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.