Monday, April 15, 2013

Wordcraft -- Growing up with science fiction

Ray Bradbury originally insisted his 1953 dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451 was about censorship. But he didn't underestimate the role -- good or bad -- technology would play in our future.

From ear buds (he called them “shells”) streaming music relentlessly to twenty-four hour talk and reality programs shown on wall-sized screens to designer prescription drugs for every psychic ailment -- Bradbury imagined them all. Generations after the technology he foresaw, it was pertinent in this month of the Dallas Public Library’s Big Read emphasis on Fahrenheit 451 to consider what it was like -- and is like -- to grow up in a world shaped by science fiction.

So last Tuesday, Dallas literary organization WordSpace brought together a panel of literary and science geek speakers to discuss the role of science fiction played in their lives.

WordSpace’s programming co-chairperson Charles Dee Mitchell moderated the discussion by Dallas public media KERA’s Jerome Weeks, National Space Society of North Texas president Ken Ruffin, and WordSpace’s OffWorld Science Fiction Book club host Phillip Washington.

Joking that Washington -- obviously too youthful to have read Fahrenheit 451 at its initial appearance -- “kept this from being a panel of middle-aged men,” Mitchell asked, “what was your first science fiction experience?”

Washington cited Orson Scott Card’s 1980’s Ender's Game, “not because it has spaceships and interstellar aliens, but because it was the first book I read that made me consider long durations of time. It was mind bending.”

“My first exposure to science fiction was watching Star Trek,” Ruffin said. Too young to remember the show during its original 1960’s seasons, he saw it in later syndication. “My aunts and uncles were talking about this weird show with these fake-looking aliens -- it was ’60’s special effects. I’m eight years old, and I sat down in front of the TV and was mesmerized.”

(Not even Bradbury would have quibbled over Ruffin’s choice. Biographer Sam Weller notes that Bradbury, who would write many scripts for TV joked, “I never said I was against all television. I am just against bad television!”)

“Between the age of six and thirteen,” Weeks said, “I read everything in my suburban (Detroit) library” including anthologies that introduced him to such science fiction writers as Robert Heinlein and Bradbury. “My sister also subscribed to two science fiction magazines.”

Oh, those wonderful, pulpy science fiction magazines, Mitchell reminisced. The ones he looked at longingly on the book store shelves but couldn’t buy because their covers invariably displayed scantily-dressed women, “usually clutched by aliens, with tentacles covering the interesting parts.”

And then, somehow, the magic disappeared. No panelist except Washington would confess to reading or even watching science fiction after passing adolescence. Even science fan Ruffin said, “I have not re-read any novels -- as much as I enjoyed them when I was younger. I was afraid they wouldn’t have the same effect on me.”

What killed science fiction for them? And how do the newest generation of young adult readers view the genre? Can it -- should it -- be revived, or is it as dead as a T. rex? I'll continue the discussion in next Monday’s Wordcraft. Additional Big Read events include Bradbury biographer Sam Weller on a panel discussing censorship this Thursday, April 18, at Dallas’ Bar Belmont, 901 Fort Worth Avenue, from 7-8 p.m. The discussion is free, drinks are on you.   See

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