The Future Is Now: On Flying Cars, Jetpacks and 'Star Trek'

The Future Is Now

On Flying Cars, Jetpacks and 'Star Trek'


"Where's my flying car?"


That's a running joke among fans, mostly over a certain age, about how the science fiction of our youths failed to materialize. It's usually followed by "Where's my personal jetpack?" or "Why aren't we on Mars yet?"


Science fiction has been with us a while, going back at least as far as Mark Twain, H.G. Wells and Jules  Verne, but not really recognized as a genre until the 1920s and '30s, in pulp magazines like Amazing Stories. And yes, those pulps were full of flying cars and personal jetpacks. This was accentuated by the "World of Tomorrow" display at the 1940 New York World's Fair, where lots of people who didn't read speculative fiction or scientifiction (as it was called then) were introduced to the concepts of flying cars, personal jetpacks, valet robots and houses that cooked and cleaned for you.


Those concepts moved with Sci-Fi (as it was called in the '60s and '70s) into comics, TV and movies, giving us the standard phallic spaceship in everything from Forbidden Planet, to Twilight Zone episodes, to just about every space-travel story at EC, Atlas, National and Charlton. A lot of those stories had flying cars and personal jetpacks, too. National's Mystery in Space starred a hero whose only advantages were a jetpack and a ray gun, Adam Strange.


And it seemed like we'd have all this stuff by a specific year: 2000. A nice, round number, and somewhat exotic, too -- to the common man (who doesn't count to 10 very well), it represented a new century. 2000 A.D. seemed so impossibly far away in the 1960s that Britain's weekly Sci-Fi comic book was named for it. And lots of stories in various venues were set in that year, for that tinge of exotic futurism.


And after 1969, there arose a widespread assumption both in and out of the fiction industry that Mars by 2000 was a given. It only took us 10 years to get to the moon, so 30 years for Mars? Piece of cake.


But now that 2000 has come and gone, lots of folks (especially in my age range) are looking back over decades of SF (as it is called now) and laughing (sometimes bitterly) over what didn't happen. Personal jetpacks and flying cars didn't happen, of course, because the physics are all wrong -- which was something early science fiction was really weak on. We didn't get world peace, either, which seemed within our grasp at the dawn of the Age of Aquarius. We didn't get to Mars, nor are we close. In fact, most of SF we grew up on got everything wrong -- not just the big things, but the little things.


It's funny to watch the pilot for Lost in Space, for example, to see how wildly off they got space travel. Big things like the Jupiter 2 (a flying saucer? really?), or space travel for humans in general. (Unless we develop some other system than big rockets, people aren't going much farther than the moon.) But also little things, like all the ashtrays in the control room, and big reel-to-reel computers, ginormous dials and clocks instead of LED displays, plus big, honking rotary phones.


But you know one show that didn't get it wrong? Star Trek. The original series (or ST:TOS, as some call it) not only got a lot of the future right, it also created a little of it.


For example, they eschewed great, big rockets for "warp speed." In 1966 they really didn't have the science to explain that, but someone or several someones realized that big rockets weren't going to cut it. So they invented a way to travel ... and science caught up. The idea of folding space/time (in fact, the very concept of space/time) goes back to Einstein, but it's only relatively recently that scientists are looking at folding space/time as a method of travel. Heck, Neil DeGrasse Tyson goes on TV and chats about it! Yes, he says, we're working on warp speed.


Then there's Dr. McCoy's bio-bed. Starfleet personnel would lie down on the bed, and it would monitor their vitals. And you know, scientists are working on that, too! Right now we're kinda faking it, by attaching wires and sensors and whatnot so we can get that dramatic vital-signs display for television shows for doctors and nurses to know their patients' status at a glance. But, seriously, there's a lot of R&D going into switching all that gear to the bed itself. It just makes sense, and Star Trek though of it first.


How about the Internet? The Enterprise had databanks that contained, or had access to, all Federation knowledge. When information had to be transferred between incompatible systems, the info was downloaded (although they didn't call it that) into little square data-holders that look an awful lot like floppy disks ... which wouldn't be invented for another 20 or 25 years. If you don't remember those little squares, look for Spock to insert one into the briefing room projector/computer in Balance of Terror, or Commander Decker clacking two together, Captain Queeg-like, in The Doomsday Machine. I don't have any proof for this, but it's entirely likely that the inventors of the floppy disk probably got the idea from watching Star Trek as young lads and lasses.


And then there's the big one: The cell phone. True enough, the creators of the cell phone have said publicly that they got the idea of the mobile phone from Star Trek, even down to copying the little flip-top William Shatner would whip open so dramatically. But to tell you the truth, they have gone Star Trek one better -- not only is the modern phone more versatile than the Star Trek communicator (which could only call the ship or other communicators), but it has also incorporated part of Spock's "tricorder." The tricorder was Spock's connection to the ship's computers, which operated much like today's Internet, and today's cell phones have that capacity as well. Now, if our phones could just analyze xenomatter and scan for life forms, it would be the perfect combination of communicator and tricorder.


But with the exception of Star Trek -- and what an exception! -- most SF of decades past got it wrong. Those old stories all visualized a hardware revolution: Big rockets, "smart" homes, jetpacks, and so forth. But what happened instead was an information revolution. Now instead of cars that take flight, it's our ideas that do. Instead of getting more and more locked into personal metal cocoons, we are instead expanding our connections to each other. Instead of trying to go home, like Lost In Space, we are heading outward, like Star Trek.


And, you know, I think I like this future better.


Views: 198

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on April 25, 2011 at 4:24pm

Not only did science fiction of decades past often get it wrong, but so too did popular songs. Zodiacal "ages" are approximately 2000 years in duration. We are now (as we were in the '60s) in the zodiacal age of Pisces; the age of Aquarius does not begin until the year 2061, so we still have time to achieve "harmony and understand, sympathy and trust abounding" and all that other stuff.


Or not.


And with the way most people drive cars you wanna give 'em jet packs? Please!

Comment by ClarkKent_DC on April 25, 2011 at 5:08pm
When I was a kid, I borrowed Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars from the library. It was published in 1951, so its descriptions of space travel seemed extremely dated to a kid who had watched astronauts land on the moon. On the other hand, it was a charming tale; after all, I still remember it, and there are many, many hundreds of books I've long since forgotten about.
Comment by ClarkKent_DC on April 25, 2011 at 5:10pm
You know the one science-fiction innovation I've always wanted? George Jetson's car. Travel where you want, and then push a button and it turns into a briefcase! Can you imagine what that would mean if they really invented those?
Comment by Philip Portelli on April 25, 2011 at 5:29pm
Better than jet-packs would be the transporters! That would make the evening commute much faster!
Comment by George on April 25, 2011 at 8:03pm

Why can't we have both -- an information revolution AND the jet-packs and flying cars?


Anyway, I have mixed feelings about a technology that allows people to hide behind online handles and post vicious personal attacks on newspaper websites. Some newspapers have eliminated reader forums because they don't have the time or manpower to chase after the offenders. With every good comes some bad, I guess.

Comment by PowerBook Pete, the Mad Mod on April 25, 2011 at 8:26pm
Was it in Lost in Space that the travelers were shown trying to swim in space?
Comment by ClarkKent_DC on April 25, 2011 at 11:51pm

Way, way back, MGM did a couple of movies titled That's Entertainment, which were full of clips from the great musicals in the MGM library. The movies were followed by a spinoff TV series, That's Hollywood, which wen't beyond musicals to different genres of film in each half-hour.


One I well remember, narrated by Tom Bosley (there was a different host each week), focused on science fiction. One movie -- I forget the title -- was about some poor schmoe who fell asleep somehow in 1930 and -- shades of Captain America -- woke up in the distant future: 1980! 


So what was "1980" like, pray tell? It wasn't anything like the world outside my window (which was when I saw this). Yes, people were zipping around in flying cars. Yes, people wore Jetsons-style clothes. (I never understood why, in the old Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers-type movies, everyone wore uniforms and no one wore everyday garb.) Yes, people ate pills that supposedly provided all the nutrition of a full meal.


But the goofiest part was when a young couple wanted to have a baby ... they spoke to a doctor, who pushed a lighted button on the wall and voilá! Out pops a baby from a hatch in the wall!

Comment by George on April 26, 2011 at 12:54am


The movie ClarkKent DC is thinking of is "Just Imagine," a 1930 movie that may have been the first sci-fi MUSICAL. It starred Maureen O'Sullivan two years before she played Jane in "Tarzan the Ape Man." I love the art deco designs.

Comment by Cavaliere (moderator emeritus) on April 26, 2011 at 1:03am
Clerks: The Flying Car (No foul language but still probably not safe for work.)
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on April 26, 2011 at 8:25am
Was it in Lost in Space that the travelers were shown trying to swim in space?

I remember a scene in which Major West had to repair the astrogator in zero gravity, but I don’t remember a “swimming in outer space” scene. I do, however, recall a scene in which, during EVA, Professor Robinson was in danger from the extreme heat of an approaching comet.


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