A Childhood of Science Fiction, a guest post from Andy Robins
Posted January 27, 2014on:
Vintage Science Fiction months owes part of it’s existence to my friend Andy. We met a few years ago through the local bookstore, and became fast friends. Over lunch discussions and a few beers, we traded books back and forth, me trying to get Andy on the “new weird” band wagon, and him getting me into Andre Norton and making sure our local scifi book club read the classics (See Andy? This is what happens when you don’t send me a bio. I write one for you!).
Andy is also a typewriter collector, and although we live in the same city, we write letters to each other, him on his typewriter(s), and me by hand. Hand writing and typewriting a letter is a completely different experience than firing off a quick e-mail. He even typed me this guest post. See? To keep the pages loading fast, I’ve only scanned in a few typewritten paragraphs.
Fortunately the trauma was short-lived and soon after I discovered the films of George Pal and Ray Harryhausen. Pal’s The Time Machine and Harryhausen’s First Men in the Moon are still great favorites in the DVD collection, much to my family’s despair. TV beckoned too and no science fictional kid growing up in the Sixties could miss Lost in Space or Star Trek as well as the proto-steampunkiness of The Wild, Wild West. Sad to say, all but the last haven’t aged well for me. The camp value of pasteboard sets, pedestrian scripts, a now-hilarious lack of actual science, and acting that is adequate at best only takes nostalgia so far. Many SF movies of the time suffer from the same defects yet command greater affection for reasons I can’t explain.
My introduction to written science fiction came more gradually. First there was the discovery of the paperback cache in the upper drawer of my parent’s bedroom dresser. My paternal grandfather, a diehard fan from SF’s “Golden Age” of the Thirties and Forties, sent them to his son but my father wanted nothing to do with the genre. Fortunately for me, the unwanted collection included such treasures as Mark S. Geston’s now-classic Lords of the Starship. The book isn’t really about a starship and its ideas were way beyond anything I would have understood then. No matter, I was arrested by the cover image of a golden armored vehicle with a skeleton hanging out of the turret swimming through a sandy desert toward the huge, bluish, winged vehicle of the title. Not long after, a friend turned me on to the author who really turned me into a fan.
Andre Norton is the author by whom I judge all others. I can’t overstate the impact her powers of description had on my pre-adolescent imagination. The tremors resonate strongly to this day. The time-traveling prehistoric adventures that begin Galactic Derelict, the second book in Norton’s “Time Agent” series, blew me away and still do. And when Travis Fox and friends are blasted out of that distant past into an involuntary interstellar voyage aboard a “Baldie” globeship, every jerk of the crumbling robot that refuels the vessel on the first planet they reach becomes etched the mind’s eye. On the second planet, the rank odor of the hairy desert sub-creatures they encounter threatens to crawl up the reader’s nose. And Norton’s scene-setting in the overgrown lien city at their final destination is unforgettable. Star Rangers (also titled The Last Planet) is just as impressive. Even better may be The Stars Are Ours and its sequel Star Born. Norton’s descriptions rivet you as a group of oppressed scientists and engineers builds a starship to flee a neo-fascist Earth and end up learning to co-exist with all manner of exotic life forms on Astra, their new home.
Norton’s “juveniles” have strong and interesting characters and plots that are expertly handled. But they are secondary to her nearly unrivalled ability to build very alien but believable worlds. She has no overriding message or “Big Ideas” to convey. Instead, she gives readers what they crave: reassurance that creativity, personal initiative, and goodwill triumphs in the end, as they so often don’t in the real world. John Clute, in the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1995), is exactly right:
“It has only recently been borne in upon the sf world that AN’s 100 or more books – most of them in print – are for very many readers central to what the genre has to offer”.
After overdosing on Norton I also enjoyed Heinlein’s Starman Jones; Citizen of the Galaxy; and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, among others. And I loved the revival of Golden Age writer Neil R. Jones’ “Professor Jameson” series that Ace put into book form for the first time in the mid-1960s using magazine stories, some written as far back as the early Thirties. Planet of the Double Sun and Domesday on Ajiat – the first and last of the five-volumes – take us along with the good professor after he’s revived by the “metal men” of Zor who discover his frozen corpse orbiting the earth 40,000,000 years after it was launched into space. Humans have all died out, so the Zoromes put Jameson’s brain in a machine body with metal tentacles just like theirs. Adventure ensues. Exciting as the Jameson and Heinlein stories are, however, they never took Ms. Norton’s place in my affections. But, in later years, Norton increasingly turned to fantasy rather than SF and I never warmed much to the Witch World series, et al. It was now the 1970s and time to move on.
Andre Norton may have few peers in world-building but that select company includes two of my other all-time favorite “vintage” SF authors: Clifford D. Simak and Leigh Brackett. Both wrote stories that suck you in from the start with no need to put up with “info dumping” or overly enigmatic first chapters.
Some may find Simak’s sublime Way Station to be dated because it is set against a background of anti-Soviet, post-Cuban Missile Crisis paranoia. Or, maybe not; we’ve concocted a whole new level of paranoia in our own time. Either way, who cares? What’s not to like about a seemingly immortal Civil War veteran tapped by aliens to run a covert galactic transport hub and inn in remote rural Wisconsin? If you don’t immediately fall for the way Simak starts the story, something’s wrong with you:
“For the stranger’s face had split and began to fall away and beneath it he caught the glimpse of another face that was not a human face. And even as the false human face sloughed off that other face, a great sheet of lightning went crackling across the sky and the heavy crash of thunder seemed to shake the land and from far off he heard the rushing of the rain as it charged across the hills.”
Simak is often thought of as a “pastoral” writer because so many of his stories are set in rural areas of the upper Midwest. But if you think that his fiction is “quaint”, you haven’t really read it.
The backstory of Leigh Brackett’s career is now well known. From becoming legendary director
Howard Hawks’ favorite screenwriter (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and Hatari!, among others) to writing the first draft of the script of The Empire Strikes Back (Star Wars, Episode V) for George Lucas, to her Noir detective stories and her even more thrilling work for Planet Stories and other SF magazines, it’s hard to beat. Brackett is best known in the genre for her muscular sword-and-planet romances. She distilled these in the 1970s into the unforgettable “Skaith” trilogy. Its dark anti-hero Eric John Stark is the character all other writers in that SF vein hope to equal but will never better. Even within SF, Brackett was not a one-note writer. In the post-apocalyptic world of The Long Tomorrow, her two young protagonists explore the promise, and high cost, of science and technology in a world that has turned its back on both. Brackett gets flak from some latter day critics who wish she had written stories with female heroes. Had she lived to hear this, I’m sure she would have politely ignored such carping. Brackett was hard-headed and knew what the genre market would accept in her time, and what it would not. Judging artists of an earlier time by today’s standards may be entertaining but it is ultimately pointless.