“Oh, our old future.” – Crow T. Robot, Mystery Science Theater 3000
A couple of weeks ago, a fellow blogger posted the cover to an old science fiction paperback short story collection (I finally located that post again, and it can be viewed at this link). The art was what you might regard as your typical mid-20th Century vision of the future: an image of a gleaming metallic cityscape with flying cars darting back & forth above it. The blogger made a comment along the lines of it isn’t the future unless you have some flying cars in it.
This got me thinking about how popular culture has conceived of the future playing out. Growing up in the early 1980s, the 21st Century still seemed far enough away that all of the images of personal jetpacks, robots in every household, and traveling to other planets being just a few short decades away still seemed at least semi-plausible. Whether in a cartoon series like The Jetsons or more serious fare such as Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was a commonplace prediction that some sort of hi-tech, shiny future was just around the corner.
I remember when 2001, that is to say, the real year 2001 rolled around, I half-jokingly commented to some friends “What the hell is this? Shouldn’t we have flying cars by now? Where are the colonies on the Moon? Why aren’t we flying back & forth in outer space in rocket ships, fighting aliens with ray guns?” I say half-jokingly, because there was still that part of me that was just the tiniest bit disappointed that none of this had come to pass. Well, okay, I can do without the bug-eyed monsters packing heat. And if we really did have flying cars, I’d probably drive one just as poorly as I do a regular automobile. But, still, the future just seemed like it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
And most speculative fiction from forty or fifty years ago really did miss the mark as far as what kind of technology we would have in the early 21st Century. Instead of teleportation and time travel, what we got was the microchip revolution, the Internet, MP3s, iPads, flash drives, etc. We’re still stuck on Earth, unable to colonize the galaxy, but the ability to spread information across the globe has grown in astonishing leaps & bounds. Perhaps some of the disappointment lies in the fact that these developments, as incredible as they are, were not what we were led to expect. And there is also that lingering disappointment left over from the previous century that technological advancement would eventually lead to the betterment of humanity.
Of course, it’s not like most fictional conceptions of the future were totally utopian. George Jetson had his flying car and his home in a floating city, but he still had to deal with a douchebag boss, nagging wife, and spoiled kids. Kubrick & Clarke’s vision of 2001 saw humans traveling to the other side of the solar system, but we still did a half-ass job at programming computers, to the point where HAL 9000 wanted to kill off its entire crew.
So I guess it wasn’t so much that those visions of the future were perfect, because they weren’t. It’s just that they had such cool stuff.
Mind you, for every romanticized prediction of the 21st Century, there were also plenty of conjectures that the future might turn out to be a much darker place. On one hand, the mid-20th Century rise of both the Axis powers and Communism begat visions of the all-encompassing totalitarian dystopia, best exemplified in the George Orwell novel 1984. On the other hand, nuclear proliferation led to forecasts of ragged survivors roaming radiation-ravaged post-apocalyptic wastelands, as seen in such films as The Road Warrior.
And if you want a really pessimistic outlook on the day after tomorrow, you should consider the so-bad-it’s-good David Worth film Warrior of the Lost World, which I would have to describe as “1984 meets The Road Warrior.” In that future scenario, you would face the prospect of having both fascist stormtroopers and mutant cannibal biker gangs simultaneously chasing after your rear end. Not a pretty picture!
(Incidentally, Warrior of the Lost World was screened on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which brings us back to quote that opened this blog post.)
So, considering all of the options, the real future that we have right now isn’t nearly as bad as it could be. Yeah, it isn’t The Jetsons, but at least we haven’t had to live through World War III yet.
That said, I’m still holding out for flying cars. But knowing how things work out, we’d probably still have traffic jams.