Where’s My Flying Car?

This was for a class called Lost and Disappearing Worlds in which the main question was, “What’s important to remember?”

Where’s My Flying Car?
April 8, 2005
by Jacob Lefton

A funny thing happened to a friend of mine. This guy, Thomas Atkinson, the curator of the Star [Wars] Toys Museum, stops to look at a toy in a store, admiring the curved, futuristic looking car. “That is so twenty-first century,” he thinks. It is February 2005.

Yes, it is the twenty-first century now, but many people would agree that it sure doesn’t feel that way. I mean, not long ago, 2000 was the future, and the future was going to be better, wasn’t it?

A lot of people are wondering what the future really is. “It’s already 2005, and we were promised flying cars by now,” they say. What about cloning? Laser weapons? If only we had built that Lunar colony by now. It’s in so many books, and movies. Every day, it feels like the future should be drawing closer, but we never seem to get there, and we long for so many of these things that we have imagined. Why is it that every future we pictured for ourselves seems to be lost, or quickly disappearing?

Of course we knew there was a possibility that the future could be worse. George Orwell and John Brunner show us this with dystopian books like 1984 and Stand on Zanzibar. Crowded worlds, totalitarian societies, and even nuclear apocalypses seemed inevitable – if people weren’t careful, daring, and fearless. Of course, the world wouldn’t have gotten that bad, because they had provided us with road maps of what could go wrong, and all we needed was a vigilant society. As long as we are careful, new sciences and technologies will make the quality of our lives better – as they have been doing for the past century.

The writers of what is called proto-science fiction, as far back as Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells, were very aware of the pace of technological advancement. In the 1800’s, steam engines and the telegraph were invented. Groundbreaking scientific theories about electricity and biology were being made, and Darwin proposed his theory of evolution. In the first five years of the 1900’s, the zeppelin and the airplane flew, the escalator rose, the neon light glowed, and Einstein published the Theory of Relativity. It seemed as if almost anything could be possible, and writers of science fiction were trying to explore all the possibilities they could.

Many ideas about current technology are easier to explore in a future setting, where the writer can scientifically bring his topic to an extreme. Wells’ books, for example, are mere explorations in scientific and social philosophy of the time. The Time Machine was about evolution, with the time tripper going forward hundreds of thousands of years into the future to find that humanity had split and evolved along class lines. A book still re-imagined today, War of the Worlds, was not looking forward, but exploring human society stressed to its limit and further by an alien invasion. Those post-apocalyptic novels explore the human psyche and the collapse of society. Some elements of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Always Coming Home look at modern technology in environments and cultures that are not built to sustain them – another extreme.

Science fiction, despite some dystopic musings, was developed at the same time as the pace of technological innovation was speeding up dramatically, and most of the early fiction had positive, utopian expectations. Radio was slowly growing in American homes, and motion pictures were starting to be created, the first ones being produced around 1900. Literature has always provided handy scripts, and for film, radio, and television, science fiction was no exception. From Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) to Metropolis to Flash Gordon, the culture became used to the idea of seeing visions of the future as real as they could get.

It wasn’t long until toys of ray guns, spaceships, and other inexplainable technologies were made for children. With the help of advertising and television, by the fifties there were specific pictures of a future that the public was moving toward. The Cold War begat the space race, which begat advanced plastics and other ‘space age’ materials. One advertisement states that the housewife of 2000 will be able to hose down her furniture to clean it “because everything in her home is waterproof.” The modifier “of tomorrow” was tacked onto cities, cars, houses, and anywhere else it fit. Ford Motor Company’s Advanced Styling staff were encouraged to look far in the future, where they drew cars of 2000 with wings and aircraft style fins, rockets, and other things we consider fantastical at best today. One picture shows a “Twenty-first century traffic arrest” with a 120-mph speed limit and fins on incredibly sleek, streamlined cars.

Change is often far subtler or along completely different lines than imagined. A visionary can only see the world through his frame of reference, no matter how hard he tries. Robert Heinlein’s books from the fifties and sixties have an anachronistic feel to them when read now. In Tunnel in the Sky, Rod’s parents are called Mr. and Mrs. Walker, or Mother and Dad, and he calls his sister “sis”. When Rod is calculating a figure his professor quoted, he pulls out his slide rule, even though he is able to step through uranium powered gates that transport him hundreds or thousands of light-years. It was only a few years after the book was written that the women’s liberation movement had women keeping their maiden name, and the first calculators came out for the public in 1970.

Some books were keener on social change than others, but that is much harder to imagine than futuristic technology, because human nature is involved. The internet as it is today was never predicted, but few could imagine life without it. To sit down and have almost the entire world of information, the internet, at one’s fingertips was not seen in science fiction until it was on top of us. Yet, the dystopian horror of society that was 1984 seems closer than every before, with the PATRIOT Act and terrorism, but at no time was a switch thrown which turned the world into a recognizably totalitarian state.

Science fiction does what it can to stay abreast of change – it is intrinsically a self-analyzing genre. It became obvious that flying cars were not the way of the future as technology started its smallward trend. The forties and fifties had been decades of big technology and utopian cities, and the sixties and seventies saw the invention of the transistor and the energy crisis forced cars smaller and lighter still, but they remained grounded as ever. Math-genius children calculating trajectories for rocket ships were quickly replaced with computers, and the sure reality of future of space empires and space battles faded from the public conscience once the Cold War space race slowed.

As the marketing and money followed the trends of the technology, so did the science fiction. Yet, there was already a vision of the future imprinted in the readers’ minds, so as marketing focused on the smaller technologies, science fiction incorporated them and tested them out in the space ages it had already created. Science fiction is, after all, not a futurologist’s tool, but a sociologist’s. A recent hugo award winning book, Hominids, explores the culture shock that would happen if a technologically advanced Neanderthal stepped across a dimensional rift into our world. The science in the book is tenuous at best, but like most science fiction before it, the book is an anthropological and sociological exploration of our humanity taken to extremes.

If our literature is constantly changing to fit the times, why does it still feel like the future we were looking forward to got away from us?

It is always safe to imagine the future; it is just beyond reach. As science fiction fan Pat Lang says, “I knew I would be fifty at the turn of the century, but I never though I would get here. My mom is eighty four – she never even dreamed she would live to the turn of the century.” If Pat’s mother had written science fiction during the fifties and sixties, it would have been completely justified for her to set her books in the year 2000, because it was just out of reach.

Yet, science fiction is at least a century old. We have grown up with a century’s worth of anticipation of the millennium built into the culture through books, film, television, radio, and advertisements. When the genre of science fiction was defined, the 21st century was the future. In many ways it still is. The word was used so much in conjunction with the future that right now, it still means the future in everyone’s mind, just as much as we have not gotten over the 20th century yet. “We’re not even ready to write about the millennium,” author Shariann Lewitt says. “It’s going to be ten or twenty years to understand if anything did happen… It’s kind of like they say ‘generals always fight the last war,’ ‘writers always write about the last world,’ even if they’re writing forward.” We can barely even write about the possibilities of tomorrow, because today is not yet over.

The future depends on who and where we are now – our frame of reference. With every every invention, with every action, with every thought, the world around us changes. From vacuum tubes to the transistor, from the information super highway to pocket computing, from the moment you think an idea is new to the moment you find someone else beat you to it, your frame of reference is shifting.

Our imagined future looks the way it does because the people creating it were envisioning the future of their own time. The world today is not one they could ever have conceived. To the mind of one in the year 1900, 2005 would be an alien world, and vice versa. What 2100 will look like, we will never know until we get there, and the future of that only after it has passed. We can only imagine what it will be like.

We must and will continue to imagine the future. Science fiction has given life to technology in our world, and provided us with a sense of optimism about it. American society, especially, is built on looking forward. Many of the people who settled here were pioneers who had no past where they came from, and could only look forward. This necessary imagination has driven our society, and it is this same imagination that will cause some descendants of ours to look at a toy car on the shelf and say, “That’s so twenty-first century!”

Atkinson, Thomas. Personal Interview. 18 February 2005.
Brunner, John. Stand on Zanzibar. Orion Publishing Group, 1968.
Clute, John. Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. New York City: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc., 1995.
Corn, Joseph J. and Brian Horrigan. Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.
Heinlein, Robert. Tunnel in the Sky. The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1955.
Lang, Pat. Personal Interview & Written statement. 18 February 2005.
LeGuin, Ursula K. Always Coming Home. Harper&Row, 1985.
Lewitt, Shariann. Personal Interview. 19 February 2005.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet Classic, 1950.
Sawyer, Robert J. Hominids (Neanderthal Parallax). Tor Science Fiction, 2003.
Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. New York: Tor Books, 1895.
Wells, H. G. The War of the Worlds. New York: Tor Books, 1898

One response

20 02 2008
Past musings on the future « Conventioneers!

[…] musings on the future 20 02 2008 I uploaded an old paper from my freshman year. The paper, Where’s My Flying Car, is an interesting collection of thoughts on retro-futurism and our perception of past and future […]

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