Monday, 29 March 2010

Fly me to the Moon

My father was born in London in 1946 and read science fiction from a young age. When television became available he used to watch the original Flash Gordon programs in black and white with the model ships hanging from wires you could clearly see much like Thunderbirds firing dangerous looking sparks out of the engines.

Recently my father recommended a book from his childhood to me. It was written in 1951 by Ray Bradbury and I found it absolutely fascinating; not just because it was a good book, but because the stories were so different to modern science fiction works. It seems in the 1950s science fiction writers believed anything was possible in the future. They often wrote that it was foreseeable that humanity would have space stations, rockets, colonies on other planets and advanced robots by the 1980s! I wondered is this any different from modern science fiction stories only set 40 years in the future where we have advanced androids or fleets of spaceships capable of faster than light travel.

I gave my father a brief interview yesterday and asked him some of the questions I couldn't get out of my head. My father is a fine, obliging chap so listened patiently and answered my questions;

It seems in all the science fiction books from the 1950s the authors believed by the 80s or 90s we'd all be living in space stations or on Mars. Did people believe this at the time?

No, we hadn't even got a satellite in space at that time. The Americans grabbed old Von Braun in 1945 and the Russians were the first to put a satellite in space in 1957 so lets face it, the thought of a man on the moon was a long way off. Science Fiction is what it is; fiction!

What did the general population think of these ideas at the time?

They didn't really, Science Fiction was sort of nerdy back then.

Who was the biggest Science Fiction writer back then?

Arthur C. Clarke of 2001 fame was regarded as the most prophetic science-fiction writer at the time. He predicted geostationary satellites around the world and global communication donkeys years ago.

Who was your favourite science fiction writer?

Probably Arthur C. Clarke although I did like Ray Bradbury too

Perhaps the main difference between science-fiction in the 50s and today is that in the 50s space was a mysterious, unknown place people hardly knew anything about (no human set foot on the moon until 1969) but today, although we only understand the tiniest fraction about the universe, we know a lot more than we did only 60 years ago which means our science fiction writers are more informed of the realities of space travel. Having said that impossibilities still crop up in modern works, such as faster than light travel which we now know to be impossible.

Maybe I'm missing the point, as my father said; fiction is fiction. Should it be realistic? Why shouldn't it be allowed as much poetic licence as it wants? Modern audiences demand more realism all the time (the 2007 science fiction film 'Sunshine' was heavily criticised for its lack of realism) and yet films like Avatar are hugely popular.

On speaking to my father-in-law, who lived in the United States during the 60s and 70s, he said many sci-fi writers wrote stories about alien invaders as thinly veiled warnings about communism and acting on peoples fear of nuclear attack or invasion during the Cold War period which makes a lot of sense. In England during that period there was less hysteria regarding the fragile political climate so my father wasn't exposed to it to the same degree.

I suppose fiction is there because people want escapism therefore realism isn't always popular and perhaps in 30 years my own son will ask me the same questions

“Wow dad, did people from 2010 really believe we'd all have our own personal robots in our homes by 2040? That's so funny”

By Chris


  1. The interview with your dad is quite interesting--I would never have thought of science fiction as being an allegory on communism. It makes sense, though...and now I have to go add Arthur C. Clarke to my to-read list!

  2. Hi Zara

    Thanks for the comments, I'll let my dad know that someone thinks hes interesting! lol

    I love picking the brains of people who lived all that time ago. It always interests me how much things have changed since then.