberg, and Brian Aldiss. These guys were prolific beyond belief. Kurt Vonnegut once said that his original aim in life was to become a sci-fi writer, but he couldn’t keep up the pace.

The trouble with having lived through that high summer was that the sun never again seemed as bright. Sometime in the early 1960s sci-fi lapsed into self-consciousness and (yecchh!) “social relevance,” losing its soul. Then, like everything else, it went from narrative to visual: sci-fi movies, TV shows, and up-market comic strips by artists such as Moebius. His drawings for the mid-1970s adult comic Heavy Metal came as close to visually capturing the Golden Age vision as can be done—far closer, certainly, than puerile dreck such as Star Wars or Back to the Future.

There’s the trouble: an adolescence spent with Asimov, van Vogt, and Heinlein makes you a crashing sci-fi snob. Don’t even get me started on Doctor Who or Star Trek. I grew up in the vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux: You can keep your supermarket plonk.

Looking back, how odd it all seems. “Imaginative fiction”? Wonder, terror, and excitement? Who has the time or mental space for such things now? We surf and browse, Twitter and Tweet, fondling thoughts for a moment or two, then discarding them for new ones. The imagination only grows in stillness and slow time, both of which our civilization has mislaid.

Furthermore, as that BBC story tells us, cold reality has scotched the dreams of the sci-fi Golden Age. There will be no adventures in space: Our earthly tissues aren’t up to the job. Time travel is not possible, and there are no telepaths.

Most likely our species’ future leads to something like the Singularity. By its nature, we cannot comprehend what comes after the Singularity…though its prospect generated some striking late sci-fi.

Or as a character says in Authentic No. 82’s lead story (one of the very few pieces of fiction I have ever read that is written in the second person): “What triumphs ultimately is something too big for your comprehension or mine.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Since my “Life at Half Speed” column last week I’ve received many expressions of sympathy and concern from readers. There’s a good selection on the comment thread there, and I’ve had at least an equal number as personal emails, and now another batch on Steve Sailer’s blog.

I’m deepy moved by all the kindness there and offer my heartfelt thanks to all.

And no, to answer one emailer: Although an unbeliever, I don’t at all mind people telling me they’re praying for me. I think it would be churlish to mind. Everyone has his own way to express sincere hopes for another’s good, and that’s how religious people do it. Correction: It would be HORRIBLE to mind!

I am in any case grudgingly respectful of Pascal’s Wager. The guy was, after all, a fine mathematician.

I should say that there is no real cause for alarm. The prognosis for my particular condition (it’s this one) is excellent. A friend of mine’s husband is an oncologist. Apprised of my diagnosis, he said: “Oh, you got the easy one!” The chemo brain business aside, I feel fine.

My beloved mother was a professional hospital nurse, 1928-72. She had seen every kind of medical horror—including pre-penicillin and pre-streptomycin varieties, and injuries from aerial bombing—and was not shy about detailing them over the family dinner table. “There’s always someone worse off than yourself” is the stock-in-trade of mothers everywhere, but it came with exceptional force from mine.

KBO. That’s the order of the day.”

Thanks once again to all. Thank you, thank you.


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