To Boldly Go (3)

Sci-fi finds new inspiration and a new audience

The film collaboration between Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick in 1968 was a landmark in the history of science fiction cinema.

2001film2001, A Space Odyssey did indeed go boldly into new sci-fi territory. Yet, though it won an Academy Award for special visual effects and BAFTAs for cinematography and soundtrack, it was by no means exceptional as a movie. The absence of dramatic dialogue, intentional for atmosphere rather than being the result of bad writing, caused it to drag. Its importance to the development of space opera as a legitimate branch of art lay elsewhere. 2001 introduced the first truly believable (and frightening) super computer. Its use of two distinctive pieces of classical music, Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz and Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra to represent two of the movie’s recurrent themes was imaginative and – in the case of the latter – possibly popularised a work that maybe the average music lover and most cinemagoers had never heard of.

More significantly, for the first time a film explored what space travel might truly be like, not an exciting and dangerous encounter with monsters and hostile aliens, but a daily grind like any other. Human beings had already gone into space and had flown orbit round the moon; a year after Kubrick’s film was released they would land on it. However, a cramped space capsule was no place for thrilling or romantic adventures. On longer trips, it would be much of the same. Eat, sleep, exercise, check instruments, and repeat the above!

Space opera of the past was speculation and fantasy. 2001, A Space Odyssey was realism.


Though lacking modern cinematography and the miracle of CGI, the 1950s and 1960s had already produced some excellent science fiction films. Often, these were movies with a message that reflected the uncertainties of the times. The world, recovering from the shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, began to fear in the heightening tension between the United States and the Soviet Union yet another war with catastrophic consequences for the human race. The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951 featured the soft-spoken Michael Rennie as a benign yet uncompromising alien who offered annihilation as the alternative to world and galactic peace. In the 1953 rendering of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds, the writers made significant changes to the book, bringing it up to date in its theme of atomic warfare and its consequences. A film of a different kind, When Worlds Collide, also issued in 1951, took as its subject annihilation by a rogue star, a theme that was copied many times over in the following decades. Forbidden Planet in 1956 took mankind far beyond this solar system, probably for the first time, and introduced us to one of the screen’s most memorable robots as well as to some metaphysical concepts reminiscent of Stevenson’s Jekyl and Hyde. The Time Machine, based on another Wellsian story, came out in 1960, Fantastic Voyage, about a rather different kind of space travel, in 1966. Although engaged later to write a novel of the film, Isaac Asimov was not responsible for this story and indeed criticised it as unscientific in its discussion of quantum mechanics.

dragonhIn the meantime, by the 1960s, science fiction writing had more or less shaken off its pulp image. Sci-fi was firmly established as a genre and well on the way to becoming mainstream literature. That publishers now chose paperback – and ultimately hardback – over magazines had little to do with the literary quality of the latter and certainly nothing to do with their popularity. Distribution problems had made the pulp magazines uneconomical. Of the dozens of science fiction magazines that made an appearance during the first half of the 20th century, mostly in America, only a handful remained.

Novelists who had served their apprenticeship with short stories for the sci-fi magazines began producing full length quality work. Some of the books were ‘fix-ups’ where the writer simply collected together some previously published stories and sold them as a collection in paperback. Others, by writers like Asimov and Ray Bradbury wrote new and connecting material and produced the whole in novel form. Asimov’s I, Robot and The Foundation Trilogy, and Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles ( were examples of the latter practice. However, even more were completely new works of original and imaginative fiction that have since become classics. By no means all were space opera but many were stories featuring space travel and alien beings of one sort or another. Bradbury, who apparently did not regard himself as a science fiction writer at all, followed his Martian Chronicles collection with Fahreheit 451, a prophetic and dystopian work about the dangers of censorship. He also began writing for films, including John Huston’s Moby Dick and parts of the MGM biblical epic King of Kings.

spaceRobert A Heinlein, without doubt one of the greats of the genre, and often controversial but never dull, published two of his best full-length novels during this era, The Puppet Masters and Stranger in a Strange Land. Between their publication, he produced several novels for young adults (- though the publishing industry had not yet coined the term YA for books intended for teenagers -). Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End depicts an alien invasion of a peaceful kind though not without disturbing consequences. John Wyndham in The Day of the Triffids gave us an alien invasion by plants. Brian Aldiss in Greybeard pictured a futuristic Earth and dwindling human population made sterile by a nuclear holocaust. These and other authors such as Philip K Dick, Cliff Simak and Kurt Vonnegut fed the genre with wonderful writing and gave inspiration to younger writers who would come to the fore in the later years of the century.

Novels became longer and developed into series.  Ursula K Le Guin gave us dragons and the imaginery world of Earthsea, just as Tolkein had given us Middle Earth three decades earlier. Anne McCaffrey had a fondness for dragons too and in 1967 began writing her Pern books, creating a mythology that is still being exploited in this new century. In 1965, Frank Herbert, another of the 20th century greats of sci-fi, conceived his futuristic saga, Dune, which attracted plaudits and awards from readers and fellow writers alike. One of the most popular series ever, it comprised six novels in all, plus two published posthumously within the last decade.

“Live long and prosper!”

However, as the sixties ended, perhaps the greatest medium for bringing space opera to a new audience was television. Series such as Lost in Space gave viewers an appetite for interstellar adventures that could not be satisfied by the printed page alone. One writer who saw the potential was a former policeman called Gene Roddenberry who wrote scripts for both Crime and Western TV shows. In 1964, he conceived the idea of a Western-style trek, substituting for the Great Plains the Galaxy itself.

Fifty years later, and with six series and twelve movies to its credit, the Star Trek franchise is a world-wide phenomenon.

[next time – the BBC joins the party]

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