Heinlein vs. Taken

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Hasty, unedited rant.

When I was a kid growing up I read lots and lots of science fiction. The old Winston Juvenile series, some of which were written by Lester Del Rey. A few were written by no one since associated with science fiction for the library market that controlled much of the science fiction hardcover publishing back when I was kid (a few decades would pass before Marion Zimmer Bradley and others would make it to the Times' bestseller list.

While I can remember taking a collection of Isaac Asimov's Robot stories off the public library shelves the first time I read Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein are hidden from me. A pity, like many kids of my age I'll always feel an odd mix of admiration, tenderness, and gratitude toward Heinlein. I never wanted to be in the military (I actually have a false memory of being in military school), never wanted to carry a gun, but I did admire civility and urbanity which were among the qualities the "Dean of Science Fiction" esteemed.

Robert Heinlein was a hardheaded man, he knew his science and had a very clear view of the world (my many disagreements not relevant to my purpose). American popular science fiction was first written for the most part written by engineers and practical scientists. Even, that beloved master of baroque and demotic bad prose, "Doc" E.E. Smith was a food chemist.

Most of the writers of my childhood were the "Campbell writers," because John W. Campbell published some of their work. Heinlein and Asimov must be the best known examples. I don't remember how Clarke entered science fiction other than the presence of some of his books in Shuman Junior High's library.

Their books (admittedly mixed with a desire to be like Reed Richards, "Mr. Fantastic" of the Fantastic Four) made me want to be a scientist. For much of my young years my heroes were Bohr, Einstein, Rutherford, Dirac, Pauli.

So I associated science fiction with a desire to both practicalize knowledge and to hear the music of the spheres. I was the kind of nerdy boy who thought equations the essence of beauty.

Science fiction movies were usually scientifically irrelevant however much homage they paid to the, um, I'm not sure if ideal is the right word. When I was a young boy the movies were a niche market directed at kids (and teens who needed an excuse to fornicate in the local drive-ins).

Science fiction television was often worse. Tom Corbett, shoddy and cheap as it was really was the old Stratmeyer Syndicate brought to the cathodes screen. Lost in Space the initial episodes aside was sort of a spastic farce-cum-family sitcom.

The original Star Trek for all the mean things you might say about it never wandered off into anti-scientific goofiness. Much of what would follow Trek like Buck Rogers (the worst recension of the character ever made Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley look mighty good.

I've seen almost every science fiction movie ever made. Some I'll forever delight in like First Spaceship on Venus a fairly serious Eastern European movie. And I'll never regret the ninety minutes I spent on my Journey to the Seventh Planet with its evil giant eye.

Independence Day rolled around and my brain disconnected. The first Matrix movie appeared and I had no idea that I was watching a movie most people admired. I thought it risible. I felt that when you killed the suspension of disbelief of a kid who grew up reading about Superman accidentally wiping out a solar system by sneezing you weren't a good storyteller.

I guess it was the X-Files where I really disconnected from contemporary mass culture science fiction. I watched a few episodes of the first season and thought, that's dumb, bet they cancel it (as I thought of Oprah's first season).

X-Files signaled one of the two bad things that happened to science fiction publishing in the US.

One is that science fiction writers became contract writers for extensions to the movies and TV series. I have no argument with the writers. If you are an author of popular fiction you have to go where the contracts are.

Science fiction also ceased to appeal to people who cared about understanding reality and were possessed of a cultish mentality: government conspiracies (as though the poor fuckers who run the government were that clever), the wicked pop psychology demonology of alien abductions and similar claptrap.

Science fiction doesn't mean Robert Anson Heinlein anymore. It means Sci-Fi Channel's Taken.

Comments

dear Richard, It must be an age thing-I’m only a couple of years older than you. But just one word:Yes. Terri

I suspect Star Wars fans are more interesting in weilding a light-saber than cosomology.

Thanks.

Great rant! Though I’m not entirely certain that it’s not as simple as books vs. movies (television, video, etc included in the latter). I can’t tell you the last time I heard of a must-read book in any genre. Yet the latest movies/shows/videos are always plastered on the front page. Makes you wonder how many of today’s fans don’t even realize that The Lord of the Rings was in fact a book first…

It was oversimplified. I felt all sorts of sideband thoughts creeping in, so I put my blinders on. The shift was inevitable as science fiction moved from being an odd niche into the mainstream.

If I’d really wanted to blame anybody I might’ve focused on the X-Files but the ads for Taken had been getting on my nerves so mostly I just wanted to take a swipe at the Sci-Fi Channel.

When the cable network first started I thought it was odd that their only advertisers were telephone psychics. Given John Edwards I guess it wasn’t odd at all. Those psychics knew who was watching.

Richard,

Thanks.

Joe

I always wondered if it might be that horror books/movies took the stage away and then …the inbreeding of horror (Steven King) with science fiction as we remember it began…

Thanks for the rant on this subject.

Your feelings?

Please share your feelings about Heinlein vs. Taken.
Thanks,
Richard

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