Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Welcome to Mars

Welcome to Mars by Ken Hollings
North Atlantic Books (reprint): 3/18/2014
Paperback, 304 pages   
ISBN-13: 9781583947616

Welcome to Mars is a captivating look at the culture of postwar America and its dream of limitless technological and human development. Utilizing declassified government archives, newspaper records, ad campaigns, and B-movies of the period, Hollings weaves an intricate web of Cold War politics, UFO scares, psychedelic research, and 1950s pop culture. From the atom bomb and suburban planning to the space race and little-green-men movies, Welcome to Mars shows the startling connections between science fact and science fiction, a feedback loop in which real technological advances and government experimentation gave rise to science fiction fantasy, which then fed new innovation and research.
My Thoughts:

Welcome to Mars: Politics, Pop Culture, and Weird Science in 1950s America by Ken Hollings is highly recommended for a very specific audience. "The dangers of nuclear annihilation, radiation poisoning, and the effects of atomic fallout were becoming manifestly apparent even to those who had flunked out of science in high school. A trip to the drive-in could teach you an awful lot in those days." If you are a fan of science fiction movies from the 50s and also a student of history and politics of the times then Welcome to Mars will likely highly appeal to you.

"As Hollings plays connect-the-dots between monster movies, nuclear submarines, and LSD, between Sputnik, brainwashing, and TV dinners, he is tracing the wires of our own unconscious, and filtering the electronic ether that we breathe." Erik Davis writes in the forward. "Perhaps the atomic tests of 1945—or even the discovery of Nag Hammadi’s great Gnostic library, as Philip K. Dick believed—set off a chain reaction in reality itself, and LSD and Dianetics and Robby the Robot are all telling us the same thing, a message we still haven’t really processed: Welcome to Mars."

This is one of those books that isn't for everyone but those of you who will like it, will like it a lot. Now you may not agree with all of Hollings conclusions, but you will be able to follow his thoughts and conclusions. He also makes some connections and provides all the research and information on the topics in one place. Hollings admits that Welcome to Mars is about "trying to locate a specific fantasy as precisely as possible in time and space." And he covers a lot of information and facts that tie into the historical fantasies we entertained. For example he researches when flying saucers, as well as when the psychiatric movie, entered into the main stream of American culture.

Personally, I had no idea that MIT and  the National Institutes for Health, the Atomic energy Commission, and Quaker Oats participated in “nontherapeutic” research on children involving radiation until 1953 “to determine how the body absorbed iron, calcium, and other minerals from dietary sources and to explore the effect of various compounds in cereal on mineral absorption”

While Hollings is discussing the historical and cultural significance of pop culture in the 50's he also has a wry sense of humor that I appreciated and enjoyed. He captured the prevailing attitudes of the time. For example:
"The whole crew may die at the end of the movie, and the meteorites they encounter may have been potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil, but Rocketship X-M’s narrative drive and lack of scientific gravitas both prove popular at the box office." (Location 945)
“He was very nice about it,” one Army doctor remarks to another as they prepare to enjoy the rich full flavor you can only get with an unfiltered, high-tar cigarette, “but he made me feel like a third-class witchdoctor.” (Location 1132)

Hollings also is clear to point out when various connections were made that we take for granted today, such as Captain Video being sponsored by Skippy Peanut Butter and Post Cereals to attract the young consumers who tuned in to the show. Where Hollings succeeds is in making cultural connections during post WWII that tie pop culture, technology, and political positions together to give a glimpse of society during that time. This is the time that introduced cybernetics, LSD, the nuclear arms race and space race, psychoanalysis, aliens from space, game theory, Scientology, etc. into our culture.

With the chapters organized by year, Welcome to Mars is well written and researched. As long time followers know I love it when nonfiction books contain a bibliography, index, and list of illustrations.  I really enjoyed Welcome to Mars, but I also know this isn't a book for everyone. 

Table of Contents
Introduction: Scenes From A History As Yet Unwritten
Chapter 1—1947: Rebuilding Lemuria
Chapter 2—1948: Flying Saucers Over America
Chapter 3—1949: Behaviour Modification
Chapter 4—1950: Cheapness And Splendour
Chapter 5—1951: Absolute Elsewhere
Chapter 6—1952: Red Planet
Chapter 7—1953: Other Tongues, Other Flesh
Chapter 8—1954: Meet The Monsters
Chapter 9—1955: Popular Mechanics
Chapter 10—1956: 'Greetings, My Friend!'
Chapter 11—1957: Contact With Space
Chapter 12—1958: Mass Hysteria
Chapter 13—1959: Teenagers From Outer Space
Conclusion: Thinking the Unthinkable
Index List of Illustrations

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of North Atlantic Books for review purposes.

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