Science Fiction as Popular Culture: A Sense of Wonder

According to SF critics Alexei and Cory Panshen, Science Fiction fulfills a human need to transcend our normal consciousness and to enter, via the imagination, worlds of marvel, wonder, astonishment and amazement. Though Darko Suvin states that SF’s supposed “sense of wonder” is a “superannuated slogan… ready for retirement” and jaded SF fans mockingly scoff at it as a “sensawunna,” no one can deny the wonderful childhood memories associated with SF.

For Baby Boomers, our first encounters with science fiction may have been the early 1950s cliffhanger tv series Captain Video and His Video Rangers. Unbeknownst to most us at the time, the scripts for Captian Video were written by some of the foremost SF authors, including Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Other space operas such as Tom Corbett’s Space Cadets soon followed, providing us with an apt term to use, later in life, for those who were a bit loony. Comic book characters from the 1930s like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Flash Gordon with his adversary Ming the Merciless eventually made their appearances on radio, tv and the silver screen. However, we may remember them best as parodied in those wallet-sized Tiajuana Eight-Pagers we highly coveted during our prepubescence and early adolescence – as heroes having “down-to-earth” sex while “blasting off in space.”

Classics Illustrated (a literary highbrow comic book series which met with our parents’ and teachers’ approval) may have introduced us to novels by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells: From Earth to the Moon, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (Capt. Nemo and the Nautilus), Journey to the Center of the Earth, Food of the Gods (giant rats), The Time Machine (Elois and Morlocks), The War of the Worlds (we were too young for the 1938 mass hysteria-provoking Orson Welles broadcast), First Men in the Moon and The Invisible Man – whom we also remember from tv winding the bandages off and on his transparent head.

TV also provided us with Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone (in the episiode entitled “To Serve Man,” aliens ship thousands to their home planet, until a linguist translates the contents of the title book – and discovers with horror that it’s a cookbook), as well as its competitor The Outer Limits and a knockoff called One Step Beyound. A seventh-grade schoolmate reads an Asimov novel and bafflingly reveals to us that The End of Eternity is the “beginning of Infinity.”

A buddy down the block consumes Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze novels and Frank Herbert’s Dune series. EC Comics have no code of approval and offer titles like Weird Science. In DC comics, we meet space travelers Tommy Tomorrow of the Planeteers, and Adam Strange who is transported via Zeta Beam to the planet Rann of the star system Alpha Centuri. In a time travel paradox Superboy journeys into the future to meet himself as an older Superman, and they violently clash, one hurling himself at the other, while the cover poses a mind-bending physics conundrum, “What Happens When an Irresistible Force Meets an Immovable Object?” In Marvel Comics, gamma rays create the Fantastic Four; The Silver Surfer is the herald of Galactus; and mutants become X-Men.

The pocket book size illustrated collection of Ray Bradbury’s stories is an endless joy as are issues of the incomparable periodical Heavy Metal. Some of us are not much for novels but we devour short stories in annual collections like the World’s Best Science Fiction or in periodicals like Asimov’s Science Fiction. A college buddy quips that Spock is “the ultimate Tonto” – the “Third World” sidekick to the white hero. We ponder if cruel capitalists in the future will repossess prosthetic limbs for late monthly payments – since the enhanced body parts of a bionic man are worth six million dollars. We ruminate over the possible veiled meaning of the collective Hive Mind of the Borg – is it really a cheap shot at socialism, a parody of a communist utopia? Close Encounters of the Third Kind astonishes us in our adulthood; Darth Vader, the Dark Side of the Force, and laser beam swordfights are forever etched in our memories. For our inner child, C3PO harkens back to Tin Man of Oz (though ET can go home forever – please!).

As popular culture, science fiction has touched us all. It is interwoven into the fabric of our lives and has always been an irrefutable and incomparable agent to wondrous flights of the imagination.

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