(Some) Historical Perspective for Younger Fans

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James Davis Nicoll is conducting an interesting experiment:  younger fans read older works of SF and then provide their commentary.  James started this following a challenge from Adam-Troy Castro (essentially: using classic SF is not the way to intro new readers to the genre).  Maybe not, but after two sessions featuring Campbell’s Who Goes There and Weinbaum’s A Martian Odyssey, the jury is still out.

I’m generally of the school that believes that the genre is one that accretes like sedimentary processes – every layer rests upon the foundation of every preceding layer and that in order for a reader/editor/writer to really be able to play the game, they need to be familiar (preferably intimately so) with what has gone before.  (Steve’s SF Boot Camp for New Fans may not be a pleasant experience – I don’t know but I’ve been told, that good SF is really old!  “Now drop and read those twenty!” – but its graduates are never at a lost when faced with attacks upon the genre.)  If I could (Emperor of the Universe style) I’d mandate that you’re not allowed to even think about writing this stuff until you’ve read a goodly selection, starting with works from around 1911.

But that’s me:  I rip bandages off quickly instead of peeling them off slowly.  YMMV (fine, go down that wrong road) and it doesn’t matter because that’s not my point today.

My point today – adequately revealed in some of the comments on Weinbaum’s short – is that societal context can be as much of a barrier as old style writing, old concepts of reality, ludicrous technologies.

I was born in 1958;  by 1968 I was actively seeking out and reading science fiction (I’d been watching and listening to it for about 5 years at that point).  It was a very good time period to be doing this because the origins of the genre were not that far away historically – a mere three decades – the field was at the tail end of a boom (and about to start another one) and many in the field were going about mining the past with anthologies like Science Fiction by Gaslight, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame and many editors who’d been around from the beginning were putting together annual best SF series.  It was easy, back then, for one to get nicely steeped in the entirety of the genre.  In fact, a fan who wanted to read SF pretty much had to dive into the past in order to feed the maw, as new SF, though regularly published by a handful of imprints, was not the firehose of content it is now;  more gardenhosey if you will.  After one consumed the pulps/digests (in 1968, magazines that regularly appeared on the stands were – Amazing, Fantastic, Analog, F&SF, Galaxy, If, Worlds of Fantasy, Other Worlds, Thrilling Science Fiction, Great Science Fiction Stories, Science Fiction Classics, Famous Science Fiction, SF Yearbook, (most of the unfamiliar titles are reprint rags), and after you’d polished off the month’s new releases.  You couldn’t help but run up against the older works.

It was also the middle period of the New Wave incursion – Dangerous Visions published the year before – and a year in which the SF professional community decided that it needed to poke its head out and comment on mundane activities – namely the conduct of the Viet Nam war.

You may think that as I was only ten at the time, that many of these things were beyond my ken.  Well, all I can say is that I was precocious (like many fans).  Fortunately for me, my parents recognized this and put very few barriers in the way of my accessing all manner of things one would normally consider “adult”.

But that’s not really my point either.  My point is this:  things were really, really different back then (for all that they’ve stayed the same) and a reader that is not cognizant of this could very well be at a loss to explain why any particular story from then – or earlier – is held in such high regard.

In order to supply some context, here’s a brushstroke of the world of 1963 – 1968 when I first encountered and engaged with science fiction.:

I started in a two bedroom ranch house in southern New Jersey.  Everyone in the neighborhood knew everyone else by sight, if not by name.  The kids (4, 5 and 6 year olds) had the run of the neighborhood and the thought of calling the cops on careless parents would never enter the mind of anyone observing this.  In fact, the opposite was true:  most of the adults in the community considered it one of their duties to keep an eye out for the kids – even the ones who weren’t theirs.

I walked home, by myself, from kindergarten.  True, it was a relatively short walk, but it required crossing a state hiway.  Yes, there were adult crossing guards and yes, if you misbehaved under their watchful eye, your parents would find out about it.

One of my favored activities (when I wasn’t playing with my Marx Fireball XL5 or Cape Canaveral play sets) was to collect bottles for return with my friend Chuckie.  We’d wander the streets, collect the bottles (only those that had return values printed on them – but that was most of them) and then take them over to the bottle return center at the local A&P supermarket.  Then, clutching our pennies and nickels, we’d head to the drug store that had a u-shaped wrap around candy counter, filled with penny candies.

Really.  A fully packaged, mouth-sized bit of candy for a penny – some as cheap as two for a penny (like Bazooka Bubble Gum);  Mary Janes, Wax Lips, Cow Tails, and a whole host of other non-nourishing fare that have passed into history.

At least one afternoon every week, my mother, brother and I would sit down for radio time.  One or another Philadelphia radio stations was broadcasting radio plays from the 40s and 50s – shows like The Shadow and Terry and the Pirates.  This was a fine way to learn to use the screen in your head, a skill I am afraid is slowly diminishing in the face of CGI fare that lets us depict anything.

Our telephone had only recently become a private line;  before that it had been a “party line” – meaning that any household could pick up the phone and listen in on your conversations.  Most people did not.  Getting caught doing so was a social faux pas.  Our phone was a wall-mounted Western Bell bakelite contraption, weighing about twenty pounds.  It had a dial.  Because the policeman was my friend, I was taught how to dial the police station.  (If 9-1-1 had been invented back then, it would have been 1-1-1….).  I used to love to dial the phone, listening as it clicked through the registers on its return.

Phone numbers were still given as “exchanges”, the first three digits related to a word (“operator, please connect me to Wellington 245”);  there was no “1” to gain access for long distance dialing.

Zip codes had just been introduced and state abbreviations had not yet been regularized to two letters (FLA. – Florida;  MICH – Michigan).

We had one television, black and white;  it had no remote – only an on/off switch, a dial for volume and two dials for channels – one that clicked for VHF and one that had no stops for UHF.  We had a total of 7 stations to choose from – NBC, CBS, ABC, NET (National Educational Television, not yet PBS) and local UHF channels 17, 29 and 48 (Philadelphia market, starting in 1965).

No cable.  An antenna on the roof (one designed for both frequency ranges, which made it quite the abstract sculpture).  Sometimes, on cloudy nights, we could bring in UHF from New York and even as far away as Montreal, Canada.  Following storms, it was not uncommon to have to climb up onto the roof to adjust things.  My father used to let me “help”, and one time I was treated to the sight of a Navy blimp flying over the neighborhood.

Commercials arrived at regular intervals – every fifteen minutes, with longer blocks at the hour and half hour marks. You avoided the commercials by going to the bathroom or getting a snack – not  by flipping channels.

Programming started at 5 or 6 am and cut off at midnight;  every single station ended their daily broadcast with the national anthem.

I think the thing I miss the most about old television is the fact that you could fix the set yourself, with little knowledge or experience;  look in the back, see which tube wasn’t lit, pull it out and get a replacement at the drugstore.  People bought expensive items with the idea that they’d be keeping them around for a while (like DECADES), rather than trashing them every 6 or 12 months in favor of the latest “innovations”.

TV dinners (an aluminum tray covered in aluminum) were a recent innovation.  You cooked them in the oven, which took about a half hour (not counting pre-heat); they never cooked evenly.

Drive-Ins – both for food and films – were still a going concern.  We had a Stewarts Drive In close by and it was a treat to go eat there; they’d hang a tray off your partially opened window.  We also had several drive in movie theaters close by:  I watched Bambi for the first time from the back seat of a Ford station wagon.  (Station Wagon?)

I mentioned penny candy.  A penny actually bought you something.  By the time I was ten, prices had gone up;  it required a whole quarter to buy a slice of pizza.  You could get change back from a dollar at McDonalds, along with a burger, small fries and small soft drink.  But before that, my friend Chuckie and I would walk (across that state hiway) to the local Grants department store and buy a basket of fries for ten cents.  Grants was wonderful – they had a huge toy aisle.

The takeaway though is this:  two six year old boys sitting at a food counter, unaccompanied by adults, and no one batted an eye.

Science and technology were also still in relevant infancy;  1969 would see the moonshot, but most people in 1968 still believed it impossible.  The benefits of the advances that had been made during WWII and during the run up to manned spaceflight were still not ubiquitous.  There were still many, many, many homes in the US that did not have electricity or inside plumbing; the Salk vaccine for Polio was being delivered to school kids via sugar cube; penicillin was a wonder drug.  Gasoline still had lead in it, and a lot of homes were covered in asbestos and lead paint.

Socially – we were in the middle of the equal rights campaign – we were much more divided.  There was absolutely no mention of the gay world (or other preversions as that was often referred to) and people of color lived in other neighborhoods;  there were no POCs in my kindergarten class, only a handful (one my friend Sherman) in my elementary school.  We had a black maid come to the house twice a week, a janitor at the school was black, but other than that, we were rarely exposed to people that weren’t white.

Speaking of which:  we moved from that first neighborhood to a more upscale one when I was seven.  Despite the fact that this new neighborhood had a decent Jewish population, there was still quite a bit of overt antisemitism going on.    I’d regularly get taunted in the school cafeteria, the favorite game being roll a penny down the aisle to see if I’d pick it up (because Jews are known to be money grubbers).  I tried ignoring it, until one day I hit on the proper response:  I leaned over and picked up the penny, stood up, waited for the snickers to die down and then whipped that penny at my nemesis’s head as hard as I could.  I was lucky in that it connected.

No more pennies after that, but I did discover swastikas chalked on our driveway a few days later….

Not antisemitic per se, but I early on had to opt out of the “morning prayer” in school, because it was obvious even then that the prayer had little to do with my religious up-bringing.  (Yes, I was a little snot back then too.)

I guess the take-away from that is:  prejudice and bigotry were every day happenings – not swept under the rug as much as they are today.   People were simply more comfortable expressing those kinds of things.  And few, if any (even science fiction authors) questioned this or the many other assumptions made about people and places that weren’t the USA.

When I was at school we had this drill we did.  A special alarm would ring out (I can still hear it in my head) and we’d all dive under our wood & sheet metal desks.  This was interesting as you could get caught and punished for carving messages into your desktop, but no one ever looked at the underside.  I gained a lot of incorrect knowledge from students who had passed that way in earlier years….

I grew up firmly in the middle of the Cold War.  (I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis even though I don’t remember it.  I do remember a general sense of unease.)  Above and below ground nuclear tests were common;  they built a Nike air defense base a few miles from my neighborhood (now abandoned but still there) and an Early Warning radome sat alongside the turnpike right before our exit (Exit 4).  It wasn’t too many more years until I became fully aware of the fact that I lived in and near one of the most heavily targeted regions of the country – smack dab in between the Philadelphia naval yard and New York city.

Our “greatest generation” was stunned by Pearl Harbor and horrified by the concentration camps;  generations after mine have had to deal with international terrorism on american soil.  What we faced was the constant water torture drip of total nuclear annihilation.

Each generation has experience of the horrors humans regularly subject themselves to.  But neither World War II or the international terrorism of today threatened the very existence of the species (and pretty much the rest of the planet).  Life would have been shitty under a Nazi regime and would be equally shitty under a Caliphate following an ISIS brand of twisted fundamentalist Islam, but the planet would still be here and there would be people living on it.

I’m not conducting a generational contest to see whose horror is more horrible.  They’re all equally horrible.  But they are different horrors.  The Cold War shaped the thinking of an entire generation.  It may very well be that this current extended period of international terrorism shapes another.

On a more pleasant note:  paperbacks were all the rage and you couldn’t walk into a store – any kind of store – without running into a wire rack featuring mysteries, westerns, spy thrillers, romances and science fiction.  Most available for anywhere from a quarter to fifty cents.

The Science Fiction Book Club was in full swing;  many paperbacks featured a pull-out application that offered four (sometimes more) books for a dime.  When I was in my teens, I discovered a flaw in their program and exploited it mercilessly (all in the name of getting my hands on as much SF as I could, of course);  you’d spend your dime, pick your four books and then, over the course of a year, you were obligated to purchase four more books “at regular club prices” (which were decent prices btw).  Then they added a recruitment scheme:  existing members could get two free books for every new member they signed.  So I signed up my brother, got my freebies; he of course got four books for a dime for his new membership.  I fulfilled my purchasing obligation and quit.  Then my brother signed ME up, I getting the four freebies and him the two bonus books;  he’d order his four and quit.  Rinse.  Repeat.  (My brother knew nothing about this…) (See what happens when you start using advanced information technology?  No more half-a-dozen free books every year.)

The magazines themselves were fifty cents – older ones (including pulps!) for as little as five for a dollar at used book stalls.  Every mall had a book store.  Every town had a used book store.  Libraries though usually didn’t have extensive SF sections.

My local used book store (a two hour round trip by bicycle) charged half the cover price and credited a quarter of the cover price for returns.  On trash days I scoured the neighborhood for thrown away books; my mother and her friends donated all of their beach reads (which may be why there were so many romance novels in used book stores).  Libraries used to dump used books (rather than donate or sell).

Within a 90 minute (by bicycle) radius, I eventually had access to two specialty stores devoted to SF, several large farmer’s/flea markets each with numerous used book and magazine stalls, several used book stores and several book stores, not to mention those wire racks at drug stores, supermarkets, laundromats, and the many many News & Tobacco shops (they were always good for the latest magazines).  (Comics were likewise distributed, but I never ran into a dedicated comics or game store.  They may have had them elsewhere, but not around me.)  All of these were accessible via public transportation or bicycle.

It was not difficult to find science fiction to read and – most everything that had ever been written – certainly everything of real import – was pretty well available too.

Movies though were very few and very far between.  And let me tell you of the Cloud based entertainment with your smart phones and tablets and ebooks, you don’t know what anticipation is until you are faced with maybe never getting to see a new SF film at the movie theater.  Why?  Because once the film closed, it was gone.  Gone.  No videotape releases.  No DVD releases.  No pirated torrent files.  No television premieres.

I felt that very sense of anticipation and dread in 1968 when 2001: A Space Odyssey was released.  I did manage to convince my parents to take me.  I was one of a handful in the audience who understood it.  I’d already been reading Clarke.

The film itself wasn’t re-released until 1974.

Can you imagine being a dedicated Fan, missing the release of a major genre film and having to wait SIX years to be able to see it?  Hows that for some historical perspective?

To close (we’ve already gone on long enough), I think the biggest differences between then and now are:

we were much more ignorant of the universe, our solar system and our world;  we didn’t care so much about giving respect, or even parity, to most of the members of our society (women, POCs, LGBTQI, “foreigners”) – mostly because we hadn’t yet realized that we were supposed to; and everything took more time.

If you wanted to be social, you really had to plan things out.  You couldn’t just text a friend that you were at the movie theater, come on down!  If you did want to call from the theater, you used a pay phone and, if they didn’t answer, that was it (no answering machines).  This meant that calendars and fixing dates well in advance, were necessities.

The pace of change was simply slower;  you could pretty well keep up with the world just by reading the Sunday NY Times.  All of the information we received was curated and filtered in some fashion (Walter Kronkite); news was news, not entertainment (and when the words SPECIAL REPORT appeared on your TV screen, you knew it was something really important, like the assassination of a President or the end of the world).

We were naive and ignorant about much of the world, and we didn’t much care even if we knew it, because, for the most part, the world was a safe place.  Except of course for those damned Russkis.

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