In February 1977 I was 15 years old, a little more than half way through grade ten, and a fan of Science Fiction. I read Science and Science Fiction books voraciously. I had a subscription to Analog Science Fiction|Science Fact magazine. A year earlier I had been excited to read Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, the third volume in the now never ending Dune series, serialized in Analog. I must have first read Dune when I was 11 or 12.
In those days Science Fiction, with the rare exceptions like Star Trek, on television, and Kubrick’s 2001 in cinema, was almost purely a literary phenomenon. And Science Fiction fans were readers above all else. We — well, they — I never got to a convention — they went to Science Fiction conventions to meet their favourite authors and editors, to get books autographed by superstars with horn-rimmed glasses or massive side-burns or, in the case of Asimov, both.
Those superstar writers and editors had started their careers as fans, and generations of Science Fiction writers have followed that path to a career as an author. I remember a number of authors from my Analog subscription and wonder what ever became of those lucky souls whose first publications I read in those pages. I wonder if youngsters like Orson Scott Card or George R. R. Martin ever went on to do anything else. And the cover art! I wonder what ever happened to artists like Rick Sternbach and Mike Hinge, whose covers consistently blew me away for vastly different reasons.
In February 1977 I read the book reviews in Analog. The reviews were Lester del Rey’s usual feature, “The Reference Library”, at the end of the issue, just before “Brass Tacks”, the letters to the editor. The first book reviewed was Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, the beginning of what would be a series of novels by Pohl. The second book is something called Walkers on the Sky by David J. Lake. And the third book . . .
Well, the third book is a little thing the hero of which is, as del Rey writes in reference to the previously reviewed book, “oddly, named Luke Skywalker.”
Here is the first encounter I and a great many Science Fiction Fans had with this thing called Star Wars:
This book called Star Wars was credited to a new author named George Lucas. It was, as most know today, ghost written by Alan Dean Foster, now well known as a Science Fiction writer. Foster’s career had received an early boost with the commission to “novelize” the animated Star Trek as the Star Trek: Log series of paperbacks.
But, back to Star Wars and del Rey’s review and as a Science Fiction fan my experience of the years since 1977.
In May 1977 I saw Time magazine’s “Film of the Year” article about Star Wars and thought “this could be interesting”. Soon after it opened in Edmonton — at the Odeon on Jasper Avenue, I think — I went to see the film with my mother.
I liked it. It was fun. The dialogue and science were equally crappy. It was not a thought provoking stumper like 2001 nor a discussion novel made SF TV like Star Trek. The best thing about it was something pointed out in the Time article: the world of Star Wars was battered, grubby, and lived in. Otherwise, it was a crappy space opera and I enjoyed it.
And I was fifteen.
I felt it was the precursor of something. Star Wars seemed parallel to the cheesy, often badly written pulp fiction Asimov celebrated in his anthology Before the Golden Age. I figured that we’d have some cheesy pulpy Science Fiction films for a bit, but surely a Golden Age of intelligent Science Fiction cinema was on the horizon.
In the fall of 1977 I moved to Grade 11, still fifteen until December. My new English class was taught by Mr. Mallet, one of the finest teachers I ever had. Part way through the year he completed his Masters thesis (Symbolism of some sort in Hawthorne). At some point that year he was advisor on a “special project” I did for credit. I wrote my first novel — Science Fiction, of course, and, of course, unpublished.
I don’t know how he arranged it, but Mr. Mallet designed the entire Grade 11 English program around Star Wars. Except Macbeth. Macbeth was done separately. But Mr. Mallett made a point of reading the Porter scene, which had been excised from our texts, aloud to the class. Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead with the alcoholic impotence!
So, the class had a field trip to the Odeon to see the film and then the readings were assigned: Dune, for the desert planet, The Wizard of Oz, for the Tin Man, The Hobbit for the quest and the wizard . . .
Two students raised their hands. “Read ’em already” Jenny and I said. Jenny’s an Egyptologist in New Zealand now. We were friends then.
Mr. Mallet replied: “Lord of the Rings.”
“Right.” Mr. Mallet paused a moment. “You two will spend class time in the Library researching and writing essays on subjects I assign.”
As the rest of the class belly-ached about unweaving Lucas’ rainbow and “only two weeks to write 250 words?! Impossible!” Jenny and I skipped off to the library with Mr. Mallet’s wonderful gift of time to read and write with unheardof freedom combined with sympathetic direction.
My best friend Dan was a huge fan of Star Wars although he had never been a particular fan of Science Fiction. He liked cars and girls. And cinema. While still in High School he was working at an Edmonton television station, coming up with some innovative set and prop ideas. Today he works in the film industry in Vancouver as a property master.
Dan had a Darth Vader action figure and a classic sports car. I had a storm trooper action figure and a battered Ford Custom when I could get permission from my father to use it. We hung our action figures from our rear-view mirrors. My heart was never really in it. Dan’s heart seemed to be in every thing but perhaps was really in nothing much other than career in those days.
We lost touch.
In 1977 Science Fiction fandom was about reading. In 2015 it is about cinema, television, and gaming — and Star Wars is the colossus that bestrides every convention, every consciousness. Yes, there are still readers of Science Fiction, but the money — and the fans — are in the films and their tie-ins — the action figures Dan and I hung in our cars, the novelizations, and occasionally in the novels that script the visual presentations. Do fans read the novels that seeded the blockbusters? From what I’ve seen of the recent cinematic versions of Tolkien, the novels are only skimmed by the film makers. As a friend said to me once of Lynch’s film of Dune, “It’s as though he filmed the first page of each chapter and the last page of the book.”
I can’t help but look at fans today, idolizing the actors and ignoring the imagination behind the actors, indeed, ignoring their own imaginations and their own potential. I can’t help feeling something has been lost in a Golden Age still-borne.
Are young people still inspired by the Dragons of Pern? Do they need a movie or TV show to take them to Earthsea? Will they ever puzzle over Bombadil now that fandom is about blockbuster films rather than words on a page?
I look around at the society we have created, the internet, the International Space Station, the Artificial Intelligence in every toaster and coffee maker. I look at our Brave New World of reproductive technology and multiplicity of gender. I look around and I read myself into Heinlein, Clark and Asimov, Le Guin, Tiptree and Russ. The world around me is the world I read before Star Wars. It is also a world like and unlike 2001. But it is not a world at all like contemporary blockbuster Science Fiction films.
Before Star Wars, Science Fiction fandom was about imagination and its freedom. After Star Wars fandom has become about imagination structured, about cannon, and, above all, about consumption.
About a decade ago, my old friend Dan’s partner sent me a note before his fortieth birthday, asking for a thought, a wish, a memory. I don’t remember what I wrote.
We drift from our childhood friends and childhood things. I’ve not heard from Jenny or Dan or Mr. Mallet in forever. I no longer have my copy of Foster’s Star Wars. But then, I’m reading Dune again right now. And I still have my original paperback copy. I hope there’s a young person somewhere out there reading Dune – in paperback – for the first time.
Del Rey, in the penultimate paragraph of his review of Star Wars, the book, writes:
“Maybe the book is all right for some of the juvenile audience, but it certainly isn’t for sophisticated readers.”
Not long after Star Wars my subscription to Analog lapsed. Reading is no longer analog for most – it is digital. I’ve lost touch with much of contemporary Science Fiction. Gibson and Stephenson are pretty much just names. I’ve read The Hunger Games but seen none of the films. I expect the special effects are spectacular.
I think I might try to reconnect with Jenny and Dan. We are no longer the juvenile audience of the original Star Wars. We now live in the grown up Science Fiction I read as a kid.
And these days I should still be able to make the Edmonton/Vancouver/Auckland Run in less than twelve parsecs.