Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Good Old Days

Some people know that between 1998 and 2005 I wrote nine novels and a few short stories that comprise the Starman series, a saga of a little more than half a million words. (Interested folks can learn more by checking out The saga is set in the middle years of the 22nd century. I wrote it in partnership with two friends. My partners were Christians, and the theology and spirituality of the saga is deeply Christian and orthodox. One plotted the books, another provided innovative ideas and scientific advice, and I did the actual writing and filling in of details of plot and characterization. It is a science fiction adventure story with the theme of personal responsibility and courage in a time of profound danger.

Although they were self-published, statistics show that during the years of their publication the books sold in the top 20% of all books sold in the U.S. (Note: you don’t have to sell very many to achieve that level. We have maybe 400-500 fans.) In addition, a publisher produced them as audiobooks on cassette tape and CDs. Our publisher was not very honest and so the actual sales figures given to us are vague, but their lowest estimate is that about five to ten thousand audiobooks were sold across the nation.

My partners and I were extremely pleased by the reception the books received, and found enormous fulfillment in writing them.

Although it was written for older children and adults, our saga was invested in the high moral quality of the series books written for juveniles in the 1950s, along with the sense of adventure, optimism, and encouragement of those days. Anyone who wants to know more about the classic series books of the 1899-1973 era might browse my website dedicated to one of the classic series,, especially the part that talks about the appeal of all the classic series books:

The plotter of the Starman series, Jon Cooper, and I have been collecting series books for years. In addition to writing our own books in the same genre, we were meticulous in making our books scientifically accurate by today’s standards. Among our readers were NASA scientists who were drawn to the series for that reason, among others.

One of our readers—a grandfather named Roy who came across the books just three months ago—wrote to us and said, “The story has that fine patina of 50s pulp fiction that I remember so well.”

I was born in 1948, but Jon was born in 1980. I read the classic series books as they were being published, but Jon came to them long after their era had ended. I recently came across the Ted Wilford series, a set of fifteen books written 1951-1967. It is one of the finest and best-written of the classic series. On my recommendation, Jon collected these books also.

When Jon began to read the books, his foray into the 1950s world of Ted Wilford, coupled with the compliment paid our own series by Roy, led to an exchange of emails between Jon and myself on the subject of how the world has changed in half a century.

I’ve been reading the first Ted Wilford book [published in 1951]; I’ve read maybe 25% of it and have been enjoying it – the book is a lot of fun. One thing that has particularly struck me is how strange Ted Wilford’s world is. Has that much really changed in 50 years?

Well, yes, it has.

Ted Wilford actually went with his friends out into the hills for days at a time, completely without any sort of supervision, and no one seemed to mind. I realize that Ted is not nine years old, but even so I wonder how many parents would feel comfortable with an expedition like that today. The whole world seems so innocent; in the second book Ted actually gets into trouble for writing an editorial in which he expresses an opinion, and was told that in newspapers a person’s personal opinions must never enter into articles. The world seemed so open and devoid of any real evil and there was so much care and concern put into newspaper articles – it just amazes me. I can’t imagine a world like that.

Did a world like that really exist at one point, not that long ago? In the old black-and-white TV show “Dennis the Menace” you see young kids wandering all over town, all without adult supervision; they seem to have free reign to go wherever they want.

Yes, the world really was like that. It is how I grew up in the 1950s. I imagine that the way the newspaper business is presented in the Teds is somewhat idealized, but not much. I remember being taught in journalism classes in the early 1960s that one’s own opinion must not influence how one reported news. The news was to contain only facts, and quotes were to be direct and accurate.

When I was growing up, kids could wander all over the neighborhood and older preteens and young teens could ride their bikes miles away to play. High schoolers camping for a few days on their own? Well, I never did that, but I suppose that in small towns of 3,000 population or so it could well have been common. There are many series books from that era that imply that this was commonplace. And now that I think about it, I did actually do that once or twice with friends—we went into the hills near my home and camped alone for a night or two by ourselves.

If the Ted Wilford books are to be believed, the world has changed enormously since the 1950’s – changed beyond recognition, really. It seemed like a nice world – not a bad place to live, really – and I wonder how long it will be until we get it back again.

The 1950s were a great time. In a lot of ways, so were the 1960s. Things began to change, I’d say, in the mid-sixties. The series books of that era are pretty consistent in presenting the time as it was: the Rick Brants, Ken Holts, Tom Swift Jrs., Hardy Boys of the 1950s, and lots of other series, do reflect the time in which they were written. Certainly there was crime and immorality, but the overwhelming aura of the culture was upright. Divorce was extremely rare. Most moms with young kids stayed at home. Most people went to church.

Of course, there was still a lot of evil in the 1950s—racial hate crimes were common in the U.S., there was political oppression and atrocity in other parts of the world, etc. Air raid sirens went off once a month, to ensure that they were in working order. The fear of nuclear war was real. There will always be evil. It’s just that for mainstream America I think it actually was a better world. I really don’t think that this is just nostalgia for the “good ole days”; I think the days were really good.

I think that what I like most about the Ted Wilford books is the general atmosphere of the books – the little things that tell of an era that is as alien to me as the far side of the Moon. I would dearly love to live in a world like Ted Wilford’s – but then, one day I’ll be living in a much better one, and that’s something worth thinking about.

Rick Brant had such a sense of family; everyone on Spindrift Island knew each other and cared about each other, and you had the feeling that Rick knew the people in Whiteside just as well. You didn’t have an individual in a sea of individuals; you had a group, working together, caring for each other, and pitching in as needed. Honest people, doing the right thing, even if the right thing came at great personal cost – now there’s a world I’d like to inhabit.

In Ted Wilford you really get the feeling that you could trust the newspapers to give you an honest shake, and that the reporters were good-hearted people who were more than willing to go out of their way to help someone when they needed it. Even the Wilford family was close; Ted and his older brother got along just fine, and clearly had a close relationship; Ted thought nothing of spending time taking care of the much-younger Tim, and the two enjoyed each other’s company. I have trouble imagining an era where it’s perfectly ordinary for older teenagers to take up with a young kid and enjoy spending time with him – I’m sure it still happens, but it is most definitely not normal.

When I was plotting the Starman books I didn’t include any of the Ted Wilford sense of society because a world like that is just alien to me. You were able to draw on your own experiences and add touches of that – glimpses of a better world and a safer place. I can see the devastation and could write about a blasted New York City, but you came in and added the hope and renewal that was so needed to balance the equation. It just all came together.

I’m reading Arthur C. Clarke’s entry, or one of them, in the Winston Science Fiction Library [a set of 36 science fiction books written in the 1950s and ’60s] now: Islands in the Sky. What Roy described as the “patina of the 1950s” in the Starman series is easily found in the Winston library. It has a marvelous feel to it. As I read, it is effortless to move back into the era when I was a preteen in my neighborhood, with fields and orchards nearby, and the world just seemed fresh and clean. I think that Roy’s line, so easily tossed off in his initial email to us, is maybe the greatest compliment we have received about our writing. Man.

I suspect that nostalgia is something serious. Even where memory colors the good things and forgets the bad things, we human beings are longing for something beyond the world we live in. We are longing for heaven, our true home. As Jon wrote, "one day I’ll be living in a much better [world], and that’s something worth thinking about." If we cannot be fully satisfied until we are there, then we are in a good place—no matter where we are.


Tim said...

I'm just a little younger than Jon and that world is just as alien to me, though my parents tried to give us a sense of it. But I'm getting conflicting messages. We always hear, especially from conservative Christians that human nature has not changed since the Fall (barring Christ) and that we have the same problems today that Cain and Abel had. If this is true, then what is it that has changed so much in the past 50 years, which is a time span that hardly even shows up on the scale of human history? How can things both stay the same for 6,000 years and change drastically in 50?

Father David said...

Human nature certainly stays the same regardless of era, but what cultures value changes. Individuals live in families, neighborhoods, countries, and cultures. Imagine the age of chivalry and compare it to today. When Clark Gable said, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" ("Gone With the Wind"--was that 1939?), I believe that it was the first time a swear word was used on the screen. Now you can hear all kinds of foul language on prime time television, and even after-school television. What cultures tolerate, and even support, changes over time. The influence of a culture on the individual is mentioned many times in both Old and New Testaments.