Friday, July 1, 2016

Adventure classics – The pre-invention of Star Trek

Time for the Stars
by Robert A. Heinlein
Are you ready, Trekkies, for the 50th anniversary of the iconic science fiction TV series? While there were race riots and sexism and an East-West Cold War standoff on Earth, Star Trek brought us episodes of a multi-racial, male-female, American-Russian-whatever crew. And they were all living in harmony aboard a spaceship named for a World War II submarine. It was space as exciting, sexy and even funny.

And for that we have to thank – oh, a lot of people, including Gene and Majel Roddenberry (whose first pilot script tanked because it featured Majel as second in command of a starship; the TV world, it seemed was not prepared for a high-ranking female officer). Not that Majel disappeared. She would live on as the calm female voice of the ship’s computer, among other incarnations. And of course, there was also comedy team of Captain James T. Kirk, aka handsome Canadian William Shatner, and his straight man Mr. Spock, aka Leonard Nimoy. And more. For a further discussion about Star Trek and its legacy, I liked Smithsonian Magazine’s interviews with the writers of The Fifty-Year Mission.

But we must also thank the guy who even Star Trek frequently acknowledged it all: Robert Heinlein. He was the science fiction novelist who 10 years before Star Trek had paved the Enterprise’s path through space with a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-gender crew on a mission to go where no one had gone before. Heinlein’s novel, Time for the Stars, also featured its own comedy team, in the persons of mind-reading, identical teenage twins named Tom and Pat Bartlett. (Future shades of Mr. Spock’s Vulcan mind-meld?)

Time for the Stars was far from Heinlein’s only science fiction novel. One of the most prolific science fiction authors from the 1930’s until his death in 1988, he influenced many others, including novelist/screenwriter David Gerrold, writer of the Star Trek episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.”

(Fearing that Gerrold had accidently plagiarized the fuzzily adorable tribbles from creatures in another of Heinlein’s novels, the Star Trek team asked to purchase Heinlein's rights. His price: a signed copy of the "Tribbles" script, for which he later thanked Gerrold.)

Who else did Heinlein influence? Try real-life identical (although probably not mind-reading) twins Gregory and James Benford who have gone on to become both science fiction writers and scientists. Gregory is an emeritus physics professor as well as a Nebula Award-winning author of science fiction. James, also a physicist, has also dabbled in science fiction but heads his own technology company.

Both brothers, however, have a shared dream to see humans travel to interstellar space and I'll also be discussing works by Gregory Benford during this July’s discussion of science fiction classics. So there you have the month’s line up: Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, Heinlein’s Time for the Stars, and the Benfords’ work in both science fiction and science reality. I'll also be glad to hear from readers about whether the latest Star Trek movie to be released this month lives up to its legacy.

Long may it live and prosper!

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