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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.

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.

 

Martian Scrabble

Widdershins. Hareath. Plethora. Words have always fascinate me. I can spend hours browsing through a thesaurus or researching the origin and meaning of a word. I love inventing words, too; putting letters and ideas together to create new concepts. Maybe that’s why I invented Martian Scrabble in college.

We used a regular Scrabble board, didn’t keep score, and there were only two rules: you have to pronounce it and you have to define it. Mikklestein: a container for storing fermented fruit. Cryzkle (craizcul): a green and gold striated stone used in fine jewelry. A couple of girls wandering through the UC asked what we were playing. Then they wanted to know how we knew Martian. “I was born there,” I told them.

English has a plethora of intricately beautiful words, each with its own sense of hue and meaning: house, cottage, shed, shack, bungalow, edifice, home; red, crimson, maroon, scarlet, brick, salmon. Even the spelling can change the meaning of a word. Take the word, gray/grey, for instance. The American version has a softer colour, more mellow and gentle, pussy willows in spring. The English version is darker, more robust, grey storm clouds over a Scottish moor.

Which is why I don’t subscribe to the current trend in writing to limit vocabulary and eliminate so many useful English words: vivid verbs, alternatives for “said,” and adverbs. Said: plain and boring. Gushed, screamed, whispered, murmured, replied, stated. Each word paints a specific picture and allows the writer to spend more time creating dialogue, story, and action instead of wasting time and space explaining to the reader. “Trend? Wait a minute, I thought everyone wrote like this?” Today, yes. Twenty years ago, no. Writers were free to use specific verbs and concentrate more on story. I tire of wading through copious amounts of words when a writer attempts to avoid any word except “said” and tortures the reader by spending dozens of sentences to say what could be said in a shorter, more specific manner. I’m not talking about showing the reader instead of telling. I’m merely responding to a “dumbing down” of our reading material in an attempt to satisfy a current fad.

Don’t believe me? Pick up a copy of Fog Magic, then compare it to any storybook written for elementary school kids today. Double dare you.

Indelible Mark

Certain stories have a tendency to stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the name of the book or the author. These may not be the best written stories, may not be literary stories, may not even be stories worth re-reading or have long term merits. But for me, these are stories that changed who I am, how I perceive the world; these are stories that still inspire me today and became the lodestone that keeps me writing.

I grew up during the Stupid 70s and about the only good thing that came out of that era was the short-lived experiment to allow students to custom design their classes. So, I was fortunate enough to take a journalism class for Freshman English, as well as a science fiction short story class. The story in question was in an anthology and I retell it making no apology for the poor storytelling, nor errors in the retelling of details.

He was returning home after being imprisoned in cryosleep for 75 years. His crime? Speaking out against the status quo, having a different opinion, publishing his thoughts in a small book that had the potential to influence society.

He wondered about the girl he loved and left behind, the cruelty of a justice system that had stolen everything from him. As he passed by the landmarks of his home town, he recalled their first meeting, their courtship, the high points of their life together.

Arriving at his home, he was shocked to see it had not changed. The open door, the journal left abandoned on the table, spoke of a hasty departure. Curious, he began to read. And discovered her efforts to wait for him, opportunities and risks she took in order to become part of the scientific advancements in spaceflight, travelling at faster than light speeds in the hopes of slowing time enough to be with him again. She wrote of her love, the burning desire to wait for him, the yearning for his imprisonment not to be in vain.

Frantically, he searches the house for her. Has something happened? Why is she not there to meet him? At last it dawns on him–she is afraid. Afraid time has not been kind, afraid too many years have passed and he will not see the woman he loves in the woman she has become.

With a lighter heart, he walks to the community center; the place where they first met to begin their story. She is there, a rose in her hair, fingers twining and twisting, worry lining the still beautiful face. She is there and she is his and the wait no longer matters.

Searching for a Good Book

Most of my favorite childhood memories are centered around libraries. I love the smell of paper and ink, my fingers running along the shelves looking for that one particular book to snag my imagination and accompany me home. Scrolling through the never ending lists of freebies on the Kindle site is like browsing through library shelves.

The free books on Kindle are this generation’s public library. Free books equalizes the haves and have-nots of the world, bringing unimaginable wealth to even the lowliest of readers. As someone who scraped together babysitting money for every single book I purchased (so I only purchased those I would read and re-read), libraries were a treasure trove. So what if the book I selected fell a little short? I got to enjoy a story I would have never been able to afford. I shared a link with authors I would never meet, or might have never known about. I delved into worlds of imagination that were as far removed from a small rural town in Oklahoma as Pluto is from the sun.

Scanning the lists of freebies reminds me of looking through the card catalogue–something today’s generation misses. It’s not the same as looking up a title on a computer. To do so, you first have to know the author or the title. With a card catalogue you can browse all around a title, author, or subject finding unexpected gems you never would have encountered otherwise. I might be looking for a sci fi book and stumble across an archaeological tale that sounds fascinating. I might equally be researching a subject for a class assignment and uncover a science fiction tale I never knew existed. Oh, the possibilities!

The possibilities are why I love the freebie list: new authors, new tales just waiting to be found. And every once in a while I discover a new author with a slew of books that I put on my to-buy list. Something to think about: authors who are more interested in making money won’t show up on the freebie list, but authors with a story to tell will. Thanks, guys for sharing. You may never be “successful,” but your story will not be forgotten.

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