Klaatu barada nikto...

It's difficult to believe, but there was a time--and not really so long ago--when science fiction was viewed as a lowbrow, downmarket niche for adolescent males between, say, 12 and 62. But around 1977 something changed. That was the year Star Wars came out. Prior to this, science fiction retained the indelible stamp of its lowly origin. Even something as popular as Star Trek existed only as a cult phenomenon, one whose scattered fans lamented the series' demise with no awareness that it was about to become a full-blown Hollywood franchise. Before 1977 you could still experience the secret, subversive pleasure of discovering some obscure and disreputable sci-fi author wedged in between the comic books and pornography of a seedy secondhand bookshop.

To be sure, there were always a few well-thumbed copies of Ray Bradbury's R is for Rocket and The Martian Chronicles on my school's library bookshelves, but this was tame stuff, vanilla sci-fi. You certainly weren't going to find Phillip Jose Farmer, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick or Chester Anderson at school. I recall reading Farmer's Image of the Beast when I was about 14 or 15. It's a novel so lurid and bizarre that scenes from it have stuck with me for decades: corpses flayed, filled with helium and bobbing around the ceiling of a ballroom like party balloons, a prostitute/vampiress with a snake coiled in her womb that bore the head of Giles de Rais, and fog like green milk curdling across a dystopian Los Angeles cityscape. I would pass this novel along to my pals, looking both ways up and down junior high halls and muttering sotto voce, "You have got to read this."

Of course nobody makes hard and fast distinctions between literary genres any longer. We are all more "enlightened" today and willing to acknowledge that science fiction is no less legitimate a genre than any other. Like I said, Star Wars changed everything. Before it appeared science fiction was mind rot. Afterwards, it was mainstream pop culture. Before Luke, Darth and Obi Wan, technology in sci-fi movies was often depicted as something ominous. Both lowbrow films (Godzilla) and highbrow ones (2001: A Space Odyssey) shared a phobia about technology and modernity.

That vanished with R2D2 and C3PO, those cute little robots whose introduction to the world conveniently coincided with the release of the Apple II and the TSR-80, the first versions of the home computer. Within five years Matthew Broderick was playing the hacker/hero in War Games. Before 1977 computers like H.A.L. 9000 scared us; afterward, they became the tools we used to save the world. Think about it. Can you imagine a popular movie today that looked at technology as we did in the pre-1977 era? Would anyone produce a film today that portrayed computer video games as sinister mind control devices, or cell phones as Orwellian tele-screens that track our every movement? I understand the new ebook readers like Kindle and the Nook contain whispernet software that records what you read and how long you spend on a given page. All of that personal info is secretly transmitted back to the corporate mothership where your profile is as up-to-date as an East German's Stasi record. It's illegal for a librarian to pass on this information without a warrant from a judge, but it's somehow okay for corporations to do this. I don't get that.

In fact, I'm not sure I would read some of the stuff I secretly read as a kid if I knew someone were keeping tabs. My sister had a copy of Fanny Hill jammed under her mattress and my mom a copy of Gore Vidal's Myra Breckenridge and The Harrad Experiment hidden in her dresser drawer. They kept these books hidden for a reason, and finding them (along with a copy of Farmer's Blown in a secondhand bookstore) was just part of the private, adolescent thrill of reading.

That's all gone now. More's the pity.


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