A HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION - CHAPTER FIVE- SF AND NEW AGE BELIEFS
Remaining with the 1950’s giants, Arthur C. Clarke is a great writer and has strong concerns for the future of humanity, and so its not surprising that he takes a Wellsian humanistic position, but his work is often mystical and religious in its sense of awe. His gods are alien travellers gently creating quantum leaps in human evolution, In the film of 2001; A Space Odyssey (co-scripted by Clarke as an expansion of his own short story, The Sentinel) we see a prehistoric ape, driven by a monolithic artefact, throw a bone that spins through the magic of instant celluloid evolution into a spaceship. Later the monolith turns a man into the Star Child; the next phase of our evolution. Sequels of declining quality were later to emerge to take the story up from there, but like many of the giants, Clarke had run out of steam and true visionary insight by the 1980’s.
Clarke's Childhood's End (1953) written when Clarke still showed considerable sense of awe and vision, plays the same themes better; here,
aliens looking. like Satan, arrive and create a quantum leap that turns us into pure cosmic energy; a beautiful divine fate they are doomed not to share; serving only as tragic catalysts for some higher entity. His aliens are depicted as angelic, tragic, beautiful, and often benevolent. In Rendezvous With Rama, (1973), probably his last masterpiece, a vast alien artefact flies past Earth, and astronauts land on it, explore it and are simply overwhelmed by its power, scale, and complexity, before it goes away again, raising more questions than answers. Clarke sees aliens as of such higher intelligence and power that we cannot help being spiritually humbled and transformed by meeting them. The religious spark is carried further in Clarke's short story masterpiece, The Nine Billion names Of God, (1967) where monks believing that a collection bearing all the known names of God will lead to the end of the world. Scientists install a computer in the monastery to speed up the compilation work. Even as the scientists leave they see the stars starting to go out one by one. Clarke denies that he has strong religious, and spiritual considerations, but they pervade his greater books. "The opinions in This book are not those of the author." he says in Childhood's End's introduction but his continual return to such considerations makes many readers doubt it. In the short story, The Star, a super nova in the distant past is seen from Earth by the Magi, and proves to be the Star Of Bethlehem. He also presented Television’s Mysterious World programmes in the 70’s and 80’s which gave credence to many new age beliefs about pseudoscientific subjects like astrology, and dowsing. (though Clarke was capable of great Skepticism on such matters too).
If Clarke’s beliefs seem confused, one writer SF proved more overtly religious of course; L. Ron Hubbard grew tired with his promising SF. writing career; and said there was more money to be made in religion; so he started The Church Of Scientology; based on notions that we have lived before, as aliens from another world; veritable gods called Thetans who decided to play at being mortal and forgot their true nature. Scientology uses a hypnotic therapy session called auditing to reawaken the Thetans, and the group made $42. million in 1982 alone. Scientology made its debut as Dianetics in a feature in Astounding magazine. Despite such controversy. Hubbard's SF was entertaining pap; in the early 50’s; hut his epic 90' s and 80' s work is non-entertaining pap; Battlefield Earth (1982) is a classic of how not to write SF. It’s full of clichés; racial stereotypes; a Hero called Johnny Goodboy, who goes on to inherit the entire galaxy. As Scientology’s chief guru, Hubbard said all sci-fi including Star Trek is true; the writers and film makers are drawing on race memories from former existences as alien spaceship captains. Yeah, Right.
Ray Bradbury offers a poetic haunting and lyrical vision, where the new scientific age merges with and tragically erodes away the nostalgia of the past. The Silver Locusts, (1950) or Martian Chronicles, as it was renamed after the wooden TV series version came out, depicts a space race mass launching of new planet settlers that sets a climatic change for the people left behind.
"One minute, it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blinded with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children sliding on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy street. And then, a long wave of warmth crossed the small town. A flooding sea of hot air; it seemed as if someone had left a bakery door open. The heat pulsed among the cottages and bushes and children. The icicles dropped, smashing, to melt. The doors flew open. The children worked off their wool clothes. The housewives shed their bear disguise. The snow dissolved and showed last Summer's ancient green lawns. Rocket Summer. The words passed along the people in the open, airing houses. Rocket Summer."
That rich fifties small town setting dissolves too, for the alien nature of Mars, where the settlers struggle to survive and to communicate with the world left behind in more than memory. Soon the Earth is destroyed in a nuclear war. The settlers learn that their roots have perished. One small boy asks his father where the Martians are. The man takes his son to see his own reflection in a pool of water. "There are the Martians" he says.
Bradbury played heavily with our concept of what is or isn’t real. In The Illustrated Man (1951) collection of fables, there is a story called The Veldt, a family have a Holographic, three dimensional room, (not unlike the Star Trek Holodeck suites that would be depicted in Star Trek: The Next Generation) in which the family would enjoy increasingly realistic jungle safaris, until they disappear altogether, possibly devoured by their own lions. If we create more and more realistic illusions, how long will it be before they become real in their own right?
Bradbury also offers one of SF’s most disturbing Dystopian visions, in Farenheight 451 (1953) books and written literature have been outlawed. If you are discovered to be reading or concealing/disseminating the written word, you will be punished by the fire brigade who will come round and burn your house down. The title of the book refers tot he temperature required for book paper to burn. The story depicts what happens when a fireman decides to keep and read one of the books he has intercepted for himself. It is a story worthy to take its place alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New world as one of the great dystopian visions of the 20th century.
Bradbury was as at home writing fantasy as he was in writing SF, or non-genre fiction. In Something Wicked This way Comes, (1962) Bradbury gives us Mr. Dark’s travelling circus, a mysterious and sinister circus that arrives in the night and steals the souls of the people of the towns it calls upon. It’s a wonderful and fantastic horror story that transcends all genre definitions, but then most good SF and fantasy does.
Another masterpiece of the 1950's was Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (1956) Sometimes issued as Tiger, Tiger, though the original title is more appropriate. This work carries more innovative ideas per page than most works written before or since. Most notably, it introduces the idea of jaunting, the telepathic transmission of self from one point in space to another. This wonderful ability enables someone to leap at will from London to New York, in a matter of seconds, providing the appropriate airport like facilities are available (other works would of course dispense with such controls). The story depicts the revenge and reprisal attacks of one Gully Foyle, abandoned for dead by a space mining corporation. Rescued by an alien race, Gully has his face carved with tiger like markings that explode to vibrant colour whenever he is angered; and as he is virtually fuelled by his own lust for vengeance, he is virtually cursed by his own markings until he can control his rampant rage, and inner tiger. The story is basically a retelling of Dumas's The Count Of Monte Cristo, for an SF audience, but it is truly a marvellous novel about self control and losing control of one's own passions in extraordinary circumstances. Foyle is probably SF's first true anti-hero. We would see many more emerge in the swinging 60's.
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