Lord of the Rings
2001: Space Odyssey
The Wizard of Oz
E.E. "Doc" Smith
More other stuff
Other Science Fiction
Most Science Fiction is unfortunately not very well-written. Probably this has something to do with the defining characteristic of geeks: we tend to be better with ideas than relationships, and stories are ultimately about relationships. Just dust off some old Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov and maybe like me you'll wish "speculative nonfiction" was more popular and lucrative, so these titans could expound their wonderful ideas without having to tack on plots and characters that often feel like afterthoughts.
SF is particularly guilty of self-referentialism: 99% of everything "new" is merely a slight rearrangement of stuff we know by heart. Incestuousness of thought was always a danger for so insular a group as SF writers, but at least in the golden age everyone had their own idea of what science fiction should look like. The overwhelming financial and cultural success of Star Trek and Star Wars has homogenized our idea of the future into a claustrophobically narrow box: metal warships fighting other metal warships against a background of stars. Is this really the limit of our vision?
On peeking behind the magician's curtain: A lot of authors bridle when asked their inspirations, possibly for fear of being accused of plagiarism. All great stories build on earlier stories! There's something I love about every story mentioned in this website, or I wouldn't waste time on them. I'm not trying to play "gotcha" with these authors; I'm trying to develop an intuitive feel for their creative process in hopes that one day I can write a story I like just as much.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)In 1951 Arthur C. Clarke published a short story called The Sentinel, in which human astronauts found a monolith of alien manufacture on the moon. Clarke's original pyramid-shaped monolith was a signalling device, designed to alert aliens when our species achieved the technology of space travel. Director Stanley Kubrick hired Clarke to collaborate with him in expanding this basic idea into what became 2001; A Space Odyssey. Clarke's original story was all about the religious awe we feel when faced with a relic from an unknowably-distant culture. I'd bet his primary influence was the Moai on Easter Island (since he's specifically mentioned them in interviews as spiritually awesome and imagination-triggering), or maybe the monoliths at Stonehenge.
2001 was the first science fiction movie to look "real." Kubrick achieved this realism mostly by borrowing and updating model techniques developed for Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds TV show (and even "stealing away" a few members of Anderson's staff). HAL's singing was based on a famous performance of "Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)" on an IBM 7094 at Bell Labs in 1961. The world's first singing computer was programmed by John Kelly, Carol Lockbaum and Max Mathews.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869)Science fiction has arguably existed since the beginning of recorded history, but it was French author Jules Verne (1828-1905) who created and popularized the basic blueprint for the "fantastic gadget" story. In Europe and America, technology had generally been viewed with suspicion; The Renaissance had taught us that true wisdom was to be found in antiquity, in the lessons of Greece, Rome and the ancient kingdoms that predated the Dark Ages. In the late 18th century the Industrial Revolution created a demand for a new, less adversarial relationship between people and technology. Verne filled that need magnificently, writing fifty-four voyages extraordinaires (extraordinary voyages) that painted technology as wondrous and desirable.
Verne's primary inspiration for Captain Nemo and the Nautilus was Robert Fulton (1765-1815), an American artist and inventor who believed that a fleet of submarines could "deliver the world from British oppression by making the high seas free to all." The basic idea for a submarine had been proposed in 1580 and the first working model was built in 1623; Fulton's contribution was an improved military model, which he built in 1800. Fulton's Nautilus was highly maneuverable and could destroy empty target ships with his torpedo-mines. Unfortunately when used against actual British ships the crew would see him coming and merely move out of the way.
Like Fulton, Verne's Captain Nemo character built a submarine called The Nautilus, a war machine to end war by destroying all war machines. Nemo's hatred of England was more personal than Fulton's: he was from India, which had been forcibly occupied by the British since 1757.
20,000 Leagues has proven one of the most influential stories in history: it has been filmed at least five times (the 1954 Disney version is phenomenal) and inspired countless other stories, including The Black Hole (1979), and Nadia, The Secret of Blue Water (1990). For more information, explore this well-done history of the submarine.
GeekNote: Nemo is Latin for "no one."
Alien (1979)The film Alien borrows several visuals from the Italian-made Terrore nello spazio (literally "Terror from Space", released in the US as Planet of the Vampires, 1965, based on the short story One Night of 21 Hours by Renato Pestriniero). Terror is really a classic zombie horror film with SF trappings: twin spaceships Argos and Galliot are sent to investigate the mysterious planet Aura. Incorporeal aliens attempt to take over their bodies and escape the planet. Alien borrows the idea of human astronauts coming across the giant skeleton of an alien who was killed by the same monsters that are now stalking the human crew. Alien also borrows the design of the Galliot for the derelict ship (the first shot of the derelict ship is lifted exactly from Terrore, as are the unsettlingly organic doors).
When A.E. Van Vogt saw Alien he filed a lawsuit against Ridley Scott, who settled out of court. Van Vogt believed that Alien took ideas from his short stories "Black Destroyer" and "Discord in Scarlet." Both reworked in his 1950 novel The Voyage of The Space Beagle, into creature who laid eggs inside a human body. The eggs hatched and the baby creatures ate its way out of the human host. The similarities might just be coincidence, though Alien does probably borrow from It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958), which is probably based on Van Vogt's writing.
The alien's appearance was based on a painting by H.R. Giger titled "Necronom IV" (1976). Giger also finalized the design of the derelict alien spacecraft, though it's nearly identical to the Galliot.
James Cameron's sequel Aliens (1986) combined Alien with Vietnam-style combat and ideas from Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959). Troopers introduced the now-cliched idea of armored space marines performing "drops" from orbit onto hostile planets to kill scary bug-aliens.
Atlantis, the Lost Empire (2001)This Disney film seems to be a remake of a popular Japanese TV show called Fushigi no umi no Nadia (Nadia, Secret of the Blue Water, 1990), which is very loosely based on Jules Verne's 20,00 Leagues Under the Sea (1869).1 The Disney film also seems to draw at least partially from George Pal's Atlantis, The Lost Continent (1961), in particular the fish-shaped craft (and I suppose the title).
Babylon 5 (1993-1999)
TOP: A space station from Spacecraft; 2000 to 2100 AD, volume I of the Terran Trade Authority Handbook series by Stewart Cowley (1978), originally printed as a cover to a science-fiction paperback, artist unknown. INSET: Russia's MIR spacestation. BOTTOM: Babylon 5.
J. Michael Straczynski's Babylon 5 was the first American science fiction series which told a premeditated overall story, the television equivalent of a novel. Most SF on TV is in the form of self-contained weekly episodes, comparable to a short story anthology. Babylon 5 was designed to be a reaction to other SF, particularly Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). Straczynski said his goal was to "do correctly what most science fiction does wrong." The idea of purposely re-exploring known territory dovetails perfectly with geek culture's discomfort with the unfamiliar. By adding the extra left-brain-candy of seemingly endless races, ships and plot threads to memorize, Babylon 5 has become crack for geeks.
For all its merits, Babylon 5 often recycles other people's visual ideas with little or no development: The Starfury is a minor variation on the Gunstar from 1984's The Last Starfighter, and the Minbari resemble the Rilosians from the same movie. The Nova Class Dreadnought is almost indistinguishable from the Sulaco from Aliens (1986), and the Omega Class Destroyers (including the Agammemnon) are basically the Leonov from 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984). The alien fighters from the Thirdspace movie are ACM 115 Minnows from Spacecraft; 2000 to 2100 AD, by Stewart Cowley (1978), the same book that seems to be the source for the design of the Babylon 5 space station.2
Straczynski has cited Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen Series as strong influences. For instance, Straczynski's Minbari are very like Tolkien's elves, while "Sinclair and his Rangers" are very like Tolkien's "Strider and his Rangers." Straczynski's Third Age is basically identical to Tolkien's Third Age. Arwen surrenders her immortality to be with her human lover Aragorn, Delenn surrenders her superhuman longevity to be with her human lover Sheridan. Z'ha'dum is similar to Khazad-Dum, etc., etc. The two great ancient races of Babylon 5, the antagonistic Vorlons and Shadows, are nearly identical to the Arisians and the Eddorians, the two great ancient races behind the Lensmen books (who also use all the other races of the universe as pawns in their millennia-spanning war).
Babylon 5 contains a few good inside jokes for SF geeks: For instance, Walter Koenig, who played Chekhov on the original Star Trek series, plays a character named after science fiction writer Alfred Bester. Security Chief Michael Garibaldi is named after historical figure Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), leader of the Red Shirts. (Anyone who appeared in a red shirt on the original Star Trek series was usually a security guard, and sure to die within five minutes.) This factoid gleaned from the excellent Babylon 5 References List.
Battlestar Galactica (1978)Battlestar Galactica is the story of the Mormons retold with the visual vocabulary of Star Wars, plus a few ideas from TV westerns and tabloid archeology. The moral of the pilot movie and most episodes is "Don't trust outsiders; Kill them before they get the chance to kill you."
The overwhelming financial success of Star Wars gave creator/producer Glen Larson the hard numbers he needed to finally convince television networks that science fiction could be profitable. Star Wars and Galactica are superficially similar because they (not coincidentally) share two key crew members: John McQuarrie (who visually designed the spaceships, locations and some characters for both productions) and John Dykstra (who invented the system for animating spaceship models used by both productions). 20th Century Fox sued Universal Studios for copyright infringement, citing 34 similarities between the two films. Universal counter-sued, alleging that R2-D2 was plagiarized from the drones in Silent Running. Courts eventually ruled that Galactica was sufficiently different that it didn't legally infringe on Star Wars.
Larson is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), founded by Joseph Smith (1805-1844). In 1823, while Smith was still a teenager, the angel Moroni appeared and revealed the location of several gold Nephi Plates. The plates had been buried by Moroni in 421 CE, when he was still a mortal. They were written mostly by Moroni and his father, the prophet Mormon, in the Nephi language. Smith translated the plates into English by divine guidance. He then returned the plates to Moroni, who brought them back to Heaven. Smith's translation is today called The Book of Mormon; Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon recounts the early history of the world from 600 BCE to 420 CE. The Mormons believe in four canonical scriptures: The Bible, The Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price; these are the sources for the basic plot and all the religious themes in Battlestar Galactica:
Galactica also draws a few ideas from popular television Westerns, including Wagon Train (1957-1965), which dramatized the story of settlers making their way across the American West in the 1870s. Lorne Greene was hired to reprise the same basic character he played on Bonanza (1959-1973): a deeply moral patriarch named Ben Cartwright. [Greene's portrayal of Cartwright was also the primary influence for Jeff Tracy, patriarch of the British gadget program Thunderbirds (1964-1966).]
Battlestar Galactica opens with Patrick Macnee reciting "There are those who believe that life here began out there, far across the universe, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans..." This idea is borrowed from Chariots of the Gods: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past (1969) by Erich Von Daniken (which Larson often cited as an inspiration for the series). Chariots introduces the idea that humanity is descended from extraterrestrials, who also founded the cultures of the ancient world.
Chariots is what I call "tabloid archeology": sensationalistic accounts of mankind's history based on half-truths, specious logic, wishful thinking and outright fibs. Public Broadcasting's Nova series explored Chariot of the Gods in 1978 on a program called "The Case of the Ancient Astronauts": They tracked down the artist who made the pottery depicting flying saucers which Von Daniken had claimed dated from Biblical times, thus proving the evidence was faked. Von Daniken explained that his deception was justified because "some people would only believe if they saw proof."
Galactica often revolved around the same political message as Buck Rogers (also created by Larson): Larson's alter-ego (Adama, Apollo or Buck) would get a "hunch" that some foreign group would attack his people without provocation, which is treacherous and evil, therefore we should attack them without provocation first. The well-meaning but naive people surrounding the hero don't listen to him, claiming that killing foreigners without provocation is "wrong." By the end of the episode the foreigners attack without provocation, proving that everyone should have listened to Larson's alter-ego in the first place. The idea that a specious argument leading to a correct conclusion is therefore valid is a common logical fallacy known as the Affirmation Of The Consequent.
In 1979 the Soviet newspaper Izvestia suggested that Galactica is thinly-veiled anti-Soviet propaganda: The trusting Colonies are the Americans, the treacherous Cylons are the Soviets, and the SALT II arms treaty is the peace treaty the Cylons use to trick the Colonies into lowering their guard.
Batman (1939-)Vincent Sullivan, editor of National Comics, wanted another superhero to capitalize on the phenomenal success of Superman (introduced 1938). Artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger combined Superman with The Bat, a 1926 film about a guy who, inspired by a real bat, dresses up in a masked "bat outfit," stands on Gothamesque rooftops spreading his cape out menacingly, and shines his "bat signal" on people right before attacking them. Batman also borrows from the Douglas Fairbanks production of The Mark of Zorro (1920) and the extremely popular radio program The Shadow (1931-).
The Joker character is copied outright from Gwynplaine, the central character of the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs. This silent movie was based on Victor Hugo's 1869 novel L'Homme qui rit (The Man Who Laughs), the story of a boy whose face is carved into a smile as punishment for his father's rebellion against King James. The Joker got his name from the standard deck of playing cards. Arkham House, the asylum Joker is always sent to, is named after Arkham, Massachusetts, a fictional town created by H.P. Lovecraft. A character named Harley Quinn was invented by Agatha Christie.
Catwoman was introduced in 1940 as "The Cat," a cat-burgler with no costume. She was eventually renamed "Catwoman," and her costume was ultimately copied from the first superheroine created by a woman (and one of the first superheroines): Miss Fury (1941-1952). Miss Fury was a newspaper strip created, written and illustrated by a woman named Tarpe Mills.
Many of the characters in Batman were probably created mostly by Bob Kane's partner, writer Bill Finger. When asked why he claimed credit for characters and ideas which were undeniably Finger's, Kane would respond: "The people who work for me are no more than extensions of my own hands." This did not endear him to co-workers.
Bladerunner (1982)This fantastic film is based loosely on Philip K. Dick's short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). Both the story and film allude to the hard boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), in particular The Maltese Falcon, published in 1930 and immortalized by Humphrey Bogart in 1941. Hammett's genre-defining 'noir' stories were informed by his own experience as a top "shadow" (expert at tailing subjects) for the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? "Raised some doubts as not being sharp enough for a film title," so Scott purchased the rights to the title of Alan E. Nourse's novel, "The Bladerunner."
The Maltese Falcon has directly influenced an incredible amount of first-rate stories in addition to Bladerunner, including Chinatown, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961). The line "half now, half when you complete the mission" survived completely intact from The Maltese Falcon to Yojimbo to Star Wars! (While we're on the subject, what else can you think of that's named the M----- Falcon? Bogart movies are among the strongest of influences on both the Indiana Jones and Star Wars films, though with such elegant subtlety that you can watch them all a dozen times without noticing.)
Chronicles of Narnia, The (1950-56)Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) lectured on "Mediaeval Prolegomena" ("Introduction to Medievalism") at Oxford University, was a close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and an respected Christian academic. During the Second World War four youngsters from London were billeted at his home, and he made up stories about a magical land to amuse them. His fantasy drew strongly on Boxen, the imaginary land he had meticulously invented as a child. Years later he expanded these stories into the first volume of what was to become his most popular work, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).
Lewis borrowed The White Witch from The Snow Queen, a faerie tale expanded and popularized by Hans Christian Anderson (plus a bit of Morgan le Fay). The talking animals of Narnia were inspired by Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit books, first published in 1902. Lewis used giants, dwarves and the World Ash Tree from Norse myths, and faerie creatures from the legends his Irish nurse told him as a child. His dufflepuds from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are the sciopodes described in Shakespeare's Othello. Many of the creatures and images in Narnia draw from Aesop's Fables from Ancient Greece, including "The Man and the Satyr" and "The Lion and The Mouse Who Returned a Kindness."
Despite the trappings of paganism and myth, the Chronicles of Narnia are essentially an allegorical retelling of Christian Theology. The lion Aslan represents Jesus ("Jesus Christ, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David has triumphed!" - Revelation 5:5). "Aslan" is probably a variation of "arslan," the word for "lion" in Armenian and Turkish. We watch as the only son of the "Emperor Beyond the Oceans" allows himself to be sacrificed for the sake of his people, then triumphantly resurrects. We hear about the creation of the world, and even witness the end of the world as prophesied in the The Revelation of Saint John the Divine.
Narnia was probably named after the ancient Umbrian city Nequinium, which the Romans renamed Narnia in 299 BC (after the river Nar, a tributary of the Tiber). The idea of calling men "sons of Adam" and women "daughters of Eve" is probably borrowed from Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling.
For more information, check out Origins of Narnia, by Mark Bane (part of the excellent Into The Wardrobe; A Website Devoted to C.S. Lewis).
Close Encounters (1977), E.T. (1982)
FAR LEFT: H.G. Wells sketch of a Martian, as he imagined them in his 1897 novel War of the Worlds. LEFT: The first appearance of the modern idea of what E.T.s look like, from If Tomorrow Comes by Louis Aaron Reitmeister (1934). RIGHT: Alien from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. FAR RIGHT: Alien from E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial.
Steven Spielberg's two most culturally successful films both offer a friendly, optimistic vision of America's current dominant myth: that extra-terrestrial beings of superior wisdom and intelligence might visit the Earth.
The idea that beings might live on other planets is nearly as old as the realization that there are other planets. In 310-230 BC Aristarchus of Samos proposed the "heliocentric" model: the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun, rather than (as everyone assumed) the other way around. In 150 AD Lucian of Samosata published his True History, arguably the first science fiction story ever, in which the empire of the Moon and the empire of the Sun fight over who gets to colonize Venus. The heliocentric model was forgotten until Nicolaus Copernicus revived it in 1543, by publishing De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs). Gallileo renewed interest in Copernican theory in 1632, in his Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo ("Dialogue of the Two Chief Systems of the World"). Europeans suddenly became aware of other planets, and the public imagination exploded with the idea of beings from outer space. In 1686 one of the most popular books in France and England was Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle's Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds. Check out this primo old-time scifi: "...my Fancy is confounded with the infinite Number of living Creatures, that are in the Planets; and my thoughts are strangely embarass'd with the variety that one must of Necessity imagine to be amongst 'em; because I know Nature does not love Repetitions; and therefore they must all be different. But how is it possible for one to represent all these to our Fancy? Our Imaginations can never comprehend this variety..."
It was H.G. Wells who first had the revolutionary idea of combining the discoveries of science with the techniques of fairytales and myth, and in so doing arguably created the Science Fiction genre. Wells turned Martians into mythological creatures in the popular imagination in his groundbreaking 1897 novel War of the Worlds. Speilberg's best films tap this same power, by using the modern version of the might-actually-be-real mythological being, the extra-terrestrial. They encourage children to wonder "What if that really happened?" in a way which cynical adults cannot completely disprove. As Albert Einstein (1879-1955) often pointed out, it's this kind of wondering which nourishes the imagination. Einstein credited the fairy-stories his mother read him with building his imagination, and the imagination with his discovery of the Special and General Theories of Relativity.
Wells was strongly influenced by Darwin's theory of evolution, so he imagined that a more-evolved creature would have a huge brain, big eyes and a tiny body. His stories created mankind's basic idea of what alien visitors might really be like, and his seed idea has continued to evolve throughout the 20th century.
Important Note: None of this disproves the idea that Extra-Terrestrials might visit the Earth. Logic cannot prove a negative.
Contact (novel 1985, film 1997)Polish author Stanislaw Lem wrote the highly influential science fiction novel/social allegory Solaris in 1961. It was filmed in 1972 by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. Solaris is most often compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the two tackle deep philosophical issues through plausible science fiction. Contact copies almost exactly the scene where the cosmonaut must convince a congressional committee that he has encountered an alien intelligence, without the benefit of any hard evidence. They denounce him as crazy, but a few secretly believe that he may be telling the truth.
The spaceship from H.G. Wells' 1899 novel The First Men in the Moon is described as a metal ball surrounded by "cavorite blinds," giving it the overall appearance of a sphere inside a dodecahedron: exactly the same design as Ellie's passenger pod from Contact. I suspect that Sagan was affectionately alluding to Wells' novel. (You can see a version of Wells' design in the 1964 film.)
Cthulhu Mythos (1926-)H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was a homely, introverted boy who suffered from poor health his entire life. Both his parents died while committed to asylums. He was kicked out of Sunday school at age 12 for confessing that he did not believe in God. A nervous breakdown prevented Lovecraft from finishing highschool. Lovecraft found solace in self-education, made possible by his grandfather Whipple Phillips' large personal library. He flirted briefly with the physical world, marrying Sonia H. Greene and moving to Brooklyn for two miserable years before amicably parting with her and returning to his native Providence, RI. Lovecraft spent the rest of his life scraping by on the income from his writing. Although he had almost no contact with flesh-and-blood people, Lovecraft wrote over 100,000 letters, possibly more than anyone else in history. He was correspondents with Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan. At age 19 Lovecraft wrote a letter to All-Story Magazine pointing out that there aren't really tigers in Africa, as their new "Tarzan" serial claimed (the character was therefore changed to a lion in subsequent printings). Lovecraft once included his family tree in a letter to a friend: it wound through his parents to his grandparents through a host of interstellar entities including Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep and ultimately Azazoth, the blasphemous dark chaos at the center of the universe. Howard Philips Lovecraft was, as they say, something else.
Lovecraft went through a long "apprenticeship" period during which he openly imitated of his favorite authors. In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith he wrote, "My ideal weird author would be a kind of synthesis of the atmospheric intensity of Poe, the cosmic range and luxuriant invention of Dunsany, the bottom-touching implications of Machen, and the breathlessly convincing unrealism of Algernon Blackwood." When Lovecraft finally found his own voice it not only synthesized the best of his favorites, it was startlingly original. Lovecraft's writing, halfway between horror and science fiction, created one of the most imaginative visions in all of world literature, approaching the richness, depth and complexity of the mythologies of entire cultures.
Lovecraft's most influential stories revolve around the idea that the Earth was once possessed by creatures older and infinitely more powerful than man, who came from various locations in outer space and, though they lack our petty conception of "good" and "evil", would far transcend our idea of evil if we could only understand them, which, luckily, we have no hope of ever doing, because our minds are too puny. The bad news is that cults of humans remember the "Elder Gods" (or "Great Race", or "That Which Lies Sleeping", or whatever as varies from story to story), and work to hasten the Bad Creatures inevitable return. The first of these loosely-connected stories was "The Call of Cthulhu," first published in 1926. Interest in Lovecraft began to wane after his death in 1937, and he might have faded into obscurity forever if August Derleth and Donald Wandrei hadn't formed Arkham House publishing company in 1939. Derleth and Wandrei not only kept Lovecraft in print, they launched the idea that his stories were connected into one great "Cthulhu Mythos."
Biographical information taken partially from Cthulhu Lives!, H.P. Lovecraft Biography, and H.P. Lovecraft's Favorite Authors, this last from the sterling H.P. Lovecraft Archive.
Dinotopia (1992)Artist/author James Gurney has created a wonderful myth with this series of lavishly-illustrated books and the television miniseries based on them. Like Gainax's Nadia, The Secret of Blue Water (1990) and Disney's Atlantis, the Lost Empire (2001), Gurney probably borrowed the basic idea for Dinotopia from the Atlantean writings of Edgar Cayce (1877-1945).
Atlantis was first mentioned by Plato in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias. Cayce had visions in which he remembered his past lives, including memories of being a citizen of ancient Atlantis. He described Atlantis as a utopia, the highest civilization mankind has ever achieved. Cayce said that dinosaurs were still alive and living in peaceful harmony with Atlanteans as recently as 50,000-10,000 BCE. The Atlanteans powered their city with powerful "fire crystals," which ultimately derived their energy from the sun.
Dinotopia's Waterfall City visual resembles Ur, the ancient capital of Mesopotamia. Both Waterfall City and Ur prominently feature stepped pyramids called ziggurats.
Dr. Who (1963-1989)Since "An Unearthly Child" was first broadcast on November 23, 1963, Dr. Who has become the longest-running science fiction program in history. Part of the appeal was the utter Britishness of the show: Police call boxes. Implicit classism. Putting the kettle on.
The basic premise for Dr. Who was created by Sydney Newman, Head of Drama for the BBC. Newman was inspired by H.G. Wells' novel The Time Machine (1895): traveling through history seemed a great excuse to make educational children's television. Newman imagined a timeship like Mr. Wells' with the added wrinkle that it was much larger on the outside than the inside. He wanted the exterior to conform to the shape of the environment around it, but when that proved too expensive the producers decided the "chameleon circuit" was broken, freezing the ship in its first earthly shape, a police call box. (The timeship was eventually named the "TARDIS," an acronym for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space.) Newman also decided that the hero should be "old, alien and unable to control the ship," to add drama as the audience wonders where and when he'd appear next. Newman also helped to create The Avengers, another program about an older man who seems to know everything and keeps a pretty younger woman around so he has someone to explain everything to (but who, like Dr. Who's endless companions, is sexually unavailable or at least the relationship is ambiguous).
Many other people contributed to Dr. Who, in particular a young new hotshot producer named Verity Lambert, who discarded the previous theme music in favor of the electronica that has become the program's hallmark. The theme's melody was written by Ron Grainer; it was Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills who created the exotic, immediately-recognizable broadcast version (based on Grainer's instructions to make it sound like "windbubble and clouds").
The Doctor's most famous opponents are the Daleks, invented by Terry Nation and designed by Raymond Cusick. Dalek means "a far and distant thing" in serbo-croat. It's an anagram from Kaled, the race from which the Daleks evolved. Their ideology is borrowed from the Nazis. They're shaped like pepper pots, which somewhat unsettlingly is also the nickname John Cleese gives to the irritating, shrewish older woman he often portrays (presumably his mom). The series also clearly drew from Britain's first SF program, the excellent Quatermass Experiment (1953).
The Doctor's ability to regenerate was invented when William Hartnell, the first actor to play Doctor Who, took ill and decided to leave the show in 1966. The producers decided his alien physiology allowed him to "regenerate" into a different actor.
Independence Day (1996)This blockbuster adapts The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells (1897): aliens come to earth with war machines to kill us and steal our natural resources, but are defeated by a virus (in this case a computer virus). Oddly, the modern remake misses or omits the point of Wells' novel, which is to reflect on our own behavior: "How would we feel if a technologically superior culture came along and did to us what we routinely do to everyone else?" If you remake an anti-fascism story but remove the anti-fascism part, does that make your story pro-fascism? Not that I didn't enjoy the movie, it's just... doesn't that seem worth asking?
The Matrix (1999)The Matrix is probably the movie that comes closest to duplicating the swashbuckling, mythic feel of the original Star Wars (1977). Writer/directors Larry and Andy Wachowski were smart enough to play out the same Campbellian underlying structure rather than (as almost everyone else does) merely imitating the surface.
The strongest source of imagery used in The Matrix is probably Kokaku kidotai (1995, released in the US as Ghost in the Shell, based on the manga by Shirow Masamune): The hotel lobby gunfight in Matrix strongly resembles the cathedral finale in Ghost, particularly the riff of picking up a gun mid-cartwheel, and the stone columns being blown to shrapnel. The scene where Neo is experiencing some kind of high-tech acupuncture is borrowed directly from Ghost. A character in the prologue wears frameless sunglasses just like Morpheus. The general colors and look of the Matrix are similar to Ghost throughout (in fact Trinity was Japanese in the original concept art). Click here for a well-done essay on similarities between the two films, including side-by-side visual comparisons.
Alien: Resurrection (1997) was another strong influence on the visuals in The Matrix: The shot of Trinity jumping from one building to another for the first time is almost identical to Ripley jumping across a chasm in Alien 4. "Bullet time" looks very similar to the slow-motion scenes of the pirates firing projectiles underwater (sending out waves of compression).
William's Gibson's genre-spawning cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984) popularized the term "The Matrix" for cyberspace and otherwise established the convention of superhero-like rogue agents dividing their time between cyberspace and the real world. Neuromancer also mentions Zion and an aspect of cyberspace called a "Construct." Both stories include EMP (ElectroMagnetic Pulse) weapons, computer jack head-implants, and substitute newspapers for lazily-blowing tumbleweeds. Neo, Trinity and Morpheus vaguely echo Gibson's primary cast: Case, Molly and Armitage (another hero/love-interest/mentor trio partial to black leather). For more information on Gibson's sources check out Paul Brians' Neuromancer Study Guide, or Lance Olsen's William Gibson; A Reader's Guide.
The Christian Bible is a huge influence in The Matrix: most obvious is Neo as a Christ figure. This point is made again and again: the guy who buys contraband intel off Neo says "You're my savior, man; my own personal Jesus Christ." Cypher (Judas) jumps when Neo startles him, "Jesus!" Nebuchadnezzar is a king from the Old Testament (who had bad dreams), "Trinity" refers to the Holy Trinity, and "Zion" was a Jewish citadel in Palestine (the word has since come to mean "the ideal Jewish nation").
Matrix is stuffed full of references to Lewis Carroll's Alice books, Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871): deciding which pill to take, following the white rabbit, "falling down the rabbit hole," entering the special world through the looking-glass, etc. They also borrow some of Carroll's wonderful playing with numbers: Neo is "the one," Trinity means "three," Cipher means "zero," etc.
Tron (1982) was the first depiction of "cyberspace" most people had ever seen. Part of the end credits are in vertical strips of Japanese, green against a black background. Play the tape backwards and it looks remarkably similar to the computer code of The Matrix (probably combined with the opening credits from Ghost in the Shell).
Parts of the Matrix soundtrack (mostly the "nervous violins") seems to borrow from Igor Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring). Neo's first awakening in the real world is made extra-creepy with a musical allusion to the choral music of Gyorgy Ligeti (which played whenever a monolith appeared in 2001; A Space Odyssey). The ominous military soundtrack which played as Neo and Trinity stormed the police-guarded lobby seems strongly influenced by the theme to Terminator, which played while the Terminator stormed a police headquarters.
The Wachowski's were lucky to get Hong Kong fight choreographer Woo-ping Yuen, since his films were a big influence on their script. The "woman running on the walls" riff was first used in Woo-ping's Siunin Wong Fei-hung tsi titmalau (Iron Monkey, 1993, highly recommended). This taught me a neat lesson about how ideas disseminate: Woo-ping Yuen had first used the move in 1993 (if not earlier), but it wasn't until a big-budget movie was made by Westerners that the move became an instant cliche, spawning dozens of imitators.
The Matrix script was basically finished in April 1996, but the writers still managed to squeeze in a few ideas from Dark City (1998). Dark City borrows mostly from Bladerunner and '40s film noir. The Strangers resemble Pinhead from Hellraiser carrying bug-aliens from The Hidden.)
Actor Keanu Reeves said the directors asked him to read three books before he even read the Matrix script: Simulacra and Simulation (The Body, In Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism), by Jean Baudrillard (How do we know that the things we believe are true?), Out of Control, by Kevin Kelly (What are the current leading-edge theories on evolution and technology?), and Introducing Evolutionary Psychology, by Dylan Evans, illustrated by Oscar Zarate and edited by Richard Appignanesi. Simulacra and Simulation makes a brief cameo in the movie as the hollowed-out book Neo keeps his "stash" in. If you think about it this is a great joke: the book is about figuring out the difference between real things and imitation things, and Neo's copy turns out to be fake.
GeekNote: "Neo" is an anagram for "One" (the same letters rearranged), and Greek for "new."
Minority Report (1956, 2002)The recent film Minority Report was based on the Philip K. Dick story of the same name, first published in 1956 in the magazine Fantastic Universe. The entire premise was lifted from the award-winning novel The Demolished Man, published 3 years earlier by Alfred Bester (and winner of the 1953 Hugo award for best novel). This was hardly "stealing," as science fiction ideas were considered public property, and a writer's contribution was what he did with the ideas. The premise for Demolished Man is:
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)In 1990 Hideaki Anno directed a highly popular animated Japanese TV show called Nadia: Secret of the Blue Water (remade in the US as Atlantis: The Lost Continent1). Shortly thereafter he fell into a four-year bout of nearly suicidal depression. In 1995 he returned to animation, writing and directing Evangelion. His 26-episode series made an impact on Japanese culture comparable to Star Wars on the USA twenty years earlier. Eva combined a fun, cotton-candy surface of cheesecake and wish-fulfillment violence over a profound new vocabulary for viewers to ask themselves the big questions: Why are we here? How should we relate to divinity? To each other? What obligation does a parent have to a child? Should we listen to our minds, or our hearts?
Evangelion possesses a depth and complexity unprecedented in science fiction, like 2001 taken further. Philosophy and psychology are explored with symbolism borrowed from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Death Sea Scrolls and Kabbalahism.
Out of the Silent Planet (1943)Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) was a professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge who achieved worldwide fame for his essays on Christianity and his Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series for children (see above). He was also best friends with J.R.R. Tolkien for many years, and the two once made a bargain that they would each write a science fiction series. Tolkien ended up becoming too consumed with The Lord of the Rings to invest serious energy into anything else, but Lewis wrote the Space Trilogy, of which Out of the Silent Planet was the first volume. Silent Planet is one of my favorite science fiction books ever: it invokes the necessary "sense of wonder" with incredible pastoral vistas and aliens who are different not only in appearance but society. And it is mercifully only as long as it needs to be; most science fiction from the early 20th century suffered greatly from the fact that writers were paid by the word.
Although Lewis originally had great admiration and affection for H.G. Wells, he intended Silent Planet as a counter-argument to Wells' idea that mankind should go into space and populate other planets, thus achieving immortality as a species. Lewis strongly believed that God had given us stewardship of the Earth, and it would violate God's wishes if we grabbed for more than was allotted to us.
A primary model for Lewis' description of an exotic planet was A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay (1920). Lindsay's book is poetic and dreamy and wildly original, and did a lot to advance the world's idea of what science fiction was capable of. Arcturus has attracted admirers including naturalist Loren Eiseley, comics writer Alan Moore, horror writer Clive Barker and architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The climax and most moving passage of Silent Planet describes the hero's attempts to translate between the evil humans and the Oyarsa (angel) of the planet Mars. There are no words on Mars for army, theft or war, so the translation of the villains' rationale for their behavior makes them sound like greedy, befuddled children. This device is borrowed almost exactly from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726): Gulliver attempts to explain British Imperialism to the benevolent Houyhnhnm (pronounced "Winnim") horses, a conversation which unmasks the hypocrisy, stupidity and greed of Imperialism. This device was recycled again as one of the primary mechanisms in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961); The hero is a human being raised by Martians. "Any conversation with [the hero] turned up at least one bit of human behavior which could not be justified logically, at least in terms that [he] could understand, and attempts to do so were endlessly time-consuming." Stranger makes explicit references to Gulliver's Travels, so it seems likely Heinlein also picked up this wonderful literary device from Swift.
The sequel to Silent Planet was Perelandra, an allegorical retelling of parts of the Book of Genesis on the planet Venus. There are a few good ideas and images, but overall this book lacks the imaginative, evocative beauty of Silent Planet. The final book in the series, That Hideous Strength was written while Lewis was well into his "bitter old man" phase, and is less a story than a 384-page complaint about everything Lewis had come to dislike, including women, women's liberation, heterosexuality, H.G. Wells, and the religious beliefs of blacks (Lewis' version of Satan explains that the religions of black people are much closer to his ideal than the religions of white people). Lewis would probably today be called a "misogynist," someone who fears and hates women. His perspective is reflected in his stories, in which only men can have any power or free will and still be Good. Any woman in any Lewis story who is not obedient to a male is without exception Evil and in league with Satan. The implicit message is "men have a divine responsibility to keep women powerless, for their good and the good of the world."
Lewis had spent his entire life struggling for admission into the inner circles of Oxford and Cambridge, until he finally gave up, suddenly claiming he didn't really want to be in the inner circle anyway, and wrote this excruciatingly long book equating the inner circle of both colleges with Satan. It's a shame such a wonderful series had to end on this sour note. Skip this one, but don't miss Out of the Silent Planet.
GeekNote: There's a "wormhole" between Space Trilogy and The Lord of the Rings: That Hideous Strength mentions Tolkien's Numenor years before The Lord of the Rings was published. Coooooool.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Raiders also swipes a few riffs from the excellent 1959 film version of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, including:
Star Trek (1966-1969)
LEFT: The rabbinical hand gesture historically given during the Aaronic Benediction. The gesture is meant to resemble Shin (inset), the first letter of the Hebrew word "shalom" ("peace"). RIGHT: Nimoy was so impressed by the Aaronic Benediction as a young boy that he suggested it as the Vulcan salute for the Star Trek episode Amok Time. He updated the wording of the blessing from "The Lord bless you and keep you" to "Live long and prosper."
Writer/Producer Gene Roddenberry famously pitched Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the stars." After the franchise became successful, however, he acknowledged that this was a fib crafted for television networks who were at the time only interested in programs featuring cowboys. Once he no longer needed to pitch anything Roddenberry described the real origins of his program: "Star Trek is Horatio Hornblower in outer space."
CS Forester (1899-1966) introduced Captain Horatio Hornblower in his 1938 novel The Happy Return (published in the US as Beat to Quarters). While Forester's novels were wonderful and incredibly popular in their time, Trek doesn't borrow from them directly. Instead, Trek is based mostly on the 1951 Horatio Hornblower movie starring Gregory Peck.
Forester based Hornblower on real-life British naval commander Lord Horatio Nelson (1758-1805). I've read just enough military history to know that most "military geniuses" were merely competent leaders commanding superior force and a good public relations department. Nelson was the real thing: he won battle after battle, often from a far-inferior position. Part of his secret was that he treated his men far better than was then common in the British Navies; ship's crews were recruited from prisoners and drunks, and were usually treated as little better than slaves. Nelson treated them as equals, sometimes even risking his own life for theirs, and this inspired a fanatical loyalty. Interestingly, of all the larger-than-life heros in science fiction, the two who came closest to having really existed were Captain Kirk and Paul Atriedes, both fictionalized, heterosexual versions of famous gay military leaders (Lord Nelson and T.E. Lawrence). Nelson's last words were "Kiss me, Hardy." (To his boyfriend, Captain Thomas Hardy.)
The Federation insignia may have been borrowed from The Mole People, a silly Lost World film from 1956 which used the same design rotated 90 degrees as the symbol of the nation of mole people.
Tribbles are borrowed from Robert Heinlein's 1952 novel The Rolling Stones. Heinlein's "Flat Cats" were furry little Martian creatures that emitted a soothing purr and were born pregnant.
Rumor has it that during the first season the Russian newspaper Pravda complained that even with a multi-national cast the Americans left the Russians out of our vision of outer space, even though the first person in space was a Russian! Roddenberry answered by adding a navigator called Pavel Chekhov for season two. Chekhov was almost certainly named for famous Russian writer Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904). Chekhov's youth and "moptop" haircut were meant to capitalize on the popularity of The Beatles and The Monkeys.
Roddenberry also cited the wonderful 1956 film Forbidden Planet as a major influence: the Federation resembles the "United Planets" organization. Scotty is based heavily on Chief Engineer Quinn (who explains how impossible any task assigned to him is, then says he can do it in an impossibly-short time). The primary characters are the captain, the first officer and the ship's surgeon. Roddenberry liked the idea that a starfleet of the future would be organized the way navies are today, with ranks and uniforms.
Star Trek is the most well-known science fiction story in the world, yet it was cancelled after three years. Why? The original series had low Nielson ratings, meaning it wasn't watched by huge numbers of people. So why did it create such a huge cultural impact? Today the success of a program is measured not only by how many people watch, but how educated those people are, how much money they make, and how few other programs they watch. Re-examining Star Trek's ratings by today's standards, it was one of the most successful programs in history.
What made Star Trek so appealing to bright, educated, affluent viewers who didn't watch much television? Roddenberry broke the mold by actually hiring science fiction writers to write televised science fiction: Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, Richard Matheson and David Gerrold. For thirty years Hollywood has vainly attempted to recapture the magic of the original Star Trek without following Roddenberry's simple recipe: hire real science fiction writers to write science fiction, not television drama writers.
In addition to frequent strong scripts, Star Trek enjoyed the benefit of Roddenberry's timely, progressive politics. The first interracial kiss on American television was between Kirk and Uhura, in the episode Plato's Stepchildren (and even then they only kissed because evil aliens forced them to telekinetically). Some television stations in the South refused to air the episode, and after the first airing NBC pulled the episode from general syndication for years. Since Americans generally had no problem with Kirk kissing women who were really robots, aliens, funny colors or weird slug-creatures in disguise, America's negative reaction to his kissing a black woman exposed our racism in a powerful, obvious way. Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Uhura, was frustrated that her part was "essentially a glorified switchboard operator," and ultimately quit the show. But that same night she bumped into Martin Luther King, who convinced her that she was a powerful role model, and she asked for her job back!
GeekNote: The starship from the new spin-off show, Enterprise, is a slight revamp of the "Akira Class" starship, designed by Alex Jaeger for the "First Contact" movie and reused a few times on Voyager and Deep Space Nine.
The Terminator (1984)James Cameron has said that while directing Pirana 2 he had a dream that a robot from the future who was coming to kill him, and that formed the basis for his Terminator script. A member of the crew allegedly overheard Cameron joking that the plot was "ripped off from a few Outer Limits episodes." Science fiction author Harlan Ellison wrote both episodes, Soldier and Demon With a Glass Hand; he sued Cameron for plagiarism, won an out-of-court settlement, and his name was added to the film's credits.
The idea of using organic skin to disguise metal robots so they can sneak into human enclaves and kill everyone after a nuclear armageddon originated with Philip K. Dick's 1953 Second Variety. The original short story was eventually made into the 1995 movie Screamers.
Although he barely appears in the first film, Sarah's son John Connor is presented as a Christ figure, the savior of humanity. This is partially conveyed by his initials: JC (Jesus Christ). Authors Stephen Crane and John Steinbeck popularized this shorthand for religious symbolism. You'll notice it all over the place once you know to look. Notable modern usages include:
X-Files (1993-)Series creator Chris Carter has often cited his two biggest influences on the X-Files as Kolchak the Night Stalker and Silence of the Lambs. He explains the original inspiration this way: "I saw a guy who worked for the FBI on Larry King whose detail was satanic cults. He said that he had not found one ounce of truth in any of those things. But I found it interesting that they had somebody specifically investigating something like that. And Silence of the Lambs had come out, which I thought was beautifully done, and I actually studied that movie pretty carefully. So it was scratching at my mind: the FBI was fresh in my mind. Kolchack, FBI - that really helped form the concept."
Kolchak premiered as a TV movie in 1972 and continued as a series in 1973. Every week reporter Carl Kolchak would investigate a grisly murder that invariably turned out to be caused by the supernatural. His boss at the Independent News Service would never believe his outlandish stories.
I don't know of Carter ever mentioning this, but he might also have been influenced by a short-lived, undistinguished television program called Project Bluebook (alternately Project U.F.O.), which broadcast from 1978-1979. This show was based on a real-life organization called "Project Bluebook," which the United States Air Force quietly formed in 1948 to explore the possible validity of UFO abudction stories (and closed just as quietly in 1969). The television program featured two dark-suited government agents who travelled around the country interviewing people who claimed to have been contacted by aliens - the same format as the X-Files.
The idea that the government knows all about aliens visiting the Earth but is hiding the evidence as part of a world-wide conspiracy is rumored to have originated with Tiffany Thayer, co-founder of the Fortean Society, sometime in the 1940s. Charles Fort had spent his life and a sizable family inheritance to travel the world digging up reports of unexplainable X-Files-type stuff like rains of frogs, which he believed were caused by aliens, UFOs, telekenesis and like that. He had been good friends with novelist Tiffany Thayer, but declined to join the society she formed to continue his work.
Chris Carter was born on October 13, 1956 (10:13:56), and he uses 10:13 both as the name of his company, Ten Thirteen Productions, and a "signature" throughout the series. Mulder's birthday is October 13. Digital clocks usually read "10:13." Wait 10:13 minutes after the last official song on the X-Files Film Soundtrack to hear the "secret" track - Chris Carter explaining the whole shebang. Turns out the X-Files conspiracy is based on the 1940 collaboration between France's Vichy regime and the Nazis: aliens are the Nazis, the world governments are the Vichy and the world population is the betrayed French people.
The X-Men (1963-)The X-Men debuted as a comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963. Lee wanted to call the series "The Mutants," but his publisher vetoed the idea. X-Men probably borrows ideas from science fiction books including Wilmar H. Shiras' Children of the Atom (1953), Henry Kuttner's Mutant (1953) and the film Village of the Damned (1960, based on John Wyndham's 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos). Those stories were based in turn on older mutant stories including The Hampdenshire Wonder by J.D. Bereford (1911), Odd John by Olaf Stapledon (1935) and especially Slan by A.E. Van Vogt (1940). Slan first introduced the now cliched idea of super-powered mutants banding together against human prejudice and oppression.
A "Slan" is widely reputed to be a codeword for a science fiction "fan" (co-op households of SF fans were called "slan shacks," the equivalent of today's "geekhaus"). The first fanclub for science fiction may have been the "The Science Correspondence Club," formed 1930. Their mission was "the furtherance of science and its dissemination among the laymen of the world and the final betterment of humanity." In other words, a bunch of geeks seeking to "save a world that hates and fears us." Yep... the original X-Men are us science fiction geeks!!
1 Disney has officially stated that Atlantis was not based on, or even influenced by, Nadia. This is a little weird given that the cast, costumes, gadgets and plot of both productions are nearly identical, and many of the Disney artists acknowledge having previously watching Nadia. Disney allegedly unofficially borrowed a Japanese television program as source material for a film once before, changing Kimba to Simba for The Lion King. Turnabout is fair play, since Japanese Anime was originally based on Disney!
2 Spacecraft; 2000 to 2100 AD by Stewart Cowley, 1978: This is the first of the excellent four-volume Terran Trade Authority Handbook series. Probably made possible by the success of Star Wars a year earlier, these clever, innovative books redressed SF cover paintings into a history of space travel. The story of mankind's first meeting with aliens and our first interstellar war is cunningly woven into the single-page text descriptions. The TTA books have inspired countless imitators, films and even videogames, including the well-done Homeworld.
Star Wars: Origins © 1999-2006 by Kristen Brennan,
part of the Jitterbug Fantasia webzine.