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Ken Hollings on 'Welcome To Mars'

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Brought to you by North Atlantic Books.

1. What was your prime motivation and inspiration in creating your book, "Welcome To Mars Politics, Pop Culture, and Weird Science In 1950s America?"

I have always enjoyed the visual vitality and exploratory confidence of 1950s America, especially as I perceived it through movies, magazines and comic books from the period. I still want the future to look and sound like Forbidden Planet – don’t you? At the same time I was also aware that the 1950s tended to be misread as some kind of ‘hick’ decade that wasn’t quite as switched on or cool as the 1960s. In retrospect it was a furnace by comparison: bankers, academics and politicians experimenting with LSD and magic mushrooms; submarines and electric cookers being powered by atomic reactors; and there were strange technological objects orbiting the planet for the first time – whether these objects originated on Mars or the Soviet Union was a different matter of course. It was a complex decade, riven with paranoia, division and dissent; and it was very different at the end from where it had all started – but throughout my research for Welcome to Mars I was always struck by the remarkable confidence with which the people involved in this history regarded the future – they could be extremely optimistic, predicting lunar vacations by the end of the decade, or the exact opposite, promising nuclear winter before the spring was out, but both points of view were expressed with equal certainty and vigor. As Criswell, the legendary television psychic, announces at the start of Ed Wood’s classic Plan 9 from Outer Space, made in 1956 but only released in 1959: “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives!”

2. Would you go into what you mean and get into in the chapter entitled 1947 Rebuilding Lemuria?

At the start of Welcome to Mars I was trying to locate the American experience during the 1950s at the meeting point of several specifically related myths.

First, and most generally, was the myth of ancient Atlantis, which had haunted industrial society since the latter part of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth: the idea of a technologically advanced civilization disappearing overnight is a potent one, and it spoke to the West’s sense of progress and expansion during this period. There were scores of books about Atlantis in print during this time and by the outbreak of WWII they were even writing about Europe as the next Atlantis, about to meet a similar fate.

Then we have the Lemuria myth, being circulated by Ray Palmer in Amazing Stories, where he was publishing Richard Shaver’s accounts of having his mind controlled by the last surviving descendants of another island civilization which, like Atlantis, had disappeared without trace. First revealed in a story entitled “I Remember Lemuria!,” these revelations paved the way for the initial public excitement over Kenneth Arnold’s public account of seeing flying saucers over Washington State in 1947.

The connection has been pretty well documented and analyzed over the years, but what interested me was their relation to another mythical land that was starting to emerge that same year. In 1947 Levittown opened its doors in Long Island – the first model for large-scale suburban living was laid out: Lemuria rebuilt beneath the darkening skies of the future. Remember that this was only two years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so the suburban sprawl of the 1950s quickly became a first line of nuclear defense against an attack from above. After that came the highway system and the migration of work, manufacture and family life out of the major cities and into the suburbs. In a sense, it was remarkable that so much energy and confidence was directed towards atomic technology, life in outer space and the exploration of the human mind at a time when such progress seemed to be threatened by the possibility of sudden annihilation.

I could go on about the number of “firsts” the year 1947 represents, but it really was an anus mirabilis – LSD was branded and marketed for the first time, the term “flying saucer” was used for the first time, the Atomic Energy Commission becomes a civilian operation for the first time, the CIA and the NSA get their charter, the first shopping mall opens, the first commercial tape recorder and the first polaroid camera are both demonstrated in public, RAND holds one of its first big academic conferences to look not at how technology is made but how it affects human behavior…the list just goes on and on – for good or ill, Lemuria really was being built again in 1947.

3. What is discussed and embraced in the chapter 1948 Flying Saucers Over America? Could you go more into the theme of UFOs since we discuss that heavily here at Examier a lot.

As the reader will probably notice from the chapter titles you have selected, Welcome to Mars presents the whole of the 1950s, plus the three-year period leading up to this particular decade from 1947, in strictly chronological order. Each chapter reflects the events of a specific year and reveals how they develop or connect to each other over time – quite often you can follow the lives of specific individuals over several chapters, seeing how they relate to each other and to specific events and other developments. One of the narrative strands running through the chapter “1948: Flying Saucers Over America” concerns itself with an assertion that started to appear more frequently over the coming years: “I know what I saw!”

Kenneth Arnold first said it in 1947 when responding to doubts expressed by the military and the press about what he had actually seen in the sky over Washington State. Others would come out with variants on this simple statement; and, for good or ill, and no matter what their motives might have been, there is something about that statement which seems to be at odds with how experience is processed and communicated in the latter part of the twentieth and the early part of the twenty-first century. The unique, the anomalous, the “outsider” and the just plain odd is automatically discredited because it doesn’t fit the patterns laid down in the media, or according to social and cultural norms. Things like flying saucers in the 1950s simply did not fit, and that is why they are so fascinating. To me the “reality” or otherwise of flying saucers is nowhere near as interesting as how the sightings are reported, analyzed or fed through organizations and institutions.

It is interesting to reflect, for example, on how the US Air Force, which had only just been separated from the Army in 1947, used the flying saucers as a means of defining themselves as a new military service. They were the professionals whereas the people seeing saucers were rank amateurs. It must, for example, have seemed incredibly smart for the Air Force to come up with a term like “Unidentified Flying Object” or UFO to replace the amateurs’ more colorful “flying saucer” – unfortunately it is in the nature of an unidentified object to remain unidentified. Once it becomes “identified” it becomes something else instead: a pie plate, or Venus, or a flock of birds. But some objects are never identified, which means that they stay on the Air Force books as UFOs. Meanwhile the so-called amateurs maintain that they “know what they saw.”

4. Could you discuss with us more from your chapter 1952 The Red Planet? Thoughts on Mars and how that theme fits into your book.

Running through 1950s is the recurring myth that we are in fact the real Martians: it is our destiny to colonize Mars and become its real inhabitants or that we are in fact the long-lost descendants of the Red Planet and still owe our origins to it. Hence the “welcome” in the title: However strange Mars may turn out to be, it has always been our home. In this respect Mars took over from Atlantis as being the great industrial myth of the twentieth century.

Science fiction narratives in the 1950s are usually pointing beyond the Moon towards Mars as the real destination of our space missions. The ancient connection between Mars and the God of War, together with the ideological dimensions of a Red Planet developing behind the Iron Curtain inevitably prompted some extremely nervous thinking during the 1950s. However, I don’t believe that all of the movies made in this era about invaders from outer space are necessarily about the Red Menace. For example, a closer examination of The Blob, in which a bunch of teenagers attempt to contain a shapeless red alien mass that takes over people’s bodies and keeps on growing, reveals that the movie is really about the pains of adolescence. The grownups just don’t understand what’s going on in their own town.

5. You have a chapter called 1954 Meet the Monsters. Who are the monsters?

You mean, who were they? One of the themes of the book is how monsters are created and also how quickly they can lose their mythic potency. The classic monsters of American popular culture as they appeared in 1930s Universal pictures – such as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and the Invisible Man – had pretty much been killed off by the end of WWII. In fact the last movie to feature such monsters – House of Dracula – was actually released in the late summer of 1945 just as the war was coming to a close. There are a couple of reasons for this: the first was that new psychological monsters were beginning to emerge in movies like Spellbound, The Dark Mirror and The Snake Pit, where neuroses and obsessions were treated as the new terrors. The second, and more telling one was that the vast majority of the old Universal monsters all had their origins in European fiction or legend – they were acted out in a world of counts and barons and lords or in quaint little villages of MittelEuropa – and all of that looked pretty suspect by the end of WWII and the Nuremberg Trials. By the time these old-fashioned European monsters emerge again in the 1950s they are usually there to entertain children or to be the butt of comedy routines or cheap spook shows, which is a tough thing to survive. After you’ve met Abbott and Costello, you’re pretty much finished as a credible monster.

However, by 1954, there are some new monsters coming along: ones that don’t fit into the antiquated European model from before WWII. The most famous of these is, of course, Godzilla – a monster produced out of an H-Bomb test in the Pacific Ocean whose creation as a pop culture myth was inspired by the fate of some Japanese fishermen who were caught in the fallout of an American bomb test. Godzilla could never have existed before 1945. I call the chapter “Meet the Monsters,” however, because even a new creature like Godzilla, who seems strange and unfamiliar and, in his first move, genuinely threatening, quickly becomes domesticated. We create our own monsters and come to terms with them quite quickly – the word “monster” comes from the ancient Greek word for “warning,” and warnings are always useful.

6. What are some science fact and science fictions you'd like to share with us?

To be perfectly honest I never make any distinction between fact and fiction when examining the cultural myths and panics of the 1950s.

People fall back too frequently upon using fiction to “explain” something that happens in society, or drawing upon some actual incident to justify a specific fiction as if somehow fact and fiction are tied together in a relationship of cause and effect. Quite often it is more likely that a newspaper story and a pulp magazine fantasy are merely simultaneous expressions of the same unacknowledged fear, concern or desire.

Ray Palmer connecting the public imagination to Lemuria and flying saucers is not adequately explained in terms of cause and effect. Something deeper is involved. Similarly, the people I find particularly fascinating during the 1950s are the ones who pay little or no attention to the separation of fact from fiction – they are the ones who really let their imaginations run wild, such as Caltech astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky who was talking in the early part of the decade about using hydrogen bombs to reshape and rearrange of the entire solar system so that we could make some of the nearby planets habitable for human beings. I would love to see someone at NASA today propose that we use such a method to knock Mars out of its orbit into one more suitable for an Earth-type climate and atmosphere to exist.

7. This is a wildcard question. What from your book would you like to share with us that our readers might find enjoyable?

I really enjoyed including all of the kids stuff that starts coming onto the market during the 1950s – from plastic ray guns and toy spaceships to Mr. Potato Head and Captain Video.

One of the advantages of hindsight is that you can see things coming that people at the time had no way of perceiving or even imagining. While it is true that the great and the good, the scientists and the planners and the politicians, were looking forward with a remarkable confidence to a great new future by the end of the decade, they really had no idea what form it would take. Would it be a new generation of intelligent machines? The Space Brothers bringing down their cosmic ingenuity and advanced technology? Organizational Man creating new operating systems for business and government? No one had a clue.

The one place they certainly weren’t looking at the time was in their own children’s bedrooms. The kids being born into the 1950s, they thought, were going to be well educated, well fed, healthy and happy – they were also going to be well adjusted and docile, ready to work and happy to enjoy all the advantages that their parents’ generation had been forced to forego. Of course the first thing these children do is freak out majorly during the 1960s – brought up on Mad magazine, Plastic Man and Invasion of the Saucer Men, they were never going to be satisfied with a quiet life in the suburbs. The great new future turned out to be the 1960s Youth Quake, and we’ve been shaking over that ever since.

8. What is your next book and do you have any links or projects you'd like to share with us? Thanks for this interview.

You’re welcome. You can find out more about my work at www.kenhollings.blogspot.com, or you can follow me on Twitter: @Hollingsville.

My next book is called The Bright Labyrinth and is about to be published in the United Kingdom by Strange Attractor Press (http://strangeattractor.co.uk) who have been great supporters of my work over here. It’s another history book in the style of Welcome to Mars but it takes a long look at the development of today’s digital culture of computer networks. It offers, amongst other things, chapters on the sex life of machines, the relationship between videogames and military strategy during the Napoleonic war and why artificial intelligences are now turning up on television game shows.

I believe that history is important because it helps us gain a more accurate perspective on what we are doing today, often giving us glimpses we could not get any other way. I also think history should be fun – it is always turns out to be a lot stranger than you think it’s going to be.

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