Welcome to Mars

Fantasies of Science in the American Century, 1947-1959

Ken Hollings

It took me a while to get going with this. My reference points before my birth are mostly before Christ’s birth, too. And while Hollings’ pacy narrative is quite strictly chronological—a chapter per year—his approach to tracking the interweaving of military science, domestic architecture, pulp entertainment and other forms of American wackiness through this explosive period is equally strict in its avoidance of linear cause-and-effect. This tack stands in relation to more sober, expository histories as LSD stands in relation to heroin; the former is much more dependent on set and setting for its effects. If the book doesn’t catch you in the right frame of mind, the elliptical twists and turns through this fevered transition between Hiroshima and the sixties may tend to slip through your fingers.

But, like the LSD that plays a fascinating supporting role in the proceedings, this book rewards persistence. Quick segues from UFO hysteria to Hollywood, from rocket technology to Disneyland via invocations to Babylon, might prove mercurial to the narrative mind at first; and this is surely part of the intent here, to convey with immediacy the bewildering pace of change in fifties America, and the opaque density of connections presenting themselves to anyone analyzing the period through the lens of the cultural psychology of science.

But soon the connections filter through, offering more and more frequent glimmers of golden insight. Hollings’ acausal roller coaster is cumulative, gathering aesthetic and imaginative potency with each chapter. By the end, you feel breathless with panic and wonder; and you can’t help but sympathize with those who decided to turn the succeeding decade into a colossal party that hovered between nihilism and ecstatic abandon.