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The Golden Age of Science Fiction

Back when I was growing up in rural America, I didn’t realize what a remarkable time period I lived in. My dreams always leapt to the future in far flung galaxies or excavated in the past amid ancient or fantastical civilizations.  I practically lived in the library where I had free access to these worlds through the pages of books.  Yet I always longed for the days when I could afford to buy my own copies, when books would be as free and plentiful and accessible as the air I breathed.

Fast forward to the 21st century when all my dreams seemed to come true: books are plentiful and accessible thanks to e-readers and publishing platforms like Createspace; however, the writers have changed.  Back in the Golden Age of science fiction, writers wrote series of books, not books of series. They created marvelous worlds and characters and spun countless episodes of adventures like an ongoing television series.

Today, however, writers take one story, pump it up with useless backstory, bland dialogue and wasted pages of description in order to stretch the one story over a dozen books. And I am left back in the exact same desert as before—unable to satisfy my thirst for imaginary worlds and larger than life characters.

But back to the Golden Age of Science Fiction.  In the decades leading up to the 1970s, science fiction had a positive outlook—even the most thought-provoking stories left the reader with a gleam of hope at the end, a chance that humanity could learn from their mistakes and move forward into a glorious age of space exploration.  Even the cautionary tales, the woeful predictions of gloom and doom were offset with stories detailing the best humanity had to offer. There was also a slew of juvie lit (not necessarily about high school kids), but written for high schoolers that showed we could overcome our base nature and rise to join the vast and glorious civilizations that spanned the galaxies.  It was a time for encouragement and enthusiasm to explore the cosmos and every kid wanted to be a huge part of it.

At least, those of us who read science fiction.

I miss those stories. Even going to the library today finds precious little on the shelves worth my time and investment. Oh, I know Tom Corbett, Andre Norton, Ray Bradbury, and the Heinlein juvie novels were formulaic – that’s what made them so great! In spite of the peril and danger we knew our heroes would succeed. In a world fraught with real dangers and problems, losing myself in an uplifting story was a sorely needed form of escapism.

I think we’ve lost something vital with today’s version of science fiction. We are breeding a generation that has no imagination, that expects aliens to plot the destruction of humanity (and thus expects humanity to plot its own demise), that hasn’t the gumption to reach outward to the stars because of all the obstacles that must first be overcome. Today’s science fiction does far more to defeat the exploration of space than to entice young people to boldly go where no one has gone before.

With our passion for “realistic” stories we have lost not only a piece of our history, but a piece of ourselves. And a society that lacks imagination, can never prepare for the future.

When Imaginary Becomes Reality

“Mrs. Parsons, are you a Jedi?”

I chuckled and said, “No, this is the real me. I just dress in costume as a teacher the rest of the year.”

Headshakes, puzzled looks, a few hesitant giggles, then class moves on.

Actually, I an X-wing pilot, but since I had to leave my blaster at home, it’s kinda hard to identify me. Or swap the blaster for a bow and quiver and I make a pretty convincing elf.

What makes it difficult to identify my costumes is they are so ordinary. A few tweaks are all that’s needed to distinguish the costume from reality. And I do it on purpose. Although I love costumes and dressing up, I’m too much of an introvert to be comfortable in complete costume in public.

Maybe it harks back to elementary school days and the paranoia that my costume wouldn’t meet approval with my peers. After all, nobody dressed up like sci fi characters in those days in rural, small town America.

Whatever the reason, I tend to downplay my “costumes,” so most days only I know which character I’m playing that day.

Which brings me to cosplay and the trend of more and more adults to spend boatloads of money on costumes that last longer than the 30-minute walk around the neighborhood to collect treats. It’s like giving adults a free pass to relive their childhood days playing dress up.

Some folks are pretty ingenious when it comes to parading around as their favorite anime or cosplay character. Then there are those larping folks who stay in character no matter where they are. Awesome!

I’ve seen a few adults (the no nonsense kind (and no fun kind!) who raise eyebrows at cosplay and make disparaging remarks like “when are you going to grow up?” Too bad they miss out on the real benefit of cosplay: to make us comfortable with who we really are and brave enough to let that person out in public.

Cosplay is wonderful, and one day I’m going to get up enough nerve to go all out on a costume and actually find like-minded adults to hang out with. As a wise X-wing pilot once said, “You can’t look dignified when you’re having fun.” You just have to choose your moments.

Classical Literature in a Nutshell

Recently, I read a post about a back-to-school classical literature reading list, and I was not surprised to find it filled with depressing, dark books. Over the years, I have discovered that what constitutes “classical” by the English profession seems to have changed over the years; although, I do recall wondering in high school why so much of the American literature we read in school fell into the same dark and depressing category.

So what does constitute “classical” literature beyond a recommendation by prestigious collegiate pundits? According to the dictionary, classical literature is “of ancient Greece and Rome. The term is also used for the literature of any language in a period notable for the excellence and enduring quality of its writers’ works.”

Excellence and enduring quality. Maybe that’s the problem. Our definition of “excellence” has deteriorated until we can no longer distinguish between what is high quality and what merely appeals to the masses. What we read is who we are, what we become. If we only read what is dark and depressing and lacking in anything uplifting, then that is what we as a people, as a nation, as individuals become. Books with happy, uplifting endings are not necessarily “low-brow,” while being dark doesn’t automatically mark a book as “cerebral.

If I were to re-tool America’s classical reading list, I would included these books:

David Copperfield — Charles Dickens

The Scarlet Piimpernel — Baroness Orczy

The Bronze Bow — Elizabeth George Speare

Trumpeter of Krakaw— Eric P. Kelly

The Taming of the Shrew — William Shakespeare

The Lord of the Rings — J. R. R. Tolkien

Around the World in 80 Days — Jules Verne

Lorna Doone — R. D. Blackmoore

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

The Phantom Tollbooth –Norton Juster

Captain Courageous — Rudyard Kipling

The Screwtape Letters — C. S. Lewis

Paradise Lost — John Milton

The Prisoner of Zenda — Anthony Hope

Treasure Island — Robert Louis Stevenson

Watership Down — Richard Adams

The Wind in the Willows– Kenneth Grahame

Little Women — Louisa May Alcott

Little Men — Louisa May Alcott

Jo’s Boys — Luisa May Alcott

Anne of Green Gables — L.M. Montgomery

The Secret Garden — Francis Hodgson Burnett

A Little Princess — Francis Hodgson Burnett

White Fang — Jack London

The Princess and Curdie — George MacDonald

The Lion’s Paw — Robb White

In addition, I think every person would benefit from reading a good selection of science fiction, such as Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones and Andre Norton’s The Beast Master.

Such books are not only timeless, but good for the soul.

 

Frindle

It’s not often an elementary book can, not only surprise me, but excite me. Frindle by Andrew Clements is just such a book. At first, from the standpoint of being a wordsmith, the story’s premise annoyed me greatly. A smart aleck kid decides to reinvent the terminology for a writing instrument and stirs up his teacher, his school, and his community. By the end of the story, however, I’m chuckling not just at the story, but the teacher’s wisdom as the plot thickens and unfolds with its surprising ending.

On reflection, the concepts in Frindle are not so different from Martian Scrabble and I learned a valuable lesson in not judging a book by its first chapters.

Our family loves playing with words, twisting them, giving some new meanings and even inventing new ones.  For instance, opesculent: fat with glasses or ultimaphobia: fear of eating the last chip.  Our children created “funny” words, words that by themselves are not humorous, but when said out loud will send our family into gales of laughter; “spleen” and “femur” being the most notorious. Imagine being in a grocery store with one’s teenagers as they stumble down the aisles roaring hilariously after one says, “spleen” in just the right tone.

I shouldn’t be surprised. Our society constantly verbs nouns (thanks to the media) and social media allow us to noun verbs. This twisting and warping of the fabric of words can be extremely unsettling when done improperly, but exhilarating in the right circumstances.

Maybe Frindle ought to be required reading in high school.

 

The Potency of Speculation

Speculative fiction, no matter its genre, takes us on incredible journeys. It allows us to explore facets of ourselves and our worlds in a non-threatening manner. Topics that might be inflammatory, or even taboo, can be addressed through speculative fiction. In addition, speculative fiction allows us to extrapolate current trends and events and carry them to a myriad of possible futures, sometimes preventing catastrophic outcomes before they happen.

But most importantly, speculative fiction sets us apart from the rest of creation. The ability to imagine, to consider consequences, to envision a distant future or connect with the distant past is something innate in humans, not animals. Elephants give up after repeated attempts to break a chain, never realizing the chain has been replaced with a rope. Cats do not consider their lineage, nor the fate of their siblings. Wolves do not affect their environment when food sources run low, they simply move to another environment. Place a human in a hostile environment and he will not only adapt, he will transform the environment into something productive.

Animals are caricatures of human behaviour, but they lack the spark of life, the spark of the divine, that gives us the unique ability to dream, to become more than what we are. History is filled with stories of people that inspire us; stories of people who rose from humble beginnings to become powerful. While some animals rise to the top of their species or local group, I have yet to see one rise to the top of a different species or inspire others to be different, to become more.

The potency of man’s ability to weave imaginative tales to teach, to inspire, to entertain, is for me one of the most compelling facts in the natural world that humans and animals are vastly different. Because we are different, it is incumbent upon us as humans to cherish and protect the animal world around us without sacrificing humans. It is certain the animals cannot imagine the benefits of humans; it is left to us to speculate the impact of abusing our world.

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