Columnist Michael Cassutt recalls the sci-fi moments that made him a writer

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

No doubt you've noticed that it's awards season. We've had the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild trophies and, soon after you read this, the Oscars. And, of more immediate relevance, the Nebula Awards of the SF Writers of America in April.

This seasonal fever has affected me in the past, once where I gave out my own awards for supreme accomplishment in sci-fi TV ("The Mikeys"), and, during last year's strike-battered season, a more general look at "Favorite Things"—my all-time sci-fi movies and television.

This year I want to look back at important moments ... those images or scenes that made me a sci-fi writer.

The sci-fi moments.

These won't all be from screens, large or small. Some will be actual texts. Some will be images.

And as a columnist or pundit, it's refreshing (not to mention nicer) to put on a happy face now and then. It's easy to bitch. I do it all the time, and it's not limited to this format.

For a writer, there is a practical side to an exercise like this—it's good to re-connect with your roots, to remind yourself just why you spend hours alone with your thoughts, trying to craft a novel or teleplay or game scenario that triggers a sci-fi moment in a reader, viewer or player.

I've found that many of my sci-fi moments occurred at introduction. Or, to be businesslike, the point of sale. Book jackets. TV main titles. Movie posters.

The inside book jacket of the original Scribner's edition of Robert A. Heinlein's Red Planet showed a map of the surface of Mars along with enough "facts" about it to satisfy an 11-year-old's curiosity ... and the words "First colonized in ...", with the actual date cleverly masked by the edge of a compass.

The cover of the paperback edition of Clifford Simak's All Flesh Is Grass, a wonderfully evocative science fantasy about the quiet but relentless invasion of Earth by a plant-like alien entity. That cover showed a woman's face superimposed on a grassy field. Strange, yes. A total sci-fi moment whenever I see it, even years later.

Then there were the opening titles of the original Outer Limits, with that strange electronic music ... the Control Voice ... and that last shot of the moon brought to "crystal clarity."

And, yes, the original Serling Twilight Zone narrative.

Months before Close Encounters hit the theaters, an early poster was released showing a lonely desert road heading toward a horizon ... on that horizon was a mysterious light ... and these words: "Close Encounter of the First Kind ... Sighting. Close Encounter of the Second Kind ... Evidence. Close Encounter of the Third Kind ... Contact." I looked forward to that movie with the passion of 13-year-old Ray Bradbury, who feared he would die before he saw King Kong. (And I probably haven't seen that version of the poster in three decades.)

I still have a sci-fi moment whenever I hear the theme music for The X-Files.

So much for beginnings. What about the actual content of a sci-fi work?

I've always liked space battles. Call me shallow—or just young at the time—but when watching the original Star Trek, I paid greater attention whenever it looked as though the Enterprise were about to fire a warp torpedo. In fact, to this day, my only complaint about the original series is ... not enough space battles.

Needless to say, I liked Star Wars—the whole thing, all the way through. To me that movie is still one giant sci-fi moment.

I still remember the flying cars in Blade Runner.

When it comes to sci-fi novels, I've read most of the classics, I think. But those transcendent moments aren't necessarily from Dune or Foundation or Blood Music.

There is a descriptive passage about an alien landscape in Icehenge, one of Kim Stanley Robinson's early novels ... and several moments in Funeral for the Eyes of Fire by Michael Bishop.

Then there's the moment in Jack McDevitt's Ancient Shores describing the bizarre discovery of a sailing ship buried on the plains of North Dakota.

I came late to Alan Moore and David Gibbons' Watchmen, but I found a sci-fi moment in the first issue.

For years I resisted reading Dan Simmons' Hyperion novels ... some stupid prejudice about stories featuring characters with private spaceships. But once I got over myself and persevered, I found a novel and a half filled with sci-fi moments ... not just landscapes, but creatures like the Shrike. (This series is long overdue for filming, and is reportedly in serious development by Warner as Hyperion Cantos. Can't wait.)

The opening chapter of John Scalzi's Old Man's War.

There are many movie moments, but at the top of my list is where the Stargate team led by Kurt Russell goes through the portal—and what is discovered.

The smoke monster in Lost. Hiro's discovery of teleportation in the first season of Heroes.

More recently, and in an entirely different format, moments in the game BioShock.

Then there are the endings.

The last moments of the Charlton Heston version of Planet of the Apes. You've all seen it. Several early Twilight Zones. Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question." Heinlein's "Year of the Jackpot."

Best recent sci-fi moment for me? The third episode of Lost, the acclaimed "Walkabout," in which we explore John Locke's grim life prior to the crash of Oceanic 815.

Lest you think I only find surprise endings to be worthy moments, I'll note the closing moments of the movie October Sky, based on Homer Hickam's memoir Rocket Boys, where the team fires its final homemade vehicle, which soars above the grim West Virginia landscape, watched by Homer's father ... and by the dying teacher who encouraged the project ... with the whole image dissolving into a close-up view of the space shuttle ... granted, it's not really sci-fi, but it feels like it.

These aren't necessarily the big moments of the sci-fi experience over the past 40 years. My list is low on shocks and frights—no chest-bursting aliens, for example. It's not the award-winning stuff. These just happen to be moments or images that still echo for me ... the ones I turn to when I want to reconnect with sci-fi.

Naturally I hope someone is inspired to seek out the lesser known.

And I know that everyone has a completely different set of sci-fi moments.

What are yours?

Michael Cassutt has written fiction (forthcoming in Asimov's SF Magazine) and nonfiction (recently in Air & Space), as well as several dozen television scripts, most recently for The Dead Zone. He also teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.