Is There June Cleaver on Mars?

Jennifer Seaman Cook

What kind of world-building is NASA’s white, suburban, nuclear family propaganda of exoplanet travel establishing exactly?

“Okay, toots... I am a smart fellow, as I have a very fine brain of 48 electrical relays. It works just like a telephone switchboard. If I get a wrong number, I can always blame the operator. And by the way, I see a lot of good numbers out in our audience today... Quiet please, I’m doing the talking.”

-- Elektro the Westinghouse Moto-Man, 1939 World’s Fair

Recently, NASA released nine more futurist travel posters under the science-fictional Exoplanet Travel Bureau series, described by The Drive as “NASA’s faux travel agency”. The space-travel-promoting posters, spawned by in-house designers at the government agency’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), are an illustration of the important role that makers -- cultural producers such as writers, illustrators, and artists -- can play in shaping real-life Futures Planning through imaginative world-building. Released on the JPL website with a ready-made motto of “imagination is our window into the future”, the posters designed for NASA go beyond a public education function and strategize scientific visualizations actually “used in designing space missions”.

The connection between imagination and future realities is not a new phenomenon, although the directness of the imprint can be uncertain; the list of fiction-based futurists whose vision-inspiring descriptions have already been made true by somebody else is numerous, from H.G. Wells’ war machines to Edward Bellamy’s “credit” cards. In terms of NASA’s Exoplanet Travel Bureau, the productive collaboration between creatives and institutional scientists has often been this direct. In 2014, for example, William Forstchen’s novel, Pillar to the Sky, was the result of a publisher collaboration with NASA drawing on detailed calculations for a space elevator. Escaping even the archaic worlds of 1.0 creative expert culture, NPR’s Science Friday recently crowdsourced the public for science fiction newspaper headlines in a discussion on plausibile cybercrime futures with director of the Future of Crimes Institute, Marc Goodman.

Other culturally archaic worlds influencing public imaginaries of scientific progress, however, prove harder to shake. A traditional go-to example of literary imaginary influencing the trajectory of institutionalized science, Jules Verne’s and H.G. Wells’ moon-travel stories inspired a world’s fair amusement ride at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, that helped to shape the American public imagination of technological futures. Echoing a dramatized colonial encounter, the novel-inspired 1901 ride, Voyage to the Moon, could be considered so imperialist in nature (lest we forget, the United States had recently obtained the Philippines) that scholars claim Georges Méliès’ similarly influenced A Trip to the Moon (1902) -- the first science fiction film -- was a tongue-in-cheek anti-imperialist response to it (Keith M. Johnston, Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction). What's not so recognized is that the Moon ride at the 1901 Exposition was also problematic for using people with disabled bodies as the inhabitant “Selenites”, as well as the sexualized bodies of female dancers.

Visitors on the popular amusement ride arrived on the moon in a luxury airship complete with steamer chairs on the deck, traveling through a literal freak show of alien country to the palace of the Moon King. The ride culminated in a performance by the King’s seeming harem of dancers and a culinary sampling of moon cheese, offering fairgoers a white, male, able-bodied (and decidedly Republican and neomercantilist) perspective of future space exploration that was typical of imperialist and Social Darwinist explorer narratives where ‘primitivity’, female dancers, and white heterosexuality were foci (Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern).

In the midst of which Indian dancing–girls, clothed in rose–coloured gauze… danced airily, but with perfect modesty, to the sound of viols and the clanging of tambourines. It is needless to say that Passepartout watched these curious ceremonies with staring eyes and gaping mouth, and that his countenance was that of the greenest booby imaginable.”

-- Jules Verne, Around the World in 80 Days

Socially the 1901 Pan-American Exposition had offered a science-fiction setting for envisioning broader progressive possibility. It boasted high attendance by women, gave Suffragist Susan B. Anthony a public speaking stage in the same pavilion where President McKinley spoke, and offered a world’s fair First in creating a Board of Women Directors that refused to house women’s work in a separate Women’s Building (Jennifer Cook, “Time-Traveling the Pleasurescape: Spectacle, Consumption and Science-Fictionality at the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition”). Building on the earlier protests of non-representation of “Colored” Americans at the World’s Columbian Exposition by Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, African-American community leaders by 1901 had secured the reuse of W.E.B DuBois’ prominent “Negro Exhibit” from the 1900 Paris Exposition, and hosted a visit by Booker T. Washington (Andrew R. Valint, Fighting for Recognition: The Role African Americans Played in World Fairs).

In accounts of the fair, however, race and gender tensions simmered. The marginalization of the Negro Exhibit at the fair and its absence from newspapers coincided with prominent exhibits on Darkest Africa and the old plantation South that romanticized racial stereotypes and the pastorialisms of chattel slavery, selling charming little souvenir cotton bales to audiences. A Women’s Board verbally embattled in defending their co-ed display decisions (amongst broader asexual depictions of college-educated women as spinsters) would disregard African-American requests for Board representation, fueling the argument that white feminists cloaked within their moral importance in the modernizing middle class family were advancing their public equality at the expense of racial equality (Jennifer Cook, “Time-Traveling the Pleasurescape: Spectacle, Consumption and Science-Fictionality at the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition”) .

From this turn-of-the-century backdrop for the infamous 1901 Moon ride that inspired the first science fiction film, the limits of gendered and raced thinking on the cultural imaginaries of Future technologized travel (at least who was to be the discoverer versus the explored) endured. Particularly, white women who now took co-ed trolleys to work, shop, and dine as needed participants in the growing consumer economy (Jessica Ellen Sewell, Women and the Everyday City: Public Space in San Francisco, 1890-1925) could conceivably engage in the co-ed luxuries of colonialist moon travel -- as long as heteronormative and sexualized gender roles came along for the ride.

African-Americans remained more invisible to these conceptions of technologized American life, represented eternally as primitive or as agricultural workers. The influence (or lack thereof) of the government institution on these narratives is notable as well, the 1901 Pan-American being historic for its precedent to contract with entrepreneurs and bring all Midway amusements fully into the official fairground space of censorship, making the smuttier stuff more suitable for family audiences (Robert W. Rydell, All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916). As the Voyage to the Moon ride shows, co-ed mass visual entertainments of scientific future imaginaries could reinforce traditional race and gender roles (as well as their abnormal Others) in the very act of being a participating public spectator.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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