Future Imperfect

Part 1 of Future Tense

Presented at the ‘Life, the Universe and Everything Symposium’ / February 15th, 2013

Future_ImperfectMy address this evening is entitled Future Tense: The Strange Tomorrow of the Written Word. There have been a lot of changes and challenges facing those of us who work with words in the last few years; challenges which futurists did not warn us about.

In truth, the futurists of our past — those visionaries on which science-fiction depended — has a rather terrible history when it comes to predicting the future. Prophesy is not the strong suit of science-fiction.

Do you recognize this concept automobile by Ford? This is the Nucleon: an atomic car. Some of us today might have a problem with a nuclear reactor sitting in our trunk. Admittedly, one might wonder reasonably where one would put their luggage — or IF one might want to put their luggage there. Ah, the vision for tomorrow of thousands of reactors hurtling down the highway at high velocity. Of course, Doc Brown had his ‘Mr. Fusion’ so perhaps the dream is still alive.

Cars of the future have not fared all that well. Consider the case of the Ford Futura from 1955. You probably recognize this as the car on which the 1966 Batmobile was based.

While a fine concept car, the 1955 Futura has a few issues. First of all, as a safety feature, the car could not be put into gear until the doors were closed and the Plexiglas bubble-top was closed and latched. All well and good: except that the interior ventilation was so poor that the inside of the car would quickly become stifling. In addition, the lovely clear canopy works extraordinarily well as a solar oven for the occupants on any sunny day.

The problems didn’t stop there. With the canopy closed the driver could not hear what was going on outside the vehicle. You would never hear the emergency vehicle coming.

So the engineers decided on how to fix this in their own way.

Do you see the circular ‘antenna’ on the back deck of the vehicle? There appears to be a sphere in the center of the antenna ring. It is actually a microphone installed so the driver could hear what was going on outside the car. It was connected to a speaker set in the back wall between the seats.

That’s engineering for the future!

Speaking of which … where’s my flying car? Or, for that matter, my jet-pack? Aside from the problem of flaming pants and the ever tricky question of just how to land gracefully from a head-forward, lawn-dart position of flight.

I particularly like ‘Commando Cody’ who is pictured here. Where else can you find a flying scientist shooting a revolver while in rocket powered flight?

For those of you technically minded. Here is the control panel for Commando Cody’s rocket pack. Flying this device appears to be pretty straight forward.

 Then there was the problem of size. The science-fiction of the past had everything getting bigger. The Krell were impressive in ‘Forbidden Planet’ with their machines that were as big as their world. The future, however, has become much different. Everything today is miniaturized. Smaller is the watchword of our time. The only object in miniature in ‘Forbidden Planet’ turned out to be Anne Francis.

My favorite, however, was the Monsanto House of the Future.

This home was constructed out of a new material called Fiberglas. Unfortunately, the strength properties of the material were not fully known at the time when the home was built. As time went by the actual future caught up with the display and it soon started looking like the house of yesterday. So it was decided to take it down.

Late one night, a wrecking crane was brought in to bust up the House of the Future. However, the fiberglas in the house walls was FAR thicker than necessary … and the wrecking ball literally bounced off. They had to come in and cut it apart over several weeks in order to remove it.

Score one for the future.

I remember watching in awe the Pan Am space shuttle approach the great wheel of a space station in Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.” I certainly hoped to fly into space that way someday. Now, over a decade past 2001, not only do we have no commercial shuttles into space … we don’t even have Pan Am.

This image of a space pirate perhaps typifies for me the failure of science-fiction to predict the future. This is a space pirate! Now, leaving as

ide the issues of the very concept of space piracy please note what he had menacingly clutched in his teeth…

A slide rule! That’s some dangerous calculation going on there. But more to the point, the slide rule itself is an abandoned technology. Your phone can do better and more accurate calculations.

Science-fiction has not been very good at predicting the future … but perhaps prediction is not what science-fiction is about. Perhaps speculative-fiction is not so much about telling us who we will be as it is showing us what we CAN be.

Science-fiction is great at INSPIRING the future … and that’s the subject of the next section of my presentation.


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