Places Between Spaces

It’s summer. Time to fire up the theremin.

As an adolescent, these vacation months away from school always seemed for me the best time to watch science fiction movies. Immaterial whether inside theaters or at home on the boob tube. Both movie distributors and broadcasters dependably started scheduling their releases or showing titles featuring visitors from other worlds during the torrid months.

Better to contemplate extraterrestrials in air conditioning, I guess.

And while thrillers were offered throughout the year, didn’t the dumber ones get aired in June, July, and August? Think of the Bowery Boys stumbling across and battling some fiendish scientist whose menacing creature was a stunt man wearing a slapped-together ape costume.

Fare on summer screens opened the heavens. If the viewer attentive, if the movie at all clever enough, what passed before our eyes revealed plenty about mankind. These weren’t so much mirrors as self-exposures.

Plenty of what’s today regarded as classic sci-fi emerged from the 1950s. Then, the Red Scare frightened Americans in ways far deeper tangible crises didn’t. Naturally. Unlike war or economic disaster, the menace was insidious, shapeless as well as faceless; the threat being ideology. It sat beyond the general public’s easy grasp. One sensed changes rather than could define them.

Science fiction served as the perfect metaphor for a susceptible nation’s inability to untwine the new threads of the Atomic Era. The Second World War had shown how completely debased mankind was. It also permitted long suppressed notions and formerly repressed people to escape what had proscribed their lives.

An emergent world possessing eye-blink means of mass destruction and once marginalized populations insistent on being openly recognized flummoxed good portions of Americans. They never conceived of life “not being always as it had been.” The old comfortable stilted continuity in which they had grown vanished.

Clearly that unnerved them. Science fiction was the vehicle through which the unknown, their anxieties, could be manifested and illustrated.

Oh. Sort of like now except our movies lack inherently unsettling references, they’re in color, special effects overwhelm too many stories, and niche programing no longer reserves Saturday afternoons and evenings for “creature features” broadcasts on the local VHF station. “Sophisticated” as we’ve become the cosmos doesn’t astound us anymore. Too bad. I bet if we stopped rushing around seeking the next big thing before everyone else, what exists among us, in our backyards might astonish.

Since relocating to Nevada, I’ve searched the evening skies nightly … because you never know.

The above is why I’m pleased SJ, a fellow gym member and social media acquaintance, ventures into the less explored, little known quadrants of the sun-blasted, broiling Mojave. Armed with camera, led by curiosity, she dusts off, peels back, and investigates the overlooked, bypassed, and ghost towns interrupting the desert void.

Me? Fuck if I’m going out there among those people. Especially at night.

This urbane man has decided avoiding the rustics residing in grounds aliens are likeliest to reconnoiter. After all many of the places SJ pokes into are so isolated they verge on almost intentionally forgotten. The people living in them have discovered a simplicity in which divorcing themselves from greater society has found immense favor.

Besides, if weird stuff occurs they can bury that knowledge.

If that isn’t Science Fiction 101, what the hell is?

Unlike the region’s “Hills Have Eyes” towns – whose denizens are modern day monsters who not only live off the grid faithfully listening to Infowars on devices powered by car batteries but cook meth – the habited places SJ uncovers are full of kindly neighbors happy to inform outsiders why they eschew our hubbub. There is never any shortage of genially smiling, twinkly eyed, crinkly-skinned locals who reduce complicated modern living into minimalism.

There’s so much nothing to see no wonder upon encountering them most urbanites nod, thank them, then speed along. But wonder if all that, as little as there is, is just a ruse? Clever behavioral camouflage to dissuade our further interest.

Let’s say a population plainly regarded as banal had been instead cosmic cosmopolitans. They were fed up with life on their planet, an orb centuries advanced beyond our own. So evolved even the most laggard rats on their home world could lap us puny humans in a race.

A little 31st century plastic surgery, a tweak or two on the genetic helix – and voila! – they became interplanetary Oliver and Lisa Douglases upon this global Green Acres. Their disguises, “the simple folk” manners, comportment, are perfect. The only giveaways? Once in a while townspeople share unearthly conspiratorial leers. “Outsiders” register these but stay clueless to the uncanny gestures’ meanings.

Whimsical as I hope preceding notion is received, let me credit Ray Bradbury for its genesis.

A once renowned mid-20th century science fiction writer, Bradbury, like many authors who influenced next-gen fantasists, has been slighted by time and changes in tastes. Much of his output concluded in either hopeful or ironic fashions. The tenor of our times has allowed him to recede. Little of his work jibes in our dystopian United States.

Unfortunately, many one-time prominent American authors share Bradbury’s fate. Shame on American readers.

His genre aside, at one time Bradbury’s work overlapped audiences. Many categories of mainstream America found interest in his novels and short stories.

Although set in distant, okay, out of this world, places, among highly imaginative locales, amid unimaginable figures, he brilliantly rendered alien circumstances exceedingly human. Incredibly, Rod Serling only filmed one script of Bradbury’s for The Twilight Zone.

Influential as Bradbury was on the show’s themes, that pair ought have been way more simpatico as far as Serling’s anthology series.

If Bradbury is much remembered today, it’s because of his novel Fahrenheit 451. Okay. This is America. The author is probably best recalled for the movie version starring Oskar Werner. The book serves as the film’s source.

Thanks to 1930s Nazi book burning orgies, Fahrenheit 451 was not prescient. By the way, 451° is the temperature at which paper combusts. Nonetheless the novel may become topical in 2020 given that too many contemporary Americans are taking refuge in anti-science, anti-intellectual caves.

Seeing and hearing such ignoramuses reminds of a recent New Yorker cartoon. In it an alien has detained several earthlings aboard its spacecraft. A video screen inside the ship shows news about the social unrest besetting our country. Referencing televised events, the intergalactic visitor angrily tells the captive humans, “See!? This is why we probe you up the ass!”

Scattered throughout the Mojave are numerous anonymous towns traversed and bisected by badly maintained two-lane roads. Barely populated or abandoned outright these are the sites that draw a curious seeker like SJ. Were a story with Bradbury-esque touches ever developed, it should feature her. Or someone like her.

Short. Middle-aged shapely. When bound a tumultuous auburn sweep of tresses plumes atop her head; when loose the same engulfs the sides of her face. Hers a smile so uncontained it may devour those she bestows it upon.

Sly. Fearless. A natural storyteller, SJ maintains a quite comfortable bearing before camera lenses.

She descends upon some at best inconsequential desert town saddled in a shallow valley between minor sawtooth mountain ranges. A town so obscure its nightlight wattage so low, glow fails escaping above the ranges concealing the streets.

There, SJ intends profiling this anonymous colony through its inhabitants. To them a place so beyond any beaten path must have treasured reasons for their presence, much less even still being.

Her being an incisive interviewer doesn’t help. Questions she asks yield nothing insightful. Fortunately, the stark scenery which encircles the town provides plenty in the visual department.

Disappointed in the end, SJ believes, no, intuits, more got shifted than hidden during her visit. Her stay reveals nothing of substance. No meat. Just bleached cattle skulls.

The accommodating residents effortlessly detoured her questions into dead-ends. Converse easily as all did, despite answers standing right before her, SJ ultimately departs as mystified as she arrived.