“I’m a voracious reader,” said Tom lip-smackingly.
“I love science fiction,” said Tom extraterrestrially.
In the foreground of the book cover, a shiny robot is falling, zapped by the ray gun wielding, ochre-costumed hero of the novel. He’s fleeing for his life—dashing out onto a spaceport’s apron. Pursued by a mob, he’s about to run across a skylight which reveals the underground levels of the spaceport. Behind him, in the distance, three royal blue starships loom against the night sky, two of them needle-thin, the middle one massive and taller, an ominous star cruiser. The title of the book, STEPSONS OF TERRA, blazes bright red. Above that, a small tag-line about the imperiled hero piques the reader’s interest: “He could be in three places at once.” The elements of the cover—the artwork and text—suggest a plot involving the Olde Home Planet, complex relations (alienation and conflict, at least), andan intriguing physical paradox as part of the denouement.
This action-packed cover of an Ace science fiction paperback grabbed my eye one afternoon in 1959 as I browsed the paperback section at Grand News. Captured by the vivid art, I picked the book up to examine it more closely. I was doublythrilled when I discovered another book on the other side. Ace paperbacks became famous for this innovative format, called dos-a-dos. You read one short novel and then flipped the book over (as a rocket ship might maneuver preparing to makeplanetfall) to dive into the other one. “Two Complete Novels 35¢” Could there be a better deal?
The B-side novel bore the title A Man Called Destiny. The finer art of its cover—a more detailed rendering than Stepsons of Terra-- portrayed a space-suited figure pulling himself into a brightly-lighted hatch. Beyond him one glimpsed many stars, the immensity of space, and a silver spaceship with spiky fins. The book’s tag-line boostered its grandiose title: “Suddenly he became the most valuable human in space.” (Ace also published many mysteries and Westerns in the dos-a-dos style. It’s not hard to imagine a Western adventure with the same title and a similar tag-line: “Suddenly he became the toughest man in the settlement.” Shane, anyone?)
By 1959, Grand News had become my favorite Huntsville store. After I had seen a movie at the Lyric or Grand, or spent time at the library, a stop there at Clinton Street, before the bus ride or walk home, topped off the day. By the time I was free to roam around downtown by myself, I had “aged-out” of comic books, but Grand News then fed my Mad mania. It offered a cornucopia of other publications, constantly being renewed: Life, Look, Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, Time, Newsweek, New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, Redbook, Vogue, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Modern Screen, Silver Screen, Movie Land, True Confessions, True Romance, Teen, Seventeen, Sports Afield, Field and Stream, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Mechanix Illustrated, Woodworker, Aircraft Modeler, Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Road and Track, Motor Trend, Car and Driver, Trains, Ace, Adam, Cavalier, Dude, Eve,Frolic, Gent, Playboy, Real Men, Rogue, Stag, Swank. That’s just a small sample, of course. With redesigns and editorialchanges over the years, some of these have continued to flourish. Others succumbed to cultural and media changes.
I gravitated to the science fiction genre for several reasons. Oneattraction resulted from my discovery in 1957 of the adventures of Tom Swift, Jr. at the Huntsville Bookstore close to the Russel Erskine Hotel. I had been an avid reader of the Landmark series of juvenile American history books which the bookstore stocked, and in checking for a new volume one day, I noticed the Tom Swift section. I was late getting to that party. After a hiatus in publication from 1942 to 1953, the second series of novels—with the son of the original Tom Swift now starring as the hero--was relaunched in 1954 with Tom Swift and His Flying Lab. That first book hooked me. I bought it, devoured it, andthen, making up for lost time, gradually added other volumes as my allowance made possible. For a teenager like me who had vague aims of a career in the sciences or engineering, the adventures of the young genius and his futuristic inventions were thoroughly entertaining and inspirational—the right stuff before The Right Stuff became cool.
Tom Swift was my gateway drug, and I stuck with him for a couple of years, reading through to the 10th book, Tom Swift in the Race to the Moon. However, this growing boy needed astronger physic. I had held a library card for a few years, but had found little to interest me in the library’s juvenile section, which was a cramped, partly-subterranean, unfriendly-seeming chamber on the lowest level of the venerable Carnegie building.I may have felt somewhat daunted when I began exploring the main level, as a youngster among the librarians and older patrons, but that’s where I found the books that elevated my reading life, at least in terms of fiction.
As I remember it, there was an alcove on the right side of the library which served as a reading area—magazines, newspapers, comfortable chairs. A small science fiction section was shelved there. I think the books were regarded as questionable stepchildren because the genre had yet to gain widespread respect. Nevertheless, they were a lodestone for me; their fascinating narratives and the better writing soon won my favor.Shortly after that the seduction at Grand News took place.
My reading preferences were also influenced by the very place in which I lived. Huntsville was the Rocket City. To be growingup as that civic identity developed and gained world-wide recognition as a result of the innovative work that was being done at Redstone Arsenal and Marshall Space Flight Centergave one a special sense of place and could certainly stir one’s interest in the technological spirit of the times. It came with the territory. My sense of wonder found another focus there.
The 1950s abounded with sources seeking to encourage the public’s engagement with the future of space flight and exploration. Magazine journalism served as an important tool in that effort. Although I only caught up with them sometime in the1960s through my love for science fiction, eight articles under the comprehensive title “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” were published by Collier’s Magazine from 1952 to 1954. Wernher von Braun helped write the series and Chesley Bonestell created a significant portion of its illustrations. Their contributions-- onescientific, the other artistic-- combined to create a vision of the future in space that was compelling and spectacular. Bonestell’s paintings, for the articles and in subsequent publications, were so striking and original in conception that he came to be recognized as the “Father of Modern Space Art.”
Millions more Americans were introduced to the charismatic von Braun through his participation in three segments of Walt Disney’s popular television series, Disneyland, in 1955 and 1957. The Disney magic with animation and storytelling, the use of impressive rocket and space station models (partly derived from the art of the Collier’s articles), and the earnest and authoritative presentations by von Braun of his ideas added up toentertaining and informative programs. Local hero hits the big-time.
The 1950s saw a boom in the production of science fiction movies, with quality running from schlock to excellent. I’ll list my top ten, chronologically: The Thing From Another World (1951); The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); Invaders From Mars (1953); The War of the Worlds (1953); 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954); Them (1954); Tobor the Great (1954);Forbidden Planet (1956); Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956); 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).
My crowned favorite, Forbidden Planet, was the classiest and is rightfully considered a classic. It had high production values; an excellent script (based partly on Shakespeare’s The Tempest); a cool flying saucer starship (Hollywood’s salute to the UFO mania of the time?); Robby the Robot; the astounding remnants of a vanished advanced civilization; an invisible killer; a mad scientist; and the virginal and alluring Anne Francis. At the time, could there have been a better movie?
In 1959, I was in the middle of the eighth grade. As I’ve recounted in several past Traveller essays, life could be challenging for a terrestrial teenager (girls, learning to play the French horn, raging emotions, peer pressure-- to name just a few). In my private life, I began to discover the pleasures of science fiction. I began to journey among the stars, to find out what spring was like on Jupiter and Mars.
To be continued.
Some readers might not be familiar with Tom Swifties. A Tom Swifty is a play on words taking the form of a quotation ascribed to Tom and followed by an adverb. For example: “You have the right to remain silent,” said Tom arrestingly. This one is considered a masterpiece: “I just dropped the toothpaste,” said Tom crestfallenly. “Mine are not masterpieces, but they are tailored to this essay,” Rainer said fittingly.