The 50s were an archetypal time, both for America and for science fiction, but more than half a century later, does that era have anything to say to our own? Larry Doyle was minding his own business when one day a couple of years ago someone said something that made him believe that in many ways the 50s have never left us — and one result of that epiphany is Go, Mutants! a smart-alec comedy that imagines the 50s never really ended, and that the drive-in movie aliens were real… and that their kids are now in high school.
Who was that person that jolted Doyle back into the 50s, and what did they say? Let’s ask Doyle.
We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity.
– Sarah Palin, September 3, 2008
I had been worried about America for a while. Ever since the Event, we had been slipping back into bad habits, starting wars to stop ideas, equating dissent with treason, abandoning principles in the service of protecting them, etc. But Sarah Palin’s speech before the Republican Convention gave voice to a dark yearning that had been palpable for years:
America wanted to go back to the Good Old Days.
Though it is risky to ascribe calculation or forethought to anything Ms. Palin does, her choice of quotable was telling. Westbrook Pegler, a powerful newspaper columnist in the 1950s and 60s, was a big fan of the way things were. “[It’s] clearly the bounden duty of all intelligent Americans to proclaim and practice bigotry,” he wrote in reaction to the civil rights movement. He supported old-fashioned lynchings. He also hated Jews, another traditional value.
And so when Palin approvingly spoke Pegler’s words – which were in near perfect code – it felt as if the Fifties had never ended.
And I wondered, what if?
I’ve always thought that popular culture is the purest expression of its time, that it more truly and vividly displays the hopes and fears of an era than the great speeches or history books. (I am biased, of course, as a purveyor of such stuff.) In the Fifties that meant comic books and B-movies, which were preoccupied with invading aliens and atomic mutants, stand-ins for communists and the Bomb, at least on the surface. Another popular genre, the juvenile delinquent movie, suggested a greater worry closer to home. America’s children were Young Hellions and High School Hellcats who might become a Reform School Girl or Crybaby Killer (Jack Nicholson!)
And so Go, Mutants! takes place in an America where the pop culture of the fifties never ended, where it is in fact history. Aliens really did invade, many, many times, from Venus and Mars and assorted galaxies; mad scientists and frequent atomic blasts created mutants of all sizes and consistencies. Mid-century design, and particularly the space-age Googie aesthetic, became the standard. And it’s all seen through the eyes of a big-brained alien teenager who is a rebel seeking a cause.
It’s fun, and even silly I suppose, but I hope some readers will see past the surface hilarity for the deeper amusement. Go, Mutants! takes place today as much as yesterday, as a skimming of the headlines will attest (Arizona’s next illegal immigration target: Babies), and may have something on its mind. At least I did when I was writing it.
But I won’t mind terribly if people simply laugh, at, for example, the scene where Peg Furry, a bigoted deputy sheriff with a distinctive northern twang, pays to have sex with a radioactive ape.