The History of Science Fiction — Part II
"The Jetsons," "Star Wars," "Alien," and everything in between.
This is Part II of the four-part series on the history of science fiction and how it has long served as a cultural reflection. Part I, which looks at 19th and early 20th-century sci-fi, can be found here.
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In the first decades of the Cold War, America’s mood oscillated between bright-eyed optimism and the gloom of nuclear holocaust. On one hand, the wartime society of rationing and conscription was in the rearview (for the wealthy, at least) and a family could buy a home with just a little more than two years’ salary. Unions were strong, the Korean War was ten thousand miles away, and the neoliberal onslaught that dominates our lives today had yet to begin. The result was a generally happy public, at least among White Americans. However, there was one cloud in America’s bright blue sky: the possibility that nuclear missiles could rain down at any moment.
Both sides of the “life is good but we might die any minute” coin were captured by the science fiction of the day. On the positive side, the 1960s were a heyday for utopian sci-fi. The Jetsons, a cartoon so famous it aired well into the 90s, enlightened Americans’ Saturday nights with full-color, primetime broadcasts. Despite their sitcom-style troubles, the Jetsons lived with unprecedented ease. The family patriarch George only had to work two hours a week, while his wife Jane is a homemaker whose entire labor is outsourced to futuristic cleaning contraptions and the family robot. (Unfortunately, it looks like sexism will still exist in 2062.)
For those wanting something more mature, 1966 brought the first iteration of Star Trek, the second most famous sci-fi series still being produced. Though the show focused exclusively on the iconic starship the USS Enterprise, behind every episode exploring bizarre planets or battling Klingon hordes was an implicit premise that humanity had established a Communist-style utopia back on Earth. With everyone having enough, there was no need to focus on resource production or distribution, freeing humanity to explore the stars.
But while the 1960s gave (White) Americans the sense they were on the path to utopia, the potential of losing everything in a fiery blast still lingered in the back of the American minds. And, as they are known to do, those back-of-mind fears leaped from the American psyche to the TV screen. The cult classic The Twilight Zone first aired in 1959 with stories combining elements of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. While Star Trek and The Jetsons showed the potential for humanity at its best, The Twilight Zone did the opposite. With a new narrative each week, TTZ depicted humanity submitted to child tyrants (It’s a Good Life), sending their kinfolk to be eaten by aliens (To Serve Man), and turning against the instant survival becomes a zero-sum game. In the classic episode The Shelter, a friendly birthday party turns into a nightmare when the radio announces nuclear missiles are inbound. The host locks himself and his family in a bomb shelter, which the guests quickly lay siege to in hopes of being the ones to survive on its provisions.
The Birth of Sci Fi Horror
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