Sci-Fi Culture

I’ve recently taken up rereading Ray Bradbury stories from my childhood.  Bradbury’s difficult to classify, but he’s often genrefied as science fiction, but many of his stories are horror and fantasy related, or just plain stories.  One aspect upon which future readers, I believe, may pick up—and this isn’t just a Bradbury thing—is how people were projected into the future with the culture of the past remaining intact.  Things like characters smoking in the most unlikely of places.  I picked up on that the first time I watched Alien.  In space, where no-one can hear you scream, air has got to be a precious commodity.  And yet there they are, smoking in space.  Same thing with Bradbury.  The culture of the 1940s and ‘50s when he was writing such stories simply couldn’t see beyond the time when culture was what everyone did.  It seems weird in 2019.  How much weirder it will look in 2050 (presuming we make it that far).

There’s almost a “gee-whiz” quality to such stories of the past.  People in the future, and in space, drink coffee and wear blue jeans.  They may have more technological homes, but their home lives reflect the forties and fifties as well.  The women are housewives and the husbands go to the office, or outer space, to work.  I suppose cultural verisimilitude was a different thing back then.  Did nobody really consider that patriarchy might be a problem?  Did everyone think clothing would never really change?  And not a hint that vegetarianism might catch on.  What makes the future the future in these stories is tech.

These days we’re loaded with tech.  In some ways we have more of it on our person at any given moment than all of Bradbury’s space-workers ever had.  In one of his stories a character was born in the impossibly far year of 1993.  I used to watch a show called Space 1999.  We haven’t colonized the moon yet (we may be working on it, but considering how long things like an obvious impeachment take, I wouldn’t hold my breath).  Speaking of holding breath, I’m pretty sure some of the characters were smoking on Moonbase Alpha.  Or my memory is cloudy.  (The earlier, and more lasting series Star Trek pretty much avoided several earth-bound habits, although Captain Kirk was pretty fearless when it came to the possibilities of space-spread STDs.)  I read Bradbury as a throwback to my childhood.  His stories have both an prescience and naivity that make them compelling period pieces.  From our current standpoint, one wonders if there will be any culture left at all in the future.  Perhaps we should enjoy what we have, while we still can.

Vox Humana

You know how it is when you get a song stuck in your head? This is one of the few scenarios that will actually lead me to buy music. I have very specific (some would say “odd”) tastes in music. I love the originals. Long ago I ceased listening to “Christian Rock.” It was a thing when I was attending a Christian college, of course. Many who feared the terrors of the drugs and sex part felt they could be slightly rebellious with the rock-n-roll side of things by listening to various groups that pounded out evangelistic messages with electric guitars and overheated amps. There were, however, amid those groups pretending they were a saved Metallica, some real artists. Somehow some of the songs of Daniel Amos came to my mind. I had all four albums of the ¡Alarma! Chronicles—still do up in the attic somewhere—but we left most of our sound system in Wisconsin. I hadn’t bothered to buy a new needle for my turntable, and I’m not sure I still have the patch cables to connect it if I did. It’s been at least a decade since I heard Vox Humana. The internet made it too easy.

VoxHumana

To understand my quest, you have to imagine the context. It was 1984. I was a rising senior in college and I hadn’t seen much of the world. Having grown up in humble circumstances, I didn’t have money for travel or many material things. When my roommate took me to visit his house and he introduced me to a friend who had a room dedicated to sound equipment and albums, I felt as though I was on another planet. Daniel Amos’s Vox Humana had just been released. Our host slipped it from its yellow cover and played it with all the blinking green and red equalizer lights flashing and I was completely blown away. It was Christian music unlike I’d ever heard. In fact, it was ahead of much of the pop music of the time. As soon as I got back to campus I ordered it from the Christian bookstore. The songs still come back to me when I least expect them to.

Call it a guilty pleasure. My theological outlook is lightyears away from what it was when I was an undergraduate. I still haven’t seen much of the world, but what I have seen of it has changed me in ways that there’s no means of reversing. Although I really can’t afford to be buying music—we’re only paying for electrons any more—I just couldn’t help myself this one time. It’s no longer the ‘80s, and the 1950s sci fi movies DA references in the lyrics are closer in time to the album’s initial release than that release is to me now, but still large swaths of the lyrics are imprinted in my mind, taking me back over the decades. It’s the music of my youth. And it was edgy then. It sounds more conventional, perhaps even old fashioned now. Still, when you get a song stuck in your head, pagan or Christian, there’s really only one thing you can do about it.

Dystopian Paradise

Dystopias resonate with me. As I ponder why, two factors seem to rise to the surface: dystopias are inevitably populist in orientation, and I was raised religious. Each of these factors requires some explanation, but so does the choice of addressing dystopian topics on a cheerful September day. In an article by Debbie Siegelbaum in the BBC News Magazine, Project Hieroglyph is featured. Project Hieroglyph, which involves some people I know, is an attempt to write a more optimistic future back into science fiction. To understand my reservations, I have to confess to having grown up as a nerdy science fiction reader. The stories from the 1950s and ’60s to which I had access (growing up poor, and buying books at Goodwill and second-hand shops) tended to be optimistic—people colonizing other planets, creating great labor-saving inventions, traveling time itself. In the meanwhile I slept in torn sheets in a ratty room and had to work to buy my own school clothes, inevitably cheap. For a few years our house didn’t even have a bathtub or shower. It wasn’t an easy existence, and I found solace in religion and science fiction, both of which promised a better future.

Today, forward-looking literature tends to be pretty bleak. With reason. Optimistic futures are the luxury of the elite. The average working person labors under a constant threat of unemployment and no jobs to replace the one you have. Hey, some of the people I see begging in Midtown are not dressed in the rags of the classic ne’er-do-well. Their signs asking for help are articulate and neatly written. The elite may look to a brighter future, but from street-level things appear a bit more challenging. There’s no question that politicians long ago lost touch with the commoner. They have no idea what life is like for most of us. Same is true of most university folk (cited in the article); unless they’ve been cast out, I suspect, they can conjure a pretty rosy future. With tenure.

That’s the populist angle. Now for the religious. The basic idea of Project Hieroglyph is as old as Buddhism, or perhaps even older than that. Salvation. Religions promulgate the idea that people require salvation. Otherwise it’s pretty difficult to get people up on a Sunday morning and convince them to drop their money in the plate. Look, however, at what has been happening to mainstream churches. So technocrats and other elites think technology, rather than the gods, will save us. Those devices of optimistic 1950’s and ’60’s sci fi have turned on us, and we have become slaves to our own technology. Gee, it’s awfully gloomy in here! Perhaps we need a brighter vision of the future where technology makes things better. It sounds like a return to the stories I read as a child. Still, I can’t help noticing all the closed churches I see, and how much the penmanship of the indigent has improved with the passing of time. If only I could decipher hieroglyphs my future might look shinier too.

Is this paradise or what?

Is this paradise or what?

Shipwrecked

Childhood dies in pieces. There is nothing a young boy desires more than a father to show him how to negotiate life. As Mick Jagger eloquently declared, however, many of us know “you can’t always get what you want.” I did not get to know my father growing up, and so I did what any American did in the 1960s—I looked to television for solutions. Children can be terribly naive, but I had a shortlist of ideal candidates in my head. The one who unwittingly set the direction for my life was shipwrecked on a not-so-grim deserted island. Everyone loved Gilligan because he made them laugh, but the Professor, he seemed the ideal father: rational, mostly kind, and generally unflappable. My earliest career ambition, before I decided that janitor was my true calling, was to be a scientist. This was largely because of the Professor. Religion eventually interfered in my plans, but even as I attended seminary, and then graduate school, the Professor never left me. He had been a kind of father figure to me. I’m sure going to miss Russell Johnson.

TheIsland

I still feel a stab of delight when, watching old Twilight Zone episodes, “the Professor” appears. When I see Johnson in It Came From Outer Space and This Island Earth, it’s a particular island I’m thinking about. An island where, if religion came up, it was treated lightheartedly but even science, for all its clear thinking, never managed to help get the castaways rescued. This island represented my childhood. Innocent, sincere, and strangely funny. Little did I realize at the time that the science Roy Hinkley advocated would become such a fierce enemy to the religious milieu from whose baptismal waters I’d never fully emerge. It sure would’ve helped to have had a father to sort all this out.

Back before Borders (a kind of ersatz father) closed,Tina Louise came to our local to promote her new children’s book. I couldn’t believe I was standing twenty feet from a childhood icon—a movie star, nonetheless. How shocked I was to see her in The Stepford Wives where she talked about sex—that was always in the deep, deep background on the island. Pagan gods exerted real power on Gilligan’s island. As I grew up, religion held me in its powerful grip. With the Professor and the Bible in my head, I went off to become logical, intellectual, cynical. I taught Bible, students called me professor. Then my career was shipwrecked. Is it any wonder that I had that nightmare about being lost at Nashotah House again last night? Sometimes a boy just needs a father to show him the way. Thank you, Professor, for stepping in. You influenced one life in a way that I’m sure you never expected.

Running to Stand Still

“You have faith, Professor Barnhardt?” Klaatu asks the scientist in the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. Barnhardt demurs, stating that curiosity is what makes good science, not faith. But sometimes I wonder if the professor or if the alien is correct. Science fiction was young in 1951, and Robert Wise would go on to give us such diverse fare as West Side Story, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, and the first Star Trek movie. Still, The Day the Earth Stood Still has always been my favorite movie that he directed. In 1951 quite a bit could be assumed about America’s religious sensibilities. Yes, diversity had been part of the mix from the very beginning, but the view of America as a “Christian nation,” although not in any way official, was not seriously challenged in those days. This shows through clearly in the movie. Although the opening sequence is intended to be a Klaatu eye-view of descending to earth in his space ship, it is reminiscent of the stock “creation” imagery that would become so familiar to those of us who watched Bible movies. It is a God’s eye-view as well.

Christ-like, Klaatu descends to earth to bring a message of peace, but also an apocalyptic threat, from the powers beyond. He is capable of miracles, such as the eponymous day the earth stood still—the ultimate in non-violent protest because hospitals and airplanes still have power and nobody is harmed. In his human incarnation Klaatu not so subtly takes the name Carpenter, making the corollary clear. In case you missed that, however, he is killed, resurrected and in the end ascends to heaven. Klaatu becomes the prototype of the messianic alien, a figure we would see in guises from ET to Starman. Believers in ancient astronauts or not, the makers of our space movies know that God is an alien.

daytheearthstoodstill

The Day the Earth Stood Still came early on in the Cold War. The obviousness of distrust in the Soviet Union is placed in the mouths and knowing glances of various characters. Some even suspect that Klaatu is a Russian rather than a spaceman. Sputnik was still six years in the future, but the atomic bomb was already in the past. We had learned to destroy ourselves before we had learned how to escape the only planet we have. Klaatu delivers his final homily not to politicians, but to scientists of all races (and, unspoken, creeds). Seated on folding chairs in the outdoors, as if at a revival meeting, they listen as Klaatu tells them the decision of how to live is up to us, but Gort, a kind of avenging angel, is always overhead. The invocation that can save humanity, however, is given to the female lead Helen Benson. She alone knows the sacred words “Klaatu barada nikto.” Amen.

Leviathan’s Sibling

TheGiantBehemoth Formulaic to the point of plagiarism at times, 1950s science fiction movies often follow the deeply worn ruts left by countless forgettable monsters. One such film that I managed not to see until recently was the biblically entitled The Giant Behemoth. In a more biblically literate society the poster’s catchphrase “The Biggest Thing Since Creation!” may not have been necessary, even though leviathan’s lesser known companion stole the title this time. Of course the movie begins with stock footage of nuclear explosions, and although I’ve seen such renditions hundreds of times, they remain troubling to the core. Those 1950s that many consider so carefree were days of insidious freewheeling with the environment, days before human infatuation with the power over nature revealed its horrifying consequences. The behemoth, a sign of Yahweh’s great creativity in Job, here becomes the human-wrought agent of destruction.

Poor Tom Trevethan is blasted by the beast’s radioactive breath in a scene more fitting to Revelation than to Job. In the funeral scene, the priest somewhat insensitively reads a description of behemoth before Tom’s sole surviving family, his daughter Jean. So like the 1950s the minister then declares that the Bible gives comfort to those left behind, when the Lord said to Job, “Gird up thy loins like a man.” Indeed. Loin girding was a masculine activity in the days before Fruit of the Loom had been grown. Comfort for the woman comes in acting like a man. Yes, the 1950s considered the man the default model of human being. It says so in sacred writ. Genesis 3, to be exact.

When the scientists can’t figure out what killed the old man, along with thousands of fish, they ask Jean if her father said anything before he died. She tells them about behemoth. Being scientists, they have no idea what a mythical, biblical creature might be. Jean informs them, “It’s some prophecy from the Bible; it means some sort of great, monstrous beast.” Well, Job is technically not prophecy. Actually it’s not even untechnically prophecy either. In the 1950s, however, if it was biblical, it could be interpreted as prophecy. The real foretelling, though, is clearly atomic. Such films can easily be forgiven their biblical infelicity for the sake of their good intentions of reigning in human self-destructive behavior. In the end science destroys the biblical beast, but I’m left wondering if it isn’t more of a parable than a prophecy. I guess it’s time to gird up my loins and go find out.

Map is Territory

Far be it from me to challenge the established certitudes of the experts in academia, but I’ve been beginning to think maybe map is territory. This insight came to me from an unorthodox source (of course). I was watching War of the Colossal Beast over the weekend—among the corniest of corny 1950’s sci fi flicks. If you were born around the middle of the last century you already know the premise: a nuclear device has converted a man into a towering giant who resists all attempts to stop him or keep him under control. The reason that map and territory came to mind was that this 60-foot tall man (an apt companion for the 50-foot woman) could not be found by the authorities although he was terrorizing Los Angeles. Just as I was climbing on my high horse I realized that the problem they faced was communication. (And maybe they needed glasses.)

From the perspective of the twenty-first century and the vast network of instant communication (you can tweet your latest observation while on public transit, deep under the Hudson), map has become territory. There is nowhere left for the sixty-foot giant to hide. I am not the only one to speculate on the effect this shift will have on religion, but when we have become so intricately inter-connected, we seem to have squeezed the mystery out of life. Every trail has been blazed, every path has been trod. Old Ecclesiastes is laughing up his wizard’s sleeve. If a giant escapes among us its location will be texted across the territory second by nano-second. There is nowhere for us to hide either.

Our dependence on electronic media has changed part of the human race. It is easy to forget that in places not too distant, some of them even in the developed nations, there are human beings untouched by the revolution that has compressed map and territory. I have to wonder if their lives are better or worse for the ease that pervades our culture of flying fingers and ultra-dexterous thumbs. Avoiding the concept of the noble savage, I sense of kind of purity in the life free from the constant buzzing of 3G and 4G networks, wi-fi hotspots, and microwave towers disguised as trees. Theirs is a life where map is not territory, where being unplugged is natural and normal. It is a world where giants might hide in the night, and those who fear them may be all the more human for doing so.