Saturday, November 14, 2015

Before Star Trek and Star Wars . . .

. . . there was Weird Tales.

Star Trek and Star Wars are in the news. Earlier this month, CBS Television Studios announced that a new Star Trek television show will begin in January 2017, missing the fiftieth-anniversary year by only a month. That's news enough for Star Trek fans. I'm not sure they care when the show is set or in what universe. (1) Having a new Star Trek television show is probably enough.

I say Star Wars is in the news, but that may not be entirely accurate. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is more like the context in which all other news takes place. Everything on the Internet, on YouTube, on television, and in the stores is Star Wars. I even saw Star Wars Cover Girl makeup on display. I suspect that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will have the biggest opening of any movie ever and that it may very well be the highest grossing movie ever. (We can hope for that if only to knock that excremental film Avatar out of first place.) I needn't remind anyone that Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens on December 18, 2015, thirty-three days from now.

There is nothing new under the sun of course. That is as true of science fiction and fantasy as anything. And so, before there was Star Trek or Star Wars, there was Weird Tales. In April 1925, "The Unique Magazine" published an early entry in the sub-genre of interplanetary adventure, "When the Green Star Waned" by Nictzin Dyalhis. The story concerns a crew of spacefarers who go to the rescue of a planet that has been invaded by creatures from another world. That sounds like a plot from Star Trek, but in this case, the spacefarers are from Venus, the people they rescue are earthlings, and the creatures are from the far side of the moon.

Opinions differ on the quality of "When the Green Star Waned." Readers of Weird Tales loved it, voting it the most popular story of April 1925 and of the year 1925, and the fifth most popular published in the years 1923 to 1940. Everett Bleiler, on the other hand, called it "[d]istasteful and negligible as fiction" while recognizing it as "a seminal work in the history of pulp [science fiction]." (2) The similarities between Dyalhis' story and other genre works are manifest. First, it's a variation on the theme of H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds (1897), though instead of being saved by bacteria, the people of earth are saved by Venerians. Second, according to an always anonymous contributor to Wikipedia, "When the Green Star Waned" was an influence upon Jerry Siegel and his co-creation of Superman. There isn't any substantiation of or citation for that claim. Third, the similarity of the story to the whole concept of Star Trek is unmistakable. Whether Gene Roddenberry read "When the Green Star Waned" is another matter. I doubt that he did. It seems more likely that he worked in the context of 1950s and '60s science fiction in which Dyalhis' ideas had become subsumed and, consequently, anonymous. By the way, Nictzin Dyalhis is credited with coining the word blastor, in Star Trek parlance, phaser.

Or in Star Wars parlance, blaster. Han Solo carried one. He used it to shoot Greedo. And he shot first. (3) The reason Han Solo shot first and did so many other of the things he did is that he is a rogue and an outlaw, a cynical and morally ambiguous anti-hero. In the end, he saves himself and his friends by shucking off some of his cynicism and moral ambiguity. He becomes a straight hero, in the process winning glory, honor, and the heart of the beautiful princess. Star Wars (1977) might be his story as much as it is anyone's. Anyway, there is precedent in science fiction and fantasy for a character like Han Solo. If you're looking for origins, you should probably begin with a character who first appeared in Weird Tales, C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith.

Northwest Smith, like Han Solo, is a spaceship pilot and a smuggler. Also like Han Solo, he has an alien sidekick, in his case, the Venerian Yarol. He gets in and out of scrapes over the course of his career. In his debut appearance, in the short story "Shambleau" in Weird Tales for November 1933, he nearly perishes, wrapped in the tresses of the beautiful, irresistible, and addictive title character. What a way to go. In all, Northwest Smith was in thirteen stories, mostly in Weird Tales. He also got into the imaginations of other writers, including C.L. Moore's friend Leigh Brackett, who created her own interplanetary adventurer in Eric John Stark. Leigh Brackett is also credited as co-screenwriter for The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and so we come full circle, as any traveler of the universe eventually must do.

* * *

Speaking of Star Trek, Star Wars, and precedents: before the Death Star, there was the planet-destroying machine in the Star Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine." Science fiction author Norman Spinrad wrote the episode.

* * *

I like Star Trek. I also like Brazilian music, so I was happy to learn of a connection: the great Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida played guitar on the song "Beyond Antares," sung by Nichelle Nichols on the episode "The Conscience of the King." Almeida's performance was uncredited. The lyrics were by Gene L. Coon:

Beyond Antares
The skies are green and glowing

Where my heart is!

Where my heart is,

Where the scented lunar flower is blooming:

Somewhere, beyond the stars,

Beyond Antares.

I'll be back, though it takes forever:

Forever is just a day!

Forever is just another journey,

Tomorrow a stop along the way.

And let the years go fading

Where my heart is,

Where my heart is!

Where my love eternally is waiting:

Somewhere, beyond the stars,

Beyond Antares . . .

Those words were written of course when men and women still loved each other.

* * *

Here are partial lyrics to another science fiction song:

My heart turns home in longing
Across the voids between,
To know beyond the spaceways
The hills of Earth are green.

They come from the song "The Green Hills of Earth," hummed by Northwest Smith in "Shambleau." C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner put words to the song in the story "Quest of the Starstone" (Weird Tales, Nov. 1937). Robert A. Heinlein later used the title and composed his own lyrics for use in his own stories.

* * *

Finally, in an unrelated matter, mass man--alternatively, the member of a mass movement or the adherent to a mass belief--that potent monster of our times, struck again in Paris last night. Our thoughts are with the people of Paris and of France. In a larger sense, though, we should think of our entire civilization and the threats posed to it, perhaps less by those on the outside than by those on the inside. We should remember two figures from French history, Charles Martel and Marshal P├ętain, and choose which we would prefer to emulate.

(1) Now that J.J. Abrams has spun off a new universe in which stories no longer have to be thoughtful, original, make sense, or cover up planet-sized holes in their plots.
(2) Science-Fiction, The Early Years: A Full Description of More Than 3,000 Science-Fiction Stories from Earliest Times to the Appearance of the Genre Magazines in 1930, with Author, Title, and Motif Indexes (1990), p. 214.
(3) At the Mothman Festival in September, I talked to a couple of men about Splinter of the Mind's Eye by Alan Dean Foster (1978). One had read the book, and though he enjoyed it, he said it isn't "canon." Star Trek fans talk like that, too. I am of the opinion that people who use the word canon in reference to Star Trek or Star Wars ought to be slapped at the very least. Or maybe they ought to be shot out of--or by--a cannon. Jar Jar Binks and Lwaxana Troi, two of the worst characters in the history of literature, are part of the "canon" of their respective universes. According to the "canon" of Star Wars, Greedo shot first. Only George Lucas, who seems to have smoked too much weed in his life, believes that.
Weird Tales, April 1925, with a cover story, "When the Green Star Waned," by Nictzin Dyalhis and cover art by Andrew Brosnatch.
C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith, in a sanitized version on the cover of Northwest of Earth (1954). The cover art is by Ric Binkley.

Text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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