Monday, October 23, 2023

Review: Space Craze

A sojourn through the history of star-spangled science fiction

Gene Roddenberry called outer space ‘the final frontier,’ and those three words have become an iconic tagline of his most famous creation; after all, he pitched Star Trek as ‘wagon train to the stars.’ Such a comparison, of the gulf of space with the American West, is so common that we tend to forget how quintessentially American that conflation is, indeed how very American the science fiction genre has been. All that, and more, is the subject of the 2022 nonfiction book Space Craze: America’s Enduring Fascination with Real and Imagined Space Flight by Margaret A. Weitekamp.

Weitekamp is perhaps the most qualified person on the planet to write such a book; she is the chair of the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., a place I spent so many happy hours with my dad as a child growing up in the DC suburbs (although I probably made my dad sit through the planetarium movie too many times). Every chapter, she starts with a discussion of a piece of memorabilia in the museum’s archive that she has personally handled, grounding the book in a reality that many of us have seen if only second-hand.This book is, ultimately, a cultural history of America’s love affair with the heavens, the story of the dreaming that led to that one small step for a man.

Weitekamp clearly knows her stuff; she goes all the way back to the nineteenth century and the earliest literature that could be described as ‘science fiction.’ It allows her to do what she does best in this book: contextualize works of fiction that many of us have read or watched, indeed loved, but never thought of the world it came from. She talks about the strong influence of Westerns on early science fiction, and how its fingerprints are still felt today. She talks about the evolving role of extraterrestrials as the ‘other.’ She goes into great detail about the influence of Buck Rogers and the tropes that it spawned. One particularly striking moment is when she gets to the 1970s and is talking about the original Star Wars. She mentions a Black critic in California who calls that film, now a beloved classic (by myself included) as the most racist film he had ever seen, because it implied that no people of color would exist in the future (fortunately, this would improve in franchise history, but I can’t deny that the original is very white in its cast).

As I previously remarked with the chapter openings, she also does a wonderful job of humanizing this history. A lot of the book is about the history of science fiction fandom, from the earliest conventions to the myriad websites of today. I joined my local science fiction society in 2019, and I believe I am still its youngest dues-paying member; I was stunned to learn that people I was talking to had met Isaac Asimov. With the long view Weitekamp provides, you can see the world of fandom from an age where you could read every SFF book released that year evolve slowly into the world of today, with a plethora of work to lose yourself in.

There’s a part of me, though, that wishes Weitekamp were a bit more radical. A big theme here is the notion of frontier and its role in American mythology. Recent works on the American frontier, such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: from the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, and John Grenier’s The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier 1607-1814 have problematized the rosy, white-centric view of the frontier, rather revealing the truth that it was, to put it bluntly, a successful continent-scale genocide, a history that has defined America’s self-conception ever since (it makes sense, then, that a country that has never known a day of peace would create military science fiction).

This is a period of wholesale annihilation of entire peoples that is the basis of so much of America’s literature of futuristic dreaming. Weitekamp discusses Garrett Putman Serviss’ novel Edison’s Conquest of Mars, a novel that ends with the white male protagonist releasing floods to commit genocide against the Martians, because they are a ‘dying race.’ In his book A History of Bombing, Sven Lindqvist contextualized that book, among with many others, with the history of waging war on entire peoples that started in the colonial world and culminated in the Holocaust. Indeed, the American West was one of the great inspirations for Hitler’s plan for Eastern Europe (for the curious, I recommend Carroll P. Kakel’s book The American West and the Nazi East), a genocidal process of ‘civilized’ white people exterminating the ‘inferior’ natives and creating an idyllic land of hardy soldier-farmers living off the land. I’d imagine that an employee of a government-funded museum cannot be so candid about such history, but I feel like this was a missed opportunity (or the subject of another book - Lindqvist touches on this nasty history in the formation of apocalyptic narratives in American culture, but not enough to sate my curiosity).

Space Craze is a good, solid history of American science fiction, albeit whitewashed in the way that our mainstream history usually is. As a history of people, who played with toys and went to conventions and loved dreaming of new worlds, it is astounding, and I recommend it to every science fiction fan.


The Math

Highlights: seeing how SF fandom became what it is today

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.