I'm far from being the trivia king of science fiction, but I like to think I know a thing or two about sci-fi that the average reader might not know. One of the great things about science fiction—aside from the obvious mind-expanding ideas—is that it's a literary genre with a long, rich history that's filled with interesting factoids. I'm continually learning new things about it: interesting facts about the stories, about the writers and about its place in our society. That's why, in addition to reading science fiction stories, I like to read about the genre itself.
Case in point: I was perusing Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy's Greatest Science Fiction, edited by Guy Haley. This is a stunning visual guide book about science-fiction books, films, television shows, and the people that make them. At 550-plus pages, it's jam-packed with interesting write-ups and photos of hundreds of science fiction properties. The book itself is organized in chronological order beginning with early science fiction and ending with modern sci-fi. Each section contains informative and detailed descriptions of books, films and television shows for that period. A handful of worlds even get a special timeline describing all the important events that take place in that universe. This is the kind of book that science fiction fans like myself drool over.
So there I am, perusing this excellent volume, and finding out that I am perhaps even less of a sci-fi trivia king than I thought.
Here are 10 things that I learned about science fiction from reading Sci-Fi Chronicles:
1. Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes Met Frankenstein
I have no excuse for not knowing this one, because it happened only three years ago. In 2001, Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays the most famous literary detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes, in the BBC production of Sherlock) and Johnny Lee Miller (who plays Sherlock Holmes in the American production of Elementary) together starred in a stage production of Frankenstein. The play was directed by Danny Boyle, the director behind the 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire (the first one is a zombie flick, the second one...not so much). During the play's run, Cumberbatch and Miller alternated the roles of Victor Frankenstein and his tortured creature.
2. Stranger in a Strange Land Inspired Its Own Religion
Robert A. Heinlein's 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land is about a man named Valentine Michael Smith who was born and raised on Mars. The story concerns Smith's trip to Earth and his first-ever interaction with Earth culture. The book is considered one of the most popular science-fiction novels of all time. What surprised me was learning that in 1968, the book inspired a man to found a Neopagan religious organization modeled after the religion founded by Smith in the novel, the beliefs of which include polyamory, social libertarianism and non-mainstream family structures. (Bonus trivia learned while writing this article: In 2012, the U.S. Library of Congress named Stranger in a Strange Land as one of its 88 "Books that Shaped America." Who knew? Well, I mean besides the Library of Congress....)
3. Isaac Asimov Had a Star Trek Connection
I had already known that several science fiction writers—including Harlan Ellison, David Gerrold, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Spinrad, Robert Bloch and Jerome Bixby, among others—had written episodes of the original Star Trek series. What I didn't know until I read Sci-Fi Chronicleswas that renowned science-fiction author Isaac Asimov was given a screen credit on Star Trek: The Motion Picture as the science advisor for the 1979 film. He was apparently close friends with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
4. Ronald Reagan Was a Fan of The Day The Earth Stood Still
The 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of my all-time favorite films. Based on the short story "Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates, this classic sci-fi film is about the arrival of an alien and his powerful robot companion who arrive on Earth to give humanity a stern warning about its future. At least one world leader in real life took those messages to heart decades after the film was released. Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon claims that then-President Ronald Reagan had the film at the forefront of his mind when he first met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Reagan referenced the film two years later in a speech he delivered before the United Nations.
5. Ray Bradbury's Career Was Launched by Truman Capote and Charles Addams
Ray Bradbury is widely considered to be one of the world's top writers. Would it surprise you to learn that another famous writer helped him get his start? It surprised me! Bradbury's first published short story ("Homecoming") was submitted in 1946 to Mademoiselle magazine and sat in the so-called "slush pile." It took the keen eyes of the magazine's young editorial assistant to pick it out of that pile. That editorial assistant was Truman Capote, who later went on to become a respected writer as well. "Homecoming" was a story inspired by the Addams Family, the creation of the famous cartoonist Charles Addams, who was a friend of Bradbury's. Addams himself illustrated Bradbury's story for the magazine publication.
6. Arthur C. Clarke Discovered Lost Treasure and Had a Dinosaur Named After Him
There are two bits of trivia I learned about Arthur C. Clarke, a writer perhaps most famous for his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. Firstly, Clarke was an avid scuba diver and immigrated to Sri Lanka in 1956 to pursue that activity. Later that year, he discovered the underwater ruins of the ancient Hindu Koneswaram temple in Trincomalee. Secondly, Clarke has a species of dinosaur named after him. The dinosaur was discovered in the Australian seaside town of Inverloch and was named Serendipaceratops arthurcclarkei.
7. Harlan Ellison Was Fired From Disney on His Very First Day
Harlan Ellison, one of the more outspoken and brutally honest writers in the science-fiction field, was once hired on at Disney studios as a writer. One his very first day, he joked about making a "porn Disney flick," even using the voice of Mickey Mouse to do so. Unbeknownst to Ellison at the time, Roy Disney and other studio heads were sitting at the next table. He found a pink slip on his desk later that day.
8. Ursula K. Le Guin Went to the Same High School as Philip K. Dick.
Science fiction Grand Master Ursula K. Le Guin names Philip K. Dick as one of her literary influences. It turns out that she and Dick were in the same high school class, although they did not know each other at the time. Small world!
9. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale Was Adapted for Film, Radio, Stage Play and Ballet
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is a classic of dystopian literature in which the theme of women in subjugation is explored. I already knew about the 1990 film adaptation...but was surprised to learn that there are four (count 'em) other adaptations: a BBC radio adaptation broadcast in 2000; an operatic adaptation that premiered the same year; a stage adaptation toured the U.K. in 2002; and a ballet adaptation jut one year ago in October 2013.
10. Stephen Baxter Applied to be a Cosmonaut
Stephen Baxter, a British author known for his realistic stories set in space (like next month's Proxima), once applied to become a cosmonaut. That was back in 1991, the year his first novel, Raft (part of his popular Xeelee future history), was published. He was trying out for the guest slot on the Soviet space station Mir, but "fell at an early hurdle."
Baxter wrote the Foreword for Sci-Fi Chronicles. I'm still digging through its treasures....