Forty years ago today, Neil Armstrong made science-fiction geeks out of everyone. Without waxing too poetic, it was the moment when decades—if not centuries—of dreams about going to new worlds became a reality. With all due respect to Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard, Armstrong’s step onto an actual extraterrestrial surface was the first real space travel, in the sense of going somewhere. For a short while, there actually was a man on the moon.
Given the awesomeness of science non-fiction that year, I might almost expect it to be a down year for science fiction. Not so. 1969 had some good sci-fi—maybe not as good as landing on the moon, but damn good nonetheless.
It was, for example, the year Billy Pilgrim came unstuck in time. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut challenged the idea that sci-fi wasn’t an appropriate genre for high-brow “literary-fiction” writers, tradition that has carried forward to become the “counter factual” fiction (sci-fi by any other name…) of writers like Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon. It was also the year Ursula K. LeGuin explored gender and identity in Left Hand of Darkness, and Michael Crichton scared the bejesus out of everyone with his mutated virus in The Andromeda Strain. Ray Bradbury published a collection of short stories in I Sing the Body Electric (the title story of which became The Electric Grandmother), and Isaac Asimov collected some of his best stories in Nightfall and other Stories.
In June of that year, TV watching geeks saw Captain Kirk set his phaser on stun for what they thought might be the last time (oh, what they didn’t know!) when Star Trek went off the air. Perhaps in mourning, ardent fans held the first Star Trek convention before the show was even canceled, in March 1969 at the Newark public library. The Doctor (you know Who) regenerated for just the second time as Patrick Troughton made way for the 1970 arrival of Jon Pertwee.
In movieland, sci-fi screenwriters would have a hard time following up Barbarella, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Planet of the Apes, all of which came out in 1968. Gregory Peck struggled to rescue stranded astronauts Gene Hackman, Richard Crenna, and James Franciscus in Marooned, which came out four months after the moon landing. The novel that provided the basis for the movie actually used the single-occupant Mercury capsule, but Hollywood updated it for the Apollo era. The space station in the film is based on NASA’s early drawings for SkyLab. In some ways the movie was ahead of its time, as producers decided not to include a regular score and instead use a series of beeps and hums to evoke the isolation of space. (Turner Classic Movies will be airing Marooned at 1:30 a.m. EDT Tuesday, July 21. Check local listings and set your Tivos!).
Tough to compete with actual space travel when you’re a science-fiction writer or producer, but still, not a bad year to be a nerd.