Friday, March 18, 2011

Jetpacks and Hovercrafts

When I was a kid in the 70s, there was still enough residual excitement from the Apollo missions left to make "the future" feel as if it were right around the corner.  Jetpacks, hovercrafts, and colonies in space - I'd get to experience these wonders as an adult, I felt certain.  Yet here we are in 2011, with our wheels planted firmly on the asphalt and our feet, except for a few folks up in space stations, planted firmly on planet Earth.

Whatever Happened To the World of Tomorrow?, a graphic novel by Brian Fies, asks that very question.  Starting with the New York World's Fair in 1939, a boy and his dad dream about the technological wonders that must be right around the corner - the clean and shiny cities, the efficient transportation systems, the powerful rocket ships taking us to new worlds.  Through the decades, they keep their hopes on the stars, even as they suffer through WWII, build a bomb shelter in the basement in the 50s, and then thrilled to manned spaceflights of the 60s, only to see them abandoned in the 70s.

The illustrations are very much in the gee-whiz retro style of early comic books, and in fact Fies includes 5 original "Commander Cap Crater" stories that look and feel very much like authentic old comic books - even the flimsy paper is different from the rest of the book.  The boy and his dad age only slightly as they move through the decades.  In 1939, the boy is about 8 or 9; in 1975, he is a jaded but still star-struck teenager.

The wonder - and impatience - the boy feels as he waits (and waits and WAITS) for humankind to reach the stars is wistfully and wonderfully portrayed.  "Sometimes, lying alone in the backyard at night, I swear I could hear the stars calling down to me.  In those moments, outer space felt more like home than Earth.  All I needed was a lift."  Oh YES!

We've had some exciting space adventures in recent decades.  Remember the plucky little Mars rover named Sojourner, after Sojourner Truth?  And of course the Mars Exploration program is still continuing today.  But where are the humans in space?  They're just orbiting around and around Earth on the International Space Station.

Yes, that's super cool and I'd join them in a hot second if they ever need a Space Librarian, but still - it's not exactly exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, and boldly going where no one has gone before, now is it?

And just where the heck is that monorail we were all promised?  If Disneyland has one, why can't I ride one to work, gliding smoothly above Venice Boulevard all the way downtown?  It's yet another prediction that didn't come to pass, and if you want more, read The Wonderful Future that Never Was by Gregory Benford.  I can't give this a good review, as it consists mainly of poorly organized old illustrations imagining the future, accompanied by hit-or-miss commentary from Benford that mostly fails to give the reader any context.  Sources for the illustrations and quotes aren't given.

However, the illustrations, along with the breathless descriptions, are amusing.  "In A.D. 2000...houses will be kept so clean by electronic dust and dirt traps that housecleaning will never be necessary," someone predicted in 1957.   Many predictions even came true, such as push-button phones, predicted in 1942, and the medical uses of ultrasound, predicted in 1965.

We may not have gorgeous cities floating in the air or rooftop lakes serving as air-conditioners, and we still get wrinkles and gray hair (though our life expectancy has increased a bit in the last 100 years).

But wow, we've got wonders!  Our tiny, powerful devices would have seemed crazy-futuristic to me back in 1975.  Smart phones!  Tablets!  My cute little touchscreen Ipod Nano!  And the Internet still boggles my mind.  It's a little like staring into the night sky and wondering at the universe.  It's so BIG!  There's so MUCH of it!

But I still yearn for the stars.

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