SCIENCE FICTION MADE ME A LIBERAL
With the current election cycle finally winding down, I look forward to the end of all the toxic attitudes and comments from all sides of the political spectrum.
What has for me personally been a surprise has been the vitriol aimed at those of the Liberal attitude from many within the horror and science fiction community. I am not so foolish as to think everyone who shares a mutual interest in a subject to lock step politically, though it is interesting that while we share a mutual joy in these subjects, that we take away different conclusions from them.
Being a small kid in the Bronx with a stutter and a strong Bronx accent, I always felt like an “outsider”. Then when I was very young, visiting relatives in Ireland, my older brother took me to the movies. The first movies that I ever saw on the big screen were FRANKENSTEIN (1931, Universal) and CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (Hammer,1957).
Mind you, this was in the early 1960s, but cinemas would sometimes pair older films and show them . Now I was terrified by both films (and indeed my brother & I were tossed out of the theatre because I was screaming so hard when Christopher Lee tore off his facial bandages), but I felt a certain sadness for the creatures too, and I was unknowingly hooked. Peter Cushing popped up in several other films and I was impressed by him as a performer and I began to get the idea that I would like to be an actor.
I found myself drawn to works by horror,science fiction and fantasy writers. In the era before the internet or home computers, one had to go to the library and research when one didn’t understand certain things. Due to the references of certain eras ,countries, etc,I would go to the library and read books on history ,politics ,and various topics . Rather than being bored I found that it enriched my appreciation of the stories that I read, and the world in general. While others in school were struggling with THE CAT IN THE HAT, I was reading histories of the Middle Ages so I would have a better understanding of the world of “The Pit & The Pendulum” .
Now hooked to fantasy /horror films, I recall that on television they had an ad on the old WOR-TV (Channel 9) in NYC. “Ghosts, murder, Regicide” intoned the unseen announcer as black and white images flew by the screen. I didn’t know what regicide was, but ghosts and murder were what I wanted to see.
At the appointed hour, I tuned on the t.v., and turned the knob to the channel. The film was Laurence Olivier’s HAMLET (RANK,1948). It looked like a horror film with its fog and moody photography (and heck at the end there was Peter Cushing as Osiric) but there was something more to the film. I didn’t understand all that was said, but I knew I wanted to speak like that. At the end, I was in tears, and knew that:
1-I wanted to be an actor
2-I wanted to speak like the people in the film and learn more about this “Shakespeare” guy who wrote it.
So, I would listen to recordings by Olivier, Gielgud, and others reading the works of the Bard (thank you Caedmon records) and it helped me develop my speaking voice and my confidence. It also got me beaten up a bit (no one likes a pseudo British accent, especially under ten-year-old bullies), but I found too the writings of this man from 350 years earlier spoke to me of the human condition. “Hath not a Jew Eyes? “A speech that showed that people may pray differently, but in essence we were all of humans.
An amazing speech too in that there were very few Jews in the country at the time, and in a play, that in the end, the Merchant is forced to renounce his faith, in effect destroying what defined him. A complex ending to be sure. That earlier speech lifted Shylock from being the Hebrew of anti-Semitic tracts into a human being with flaws. Othello was a great general, had even saved the city and yet suffered prejudice due to the color of his skin. Again, there were few blacks in England in Shakespeare’s time, and xenophobia was quite strong, so that Shakespeare created a rounded human being (who even had flaws, suffering from epileptic fits, etc) from someone who was different speaks volumes.
Plus, when women were little more than property, he wrote such wonderful parts about them and for them, though it was illegal for women to PLAY them. The first English woman to legally do so was Margaret Hughes, December 8,1660 as Desdemona, ironically in “The Moor of Venice” (a reworking of Othello).
Through Shakespeare I discovered the idea of trying to understand others. Shakespeare and horror films also developed my love of storytelling as well as the joy of reading and discovery of ideas.
Science fiction writers like George Orwell challenged acceptance of society without question, and that sometimes things were not always what they seemed. ‘1984” Orwellian double speak now lives on in Fox News as well as politicians who constantly deny facts if it stands in the way of their political agenda. Sadly, many seem ready to accept their outrageous claims as “double plus good”. Back in the 1960s, though, we were engrossed in a foreign war that was not what we told it was for, and indeed the ideals were dropped as the conflict continued. Plus, at the time, social injustices and women’s liberation were also issues that threatened the fabric of the country. Science fiction, for a young teenager was a way of trying to understand these complex issues.
The idea of controlling the media and what we can and cannot read was a reality in many dictatorships, but also within our own country narrow minded people wanted to ban the likes of ROMEO & JULIET, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and many other works. Why? Because they made us question the status quo. Controlling thought in “1984” and Ray Bradbury’s ‘FAHRENHEIT 451 “reflected a society where that happens, and again Orwell predicted flooding the media with info that they wanted, and acting as if previous facts didn’t exist.
Television and movies also had a strong effect on shaping my opinions and beliefs.
The earliest influence that I can think of is Rod Serling’s TWILIGHT ZONE. Serling tried through his various brilliant television dramas to illuminate the human condition Unfortunately, he ran up against censorship from both the networks as well as the advertisers. In one of his political dramas he was forbidden to have his politicians comment on current events to avoid the appearance of siding with one side or the other.
Wanting to discuss social injustice, racism, and other injustices, he felt that only way to do that was to disguise his tales as fantasies, using the allegories to discuss otherwise taboo issues. Maintaining creative control, he was one of the first to explore the idea of people seeing only the superficial rather the person within (EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, NUMBER 7 LOOKS JUST LIKE YOU), bigotry and hate (I AM THE NIGHT-COLOR ME BLACK) and other social issues.
Probably the biggest influence on me was STAR TREK. The show showed a multinational multicultural crew working together to deal with new life forms and issues that reflected items within our own society. Yes, they had women in miniskirts, but that was more the demands of the era than the ideals of the series.
The show also dealt with the issue of overpopulation (MARK OF GIDEON), racism (LET THIS BE YOUR LAST BATTLEFIELD), mutual assured destruction (A TASTE OF ARMAGEDDON) and many other issues of the time.
The thing that most appealed to me about STAR TREK is that it offered a possibility of a future for mankind. That somehow we would survive the constant threats that promised the destruction of our society and possibility the entire planet.
It reflected the possibilities offered by Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both were murdered by narrow minds but they left with us the baton to fulfill the dream that they proposed as well as the ideals that Gene Roddenberry’s series gave us in his “Wagon Train to The Stars”.
Little did I know, but these shows and books influenced my world overview. I like to think of the possibility that we as a planet and humans can accomplish, to help other people and not be xenophobic, to respect difference and learn from them, to protect the planet over profit.
There are those who live in fear and they become more conservative as they do not understand change, while there are those who look in wonder of the possibilities of our future.
Yes, SCIENCE FICTION made me into a LIBERAL, and I am very grateful.
–Kevin G Shinnick