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Living in the Past

The Agony Column for April 18, 2002

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


It used to be that science fiction was pretty much a synonym for futuristic fiction. That's no longer the case. The blossoming of alternate history novels and the wild success of historical mysteries such as 'The Name of the Rose' and 'The Alienist' have helped create a market for something that sounds almost like a contradiction in terms -- historical science fiction.

But alternate histories are not the only way for science fiction and other writers to live in the past. I've just managed to read three very disparate books that all draw on the allure of the 1960's. They all had that vibe. I swear I didn't do this on purpose. It just happened. One of the books -- the non-fiction but wild-as-SF 'Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship' -- inserted itself into my reading queue by virtue of showing up on the shelves of my local bookstore. Another, 'Time and Relative' by Kim Newman, I had to order from an overseas vendor, and wait for ages while it crept across on the ocean strapped to back of a poorly-trained dolphin. The first in the trio, John Shirley's '...And the Angel With Television Eyes' had been sitting patiently in my in box for a couple of months while other books mysteriously bumped it back a notch in the queue. When I first saw the book, I was hot to trot and read it, but something always seemed to come up. Isn't there always something? 'Something' in this case turns out to be that Shirley's novel was waiting for the right time, the right companions. Finally, they arrived.

Now, the sixties connection of these books is tenuous at best. But it's the kind of connection that once made when reading, doesn't go away. Of the three, 'And the Angel' has the most tenuous sixties connection. It's definitely there in vibe only. But for this reader, it was definitely there. 'And the Angel With Television Eyes' is difficult to classify or pigeonhole. As usual, Shirley evades categorization with ease, simply slipping into his own version of reality. '...And the Angel' is set in the present, telling the story of Max Whitman, a soap-opera actor who becomes drawn into a netherworld of energy entities after a trip to the sensory deprivation tank. Inside he experiences powerful hallucinations that seem utterly real. Once he's out of the tank, he's not out of the hallucinations.

It's time to start hallucinating! Get your daily dose of John Shirley in '...And the Angel With Television Eyes' and get ready to leave reality behind.

Yes, I'll admit it, this bit of 'Altered States, Part II' was the first signpost that Shirley was going on what to me would be a sentimental journey. There's so much more in this book that brings out the best part of the psychedelic sixties. It's not a nostalgia trip, a journey down memory lane. It's an open-minded and strangely positive point of view that makes '...And the Angel' a compelling bit of neo-psychedelia. As Max plunges further and further into a world of weird entities with competing factions, Shirley piles on the fantastic imagery. There's never a dull moment in this novel. When we're not conversing with archetypal entities, we're exploring an ecological niche occupied by 'myth robots'. Shakespeare, high fantasy, on-line role playing games, science fiction conventions, and classical mythology all go in the hopper of this mind-blending novel. And despite the fact that nobody does gritty reality better than Shirley, there's still an -- innocent? -- hopeful? -- open to possibility? -- point of view that pervades the writing. Imagine a collaboration between Carlos Casteneda and young David Cronenburg. Better yet, buy this wonderful novel and dive into the cracks that it opens in genre writing and reality.

George Dyson chronicles the creation of a scientific Camelot in 'Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship'

It was an easy step from the uber-myth of John Shirley to the 'Hotter than the Sun, Cooler than a Bomb' reality of George Dyson's 'Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship'. This book represents impulse buying at its finest. Seen at the bookshop, picked up and bought that instant. Like '...And the Angel', 'Project Orion' captures the high hopes and endless seas of possibility (thank you Patti Smith) that the sixties opened us up to. The story actually starts in the late 1950's as the launch of Sputnik galvanizes the nation. Cold war, schmold war -- Sputnik yanked our attention to the importance of developing new technology, like -- now. And thus, ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) was willing to jump at the idea of using atomic bombs to launch a huge rocket, an order of magnitude larger than those being launched today.

From 1958 until 1965 the Orion Project planned for a trip to Saturn by 1970. I wish I were living in that alternate timeline!

Dyson's story is fascinating, filled with bits and scenes the reader will never forget. Frederic deHoffman was a young physicist turned entrepreneur, who in 1955 founded General Atomic, where he "sought to recapture the freewheeling spirit he had known at Los Alamos during the war...Where else could a thirty-two year old physicist show up for work the day after Sputnik, start daydreaming about how many bombs it would take to put something the size of a nuclear submarine into orbit, and spend the next seven years...making a serious effort to get the idea off the ground?"

The remaining Orion Test module in the Smithsonian institution looks like something out of a Doctor Who episode.

Where indeed except in La Jolla, California, on acres of seaside land overlooking the Pacific Ocean? DeHoffman and his colleagues built a huge and futuristic complex, centered around a cafeteria /library that was as wide as the spaceship they were proposing to send up. There, led by Ted Taylor, who as a boy had come to love blowing things up, the scientists gathered to enjoy the best of both worlds. They got to blow stuff up for a noble cause -- "Saturn by 1970". It sounds so quaint, so charming, so alternate history that it can't be true, can it? Did they really think that we could climb into space on the back of atomic bombs? Damn straight they did, and it's still possible. The technology is still around and Dyson does have some rather dicey statements where he and the people he interviews have to talk around material that is still classified, since it's still relevant to 'Strategic Defense'.

Dreaming Big in the early Sixties -- The Orion NPT vehicle still lives on the web.

But moreover, there's a huge community out there that sees this technology as extremely viable, and still finds the same boundless, optimistic hope that the progenitors saw back in the sixties. Run a quick web search on Orion and you'll find hundreds of web sites dedicated to the idea of using Nuclear Pulse Technology. We can still achieve the dream of space. You can rocket your perceptions back to the time before we went to the moon and did nothing to follow up. You can step back into the same shoes while you cut pictures of the astronauts out of Life magazine. And you can read this incredible book to start your journey to the future that has not yet passed us by.

A more traditional method of internstellar travel?

Or, if you prefer, you can step into the traditional Police Box.

Kim Newman, author of the awesome 'Anno Dracula' and countless other fantastic novels lends an aura of quality to the new line of Doctor Who Novellas, and does a spot-on job of recreating the feel of England in the early sixties.

It's much larger on the inside than it is on the outside. I can't really explain the specifics to you -- it's something to do with 'Time and Relative', a NEW -- yes you read this here -- new Doctor Who novella by noted British author Kim Newman. I guess it should be no surprise that the seminal sixties British SF icon Doctor Who is still around, and not just in repeats. Telos Publications has just launched a very attractive series of Doctor Who Novellas with Kim Newman's first installment taking place just before the first episode of the television show, in April of 1963. Telos certainly picked the perfect writer to begin this series. Kim Newman is a noted as a film and music historian, and he deploys his knowledge to great artistic effect in this wonderfully time-centric novella.

How many people start hearing the swirling synthesizer theme of Doctor Who when they see this logo? Ask the guys in Orbital, who recently did a techno remix of the seminal synth-pop song.

'Time and Relative' is told by Susan Foreman, and Newman uses her voice to describe the 1960's in all their innocence and unvarnished ugliness. The rock and rollers ("'For the rest of your life, you'll remember that you were there when the Beatles started.'"), the actors ("Albert Finney with an air rifle"), the racism and class-consciousness all trip effortlessly off of young Susan's pen in this diary-as-novella. Newman paints a bleak picture of a hard winter made harder by the resurrection of something Alien. He also delivers the chills of fear and not just bad weather. The Cold, Newman's Doctor Who Monster, is no man in a rubber suit, but effectively described as state-of-the-art digital effects, and its manifestations pop into the reader's brain without effort.

This crabby old critter never looked like he had much use for humans. Kim Newman's new novella treats him like the alien he is.

But The Cold is not the only Alien around -- Grandfather is an alien as well, and not particularly sympathetic to humans. Nor is he inclined to help them battle something that threatens to overwhelm the planet. "No meddling" is the order of the day, and Newman fleshes out the portrait of the Doctor as a thawing old curmudgeon. 'Time and Relative' functions just like the Police Box it describes -- step inside to journey back in time.

Carole Anne Ford played Susan Foreman, the storyteller in Kim Newman's new Doctor Who novella.

The best thing about all these books is that they offer the perfect paradox of time travel: moving about in time while remaining strictly in one place. And this too is what all reading is about, isn't it? Fast forwarding through someone else's hallucinations, sweeping through the seven years and ten million dollars of space travel that never came to fruition (yet!) in a few hundred pages, stepping in the present to a novella based on a 40 year-old TV program? If you start to add it all up, it gets a little frightening, doesn't it? How much time in your past has been spent living in the future? How time in your future will be spent living in the past? Alas, it's time for me to move on. I've got some more reading to do for the next column.




Rick Kleffel