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Vintage Science Fiction Literature – a mind-expanding dump of discovery in the Golden Age –

Damon Knight is largely forgotten today, but he was a huge big shot in the ’50s and ’60s. For one thing, his short story “To Serve Man” was the basis for one of the Twilight Zone’s most iconic episodes. Damon Knight was known for punchy short stories with twist endings, with or without TV adaptations.

Philip Jose Farmer. Don’t judge him by his later, tame Riverworld or Dayworld series, he wrote those to pay the bills. Up until the end of the 1960s, Farmer wrote stories which won Hugo awards but were unpublishable due to pushing the envelope on taboo topics like sex, religion, politics, and sacred cows everywhere. He was also a mad punster who leaned to experimental styles. He only saw success after the 1970s, when the world had finally grown up enough to handle him.

These books were a huge chunk of my childhood. Even if I’d seen the episode, I’d still want to read Blish’s adaptations because he came up with deeper spins on the stories. Yes, I know, this makes him the very first Star Trek fanfiction writer. They’d publish three episodes per paperback, and I’d devour them as soon as they’d pop up in the spinner rack.

This word was damn near adopted into standard English. I actually had teachers in school use the word “grok.” Contexty linky: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grok

Might as well post Harlan Ellison now and get it over with. This is the very first book by him I ever read, when I were a wee tot, and he was my most influential author, becoming about 30% of why I’m a freelance writer today. The rest of the Internet remembers him for being a grouchy poop (no arguments there) and for the most horrifying AI apocalypse story ever, but he did SO much more!

How to title a book so everybody remembers it forever, even if very few actually read it.

Isaac Asimov, an author who made a habit out of posing for photographs while seated regally in a throne literally built out of books he had written. Of course duh, also a big influence on me. Marketers knew how popular he was and eagerly jumped at the chance to publish an anthology rag with him as the figurehead. Needless to say, I also lived on a steady diet of anthology rags throughout the ’70s.

Relax, it won’t all be wordy book stuff. This sack of candy was the British series UFO, which had a short life in the 1960s. But out of all the mid-century sci-fi series, this was the corniest and the most swinging at the same time. Feel the rush from the theme tune, which sounds like Austin Powers in space:

And now for the Irwin Allen TV sci-fi series which was spammed to death in syndicated reruns for a while there. For much of the 20th, sci-fi was just as likely to be about the ocean as about space, because it was an equally mysterious domain which we were also delayed in exploring until we had capable technology. Oddly enough, it played exactly like Star Trek under the sea, with a “monster of the week” format and everything.

And another Irwin Allen TV series forgotten today, Time Tunnel was about time travelers in a research laboratory having adventure in history. Like anything by Allen, it was goofy and hokey, but still campy fun. They just could not get over themselves about their cool concentric circles motif set. A one-season wonder, this was Allen’s personal favorite. Ripe for a reboot, except we have to wait until the Era of Self-Important Pompous Stupidity is over and we’re allowed to have silly fun again.

No introduction necessary; this is still a venerated classic today. Yes, the movie was a heap o’ shit, forget it. This is what the cover looked like on the copy I read. Oh, I’ll quit teasing you: A Wrinkle in Time.

Now HERE is a sci-fi trilogy just screaming to be taken seriously and played straight in adapting it to a major budget movie project. Why are studios too chicken-shit to make this? Ringworld, at least at its peak, had a following every bit as devoted as LoTR. It even got a video game adaptation back in the 1990s, what happened? Oh, wait, I know what it is, Niven is a HARD SF writer who actually puts some “Science” into “science fiction.” How sca-a-a-ary!

Clarke is known today for 2001: A Space Odyssey – and nothing else. But he actually cranked out stacks of space-stories, and all of them were consistently satisfactory. Come to that, 2001 was adapted from a short story called “The Sentinel,” and if you thought The Hobbit adaptation as a trilogy was contrived, you should compare The Sentinel and Kubrick’s epic.

This cult classic was first released in 1973, but I discovered it on USA’s Night Flight. It’s hard to pin down why it’s so mind-blowing. It’s definitely closer to Golden Age SF than most movies, and has a singular, unique vision that’s almost kinky in its preoccupations. 366 Weird review (not by me):

The Black Hole was the best thing Disney ever produced for the entire 1970s decade. Fight me!

While we’re on the subject of Disney and sci-fi, this ride Adventure Thru Inner Space is gone now and I will never forgive them for removing it. It was the closest you could come to taking a ride right through a Golden Age SF novel. Narrated by the thundering baritone of Paul Frees, it was a journey into sub-atomic space via comfy chairs heading into a microscope which appears to shrink passengers down to doll size. Because it was ripped out too soon, no video ride-throughs exist, but fans lovingly modeled it in 3D software – not nearly as glorious as it was, but as close as could be expected. In person this thing was HUGE, enough to trigger people’s megalophobia.

Robert Sheckley is another author forgotten too soon today. He was a good world-builder, cranking out space epics and alternate universes by the barrel and then dabbling in headier stuff like Immontality, Inc. about time-traveling body-snatchers, which got made into the 1992 movie Freejack (I am its only fan). Dig the Damon Knight blurb.

Dick, of course. This was adapted into a movie widely loved and praised; what is it about Philip K. Dick novels that make so many good adaptations?

Oh, and here’s how Clockwork Orange was packaged BEFORE Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation. It’s a wonder this one ever got that popular. Try reading it: Nadsat is an extremely dense language and Burgess never was one to have mercy on the reader’s poor overwhelmed brain. You have to read a sentence, flip to the glossary in the back, flip back, shit where was I?

This show was so friggin’ huge in the 1970s it was impossible. They threw in Bigfoot fighting this guy and it still stayed on. No, this doesn’t fit in as well with the rest of this post, but I actually had this toy as a kid. It had a magnifying eye effect where you could look through his head. It was a sci-fi show, it just missed the Golden Age, but it was wholly informed by it.

“& other weirdies.” Thanks, cover blurb writer, hope you didn’t knock yourself out from all that effort. You almost described the whole cover, which likely has nothing to do with any of the stories inside.

This is the part where I get to say “FUCK your Transformers!” Micronauts were the living shit a decade before that, and the toys were billed as “the interchangeable world” – instead of just transforming, you could take them apart and build them into something else, plus the parts from different figures, vehicles, and buildings worked with each other too. It was like Transformers + Legos! So that turned out to be too awesome for kids to handle, and they dialed it back to the wimpy stuff.

Now, Heinlein (remember grok back there?) was more celebrated for his Stranger in a Strange Land period, but don’t forget he was a pulp boy’s adventure author first. Contrary to most Heinlein fans, I actually like his later work. Despite the fact that he turned into Ayn Rand with more sex, he was still able to make a story fun and funny, occasionally thought-provoking. Never that good, but consistently pleasing cheesy texture. I think the same part of me that adores Italian Giallo movies likes later Heinlein.

How did I talk about British sci-fi TV and not mention this one? Space: 1999. It was a middling series, starting out like a Star Trek clone and camping out into a Lost In Space clone. Just listen to this theme! It’s John Williams scoring for Superfly.

Come on, you’ve heard of him: as in Sturgeon’s law. He wrote for Trek, some of his stories became Twilight Zone episodes after the reboot, and he is said to be the inspiration for Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout. Sturgeon had the gift of thinking in cute ideas rendered in funny narratives, without it being a complete farce. But very, very steeped in the 1950s.

This didn’t get made because when it did get made, an epidemic of mind-blowing provoked future time travelers to come back and stop its production, toning it down with David Lynch instead, who agreed to be as un-Lynch-like as he could and take one for the team.

Not to be forgotten were all the cheap filk around Star Trek. They licensed dippy little activity books like this, and non-fiction speculating on the metaphysics of Star Trek, coloring books, all kinds of crazy junk.

I devoured stacks of these Gold Key Star Trek comics when I was a kid. They were cheap and awful, but I was obliged by then to read them because they had “Star Trek” on the cover.

Larry Niven gets in here twice, because I forgot to mention he even got an MTG card named after him. Also, Protector was another rocking and brilliant idea. I don’t dare spoil it for you.

Just a reminder that Ray Bradbury wrote something besides Celsius 232.778.

OK, one more Ellison. I liked this too, of course. Harlan Ellison was physically incapable of writing a bad story.

Can we just mention Jack Kirby in a vintage SF post once? I mean, just how much space did this man draw? And how many Pepperlands of blotter acid did he have to scarf to see colors and visions like this?

Worlds of If was another one I’d fish out of used magazine bins if I couldn’t find anything else. I believe this title was short-lived, because it disappeared after awhile.

And a reminder that James Blish did more than just Star Trek novelizations. He had his own universes to build, really quite prolific.

While Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation was more of a techno-thriller for its day, it is now acknowledged as a science fiction movie because it focused on the ways new surveillance technology is changing society. Watch this and get a chill for how much of today it foreshadowed.

ZARDOZ! One of these days I need to write up an explainer for this movie. I can see where it was trying to come from. What this movie is is about two and a half classic science fiction stories struggling to get free. While being boiled alive in the bubbling LSD vat that was John Borman’s blunt mind.

You’re damn right it belongs in with the golden age stuff! Did you know it contains homages to several classic SF stories, such as Ray Bradbury’s short story Kaleidoscope?

Clarke again, because the title short story here has a bang ending!

To close, this image says a lot about why I like sci-fi. It is just the most eloquent way to mash up thought-provoking ideas and themes into metaconcepts and play with them. Obviously we’re making a statement about the Information Age (that’s an IBM 80-column punched card, BTW), and maybe Capitalism too, plus religion from the context. But sci-fi lets you cut through the long-winded part and go “watch this” and then it sizzles your synapses. Sci-fi places no limits on how clever you can be.

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