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Space invaders from Hollywood

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The past, present and future of science-fiction

Aliens are among us.

Inspect the books that fill our shelves, the movies we see and the television shows that flicker in our living rooms. E.T., Wookies, Mr. Spock and other friendly aliens have become as common in our culture as Mickey Mouse.

In the last 10 years or so, science-fiction not only has become acceptable, it's unavoidable. Not since the 1950s has America had such a preoccupation with creepy-crawly residents of far-off planets.

In many ways, the national devotion to science-fiction fantasy borders on religious fervor. At "Star Trek" conventions, diehard devotees memorize dialogue with the precision of an evangelist quoting scripture. Screenings of "2001: A Space Odyssey" often spark heated discussions of the meaning of man's evolution. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" made people think about the power of the collective unconscious (or the linking of souls). There even was a suicide when "Battlestar Galactica " was taken off the air.

People take their science-fiction seriously - mainly because it promises them so many things that modern life denies. The space shuttle blows up, but the Enterprise can still sail at Warp 10 to far galaxies. The United States and Soviet Union can't sit down and be friends, but residents of different star systems can drink together at a rowdy bar in "Star Wars." While world hunger and dwindling resources plague the Earth, science-fiction heroes have the funds to building mammoth battle cruisers and space stations.

But science fiction offers much more than a soothing fantasy to cool the fevers of discontent. It also gives people something to hope for. It's hardly surprising that Carl Sagan, an astronomer, TV personality and current science-fiction author, basks in the love of the American populace. His curious pronunciations notwithstanding ("BILL-yuns and BILL-yuns"), Sagan is an indisputably intelligent, reasonable man who talks about the possibility of searching the stars for life. He advocates a manned mission to Mars. He keeps alive the national hope for exploration.

A few years ago, former Gemini and Apollo astronaut Jim McDivitt told me that the moon-race space program was important not because it led to the discovery of Teflon and Mylar but because it gave Americans something to fight for. After World War II, he said, we had a whole generation of Americans who needed to put their energies into something besides battle. A space race with the Russians proved to be the perfect, non-violent solution. What we really need now, he said, is a manned mission to Mars.

In the 1980s, when much of the Third World is rising in anger against the United States, there is a renewed need for peaceful combat. As in the '50s, relations with Russia are approaching Cold War status. Paranoia about the red menace in Nicaragua, the Mideast, Africa and even Europe is growing. Ever since Ayatollah Khomeini rubbed Uncle Sam's face in the dirt, there has been a deep national need to reclaim the national honor.

Ronald Reagan tried to repair the wounds with Grenada. Perhaps many more Americans would choose another space race.

The 1980s shares more than a political connection with the '50s. In the Eisenhower era, science-fiction enjoyed a boom just as Americans started reacquainting themselves with old-time religion. It's not coincidence that today's science-fiction surge happens at a time when religion has become big business in America.

When people starting turning their eyes toward God, they're also asking questions posed by the best of the science-fiction genre. Why are we here? The question has been posed many times in sci-fi, most forcefully in Arthur C. Clarke's and Stanley Kubrick's "2001." What is the force that controls our hearts and minds? Ask Yoda or Obi-Wan Kanobi in George Lucas's "Star Wars" epics. What would happen if Jesus returned? The "E.T." tale, a thinly disguised Christ story, paints the dire picture with uplifting highlights.

"Star Trek: The Motion Picture" captures the whole religious feeling with its tale of a lost space probe that has learned too much, become discontent and comes home to meet its maker.

So America comes home to its electric dreams. After a brief flirtation with naturalism in the '60s and early '70s, we are comfortable with technology again. We want a friendly but stern alien, just like the beings in "Cocoon," to whisk us away to nirvana in a mass of gyrating hardware.

Ever since "Star Wars" in 1977, Hollywood has counted its greenbacks almost every time a well-crafted science-fiction film hits the country's movie houses or television screens. The publishing business is just as space happy.

"This year, a record 1,300 titles were published," says Charles Brown, the editor of Locus, the leading science-fiction newspaper in the country. "Ten years ago there were less than half as many. Waldenbooks' science-fiction club has 300,000 members. Its romance club has 150,000. This has been a very popular year."

Science-fiction devotees naturally divide into two camps, which can be defined by two popular films: "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Star Wars."

The "2001" crowd takes its science-fiction seriously. They revere classic authors such as Isaac Asimov and Stanislaw Lem. They never use the term "sci-fi," which they consider derogatory. And they growl when you mention the likes of R2-D2.

The "Star Wars" camp is comprised of 12-year-olds, including those who were born in the '50s.

For the sake of practicality, this article will concern itself with the moderate-to-serious science-fiction fan, the average buff who isn't too proud to use the sci-fi label (but prefers the SF tag), who saw all three "Star Wars" films (but still complains about them) and who has a special place in his or her heart for the films of the '50s.

There's a pleasant irony to the fact that most fans of this most forward-thinking art form are hopelessly devoted to the past. At Hanley's Books, 1750 W. Jarvis, owner Florence Hanley can rattle off her list of best-selling authors: Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert. Talk about going back to the future!

"Well, of course there are popular current authors, too," Hanley says. "There are Theodore Sturgeon, Stanislaw Lem, R.A. Lafferty, Piers Anthony and Marion Zimmer Bradley."

But the classic authors keep science-fiction readers coming back to her tiny book shop in Rogers Park. "I got into this 20 years ago," Hanley says. "That's what sold. So I just kept ordering what people kept asking for, and I went with it."

Today, Hanley has one of the most complete science-fiction collections in the metropolitan area. That's because she keeps each title on her cramped shelves. When a Heinlein or an Asmiov sells, she orders another copy.

"Kroch's & Brentano's will tell a lot of people to call me," Hanley says. "I'm not cutting into their business because they can't afford to stock all these titles."

It's a tradeoff for Hanley, however. She keeps her inventory of hard-to-find and classic SF novels, but may not have some of the current releases. But that doesn't faze her. Anyone can pick

Captions: Patrick Troughton. ABOVE: Sigourney Weaver returns as Warrant Officer Ripley in "Aliens," the sequel to the 1979 sci-fi hit "Alien." RIGHT: Krites, creatures with lethal appetites, come to Earth for a little snack in "Critters," opening Friday. BELOW: For the remake of "The Fly," Jeff Goldblum takes on the David Hedison role as the scientist who mutates into an iridescent insect. Several sci-fi films have bombed at the box office, only to go into orbit high on the video charts: "Dune," the Frank Herbert classic starring rock star Sting (above left), and "Lifeforce," the interglactic tale of astronauts exploring an alien vessel hidden in Halley's comet.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Voedisch, Lynn (1986-04-06). Space invaders from Hollywood. Chicago Sun-Times p. Showcase, p. 4.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Voedisch, Lynn. "Space invaders from Hollywood." Chicago Sun-Times [add city] 1986-04-06, Showcase, p. 4. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Voedisch, Lynn. "Space invaders from Hollywood." Chicago Sun-Times, edition, sec., 1986-04-06
  • Turabian: Voedisch, Lynn. "Space invaders from Hollywood." Chicago Sun-Times, 1986-04-06, section, Showcase, p. 4 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Space invaders from Hollywood | url= | work=Chicago Sun-Times | pages=Showcase, p. 4 | date=1986-04-06 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=22 May 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Space invaders from Hollywood | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=22 May 2024}}</ref>