Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Radio, Radium, and Ray Guns

Helix #7 is out, and I seem drawn to the same structure of review as I did for #6, which is to first comment on the John Barnes essay, then try to get an overview of the fiction (and, again, not critiquing the poetry because I am incompetent at it).

But here we get one of those little ironies of life, which is that it is hard to write much about things you agree with ("Here, here, I say." "What he said."), but disagreement sparks so many interesting little tangents. So many, in fact, that I've been having a hard time sorting them out. So I'm going to concentrate on a single theme, and maybe get to some of the other tangents later.

In "Who'll Save the Torchbearers?" Barnes returns to the notion that Science Fiction as a genre is dead ("walking dead" actually), and has been for a while. He's now speculating on whether or not genre SF was linked to what he calls the "Seventy-Five Years' War." Barnes' thesis seems to be that Science Fiction was a balm for nerds, during a time when "the goons took the nerds' toys and turned them into tools of horror," which is to say, weapons of war.

Now that's a pretty interesting tangent, because Barnes dates the end of the SFYW as the fall of the Berlin Wall. This glues together The Great European War, WWI and WWII, with the subsequent Cold War. That's far and away to complicated a subject for this essay. (Am I implying that Barnes' view is simplistic? I'll need more time to have an opinion about that). I will note that I've been doing some thinking about 20th Century Communism recently, and I'll suggest that, at the very least, Barnes' view overweights the importance of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain for at least a twenty-year period toward the end. I'd also like to see a comparison between aggressive wars and civil wars, since it looks to me like (the Great/World War notwithstanding) the real mass slaughters in the 20th Century were civil wars.

And all that would ignore science fiction though, wouldn't it?

Barnes and I seem to be in agreement that genre SF was a literature for certain sorts of people (let's call them nerds) trying to make sense of their lives and the world around them; it was especially an attempt to manage dislocation and change. I've taken a turn or two around that critical track myself.

Barnes concentrates on the war aspects of the transformative technologies, and maybe I would too if I wrote military SF. But I don't read the history of SF that way.

Let's look at the decade where most place the origins of science fiction, the 1920s, a year of comparative peace in the United States, and we're talking about the U.S. as the cradle of genre science fiction here.

The first commercial radio station went on the air in 1920; less than a decade later, radio had engulfed the country. RCA was the biggest and fastest growing corporation in history, the dot com of its day. Radio had spawned a host of subsidiary industries, including the recording industry, which only really took off when recorded music became a radio staple. Radio also gobbled up the remnants of vaudeville, and then merged with the motion picture industry when talkies came to power.

Back off a bit, and consider the necessary precursor to radio: electricity. Alfred Lee Loomis was a well-born son of a somewhat impoverished branch of the American aristocracy; his first cousin was Henry Stimson, secretary of war and secretary of state in the Taft administration, and Stimson took a hand in Loomis' upbringing and education after Alfred's father died. Loomis attended Yale in math and science, but on his family's insistence went to Harvard Law School, graduated summa cum laude, and worked for several years at a law firm until he enlisted in WWI, where he spent time at Aberdeen testing grounds, where those nerd toys were turned into weapons.

After the war, Loomis joined his brother-in-law in investment banking. The firm specialized in raising capital for the creation of public electric utilities. During the 1920s, the firm was responsible for the financing of a large fraction of the electric utilities that were created during that decade. Loomis saw the 1929 Crash coming, and cashed out at something on the order of a billion dollars.

Wealthy beyond dreams of avarice, Loomis retired to Tuxedo Park, New York, where he created a private industrial laboratory that was central to the U.S. side (the other side being British) of the development of radar.

Electricity. Radio. Radar. The electric light and the toaster. Toss in the automobile and the telephone. Put a few airplanes flying overhead. Then tell me that the dislocation was all about the warfare.

The early science fiction magazines used a fair number of reprints, because the "scientific romance" had already been established by the likes of Wells, Verne, Burroughs, and Conan Doyle. Hugo Gernsback was a radio buff. Ultimately, however, if you really want to get a taste of the imagination of the times, look to the Sunday Supplements. I once read a year's worth of newspapers from 1911. The Sunday Supplements were always going on about all sorts of scientific miracles. One was on how organ transplants (from gorillas, no less) were "just around the corner."

But nuclear energy was also a gleam in the eye, and radium was the new wonder material. New and wondrous elements had been discovered, and one need look no further for the origins of Dick Seaton and the rest of Doc Smith's menagerie. To judge from some of the stories of the time, radium was the new philosopher's stone; it was in tonics and elixirs, and it stared at you from the dials of your alarm clock.

It didn't stop at radium, of course. Vitamin D was discovered in the 1920s, and the link to sunlight and ultraviolet light helped create a fad for mercury vapor tube "health gadgets" including combs. That mercury vapor UV light also creates ozone was considered another plus, because ozone was held to be healthy; witness all the "Ozone Park" named suburbs from the early 20th Century.

So, radiation, rays of all kinds, those were part of the "science" mix at the dawn of science fiction.

Then you get Goddard and his rockets, and you get ray guns. Why do I link the two? Because the rockets are how you get to Mars or Venus and the ray gun is how you "tame the frontier." The early science fictions stories were "space operas," just as westerns were "horse operas." Many an early science fiction story is just a western hero with a ray blaster instead of a six gun, and bug-eyed monsters instead of Indians or wolves.

Science fiction was born in turmoil, sure enough, but not the turmoil of war, per se (people just do the war thing all the damn time). It was the turmoil of change, the usual suspects in other words. And pulp literature was just wide open for it. Cross breed an adventure story with a Sunday Supplement and you get Science Fiction.

That's the beginning. How about the middle? Why did science fiction outlive the pulps, when so many other forms died?

Well, let's not overthink this. The mystery story survived. The puzzle story led to the hard-boiled detective, then the procedural. They still do pretty well. The romance is still doing well, better than SF, actually, with a new crop of hybrids like "time travel romances," and "paranormal romances" and a flock of werewolves, vampires, fairy folk and monsters keeping the pot on the boil. Some SF folk hate the stuff, and say the same sorts of things about it that others have said about Science Fiction. Instant Karma, bub.

But there's another reason for the extended lifetime of Science Fiction as a genre, and it contains the seed of its demise.

Science Fiction was never simply romanticism, or escapist literature. It had a Program, a Cause. Actually it had several, but the Big One was the Colonization of Space. Again, it was right there from its birth, at the end of the Colonial Empires, the closing of the Frontier. It was easy for the writers to morph one narrative into an extraterrestrial counterpart, and it was easy for the readers to go along. Indeed, they were expecting it.

Later came the paranormal stuff, ESP, Psi, all the spiritual wish-fulfillment fantasies, and those translated pretty well for the counter-culture. I knew more than one fellow who believed that you could get ESP by taking enough of the right drugs. (Insert "he gained the power to cloud his own mind" joke here). And biological engineering, cyborgs, ecological engineering (for which read: terraforming) all the other transformative aspects of modern biology, all those have been enlisted in the space colonization fantasy.

The problem is that it just doesn't work out. There are no inviting frontiers in space, no place where a man can "live off the land," as it were, no place where the land is even as hospitable as the Antarctic, the middle of the Sahara, or the bottom of the ocean. Space is vast and harsh, miserably expensive to visit, with nothing in it that justifies the enormous cost of picking it up and bringing it back. It's a scientific wonderland

(As an aside, let me mention another one of the SF programs that failed miserably: artificial intelligence. We get no wonderful robot pals to keep us company, either. Dang.)

So the space colony dream is brain dead, kept alive on life support by deep denial and libertarians who blame "The Government" for screwing up the space program. Some have taken stock option lottery money and are trying to do it with private enterprise, the way Heinlein assured them would work. I hope something serendipitous comes out of it, because I'm pretty damn sure that it won't be a Mars colony that comes out the other end.

That's not me being pessimistic, incidentally. I think all sorts of great things came out of the Space Program (and, by implication, out of the Cold War, so maybe that's the connection that Barnes is groping for). We got microchips, Tang, and my college education. Those have got to count for something.

[Let's not forget the inevitable plug for Helix. It's reader supported, so put some money into the tip jar. You'll feel noble.]


black dog barking said...

I have vague memories riding in the backseat of the family car as we made our semiannual sojourn to the small north-central Iowa town where my mother graduated high school. As we got close to the town ("Golden Buckle of the Corn Belt") she'd point out the abandoned farm houses where all manner of cousins and aunts and uncles raised large families on 80 acre plots. Massive dislocation, today completely greened over.

Video games with ultra-realistic graphic displays displace the "what would it be like" niche that SF filled. Science and technology obsoleting SF. Unintentional irony, I'd say.

James Killus said...

Science and technology obsoleting SF. Unintentional irony, I'd say.

One of the things I noticed about SF long ago is that SF as such rarely figures into the cultural views of SF futures. One rarely finds people reading Science Fiction in the World of the Future.

From across the room, Ben suggests that this was one of SF's most accurate predictions.