The Way the Future Used to Be

By Peter Wood

Write what you know. Hemmingway made a career out of novels about fishing, drinking, and cards. Faulkner seldom ventured outside mythical Yoknapatawpha County. Bradbury lifted small town America to Mars.

Most of my stories are Southern Fried Science Fiction. I like bluegrass music, barbecue, fried chicken, iced tea, and ACC basketball. My characters do too. Many of my stories take place in my hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina. Sometimes I venture as far as Kinston, Sanford or the world’s perfect vacation spot—the mountain town of Boone.

But, what of stories like Robots, Riverboats, and Ransom in the Regular Way? In this month’s Asimov’s, I write about the distant future aboard an interstellar star ship. What do I know about that?

Plenty.

I grew up immersed in the Retro Future—the sort of world preserved in Tomorrowland in Disney World. The way we conceived the twenty-first century and beyond in the 1950s. Think Golden Age Science fiction. The Pulps. Heinlein. Frederick Pohl. Fritz Leiber. Isaac Asimov. In my own small way, I want to bring it back.

This year’s Best Picture Oscar went to The Shape of Water, a film firmly rooted in the Retro Future. What a poignant and loving take on 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon.

I’ve very grateful to have sold seven stories to Asimov’s. Every single one had its seeds in my childhood.


Radio drama makes a fleeting comeback every so often.


 

Drink in a Small Town” (March 2014) is basically a half hour Twilight Zone episode. If it has any inspiration—besides the Happy Tap bar in Dublin, Georgia that sadly closed down and took its recipe for the world’s best hamburger with it—it might be the episode “Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up.” Guy walks into a lonely restaurant and things are not what they seem.

“Butterflies” (January, 2014)—like the Shape of Water—is my homage to 1950s drive in science fiction movies. It takes place in the Schenck Forest, a pristine teaching forest operated by N.C. State University located three miles from my house. But, it’s about the retro future. Them. The Deadly Mantis. The Fly. Scientists mess with nature and create monstrous insects—the symbolic stand-ins for the world’s fear of the atomic age and the desire for things to return to normal.

“Academic Circles” (September 2016) is grounded in light-hearted 1950s science fiction. Robert Heinlein’s By His Bootstraps. Robert Silverberg’s Needle in a Time Stack—the best science fiction title of all time. My characters also spend a lot of time at Boone’s Stickboy Bread, my favorite bakery and coffee shop

“Tired of the Same Old Quests” (June 2017) is inspired by a certain role playing game that I dabbled in from time to time in high school.

My three remaining stories have their roots in 1940s and 1950s radio dramas. I’m no expert on old time radio. Most of my technical information came from my friend Charles Steagall, retired technician from WPTF AM 680 in Raleigh. I wrote about 1950s radio in the article “A Million Could-be Years on a Thousand May-be Worlds” published in Bull Spec in Spring 2012. Thanks to publisher, Samuel Montgomery Blinn for allowed me to republished chunks of that article.

As a kid, I got hooked on old time radio via mail order cassette tapes. My dad was obsessed with The Shadow. Millionaire playboy Lamont Cranston learned how to “cloud men’s minds” in the “Orient” and fought crime as the invisible Shadow. My Dad often tossed out the show’s catch phrases like “The tree of crime bears bitter fruit” into a lot of conversations. The Shadow was as close as he came to liking science fiction. He loved comedies like The Jack Benny Show or Abbott and Costello.

In the late seventies we moved from Ottawa, Canada to Florida. The Tampa Tribune still ran weekly radio programming listings. Many radio stations scheduled 1940s and 50s radio dramas to cater to retirees. Along with those classic rebroadcasts, I listened to the first run CBS Radio Mystery Theater (1974-1982) which often featured science fiction stories.

Radio dabbled in science fiction in the 1940s. Anthology programs like Suspense (1940–1962) Escape (1947–1954), and The Lux Radio Theater (1934–1955) occasionally did fantasy and speculative fiction.

George Stewart’s 1949 post-apocalyptic novel, Earth Abides is a great read. Escape produced a two-part episode that is worth a listen.

A little aside here. Seek out the Lux Radio Theater. There are hour-long versions of many classic movies usually with the original casts. Episodes included Rebecca, It Happened One Night. Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Miracle on Thirty Fourth Street.

But, back to science fiction.

Mutual’s 2000 Plus (1950–1952) claimed to be adult science fiction, but with episodes like “The Flying Saucer” and “The Robot Killer,” that claim is suspect. I’m not a big fan.

Dimension X (1950–1951) was the first program devoted exclusively to adult science fiction. NBC remade it as X Minus One in 1955 and aired 126 episodes until 1958. A perfect storm launched this science fiction anthology. Radio was running scared and many radio programs (such as Dragnet and Gunsmoke) simply gave up and transitioned to television.

X Minus One was a last-ditch effort to regain listeners. Television shows like Captain Video, with their laughable special effects and juvenile stories, couldn’t compete with the theater of the mind.

NBC teamed up with Astounding and Galaxy magazines to offer adult stories from contemporary writers, many of whom are still familiar to today’s science fiction fans. The program adapted stories from Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Isaac Asimov, and William Tenn, among others.

Each program began with a mock rocket launch:Countdown for blastoff. . . . X minus five, four, three, two, X minus one. . . . Fire! [cue sound of rocket launching] From the far horizons of the unknown come transcribed tales of new dimensions in time and space. These are stories of the future; adventures in which you’ll live in a million could-be years on a thousand may-be worlds. The National Broadcasting Company in cooperation with Street and Smith, publishers of Astounding Science Fiction, presents . . . X Minus One.”

Wow.

Sadly, a great many classic radio shows have been lost. The networks often performed radio shows live and did not record the episodes. Listeners sometimes recorded shows on primitive disc recorders at 78 rpm, collecting just five minutes at a time. Home taping could be prohibitively expensive until the late 1940s when wire recorders could capture complete programs. Finally, just in time for X Minus One, the technology improved and listeners could afford to record over an hour of programming easily on reel-to-reel tape. I also suspect that science fiction fans were maybe a bit more technology savvy than other radio listeners, and had the equipment to record the shows.

X Minus One is readily available for free online. Check out Youtube and http://www.otrsite.com and http://www.archive.org.

Radio drama makes a fleeting comeback every so often. The SciFi Channel had Seeing Ear Theater about twenty years ago with some pretty good adaptions of novels and short stories such as The Time Machine, Connie Willis’s Fire Watch, Harlan Ellison’s Wanted in Surgery and Octavia Butler’s Kindred. J. Michael Straczynski, the writer of Babylon Five, did City of Dreams, an eight episode speculative anthology series.

John Kessel’s A Clean Escape” is my favorite episode of Seeing Ear Theater and is a good example of what is right about radio drama. I’m biased. John lives in Raleigh and was my professor at N.C. State. The adaption of “A Clean Escape” on Masters of Science Fiction, which ran for four episodes in 2007 on ABC, shows some of the limitations of the visual medium. Kessel’s story is the best of the TV series (beating out adaptions of Harlan Ellison and Robert Heinlein).

“A Clean Escape” is a master class in the slow reveal without resorting to cheats like hiding the ball or twist endings. Published in Asimov’s in 1986, the story presents a fairly routine situation that the reader realizes bit by bit has terrifying implications. The problem with telling a story visually is that paradoxically too much and too little are shown. In the first scene of the TV episode, unlike the short story or radio play, Masters of Science Fiction spills the beans by showing something that tips off the viewer. And, then later what the short story describes is presented in a rinky-dink fashion, because the show lacked the budget and effects to pull it off.

Listen to X Minus One and see what I mean. Most of the programs are good. Occasional misfires were often written in house by staff writers. The best programs tended to be adaptations of short stories from the pulps.

Here are five episodes to get you started:

  1. “Child’s Play” by William Tenn (10/20/55). The chilling tale of a man who accidentally receives a package from the future.
  2. “Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper (1/11/56). The mind of a soldier in a future nuclear war is transported into the past.
  3. “Skulking Permit” by Robert Sheckley (2/15/56). A Utopian Earth colony appoints an official criminal to impress visiting Earth dignitaries in this satire.
  4. “A Pail of Air” by Fritz Leiber (3/28/56). This is maybe my favorite episode. A family survives on a frozen barren Earth orbiting a dark star far from the sun.
  5. “The Defenders” by Philip K. Dick (5/22/56). Survivors of an endless nuclear war with the Russians receive a message from surface robots. Later became the novel The Penultimate Truth.

X Minus One inspired my three remaining sales to Asimov’s. “Searching for Commander Parsec” (September 2015) is all about old time radio. And, it has scenes in two of my favorite destinations—Krispy Kreme Doughnuts in Raleigh, and Grandfather Mountain near Boone. The little kid who listens to old time radio shows late at night is me. The story is not based on Harlan Ellison’s Jeremy is Five which I really need to read.


I borrowed Robert Sheckley’s premise of Earth resuming contact with a long abandoned colony for my most recent sale to Asimov’s. “Salting the Mine.” You’ll just have to wait for that.


 

First Contact by Murry Leinster is a classic tale of two ships, one human and one alien, encountered each other in deep space and not sure how to react. X Minus One produced an episode in 1955 that I first heard when I was eleven. It’s quite a hook. I borrowed the premise only in “Robots, Riverboats and Ransom in the Regular Way.” I paid homage to Leinster through the names of two characters. By the way the 1979 science fiction movie Star Crash named its space ship The Murray Leinster.

“Skulking Permit” is the funniest episode of X Minus One. I borrowed Robert Sheckley’s premise of Earth resuming contact with a long abandoned colony for my most recent sale to Asimov’s. “Salting the Mine.” You’ll just have to wait for that.

I can’t decide on my favorite science fiction short story. It boils down to Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder or Phillip Dick’s Second Variety. Tragically both became really bad movies. Read the stories.

My favorite novel is Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises that pops up in several of my stories. “The Old Man and the Safe” speculates about how it may have been written.

I think perhaps the greatest writer now is Anne Tyler. Science fiction writers have it fairly easy. They write about fantastic events that are intrinsically interesting. Tyler crafts page turners from mundane everyday minutia. “Breathing Lessons” concerns a day in the life of a bickering married couple. I don’t know how she makes that subject matter intriguing when I struggle with finding a hook with time travel or extraterrestrials.

I’m juggling a few projects now that may or may not ever come to pass. A short film adaption of a flash piece. A collection of my short stories and a novel. The novel is challenging in ways that I never considered, but I’m plugging along. The short film, based on the story “Quantum Doughnut” is now in the editing process and will not be coming out for a long long time.

Thanks for reading my post. If you have any down time, check out some old episodes of X Minus One and remember the way the future used to be.


pete wood

 

 

Peter Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. Although he writes southern fried science fiction he is not exactly comfortable with modern technology. He’s hopelessly mired in the 1980s technology wise. He doesn’t have a smart phone. Would you believe he has a Maxwell Smart phone? He is very grateful to Asimov’s for publishing seven of his stories and hopes that you enjoy “Riverboats, Robots, and Ransom in the Regular Way,” which you can hear recorded here.

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