We have spoken out on a number of heavy topics over the past few weeks. Today we will pause and contemplate space, time, alternate realities, and the possibility of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations.
In this case, especially on this day, these subjects have a connection with Virginia
Thirteen years ago, the General Assembly passed a resolution declaring June 27, 2009 William Fitzgerald Jenkins Day.
Who the hell, you might be wondering, is Will Jenkins?
Chances are you’ve seen a movie that uses Jenkins’ most famous invention without being aware of its historical connection. A Norfolk native born in 1896, Jenkins held two patents for systems that made possible a special effects technique called frontal projection.
In older films, rear projection is often noticeable in scenes that show actors “getting” into a car that is actually a stationary set. In the view through the car windows, a screen with a projector behind it displays images intended to give the impression that the “car” is moving along a road. The projected image captured on film is usually not as sharp as the people and objects on set, which quite easily indicates that the “car ride” is staged.
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Classic front projection, on the other hand, uses a mirror to place the projector on the same side of the background screen as the actors, making it harder to tell the shoot isn’t happening on location. Famous examples of the use of front projection include the grandparent of all epic sci-fi movies, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, where the technique is used during the opening scenes following a tribe of prehistoric humans , and the grandparent of all modern superheroes. films, “Superman”, during the scenes which show Christopher Reeve in “flight”.
Jenkins’ ties to science fiction, however, run much deeper than a special effects technique that wasn’t widely used in movies until at least a decade after his patents were granted.
fable of the cold warJenkins, who died in 1975, is best known today as an author, but his most enduring work was not published under his own name. He used a pen name, Murray Leinster (pronounced LEN-ster).
As is the case with the invention of front screen projection, while you may not have personally read a Murray Leinster story, chances are you have been entertained by a book or a film built on themes that it was the first to tackle – or at least the first to tackle in a way that has left a memorable impression across the decades.
For example, his 1945 story “First Contact”, which the General Assembly resolution billed as “the first science fiction story to present the dramatic scenario of the first encounter between earthlings and extraterrestrials”. The phrase “first contact” has since been used so often in this context that it is understood to refer to an extraterrestrial-like first encounter.
“First Contact” is also considered the first story that imagined a “universal language translator”, and unlike much later fiction that glossed over this detail, the story contains a plausible explanation of how one could create one.
Leinster imagines a deep-space encounter between a human spacecraft and one operated by humanoid aliens on a science mission conducted thousands of light-years from Earth. The two sides begin the encounter seeing the other as an existential threat to their civilization, but come to some sort of peace accord both through the recognition of mutually assured destruction if either parties attack and through recognition of a shared sense of humor.
The story can be seen as a prescient metaphor for the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and as an expression of the author’s hope that opposing sides would recognize that our commonalities matter more than our differences.
Imagine InternetJenkins/Leinster lived in Gloucester County near the York River where it opens on the Chesapeake Bay, and another of his most famous stories, “Sidewise in Time”, opens in Fredericksburg in 1935, with the central antihero a math professor at the fictional “Robinson College” who turns out to be the only person in the world not taken by surprise when cataclysmic events begin to unfold.
Incidentally, Roanoke had a similar figure, Nelson Bond (1908-2006), whose career heights stretched from the heyday of pulp magazines to the early years of television, and whose fantastical stories such as “The Magic Staircase” and “Magic City” were set in alternate versions of, well…Magic City, which we now call Star City much more often. Like Jenkins/Leinster, Bond wrote in many styles, including including sports and detective stories, but today is famous for its science fiction and fantasy tales.
Considered one of the first parallel universe stories, “Sidewise in Time” is sure to remind the modern reader of recent blockbusters like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” with the way which it changes wildly from setting to setting – from an America colonized by Chinese instead of Europeans, to another in the throes of an Ice Age, to another where the South has won the Civil War, to another where the continent is part of the Roman Empire, and so on.
The Sidewise Awards for Alternate History, founded in 1995 and awarded annually at the World Science Fiction Convention, was named after the Jenkin/Leinster story.
Science fiction writers are notorious for pushing back against the idea that their chosen genre is about predicting the future. Instead, they often use sci-fi tropes as a lens to examine contemporary issues. That said, Jenkin/Leinster’s 1946 tale “A Logic Named Joe” contains a pretty deadly, if ironic, take on the internet, how search engines work, and the alarming problems that arise when uncensored and private content recordings become accessible to anyone with access to a keyboard.
One could say that a Virginian imagined it first. Good day Will Jenkins!