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Upon Their Yellowed Pages


Jeromy Henry

Isn't it ironic that many of the stories that brought us dreams of the future are not available in the format of the future - digital?  In fact, to hunt them down, one has to order expensive out of print versions off the internet, or even browse at that ancient institution, the used book shop.

Of course one can find a few of the oldest sf adventures on Project Gutenberg for free.  And some classic stories have been reprinted.  But the vast majority are hard to find, if they are available for sale at all.

I always loved classic sf.  Sure, sometimes the authors got the future laughably wrong.  But the early sf writers usually felt optimistic about the world of tomorrow, even if they didn't always get the science right and badly misjudged sociological trends.  It's fun to read how they imagined the future unfolding.

For one thing, many authors assumed we'd get to the stars fairly soon.  Atomic pocketwatches would be common and energy shortages a thing of the distant past.  Some authors envisioned humans evolving in strange ways as they spread among the stars.  Robots would become intelligent and do all our work.  Many of their predictions seem as far away as ever, even decades later.

As a quick sample of some stories that embody these ideas, start with Clifford Simak's "City".  He thought humanity would leave earth in starships.  The few people left would emigrate from the cities and live in rural areas.  Families would each have their own airplanes and helicopters as well as cars.  He took the flight from cities to Suburbia of his time and imagined that trend continuing on a stellar scale.  In this book and others he also contemplated how humans might evolve.

Many other old sf stories show lots and lots of white people from the West out in space, creating empires that span worlds.  They don't mention other Earth cultures and ethnicities very much, at least until you get to the sixties.  Move from Asimov's Foundation series (the original trilogy, anyway) and compare it to "Star Trek".  But even in the sixties, white men were generally the lead characters, and others played supporting roles.  Most old sf projected the cultural and racial attitudes of their time into the far future as if nothing would change.  I wonder what parts of the future we are failing to imagine in our current stories?

In a rather interesting tale, "The Midas Plague", Frederick Pohl envisions a topsy-turvy future where people who live in big houses and have lots of stuff are poor.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Robot factories produced unlimited commercial goods, and someone had to consume all that stuff, right?  Rich people actually got to work, lived in small houses, and had the luxury of playing cards in the evenings instead of rushing off to see shows and playing with electronic gadgets.  In the end, a clever guy programs robots to use his allotment of stuff so he can actually relax.

We are still waiting for utopia.  We're still waiting for free and unlimited energy and an end to poverty, not to mention nifty matter transporters and the next stage of human evolution.  Early sf writers may have been a bit naive, but they did dream big.

Maybe someday soon we'll be able to read some of this sf in readily available digital editions, or POD reprints for those who still prefer paper.  Or will we have to wait decades for copyrights to expire, and for the stories to appear in the public domain?  Maybe by that time we'll all wear atomic pocketwatches, fly in personal airplanes, and be able to buy tickets to the stars.  Maybe by then the stories won't seem so fantastic anymore.

2012-06-03 07:04:41
Couple of thoughts here. First question is one of those chase your logic tale ones, which is the old academic question of white heroes come from white authors, and does this mean there were minority and ethnic writers of SF that were being shut out of circulation by a racists publishing ideal? Or, was classic Sci-Fi the province of primarily white writers because they were the ones interested in it enough to imagine it? Second question is rhetorical--the people buying the product determine what sells and who sells it, so some of the content of the stories and the authors thereof had to have been determined by market. I have seen collectibles which showed "black" comic books for example--same storyline, same illustrations, but black coloring for the skin. Do you think white kids or black kids were buying them? What is the "target audience for Ebony Magazine as opposed to "Women's Day"? Do we know there aren't black authors out there who were published but of whom the "establisment" has not heard? So, Was it a product of education--that is, many of the classic writers also had other careers in science, and if so, was that a product of racism in college selection policies? "Even today" these are questions of serious debate. Or again, is it ethnic preference; are the stereotypic ideas of let's say, jazz preference aligning with more black people than white for example, the root cause of this? It makes me think of women's studies and the clear gaps between what women may want and what the culture demands of them in terms of educational preferences, jobs, and physical inclinations. You read and hear the complaints that women don't want certain jobs regardless of inducements offered, men don't want certain jobs, that the bulk of the populace drifts into what they either do best or want to do, regardless of pay scale and the needs of society. We haven't quite gotten to the point that the "system" gets to decide who does what. The source of disparities may never be entirely clear. What is clear from history is that no ethnic group has a monopoly on creativity or imagination, and those brave writers who never said what "color" their hero or heroine was left it open to the reader to decide for themselves. TV shows such as Star Trek where ethnic actors were featured and given heroic or starring roles over the years paved the way for all sorts of ethnic diversities in everything. What did it mean to a young black person to see the Chief Science officer not be "human", or the head of security, the communications people to be black persons? To see a black person portrayed as an admiral or an ambassador? Achievemtnt is the result of effort, and if given half a chance, most people rise to the challenge. Bottom line is that not giving up on your dreams whatever they are and whoever you may be, what you may look like, is based on your level of gutsiness. To push you have to believe you will succeed. That's where the arts and how they portay people come in. We are quite lucky that under apparently adverse conditions, persons of all cultural persuasions have brought their visions to the printed and digital page, yellowed or not. We are all the richer for it. Good editorial, very thought provoking.

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