Forgotten Science Fiction: All Flesh Is Grass by Clifford D. Simak

I’m not sure how many young science fiction readers know about Clifford Simak.  When I was growing up, he wasn’t a top tier SF writer, but a legendary author of City and Way Station.  He was loved well enough for the Science Fiction Writers of America to select Simak as their third SFWA Grand Master.  If you look at his list of novels, there’s not many famous ones besides City and Way Station.  He won a Hugo for Way Station, and Hugos for the novelette “The Big Front Yard” and his short story, “Grotto of the Dancing Deer,” which also won a Nebula.  I remember seeing Simak at a science fiction convention when he was pretty old, and was surprised by how little attention he got from the younger fans.  I thought he was great.

all-flesh-is-grass

Clifford Simak wrote a different kind of science fiction.  A kinder, gentler science fiction.  His characters were adults, ordinary people from the mid-west, and his stories often had the feel of small any town America.  City, a fix-up novels of  eight short stories written from 1944-1951, was a hauntingly beautiful series of tales told by intelligent dogs and robots about the legends of long gone humans.  You just don’t get more sense of wonder than that.

I read several of his “other” novels from the SFBC in the 1960s, but I’ve forgotten those.  Then in recent years I’ve read The Visitors (1980) and Cosmic Engineers (1939) for the Classic Science Fiction online book club.  I really liked The Visitors for its unique take on an alien invasion.  So for this month, we’re reading All Flesh is Grass from 1965.  It’s one of Simak’s many novels that don’t even have an entry in Wikipedia.

all-flesh-is-grass-1978

That’s too bad, because All Flesh is Grass is pretty good, and it has an interesting distinction – it’s about a small town that wakes up to find itself enclosed in a dome—yeah, like the Stephen King novel and TV series, Under The Dome, from 2009.   King had started his novel in 1972 and tried again in 1982.  I have no idea if King knew about the Simak book, but they have similar themes too—being cut off from the world makes people act different, and of course, there’s the mystery of who put the dome over the town and why?

I’ve always been fascinated by authors who think up similar ideas separately and then to see how they execute them.  Often the idea itself dictates much of the story.  If you were going to write a story about a group of humans enclosed in a dome,  wouldn’t you pick a small town?  Wouldn’t you use ordinary people, but involve the local politician, police and doctor?  Wouldn’t everyone be wondering why, and be upset because of the disruption in their lives?  Wouldn’t there be scenes of outsiders and insiders talking to each other at the wall?  I did search the internet to find an essay on dome stories, but didn’t find one.  I did find several forums where people mentioned other dome stories.  It’s a growing micro-sub-genre.

All Flesh Is Grass is a difficult book to describe.  Note the covers.  The top one is from the first edition hardback.  The second is the 1978 paperback edition I read.  But look at the cover from this British edition.  They obviously want to promote the book as science fiction, but it’s not your typical SyFy adventure story, so the publishers tacked on a cover that visually translate science fiction to the contemporary mind.

all-flesh-is-grass-spaceship

There are no space ships in All Flesh is Grass.  It’s about a failed real estate agent, Brad Carter, who lives in a small town, Millville,  that gets caught up in a mystery one day when he’s driving out of town and his car hits an invisible barrier.  Like The Visitors, All Flesh Is Grass is about a different kind of alien invasion, and if you look at the first two covers you will get hints as to what the invaders are like.  But they don’t invade Earth in spaceships.  Simak’s story feels more like one Ray Bradbury would have written in the 1950s, with a touch of Philip K. Dick.  It’s a kind of science fiction that has disappeared—as far as I know.

When I was growing up and reading science fiction in the 1960s as a teen, certain books had a quaintness to them.   Authors like E. E. Smith, Edmond Hamilton, and Ray Cummings wrote stories that seemed very old.  They wrote pulp stories from the 1930s.  Their style of writing, common phrases, wording, slang, etc. was just old enough to feel out-of-date old fashioned.  1965 Simak reads that way now.   Not like 1930s, because the story has a definite 1950s feel.  And the ending is painfully hokey.  Yet, All Flesh Is Grass was a pleasure to read, at least for me.  I’m just curious if anyone born after 1980 would find it fun.

Science fiction seems to change every decade like society.  Pop culture is always evolving and mutating.  Reading Simak’s science fiction feels so quaint, like looking at an Amish town, or characters out of a 1940s black and white movie.  But All Flesh is Grass is still about the awe of making first contact, still about encountering something that’s very alien.  Still imagining unimagined possibilities.  Simak’s mind goes way beyond little green men in flying saucers.

Ultimately, All Flesh is Grass is slight.  A 254 page paperback that was quickly written and quickly read.  That’s the problem with most science fiction, even today—it’s churned out.  King’s Under the Dome is 1088 pages.  Modern science fiction readers want long stories, either big books, or at least trilogies.  Today we remember authors by the series they write.  The novels I’ve been writing about as Forgotten Science Fiction were stand alone stories, that were short, quickly written for a few bucks.  They were consumed and forgotten.

Yet, I remember these old SF books from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and so do a few others, like my blogging friend Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.  They are a unique art form.  The ones I like, and I think my friends at the book club like too, are the ones that use science fiction as a way to think about certain kinds of ideas.  The stories are more like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits than Star Wars or modern science fiction.  I have to admit they aren’t great literature, and maybe their appeal is only nostalgic, yet, they wonder about reality in the same way I did growing up.

JWH – 5/14/14

Reliving The 1960s in my 60s

I might be nostalgic for the things I loved growing up, but I am no longer the person that loved those things back then.  If the current me could travel back in time to the 1960s, would I love the same things I did as a teenager the first time around, or would I be attracted to the pop culture suited for a 61-year-old guy?   Buffalo Springfield or Frank Sinatra?  Or is nostalgia really about becoming our younger selves again?

I am plagued by nostalgic urges like a teenage boy is plagued with horniness.  I assume nostalgia is universal as people get older, but I don’t know that for a fact.  As I write this my wife is watching old episodes of Gidget, Bachelor Father, The Flying Nun, and other shows from her childhood on Antenna TV.

Each year of the twenty teens is the 50th anniversary of the same year back in the 1960s.  Here, look at 1963, at Wikipedia.  Ironman debuted at Marvel,  The Beatles started releasing albums, Coca Cola produced Tab, Dr. No, the first James Bond film appeared, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan LP was released, Buddhist monks set themselves on fire to protest in Vietnam, Project Mercury came to an end, zip codes began, and “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes hit the airways.  And of course, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.  Expect a lot of documentaries and books about that towards the end of the year.

I spent my formative teenage days growing up in the 1960s, so I have a lot of nostalgia for pop culture from back then.  But while I’m shopping for old bits of my past to relive, I’m also discovering pop culture I missed the first time around, or even avoided.  For example, yesterday I bought two LPs of Mantovani and his Orchestra, a type of music I would have sneered at as a teen – the kind my grandparents would have loved.  Mantovani usually covered popular songs with a light classical orchestra, and also recorded classical music that he made more accessible with his sugary arrangements.  Here’s a typical example:

Last night while Susan was at her trivia contest, I turned down the lights, kicked back in my La-Z-Boy, cover my old chilled legs with an Afghan, let the cat curl up on my lap, and played Mantovani loud.  And man I dug it.  I listened to Mantovani Magic and Mr. Music, two LPs from 1966 I had gotten at the friends of the library bookstore for 50 cents each.  I also played Boogaloo Beat by Sandy Nelson from 1967, and These Are My Songs by Pet Clarke from 1968.

I was very annoyed at Boogaloo Beat because the great kitschy music was marred by many  pops and skips.  That’s the thing about 1960s technology, an odd piece of dust, or a stray eyelash, makes a tremendous crash when the stylus hits it at 33 rpms.  But this LP looked perfectly clean and unscratched.  Of course, this reminded me of all those times I came home with a new album that had an imperfection and I had to take it back to the store.  There was a reason why most music fans embraced CDs so quickly in the 1980s.

I might be nostalgic for 1960s pop culture but I’d never want to return to live through those years again.  Oh, I suppose if I had a time machine I might spend a weekend and attend The Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967, and even that might be a huge cultural shock.  The other night Susan and I watched a Blu-ray copy of The Apartment with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine from 1960.  It only illustrated what a horrible time it was for women, and even though life was better for men, being a corporate man looked no fun.  By the way, The Apartment is wonderful, and the black and white cinematography was stunning on the Blu-ray disc.  I first saw this film back in the 1960s and loved it then, but it means something very different to me half a century later political correctness-wise.  My mom and dad and taken me and my sister to New York City in 1959, so it also represents another layer of nostalgia.  So watching The Apartment in 2013, brought back memories of that trip.

the-apartment

The sixties must have tremendous retro appeal to many people because my local PBS station drags out many 1960s related shows when they are begging for money.  A couple weeks ago they had a show with clips from Hullabaloo (mid-decade rock and soul), a show with clips of Hootenanny (folk music popular in the early 60s), a do-wop show, and another focusing on folk rock era.  Us old people with our fond memories of pop culture forget the racism of the 1960s, the sexism, the anti-gay mentality, the generation gap, the Vietnam War and all the other social turmoil’s and isms.  The polarized animosity was like the 2012 Presidential elections but all the time.  And all those social revolutions of free love, drugs and rock and roll crashed and burned.  You can always read The White Album by Joan Didion to de-nostalgia-ize the sixties.

I keep reading books from the past looking for one that would epitomize the 60s era, but I can’t find one.  In the science fiction genre, some readers would claim Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein is the counter culture novel of the 1960s.  But it’s too strange and weird, but there were plenty of know-it-alls like Jubal Harshaw back then.  I might nominate The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, but it’s really just shows a very tiny subculture.  The book that reminds me the most of my sixties is a book from 1959, Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick.  It’s about a marriage coming apart, and some very odd people.

Most of life back in the 1960s was extremely ordinary, closer to Leave it To Beaver than The Beatles.  So why do us old farts keep returning to those times in music, books, art, television shows and movies?

After I played my old LPs, I switched on Rdio, and played some contemporary music.  The sound recording, sophistication of composition, performance and production quality, all blew away those old songs I had been listening to earlier.  Our lives, both personal and social, are evolving fast.  In 1965, the most technologically sophisticated form of social networking was the rotary dial phone.  I think the people of the sixties really would suffer Future Shock if they had to live our lives now.

I don’t know if nostalgia is some harmless urge to bring back long forgotten times, or is it psychological need to preserve our identities as we get old and loose our memories.  I’m quite happy with modern pop culture.  I think modern music, TV, movies, books, photography, art, plays, etc. are all better than what we experienced fifty years ago.  I might be nostalgic for Project Gemini and Apollo, but the robots on Mars, satellites Kepler and Planck,  and the Hubble telescope are far more exciting.  And even though we consider our government totally dysfunctional right now, things are better for more people than ever before.

Sometimes I like to think of my current record collecting habit of buying music from the 1950s and 1960s not as nostalgia, but an interest in history.  That I’m buying antiques, antique pop culture.  And me liking Mantovani is really no different from me liking Airborne Toxic Event or Alabama Shakes – it’s just another style of music.  50 years ago is no more real than 500 years ago.  That old music actually exists in the present.

Reality is kind of weird in this regard.  Above my monitor is a window three feet high and twelve feet wide that looks out to my back yard.  I see lots of trees, shrubs and plants.  My neighbors are hidden by all the foliage.  I do see my wife’s Camry and some patio furniture, but it’s mostly a naturalistic view.  Things are turning green with Spring.  I don’t see any pop culture.  I don’t even see any calendar dates.  The past is an illusion in our heads.  If I put a Mantovani LP on the turntable, it’s not 1966 again.  Even 2013 is an illusion.  It’s just now.

JWH – 3/24/13 

Back To Vinyl

In case you don’t know what I mean by vinyl, it’s what we used to call records – LPs, 45s and 78s – albums with big twelve inch square covers.  Vinyl sales are growing while CD sales are shrinking.  Why would a retro technology make a comeback?  Audiophiles have always claimed that vinyl had a superior sound, but many audio engineers also claimed that was silly too.  Who knows?  Who cares?  Well, enough people to keep a retro technology alive.  Enough people to entice me into thinking about moving into the future by returning to vinyl records.

I have a few friends that extoll the virtues of vinyl.  And on the web I’ve read many enticing essays about the superiority of vinyl.  These fans chronicle a never ending quest for the perfect sound, claiming they hear more than us pedestrian CD and MP3 listeners.  Their extreme love for music is infectious.  So I have to wonder, has music listening become too easy?  Has convenient and abundance ruined our passion for songs?  Maybe a rare 12” vinyl treat is the natural way to acquire new music.

Why I Gave Up LPs The First Time Around

I gave away all my LPs when I started listening to subscription music on Rhapsody.  I had over 1,500 CDs, and a four foot wide shelf of LPs left.  My LPs had survived several house moves, often never even getting listened to in some places.  When I moved to this house, I decided not even to unpack them.  Since a new generation of music technology was coming out, subscription music, I could get rid of albums that required technology two generations back to play.

I bought a USB turntable to convert my albums to mp3 that weren’t available on CD or Rhapsody, but that turned out to be too much work to be worthwhile.   Plus, the scratches, pops and skips got recorded and that only emphasized the lameness of vinyl.  LPs were out-of-date technology, so why not let it go?

Then I met a Katrina refuge and she lamented losing all her albums, so I offered her mine, and threw in the turntable.  That was about six years ago.

Also, there’s another “thing” that killed LPs a very long time ago.  We stopped listening to music together.  Digital music is great for personal music.  We’ve all retreated from reality with our noise cancelation earphones.  I wrote about this five years ago, “Why Has Listening to Music Become as Solitary as Masturbation?

Is It Crazy To Think About Going Back to Vinyl?

Recently a friend, Doug, mentioned a song he wanted to find, “Stoney End” by Linda Ronstadt.  I checked MusicStack for him and found the album it was on, Stoney End by Linda Ronstadt & The Stone Poneys (Pickwick SPS-3298).  It turns out Doug already had this album but not the turntable to play it on.  I was tempted to order it for myself thinking it might be fun to listen to a record I can no longer buy from 1972.  There have been many times lately where I’ve wanted to hear a song I remember only to discover that it never made it to the CD world, and isn’t on any of the music subscription services.

ronstadt_linda_the_stone_poneys_stoney_end_lg

Now here’s the thing.  If I was willing to download illegal music I could probably find anything I wanted on the Internet because I’ll bet aficionados have ripped pretty much everything to .mp3, or so I would think.  However, I have no idea how to search for stolen music, nor do I want go down the dark alleys of the internet looking for out-of-print music.

What are my options if I want to hear long forgotten songs?  First, I could wait and eventually they might show up on subscription music sites.  Second, I could buy the original vinyl recordings used.  Or, third I could just let them stay forgotten.

On the Flip Side - Ricky Nelson

I used to own On the Flip Side LP but gave it away when I gave away all my LPs.  I’m starting to regret that, but at the time it was a pain to maintain LPs and the stereo equipment to support them.  I also figured one day everything would show up in digital on subscription music services.  Another album I just had to hear again was Never Going Back to Georgia by The Blue Magoos.  I tracked that one down about a year ago and my friend Lee gave me an old turntable to play it on.  I even had to buy a cheap pre-amp because my modern day receiver no longer supports turntables.  I now have a library of 1 LP.  Talking to Doug about albums that never made it to CD makes me want to buy more.

Never-Going-Back-To-Georgia

Vinyl is a Costly Addiction

The trouble with returning to vinyl is it’s an addiction.  I was just reading on Amazon about a guy buying a $400 turntable and really loving it, and then his customer review had an update at the bottom saying he had just bought a $900 turntable.  He also warned buyers:  “$400 for the turntable is just a drop in the bucket, plan on spending double to triple that to get EVERYTHING you need. Nice phono preamp, carbon fiber brush, alignment tools, decent plastic lined sleeves for all that new vinyl you about to buy, tweaks, gadgets, cleaning supplies, etc…”  He also said, “Plan ahead and budget for a record cleaning machine, after you own a few albums you will want it. Even brand new sealed vinyl has dust and will crackle and pop” and “50 year old used records sound like………50 year old used records.…”

Reading reviews of turntables makes me wonder if I even have the technical skills to set one up, adjust it, and know if it’s playing correctly.  The audiophiles make it sound worse than rocket science.  And that knock against 50 year old records dings my enthusiasm because the records I want will all be 30-50 years old, or even older.  Another fear is getting addicted to 78s.

Collecting

I think buying vinyl also appeals to the collector in us.  When my friend John wrote about John Lennon’s Jukebox, I immediately wanted to track down and buy those 40 singles that were Lennon’s favorite songs.  Vinyl lovers often have whole walls of albums.  This isn’t a bad hobby, but it could become an obsession.  I can see myself getting up early to hit the garage sales every Saturday morning, and constantly visiting the used record stores, and Goodwills, hoping to find some elusive gem.  Or getting hooked on Ebay.

Nostalgia

I think the main appeal of wanting to return to vinyl is nostalgia – I want to go home again – to my teen years when I loved buying LPs.  Or I just want to hear songs again that I haven’t heard for 40-50 years.  I’ve done this a few times in my life already.  I first heard On The Flip Side when it was shown on Stage 67, a show from the 1966-1967 television season on ABC.  About twenty years ago I thought of that show and tracked down a used soundtrack of the show.  I actually loved the album, and played it several times, but eventually forgot about it.  I was into CDs then, and CDs were much easier to deal with.  But when I gave away my LPs, I did take the time to record On the Flip Side to MP3, and it’s playing while I type.  So I still have it as two long MP3s, each a whole recording of a side.

To be honest, hearing On the Flip Side playing now is a nostalgic rush, but I doubt I’d want to play it over and over.  Maybe once every five years.  And my mp3 recording reminds me clearly of the flaws of vinyl because I hear the pops, skips and clicks that disappeared with the invention of CDs and mp3 files.

Would On the Flip Side be more wonderful if I was playing it on a good turntable hooked up to a great stereo setup, with perfectly configured speaker spacing?  I don’t know.  I’d have to spend quite a bit of money to find out.  And if I spent all that money and I loved it, would it mean I’d start searching out more old albums?  How many are lost in my memories?

I have a complete set of The Rolling Stone magazine on DVD, and I’m amazed by all the albums reviewed that I never heard of, or played or have even seen since.  It might be great fun to start in 1968 and see how many albums I can find that deserved to be rediscovered.  Or is that bullshit?  Shouldn’t everything worth listening to already be reprinted and available today on CD or subscription music?

And would I end up like the other vinyl addicts, always wanting more expensive turntables, cartridges, styluses, pre-amps, receivers, and speakers?

man-from-uncle-1

Many of the albums I fondly remember did have CD reissues, but strangely enough some like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or Our Man Flint didn’t seem to have the exact cuts or cuts in the same order as my memory.

I think the urge to buy LPs is to hold the same cover and to listen to the same cuts in the same order that I played them 40-50 years ago.  Is capturing this past worth all the effort?  And if I was to be truly faithful to the past, shouldn’t I seek out an old console stereo like I had as a teenager, or even a portable record player like I started out listening to when I was 12?  Why spend hundreds for turntables that didn’t exist in 1965?

Getting Old and Sappy

I think what I miss the most is shopping at record stores and playing my new discovers for my buddies.  Or even going to record stores with my pals, and spending a couple hours deciding how to best spend the two dollars I had burning a hole in my pocket.  For $10 a month today I get access to more albums than any record store I’ve ever been in.  As a kid I could only afford to buy one or two albums a week.  When I first started buying albums, when I was 13-14, I had to mow lawns, babysit or go without lunch at school to get LP money.  Maybe those treasures that were so hard to come by back then, are now the same treasures I seek to find now?  Maybe they need to be just as hard to come by again to get the maximum fun?

I don’t know if I’ll go back to vinyl or not.  I’m awful tempted to buy myself a $216 turntable at Amazon, a Audio-Technica AT-LP120 and give them a try.

Part II – The Subculture of Vinyl Record Fans

Part III – Audiophiles and the Quest for High Fidelity

JWH – 11/9/12

When I Was a Remote Control

If the remote control had been invented before 1951 I’m not sure my parents would have had me and my sister Becky.  As toddlers, my parents taught us how to change the channels on our Sears black and white TV, so they could laze on the couch smoking their Camels and Winstons and drink Seagram 7 and Canada Dry ginger ale while we twirled the knob to locate Topper or Have Gun Will Travel.

tv-1950s

Kids born today come out of the womb with giant IQs, able to handle hundreds of stations and dozens of gadgets.  I wonder if my four-year old self from 1955 could have competed with a 2012 four year old at all?  If my parents were still alive, I wonder if they’d long for the days when things were simple without all these goddamn gadgets.  Life was easier with a Kid Channel Flipper, or the Rug Rat Reciting TV Guide.  Oh yeah, that was another childhood duty – to memorize the TV schedule and let my folks know when their favorite shows were on.  It’s also why my parent’s generation had so many kids.  We baby boomers were conceived to manage TV technology for the Greatest Generation, or the radio generation.

Today, anyone with a finger can change the channel, and onscreen guides have made the Rug Rat Reciting TV Guide go the way of the Bad Child Switch Fetcher.  If political correctness had been invented before 1951 and my parents told that kid herding couldn’t involve belts and switches, they’d definitely been willing to get off their Brooks Brothers covered butts and do their own TV knob twirling.

I’ve seen some real cultural and social changes in my lifetime due to fantastic inventions like the TV clicker and screen guide.  Young people really have no idea how hard life was back in the 1950s.   Toddlers today are whizzes at iPads, but could they have dialed a rotary phone?  OK, I admit they could – modern tot nerds would beat wee baby boomers at any kind of pre-school smack down.  We never had any of those fancy Sesame Street advantages, but we did have to work harder for less rewards, which us boomers like to brag is character building.

TV was dinosaur primitive back then, with small low-rez screens that frequently got out of adjustment so you had to fine tune the vertical and horizontal hold knobs just right to see a steady, but grainy black and white picture.  And that picture had visible scan lines.   There was an array of other knob-less adjustment dials inconveniently located on the back of the set that required a screw driver to twist and mirror to see the results.  If you were too lazy to get the dressing mirror off the back of the closet door you could try to talk someone into describing the picture while subtly adjusting the settings from verbal clues.  What a lost art!

Also, TVs had vacuum tubes instead of solid state devices, and when a tube blew you had to get dad to drive you to the 7 Eleven. While he waited drinking his Schlitz in the Pontiac, you dashed inside to run the tube tester and hopeful find the arcane coded replacement in the test cabinet.  All this just to see some show call Huckleberry Hound that was so moronic you’d poke your eyes to avoid seeing it today but your seven year old self thought state of Eisenhower era pop art brilliance.

But back to the future – or our present.  Even though today’s TV pictures are rock solid, hi-rez, and huge, the show selection takes more brain power to select than that famous wild hair guy figuring out general relativity.

Now this brings us to the greatest invention in television history:  Netflix streaming.  It’s not perfect, but it’s almost as easy as Samantha’s twitch of her cute magical nose.  If they could only combine Siri with the Netflix interface, and we could sit in our recliners like Captain Picard and tell the HDTV what show we wanted and then say the words, “Make it so” we’d all reach video nirvana.

Recently I had to anxiously wait for Netflix to send me Blu-ray discs of Season 3 of Glee after watching Season 1 and Season 2 via their streaming service.  Don’t get me wrong, a Blu-ray picture and sound is Breaking Bad better than the current state of Netflix best streaming resolution, but the convenience of clicking to Glee on the Roku is Friday Night Lights goodness.

What a philosophical conundrum!  Fantastic picture versus fat-ass lazy highness.  Well, you know which one we’ll always choose, don’t you?

Music on iTunes iPhones is 5 transistor* radio crappy, but it’s what people prefer over the pain-in-the-ass fetch the CD and put it in the player hard work.

Streaming video and music is going to kill off the CD, DVD and BD disc.  So it goes, as Mr. Vonnegut used to say.  Vinyl, formerly known as the LP, is making a technological comeback, even through it requires the physical effort of storing albums, cleaning them, and playing them on mechanical players.  I’m sure it’s a passing fad.

If you pay attention to technology there are two consistent trends.  First, the evolution towards fewer moving parts.  Second, the evolution of ease of use.  We’re all heading to a future of moronic simplicity and slothfulness.

I love the CD and Blu-ray disc for their wonderful high resolution music and video, but they are goners.  Resting on my big motionless butt enjoying the brilliance of streaming music and video will always overcome the theoretical desire for high fidelity and high definition.

My wife and I never had children.  We never needed them.  We grew up with the remote control.  If you charted this essay on a graph, it would show the decline of civilization.  Well, like I said before, so it goes.  If you don’t believe we’re actually devolving with all this technological evolution, just picture this:  The Victorians had to play their own musical instruments if they wanted to hear music.  Even cavemen could drum like crazy man.  Imagine what Spotify would have done to the British Empire.

Stream with the flow.  Make it so.

JWH – 10/22/12

* When I was a kid, the cutting edge technology of portable sound was the transistor radio.  They came with a single mono earplug, and you listened to AM radio.  Of course 1961-1968 AM radio was the peak of musical genius in the 20th century.  These transistor radios were about the size of a iPhone (which by the way have millions of transistors) and  a tinny sound.  50 years later, I think portable sound still sounds tiny and tinny.   Listening to The Beatles on an iPhones makes them sound like they are five inches tall.

The Circle of Life–Coming Back to Where We Started

My sister Becky once remarked that we started off life living pretty much in one room, and then we spread into several rooms as we become toddlers, and then out of the house as we become kids, then off to school to find our group friends, and slowly we travel further and further from home, making more and more friends, but then as we get older, we travel less, and we start having fewer friends, and then we start staying in our house all the time, and finally we end up in one room again.

the-road-we-travel-400

If you live long enough you end up back in a crib with people changing your diapers.

My friend Peggy has started hanging out with other people in their sixties, at a dance club that’s a lot like a high school hangout.  Her friends have created a new subculture around old tunes and dances they learned in their teens. 

Many older people I know have begun reconnecting with childhood friends and schoolmates through Facebook.  We have an urge to return to friendship groups like we had in K-12.

Nostalgia means returning home.  I’ve reached an age when my peers look backwards.

I’ve also noticed something else about getting older – people want less from life.  Back in high school and college we all had such big ambitions about what we wanted to do when we grew up.  Now we want less and less.  We want to retire.  We often return to the hobbies we loved while growing up.

I’m reading books and watching television with the same passion I had in junior high.  And my passion for new music is much like I felt for music in the 1960s.  I listen to it alone in my room just like I did in 1965, and find the same immense pleasure  I once did.  Somehow I didn’t pass back through the phase of listening in groups of friends getting stoned.

I do feel somewhat different from other friends my own age – I like new music, and they dwell on the oldies, or stuff that sounds like it could have been on the charts in 1961-1969.  I know this will sound sacrilegious, but listening to The Killers at the moment is more meaningful than replaying The Buffalo Springfield.  I don’t think none of us are the same, or can become who we were, but so many of us are swimming towards the past like lemmings.

My older friends divide into two distinct groups:  those with children and those without.  The ones with children and grand children follow a different circle of life than those childless.  When I talk to friends with children, our conversations often remind me of talking to my parents and grandparents.  Talking to my friends without kids, often feels like we’re still back in tenth grade.

My wife Susan, and some of my other lady friends have gotten into watching TV shows from the 1950s and 1960s again.  I think we all are drawn to different aspects of the past we loved so dearly.  Or does watching old shows just recreate old feelings?

In my book clubs, we often talk about our favorite books, movies and TV shows from childhood.  All of us Baby boomers have commonality even though we’re all extremely different.  We will relive the 1960s one day at a time, each a 50th anniversary.

And getting old means becoming weak again like a child.  I can no longer lift and do things I once did.  Eventually we’ll get too old to drive, and finally we’ll get too old to even take care of ourselves.  Dementia and Alzheimer’s is like evolving mentally backwards.

Even sex seems to diminish, like we’re returning to a kind of re-virginal state.

It’s also hard to befriend people in a different part of the circle of life.  When we’re kids we play with other kids, when we’re teens, we hang out in gangs of teenagers, when we move away from home, we hang out with other single people, when we get married we hang out with other married people, when we have kids, we hang out with other people with kids.

I’m not old yet, but I already feel the urge to fly south to live in a 55 Plus community.

Should I fight this urge?  Or should I just go with the flow?  Do I have a choice?

If you’re around my age, 60, are you feeling this too?

JWH – 10/8/12

Pulp Fiction

Long ago, before Quentin Tarantino’s great film, before I was born in 1951, before television, there was pulp fiction.  It was called pulp fiction because of the grade of paper the stories were printed on was called pulp, and a whole entertainment industry was built around selling magazines with short stories and serialized novels wrapped in crude color reproductions of what is now called pulp art.

15-1 1-1

When I was young I often met older science fiction fans that collected these magazines, but surely, most of the kids of the generation before me, who grew up loving to read pulp fiction, must be very old, if still living, and the pulp fiction generation surely must be dying out.  Yet, over at Fantasy & Science Fiction they are running an article, “The New Nostalgia: The Classic Pulp Story Revival” by Dave Truesdale that chronicles how several small press publishers are keeping the pulp fiction tradition alive with quality hardbound reprints.  This article is well worth reading on many levels because it renews memories of a few old authors and their best stories and informs about the sub-culture of the small press publishing.

Pulp fiction has also been kept alive by the legacy of comic books and their impact on the movies with all the classic super heroes being reinvented every year, and reoccurring pulp action films like the Indiana Jones series or the remake of King Kong.  Comics are the direct descendants of pulp magazines that featured cruder art and stories for the younger readers on the same pulp paper.  Pulp fiction was never literary but a few fine writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler came out of the tradition.  Most of the prose was purple and all action, and aimed at the poorly educated, often featuring very politically incorrect attitudes about race, gender, ethnic groups, and foreigners.  Society and the well bred looked down on the lowly pulp fiction fan.

Evidently, old pulp fiction is finding new younger readers through the popularity of action movies, reprints and inherited nostalgia.  When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s much of the best pulp fiction, including mysteries, westerns, science fiction, adventure, spy, thrillers and other genres were reprinted as cheap paperbacks for 25 and 35 cents, but now the buy-in price are $40 deluxe volumes.

There was always a tremendous vitality to pulp fiction, which explained why titles included words like astounding, thrilling, amazing, wonder, adventure, fantastic, and that wink-wink keyword, spicy.  Science fiction really is a child of pulp fiction, and I think many readers hated the change that the New Wave brought to the genre during the 1960s, where emerging writers tried to force science fiction out of the gutter and into the classroom where the revolutionaries wanted it to wear literary robes.  Today science fiction is often represented in the minds of the public at large by Star Trek and Star Wars, but those stories owe a lot to two pulp fiction superstars:  E. E. “Doc” Smith and Edward Hamilton.

If you want to sample classic science fiction pulp stories, and not spend too much money, I recommend tracking down copies of two anthologies:  Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov and Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas.   These books collect some of the best SF short stories from 1931-1945.  You can find both at ABEBooks.com, but watch out, both fat original hardback anthologies were often reprinted as multi-volume paperback books, and it would be worth your while to use the advance search and specify hardback editions, thus saving you on total costs and postage.  These two books will give you a great education about the foundation of science fiction.

The URLs linked to these titles also give you table of contents for the stories which if you are really hoarding your gasoline dollars might find on the web for free.   Now, as you read the stories, consider these issues:

One, are they still fun to read?  Are they as fun as reading Harry Potter or any of your other current favorite writers?  Second, do the ideas seem stupid, in the light of modern knowledge?  Third, do you notice why I call them politically incorrect?  Fourth, can you tell the difference between pulp fiction writing and modern MFA writing (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), or even modern genre writing (Charlie Stross and John Scalzi)?  Fifth, are these stories worth preserving?  Sixth, are they worth your reading time over reading newer stories?

All fiction from 1900-1950 is thinning out fast in our collective memories, and few stories from that era get reprinted.  I’m not just talking about pulp fiction.  If you can, find a copy of Best American Short Stories from before 1950 and some original pulp magazines.  Most of the contents from either will never have seen print since the original publications.  The small presses that are reprinting classic pulp fiction stories, are really just rescuing one story in a thousand, maybe one in ten thousand.

Looking at the periods 1800-1850 and 1850-1900, only the rarest of stories are still read by modern readers.  Baby boomers can remember the famous books they read from 1950-2000, but how many of the following generations know about those best selling titles?  My guess is the pulp fiction nostalgia is for the boomers who can remember reading pulp fiction from its first generation of reprints.  I would imagine, out of all the genres only a handful of novels will become classics, like The Maltese Falcon, Tarzan of the Apes, Conan the Barbarian, and Riders of the Purple Sage.  But how many kids under 16 discover these tales?

I occasionally enjoy reading an old pulp story and appreciate these small press publishers bringing back old favorites by Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, Robert E. Howard and Jack Williamson that I first discovered in used editions of Ace Doubles.  I think my identity is partly based on pulp fiction, and I feel I help keep these old friends alive by continuing to read them.  I know all of my generation and the stories we loved will soon pass on and be forgotten, but it’s pleasant to think a few of the stories will survive and future generations will enjoy them and wonder about their fans.

Jim

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,186 other followers