Saturday, August 19, 2006

Moviemakers were not alone in expressing these anxieties. A steady flow of novels and short stories dealt with these themes, including best-sellers. They envisioned a future of technological oppression, as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953.) Orwell’s message according to one critic “is simply that our industrial machine civilization is tending to deracinate and debilitate us, and will finally destroy us…”

Some writers tried to imagine the nuclear apocalypse itself, and its aftermath. As early as 1950, Judith Merril examined the impact of nuclear war on a single American home in Shadow On the Hearth. In The Last Day (1959), Helen Clarkson wrote about the immediate aftermath of a thermonuclear attack on a family and relatively isolated community (the 1983 film Testament had a similar story.)

Science fiction authors and magazines were particular obsessed with the ramifications of nuclear apocalypse. Poul Anderson wrote one apocalyptic fiction after another, with titles that told his attitude: Un-Man, Cold Victory and After Doomsday among them. As he emphasized in his non-fiction book, Thermonuclear War (1961), these times were “the most dangerous in the history of mankind.”

Astounding after the war was a very black magazine,” science fiction chronicler Brian Aldiss writes of the premier sci-fi pulp. “Many stories were of Earth destroyed, culture doomed, humanity dying, and of the horrific effects of radiation, which brought mutation or insidious death.” He cites titles like “Dawn of Nothing,” “And Then There Were None,” “There Is No Defence” (by Theodore Sturgeon.) So pervasive were these themes that even in a science fiction novel for juvenile readers, a teenager’s adventures with an expedition on the moon turned suddenly somber when nuclear war erupts on Earth.

In the movies nuclear problems were beginning to come out from behind the monster and alien metaphors by the end of the decade. There had been several films attempting to portray the immediate aftermath of nuclear war in the early 1950s, but a new level of realism, at least in terms of human reaction, made On the Beach (1959) a major popular and critical hit. With current and upcoming movie stars (Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins) and an A List director in Stanley Kramer, it is credited with bringing a new sobriety and engagement among a broader range of the public.

By the end of the decade, the nuclear cloud blotting out the future became more and more explicit. Working steadily at his expanding career, GR may not have been paying a lot of attention to this yet. But he could hardly fail to absorb it, for it was just about everywhere.

But then, something changed. While this mood continued into the 1960s, there were other events, and a sudden new atmosphere, that inspired a more hopeful vision. Many became convinced again that this bold and human future, this electrifying adventure, could happen-- and even that it was happening, and they were making it happen. The mood and many of the events were centered on a member of Gene Roddenberry’s generation---in fact, another a veteran of the war in the South Pacific--- who came to Los Angeles to talk of a new frontier.

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