Skip to comments.Curse You, Neil Armstrong! (Did he kill science fiction?)
Posted on 07/18/2009 6:56:06 AM PDT by jalisco555
Forty years ago this week, science fiction writers were media celebritiesat least for a few hours. When Neil Armstrong stepped on to the surface of the moon on July 21, 1969, his giant leap for mankind was not just a fulfillment of President Kennedys promise of a lunar expedition before decades end. It also validated the starry-eyed dreams of a legion of pulp fiction writers.
Long before NASA was founded, the ABCs of sci-fi (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke) and others of their profession had been chronicling the exploration of the universe in works of imaginative fiction. The moon landing was their shining moment, and the public recognized it as much as did the writers themselves. When the TV networks sought out talking heads for their coverage, science fiction writers were on the top of their list.
At the moment that Eagle landed, Arthur C. Clarke was sitting next to Walter Cronkite. Earlier that day, the writer told millions of viewers, during an interview with Harry Reasoner, that the space mission was a down payment on the future of mankind. After the moonwalk, Cronkite engaged Clarke and Robert Heinlein in their favorite activity speculation about the future. The sci-fi veterans could hardly have been more optimistic. Heinlein refused to put limits on where space travel might lead. Were going out indefinitely, he proclaimed.
ABC countered with Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl, pulp fiction veterans, interviewed by Rod Serling. Ray Bradbury, for his part, had always been more partial to Mars than the moon in his writings, and he proved to be the spoilsport of the day. Bradbury walked out on David Frosts Moon Party, a peculiar British TV concoction which countered the news coverage of the historic events with strange entertainment, featuring everything from Englebert Humperdink to a discussion on the ethics of the lunar landing involving A. J. P. Taylor and Sammy Davis, Jr. Bradbury was so moved by the Apollo landing that he was in tears. The irreverence of Frosts coverage was more than he could bear.
Of course, on this night Mr. Bradbury had no shortage of invitations. After leaving Frosts party, he took a taxi to CBSs studio, where the author was interviewed by Mike Wallace. This is an effort to become immortal, Bradbury proclaimed. How? Were going to take our seed out into space and were going to plant it on other worlds and then we wont have to ask ourselves the question of death ever again.
The grand predictions made that day proved premature, to say the least. Sure, the Apollo program was a successeven dodging a bullet with the aborted Apollo 13 trip to the moon, which unexpectedly turned into the most heroic chapter in the space race saga. But Apollo proved to be the end of manned lunar expeditions, and not the beginning of the age of space exploration. Who would have guessed that, after Apollo 17 in 1972, no more astronauts would travel to the moon. Here is one measure of how quickly things changed: a decade later, when people spoke of the moonwalk, they were usually talking about Michael Jacksons dance steps.
Few people suffered from this turn of events more than science fiction writers. The whole sci-fi community should have been crying along with Ray Bradbury on July 21, 1969. As space exploration disappeared from the front pages, sci-fi lost much of its glamour and most of its readers. I would guess that half of the stories in this genre during the period leading up to the Apollo landing dealt with outer space. How could these same writers adapt to a world where rockets and astronauts had lost their luster? The authors, for the most part, stuck to their favorite plots of space exploration, but the stories rarely had the same pizzazz as before.
With the benefit of hindsight, we should probably admit that the landing of Apollo 11 was the end of the glory days of sci-fi. With the conclusion of the Apollo program, NASA became just another government agency, more bureaucratic than heroic. It is all too telling that the Challenger disaster of 1986 was the next time that rocket ships captured the attention of the general public. And the last time I encountered a space explorer on the front page, the celebrity in question was Lisa Nowak, the NASA astronaut who allegedly drove 900 miles wearing a diaper as part of a plot to attack a romantic rival with a BB gun. The case has not gone to trial, and Nowak has vehemently denied the news reports about the diaper. Tawdry, yes . . . but not quite up to the level of Dune or The Foundation Trilogy.
In the interim between the astronauts with The Right Stuff and the tabloid-ish story of Lisa Nowak, readers turned to other kinds of fiction. Amazing Stories, which enjoyed circulation of 50,000 during the mid-1960s, had seen it drop to 12,000 by the time of the Challenger disaster. The magazine folded in 1995, and subsequent revivals have been unsuccessful. Galaxy, which achieved circulation approaching 100,000 under Pohls editorship in the early 1960s, shut down in 1980. A revival in the mid-1990s lasted only eight issues. Many other sci-fi magazines and publishers fell by the wayside during this same period.
Lets be honest, science fiction writers are much like stock market forecasters. When their predictions come true, everyone listens. Yet when the prognostications fall flat, their audience disappears. The space race was that rare moment when these writers seemed to be on the mark. So many of their other storiesabout time travel, telepathy, alien invasion, nuclear holocausts and the like never came true (thank goodness!), but for a brief period the rocket ship tales seemed plausible. The two most powerful nations on the planet were focused on getting off the planet. The scribblers who had been dreaming about just this state of affairs looked like sages.
Successful predictions about the moon date back at least to Jules Verne and his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon. Here Verne correctly anticipated that the United States would be the country to launch the first lunar mission, and also pinpointed that Florida would make the best launch site. He guessed the right crew sizethree astronautsand also came very close to the truth in his descriptions of the dimensions of the space capsule and the duration of the voyage to the moon. Few science fiction works have been more prescient in their anticipation of later history.
After Verne, almost every major science fiction writer tackled a moon story at some point. Lunar classics include H.G.. Wells The First Men in the Moon, Robert Heinleins The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Arthur C. Clarkes A Fall of Moondust. Clarkes most famous work, 2001: A Space Odyssey, also relies on the moon for a key plot twista large black slab found near Tycho is the first evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life, and its discovery sets in motion the rest of the story. Yet it's worth noting that, seven years before Clarkes book, Clifford Simak developed a comparable theme and set it in the exact same crater in his whimsical The Trouble with Tycho.
When the moon became just another piece of abandoned real estate, like much of Flordia after the subprime meltdown, the psychological impact on sci-fi was devastating. Many grand predictions had been made about the future of space exploration by these visionary authors. But not one of them would have dared to make this predictionnamely, that 35 years after the Apollo program, no trip would have been made to any of the other planets in the solar system, and no one would have the gumption to send an astronautor even a dog or chimpanzee back to the moon.
Science fiction is experiencing a bit of a comeback these days, but the moon plays a low profile in the renewal efforts. The literary establishment has discovered Philip K. Dick. His novels are now included in The Library of America, and he represents a striking case study in how a once scorned author can be rehabilitated. Yet it is revealing that Dick rarely needed rocket ships to work his magic. While his peers were imagining trips to the moon during the 1960s, Dick had figured out there were other ways of taking a trip ones that came packaged in little envelopes. His alternative reality concepts have held up well long after space exploration became passé.
Even so, its hard for science fiction fans to look at the full moon every month, and write it off as a failed cause. Its been downhill for forty years, but it wouldn't take much to turn things around. I think its safe to say that, if we ever sent a team of astronauts to Mars or beyond, NASA and their suppliers wont be the only sector of the economy to get a boost. A few dreamers toiling away at their word processors might get a few more minutes of fame.
Perhaps your ping list would find this interesting.
I don’t think Neil killed Sci-Fi as much as the SyFy channel did.
I think that Sci-Fi has moved away from speculating about near & mid-term space exploration as subject matter because our scientific discoveries can & do invalidate major plot lines, rendering the movies somewhat quaint & foolish looking. Example: 2001: a Space Oddessey was revamped for the sequel, 2010 to account for several significant discoveries about the Jovian system.
That leaves distant into-the-future space movies like the “Star Trek” series — and even there we now have cell phones, DVD Players & PDAs that mimic the functionality of the technology of the distant future. It takes some of the wonder out of watching the earlier series.
But the thing that really has killed Sci-Fi is the immorality of our present day. The best Sci-Fi stories were essentially morality plays. Not much call for that, apparently.
Finally, we do have some really great speculation about genetic research (Michael Crichton), and so forth.
Fantasy killed science fiction. How that genre got lumped in by bookstores with science fiction I’ll never know.
But go to any major chain fantasy and science fiction section and over eighty per cent of the books will be fantasy.
Your best bet for sci-fi is used bookstores or the few sci-fi specialty bookstores around.
>>>Heinlein refused to put limits on where space travel might lead. Were going out indefinitely, he proclaimed
In the LONG term I’m certain he is correct. But it was also Heinlein in his Future History series who predicted that manned space flight would be abandoned for generations after early successes because it wasn’t financially self-sustaining. And it’s not and won’t be so any time in sight.
In his short stories that meant that human colonies on Mars and Venus were cut off and left to shift for themselves while the United States suffered under a religious dictatorship’s anti-science theology. In the real world we didn’t even put a base on the moon. Heinlein gave us too much credit.
But the mooks who cry about the “Temple of Darwin” probably approve. Evil science being the tool of the devil and so on and so forth you know.
I have always loved to read. As a kid, one of my favorite series was the Tom Swift books.
It hasn’t killed my science fiction (writing).
I think what killed science fiction was the endless TV shows in space, which bored the theme to death.
Science fiction is still quite easy to write. However, it simply becomes fiction with a lot of science, possibly set in the future, possibly set somewhere other than Earth.
What is driving away readers is the endless rehashing of Frank Herbert and Asimov and Niven after the interest of their stories has waned. Focus on new talent and new ideas, and they can get new readers.
The guy that invented the flip phone said that he wanted to copy the Star Trek Communicator.
The hands free headset reminds me a lot of Uhura’s earpiece.
In one episode I saw Spock putting brightly colored squares that had data on them into a slot in the computer console. They sure looked a lot like the 3.5 floppy disks that came out in the 80s.
Just three instances of science copying Sci-Fi
Nothing can kill good science fiction except that lack of reading among the young. So few kids read now. However, I have noted that of children who read, the ones who receive a good science fiction book still love them.
I’m not giving up. My grandchildren, nieces and nephews still receive science fiction as gifts fairly regularly. Some of those children read the books and some don’t, but the ones who read them love them as much as I did.
By the by, Bradbury considers himself to be a Fantasy Writer not a Science Fiction Writer— he told me that himself when I met him at a San Fernando Valley Library on March 23 of 2001.
Contemporary Science Fiction is the most anti-American of genres for the lion's share of this material is about how hellish the future will be.
I spoke with Ray on this very matter, my words:”Mr Bradbury, do you not agree that in the years since Alien and Blade Runner came out, that Science Fiction ‘Entertainment’ as in TV and Movies, has become very anti-American in its’ bleak vision of our world and our future”
He agreed with me fully.
He then stated “what is the value of the Earth(nature), the planets, the stars, if they do not have an audience to appreciate them”
Today's sci-fi(like Cyberpunk) is too negative!
Star Wars is not Science Fiction! It is Lord Of The Rings in outer-space
I do not think that the economy got a boost from Space Exploration at all. At most it redistributed the wealth thru tax & spending and pork barreling.
We got a boost to national pride, boasting rights with the Soviets..
Someone tell David Drake, David Weber and Eric Flint, among a host of others. I guess they are crying all the way to the bank.
I have a friend that has been hanging around conspiracy sites lately and now he believes that the moon landings were all fake & made by the studios. Do any of you freepers know of a good site that dispels these rumors? He’s starting to teach his kids this info.
I've always been a very strong believer in the magazine format for developing science fantasy writers, but I think that in the cases of these magazines, it's less a lack of people wanting to subscribe, and more poor business practices. Amazing Stories was killed by Publisher's Clearinghouse, who in one mailing tripled the number of subscriptions, and whomever was handling the billing at the time just couldn't handle the crush of orders. Galaxy... So many issues were hit and miss as editors seemed more interested in choosing stories of a particular political bent at the end.. The relaunch of Amazing Stories depended upon book chains selling the magazine, then actually paying up for it, and alas, Crown Book's demise played a heavy role in destroying the relaunch.
While those are pretty normal references as to the health of science fantasy, they're also less than useful. I do think the author of the article hit the nail on the head, it is Neil Armstrong to blame, but really not for the reason given. In the run up to the first moon landings, more homes got televisions than ever before. And let's be honest, more people watched the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation than the entire publication history of Amazing Stories. Heck, more people watched the short lived Amazing Stories television series than ever bought the magazine.
I know enough about the incomes of some in the industry to know that they are making far more now from residuals than they ever did in their original publication.
I think the most interesting thing, really, in all of this, is that the one part of the creative writing industry that is so connected to technology is also the one part that is usually so bad at utilizing it. A lot of people know about the Baen Free Library, but even myself, a long time fan of written science fantasy, I'd be stumped if you asked me where to find a site where new authors are giving their works a fly for the first time.
Really gotta finally get around to finding that out.
I still very vividly remember standing in long lines at midnight for the release of Harry Potter books. Children read, just gotta make sure you put stuff in front of them they’ll like.
“STAR WARS” killed [hard] Science Fiction.
yes..scifi struggled mightily in the seventies after that..