9 Science Fictions of the 1950s and the Terrible Truths Behind Them

04/21/2014 03:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2014

Thanks to shows like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, the 1950s often get branded as the dorky, straight-laced counterpoint to the cool, wild and free 1960s. But in my new book, I beg to differ:

"In retrospect the 50s were a furnace by comparison: bankers, academics and politicians experimenting with LSD and magic mushrooms; submarines and electric cookers being powered by atomic reactors; and there were strange technological objects orbiting the planet for the first time - whether these objects originated on Mars or the Soviet Union was a different matter of course. It was a complex decade, riven with paranoia, division and dissent."

Welcome to Mars weaves an intricate web of Cold War politics, UFO scares, psychedelic research, and 1950s pop culture--a feedback loop in which real technological advances and government experimentation gave rise to science fiction that then fed new innovation and research.

Focusing on each year of the decade in chronological order, I explored 1950s fantasies like contacting life on other planets, the "red terror" invoked by flying-saucer movies, creepy tales of eugenic utopias that hinted at the darker side of suburbia, and mind control stories suggesting the public's fear of government experiments in "brainwashing" and altering consciousness with LSD. From suburban planning to the space race, Welcome to Mars makes startling connections between science fact and science fiction.

Here, to whet your appetite, are 9 science fictions of the 1950s and the terrible truths behind them!

  • 1. 1950 – The Flying Saucer
  • In the same year that Burt, "the Duck and Cover" Turtle first teaches schoolchildren what to do during a nuclear strike there comes an urgent warning in the poster copy for Mikel Conrad’s film fantasy The Flying Saucer: "Streaking out of the Unknown Comes a Strange New Terror!" Conrad’s film tells the story of a Soviet attempt to steal a flying saucer from the wilds of Canada (where their furry hats and beards are presumably less conspicuous). Conrad announces at a preview screening that the FBI has cleared the film’s contents for general release; later still he claims actual flying saucer footage, plus a sequence of him talking to its alien pilot, had been confiscated by the Bureau, meaning that the first casualty of the Cold War is merely bad publicity.
  • 1951 – The Day the Earth Stood Still
  • In The Day The Earth Stood Still, the space alien Klaatu steers his flying saucer down the Washington Mall and lands it right outside the White House one spring afternoon. He brings with him many examples of superior alien technology, including Gort, a giant robot with great destructive powers. "There is nothing he cannot do," Klaatu grimly reveals. Alien technology takes many forms, however… That same magical Spring electronics firm Remington Rand delivers the UNIVAC I, the first commercially available mainframe computer, to its first customer, the United States Census Bureau in Washington. Formed only four years previously, 1947, the NSA takes note…
  • 3. 1953 – Robot Monster
  • Released in 3-D, stereophonic sound and glorious black-and-white, Robot Monster tells a tale of an earth invasion by one of the cheapest looking monsters in movie history-- a man in a gorilla suit with a plastic diver’s helmet on his head. It's set around one of the most photographed caves in U.S. popular culture. Located in Bronson Canyon, a disused gravel quarry at the southwest end of Griffith Park in Los Angeles, this cave and its surroundings have stood in for Shangri La in Lost Horizon, witnessed the space adventures of Flash Gordon, sheltered the Lone Ranger and Tonto in the masked hero’s first television adventure, and served as the entrance for the Bat Cave during the 1960s. Other movies filmed around this legendary location include The Brain from Planet Auros, Teenage Caveman and Dracula, The Dirty Old Man.
  • 4. 1954 - It Came from Beneath the Sea
  • While America’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, is prepared for active service, its unnamed fictional equivalent battles against a giant radioactive octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea, an undersea adventure with special effects by stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen. The best fun, however, is watching the sub’s captain ordering breakfast from the all-electric galley at the start of the movie while listening to Hawaiian music over its onboard hi-fi system. Westinghouse not only manufactures electrical equipment for American homes at the time but also supplies the Nautilus with its atomic engines, and all with the same slogan: "You can be sure if it’s Westinghouse," a statement only a little more convincing than Harryhausen’s octopus, which, for budgetary reasons, has only six legs.
  • 5. 1955 – Tomorrowland
    Hulton Archive via Getty Images
  • The last of Disneyland’s realms to be completed after the Happiest Place on Earth opens in July 1955, its lateness does not mean that the future has been delayed. For the "Tomorrowland" strand of his Sunday-night ABC series promoting the theme park, Disney hires German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun to pitch two shows: "Man in Space" and "Man on the Moon." In a remarkable career that took him from making rockets for the Nazis to steering NASA’s Apollo program, von Braun remains one of the few men in history to have enjoyed the undivided personal attention of Adolf Hitler, Walt Disney and President Kennedy.
  • 6. 1956 – Forbidden Planet
  • “Prepare your minds for a new scale of physical scientific values, gentlemen,” Professor Morbius announces as he shows visiting spacemen round the underground laboratories of the Krell, an advanced race that perished many millennia ago, in the big-budget MGM fantasy Forbidden Planet. This is the 23rd century and the planet is Altair IV. Freud’s theories of the unconscious mind are now obsolete. In the future, LSD and similar “plastic educators” will improve our thinking for us. “You should see my new mind… up there in lights,” one of the visiting spacemen moans, his brain boosted by Krell technology, before promptly dying. Back in 1956 LA, after an LSD experience, Anaïs Nin confides to her therapist: “Without being a mathematician, I understand the infinite.” LSD remains legally available as a therapeutic tool -- for now.
  • 7. 1957 – ‘The Medium is the Message’
    Mark Evans via Getty Images
  • This may not seem like a piece of science fiction until it is recalled that Marshall McLuhan is reported to have first used the phrase while addressing a conference of radio workers worried about losing their jobs to television. That same year, the USSR launches Sputnik I, the outrider of all Cold War paranoia and herald of a new age of mass communication. As if to prove McLuhan’s point, Lyndon Johnson orders the TV cameras covering his subcommittee hearings on America’s failure in the Space Race to work more quietly or leave the room. A light bulb then drops from a chandelier and explodes on the floor prompting startled comments on “strange flying objects”–- proving that the only thing Americans have to fear in the 1950s is television itself.
  • 8. 1958 – Rocket Fever
  • With Elvis Presley safely in the U.S. Army and teen killer Charlie Starkweather safely behind bars, joining your high-school rocketry club becomes the latest youth craze to hit the nation. Newsreels boast of the nation’s youth “passing up rock and roll for a rocket role.” It is, however, a short-lived fiction. Little more than pipe bombs with fins, these highly explosive amateur projectiles do little to improve the U.S.’s position in the Space Race. As Explorer I, America’s first manmade satellite, is launched successfully into orbit atop one of von Braun’s rockets the military-industrial complex triumphs once again, and the nation’s youth goes back to tinkering with their hotrods.
  • 9. 1959 Civil Defense
  • Probably one of the biggest science-fiction myths to emerge from the 1950s, Civil Defense kept politicians and urban planners busy for years to come. “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) turns cities into military targets and whole populations into victims. Governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller proposes a nation-wide program of fallout-shelter construction while a newlywed couple spends their entire honeymoon in a Florida bomb shelter. Meanwhile a 19-year-old former U.S. Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald defects to the USSR. Just four years later the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas will very quickly reveal that a weapon doesn’t have to be big to devastate an entire nation.