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The Astounding Science Fiction Radio of X Minus One

18 October 2008

I’ve been on a science fiction kick lately that, oddly enough, was spawned by a conversation I had with a friend about Cyberpunk. After listening to my 5-disc box set of WILLIAM GIBSON reading his first novel, Neuromancer, I realized how much I enjoyed listening to stories, and I remembered an old radio show that my dad used to play for me when I was a child.

That show was X Minus One, which aired on NBC radio from April 1955 to January 1958 and used transcriptions of stories from Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction as the basis for its content. Stories by RAY BRADBURY, ROBERT HEINLEIN, MURRAY LEINSTER and NBC writers GEORGE LEFFERTS and ERNEST KINOY were prominently featured, along with contributions from ISAAC ASIMOV, PHILIP K. DICK, FREDERIK POHL and even Psycho writer ROBERT BLOCK and poet/novelist STEPHEN VINCENT BENET. Early writings by POUL ANDERSON and ROBERT SILVERBERG were also transcribed for the series.

I did some internet searching and found that all of the show’s 127 episodes are posted as mp3’s at the Internet Archive. You can download them here.

I downloaded every one – I haven’t listened to them all yet, but each show keeps me enthralled in the story so that I find myself hanging on to every word until the show is over. Sure there are the typical 1950’s anachronisms, i.e. completely inaccurate depictions of the “future,” most of which has already passed for us now in the present, and some hokey humor, but, rather than detracting from the stories, these elements add to their charm.

That’s not to say that X Minus One is all Leave It to Beaver cuteness, either. Far from it, really. I was really surprised to hear blatant references to intravenous drug use in “Dr. Grimshaw’s Sanitorium” and “Real Gone.” Women hold equal or dominant societal roles in “Colony,” “The Seventh Victim” and “Venus Is a Man’s World,” to name a few. “Universe” and “The Sense of Wonder” display distrust of organized religion, while “Sea Legs,” “The Defenders” and “Hello, Tomorrow” depict stark dystopian futures that would make GEORGE ORWELL proud.

In other words, this ain’t the Cleaver clan.

Another plus is the brief glimpses we get into 1950’s entertainment culture in the way of promo spots for other NBC shows (“You Bet Your Life” with Groucho Marx and “The Loser,” where prison convicts tell their stories) and commercials (Pabst Blue Ribbon, investments in government bonds). These provide a context for the show that may otherwise be overlooked.

Then, of course, there are the uncanny future predictions. “Nighmare” nods to the Internet with machines that communicate over telephone lines, but perhaps the most striking example is “A Logic Named Joe.” A logic “looks kind of like an old-fashioned television set, only it’s got keys instead of dials…If you want to talk to somebody, you just punch the number of his logic. It’s like making an old-fashioned phone call.” They communicate through “relay tanks. You see, there are a dozen of them all around the country, and they’re all hooked up together. And there’s a data plate in one of those tanks for every fact and creation…” The origins of cyberpunk? You can read the original Murray Leinster story here.

Needless to say, X Minus One is worth every megabyte it eats on your harddrive. The shows are well-acted, entertaining and fascinating relics of a long bygone era of entertainment. Like The Twighlight Zone or The Outer Limits, these stories linger in your thinktank, revealing elements that were not as obvious on the initial listen. Many of them are perfect for kids, especially the light-hearted stories written by George Lefferts and Ernest Kinoy. Wikipedia has a list of episodes here. Somewhere between reading and watching TV, these radio shows allow the mind to actively participate in the medium while being fully entertained.

Got 25 minutes and an iPod?