Saturday, September 02, 2006

Ready for Vega

So Star Trek had an adventure story hero in Captain Kirk, based largely on the hero of C. S. Forrester’s naval adventures, Horatio Hornblower. The conventions of fictional shipboard adventures were observed in characters like Scotty, the constantly-in-crisis, miracle-working engineer. The crusty, skeptical doctor with a heart of gold was familiar from westerns as well. The element of the fantastic was represented, of course, in the mysterious, otherworldly Mr. Spock.

The adventure is an aspect or a “level” of more sophisticated sci-fi: and the romance of the strange and unknown, as well as the attraction of heroes who use their minds and hearts as well as their brawn, is part of the best science fiction of all eras. It has been important in inspiring young readers and viewers, including those who would continue and expand the literature, as well as those who would become doctors and engineers, scientists and astronauts.

The adventure that combines the apparent magic of technology with the bright and mystical appeal of strange new worlds, carrying along with it so many other perennial fantasies and yearnings, sparks the imagination, particularly of the young. For instance, twelve year old Ursula LeGuin, who found a little leather bound copy of Lord Dusany’s A Dreamer’s Tale in the living room bookcase one boring evening. Later she and her brother shared copies of Thrilling Wonder Magazine, making favorite phrases from the stories a part of their secret language.

Or young Margaret Atwood, hiding from homework in the basement by reading H. Rider Haggard and H.G. Wells in old volumes forgotten by her father. Or young Issac Asimov, devouring the new issues of the sci-fi pulp magazines, reading in "vivid and agonizing transport because I wanted to be part of the story and couldn't…" These science fiction stories "ravished my soul and opened it to a music of the spheres that few can hear…"

Or young Henry Miller poring over Rider Haggard's tales in a secret hillside cave with his blood brothers—"these books were part of our Spartan discipline, our spiritual training…..Our grown-up boys, the scientists, prate about the imminent conquest of the moon” (he wrote in the 1960s); “our children have already voyaged far beyond the moon. They are ready, at a moment's notice, to take off for Vega—and beyond. They beg our supposedly superior intellects to furnish them with a new cosmogony and a new cosmology. They have grown intolerant of our naïve, limited, antiquated theories of the universe."

Or young Jose Luis Borges, exploring strange new worlds through the words of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. “Wells’ fictions were the first books I read,” he would later recall; “perhaps they will be the last.”

“Something so absurd as a boyhood book momentarily captures the mind and never quite releases it,” a character muses in a novel by Jim Harrison. The “childishness” in sci-fi adventure continues to speak to the child’s sense of possibility and yearning for purposeful action. It’s a chord that Star Trek continues to strike, forty years later.

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