Back to the future

Science fiction promised us a tomorrowland of jetpacks, Smell-O-Vision and male mammary implants. So what happened?

Published May 12, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

Staring out of my window in Manhattan's East Village the other day, it struck me suddenly that the street scene below did not differ in any significant way from how it would have looked in 1967. Maybe even 1947. Oh, the design of automobiles has changed a bit, but combustion-engine-propelled ground-level vehicles are still how we get around, as opposed to flying cars or teleportation. Pedestrians trudge along sidewalks rather than swooshing along high-speed moving travelators. And even in hipster-friendly New York, most people's clothes and hair don't look especially outlandish. From the trusty traffic meters and sturdy blue mailboxes to the iconic yellow taxis and occasional cop on horseback, 21st century New York looks distressingly nonfuturistic. For a former science science fiction fanatic like me, this is brutally disappointing.

I'm not the only one who yearns for the future that never showed up. The frustration is widely felt and has been mounting for some time, gathering serious speed in the late '90s when the really-ought-to-be-momentous new millennium loomed. Dates like "1999," "2000" and "2001" set off special reverberations -- not just for the science fiction fans among us but for plenty of regular folk too. Even now, when we should have grown blasé about living in the 21st century, the dates still have a faint futuroid tang, a poignant trace of what should have been. The obvious landmarks of tomorrow's world never materialized: vacations to the moon, 900 miles per hour transatlantic trains hurtling through vacuum tunnels. But the absence is felt equally in the fabric of daily life, the way that the experience of cooking an egg or taking a shower hasn't changed in our lifetime.

Nostalgia for the future, neostalgia -- whatever you wanna call this peculiar unrequited feeling -- is widespread enough to constitute a market. Enter Daniel H. Wilson's "Where's My Jetpack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived." This paperback sometimes strikes a melancholy note: A passage on moon colonies, which the New York Times in 1969 predicted were a mere 20 years away, notes that "the centerpiece of Disney's Tomorrowland attraction was the luxurious Moonliner spaceship. But a future that included giant glass moon domes never appeared. Tomorrowland was torn down." Mostly, though, the book's tone is petulant and impatient. The title itself, "Where's My Jetpack?" makes you picture a science fiction nerd stamping his feet in a tantrum. Wilson strives to speak directly to your inner 12-year-old: hence the high-fructose corn-syrup-laced prose ("crazy-ass mad science" and, in a section on an underwater city, "sea-tastic"), the groan-inducing puns (in the chapter on lighter-than-air transport, "blimpin' ain't easy"), the puerile fantasy of using an invisibility suit to sneak into the women's changing room.

A glib and flippant tone dominates "Where's My Jetpack?" but I get the feeling a more serious book is struggling to extricate itself from Wilson's arch and camp approach (something compounded by Richard Horne's kitschy retrofuturist illustrations). The research is top-notch and fascinating. Some of the best material here entails a sort of archaeology of stillborn or prematurely abandoned futures. In the 1960s, for instance, concerted attempts were made to build living environments at the bottom of the ocean, in the form of the U.S. Navy's Sealab program. But instead of aquadome cities nestling on the ocean floor and a massive exodus of pioneers emigrating to settle the briny depths, all that remains today of the dream is a solitary subaquatic hotel, the Jules Undersea Lodge, located just off Key Largo, Fla. Other science fiction staples that made a tantalizingly brief appearance decades ago but never caught on, for reasons either practical or cultural, include the jetpack (the energy required for blast-off generates dangerous levels of heat) and Smell-O-Vision. The latter idea was mooted fictionally in Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel, "Brave New World," in which the "feelies" stimulated one's tactile and olfactory sense as well as sight and sound. The idea was actually attempted a couple of times in the early '60s, but both times tanked in the marketplace.

Another classic futuristic idea made real is "cultured meat," i.e., animal protein grown in the laboratory, where, Wilson reports, it is repeatedly stretched as a surrogate for physical exercise, in order to give it the texture of a living, active organism. This grotesque technology was memorably anticipated in Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's 1952 novel "The Space Merchants," a corporate dystopia of the 21st century in which peon workers hack slices off a gigantic blob of animate but nonsentient poultry breast called Chicken Little. But in our nonfictional 21st century, the idea languishes in the laboratory thanks to consumer resistance. Our cultural biases reject cultured meat as gross, unnatural, an abomination. Indeed, popular taste is trending the opposite way, toward the organic, the uncaged, the nonprocessed.

In "Where's My Jetpack?" Wilson frequently adopts a reassuring tone when examining a particular promised breakthrough that failed to materialize. Everything from the robot butler to 3-D television to the dinner-in-a-pill is presented as reasonably imminent (albeit likely to be way out of most folks' price range). Coming down the pipeline real soon is the anti-sleeping pill: not a central nervous system stimulant like amphetamine, and therefore avoiding all the associated problems to do with abuse and paranoia, modafinil simply turns off the need for sleep (although you can bet that in itself this will generate side effects and mental disorders). Also on the horizon is the smart home, as imagined in another Pohl and Kornbluth novel, "Gladiator-at-Law" (1955). Disappointingly, though, rather than anticipating your moods with décor changes and keeping the fridge stocked with all your favorite delicacies, the intelligent domiciles of the near future will be extensions of the assisted-living facility: apartments kitted out with movement sensors that develop a feeling for their elderly inhabitants' routines and send out alarm signals when, say, that regular hourly visit to the toilet isn't made.

According to Wilson, NASA is working toward establishing a moon colony (though a rather minuscule one) within the next 13 years. Better still, the classic science fiction fantasy of the space elevator that carries us from the Earth's surface 300 miles up to the threshold of outer space is already perfectly feasible, just prohibitively expensive. I would imagine the billion-dollar price tag for the miraculously strong cable the elevator glides up and down would pay for itself rather quickly, given that journeying into space (and as result the commercial exploitation of nonterrestrial mineral resources) would become approximately 100 times cheaper than the existing alternative, the space shuttle.

Wilson's talk of space elevators and other grandiose inventions like solar mirrors or the fully enclosed city indicates how our expectations of the "futuristic" have undergone an insidious scaling down in recent decades. Mostly, "the future" seems to infiltrate our lives in a low-key, subtle fashion. In their own way, the miniaturization of communications technology (cellphones, BlackBerrys, etc.) and the compression of information (iPods, MP3s, YouTube, downloadable movies, etc.) are just as mind-blowing as the space stations and robots once pictured as the everyday scenery of 21st century life. Macro simply looks way more impressive than micro.

Sometimes it feels as if progress itself has actually slowed down, with the 1960s as the climax of a 20th century surge of innovation, and the decades that followed consisting of a weird mix of consolidation, stagnation and rollback. Certainly change in the first half of the 20th century seemed to manifest itself in the most dramatic and hubristic manner. It was an era of massive feats of centralized planning and public investment: huge dams; five-year plans of accelerated industrialization; gigantic state-administered projects of rural electrification, freeway construction and poverty banishment. Science fiction writers who grew up with this kind of thing (including the darker side of "public works" -- the mobilization of entire populations and economies for war, the Soviet collectivization of peasant farms that resulted in massive famine, genocide) naturally imagined that change would continue to unfold in this dynamic and grandiose fashion. So they foresaw things like the emergence of cities enclosed inside giant skyscrapers and grain harvested by combines the size of small ships voyaging across vast prairies.

It's no coincidence, too, that sci-fi's nonfiction cousin, futurology -- or future studies, as it is now more commonly known -- emerged as a discipline during this era of the activist nation-state. World War II ratcheted up popular belief and trust in the exercise of judiciously applied might by centralized government, and the post-1946 world offered plenty of opportunities for benevolent state power to be flexed, from the challenges of postwar reconstruction to the development of the newly independent third-world nations that emerged out of the British Empire.

The 1950s and 1960s were characterized by future-mindedness, an ethos of foresight that attempted not just to identify probable outcomes but to steer reality toward preferred ones. It's no coincidence that those decades were the boom years for both sci-fi and a spirit of neophilia in the culture generally -- the streamlined and shiny aesthetic of modernity that embraced plastics, man-made fabrics and glistening chrome as the true materials of the New Frontier. It's the era that produced "The Jetsons," probably the single prime source of many of the tomorrowland clichés that haunt the collective memory -- personal rocket cars parked in the front drive, food pills, videophones, robo-dogs -- and that subsequently became a cue for retrofuturist camp.

Today we seem to have trouble picturing the future, except in cataclysmic terms or as the present gone worse ("Children of Men"). Our inability to generate positive and alluring images of tomorrow's world has been accompanied by the fading prominence of futurology as a form of popular nonfiction. It carries on as an academic discipline, as research and speculation conducted by think tanks and government-funded bodies. But there are no modern equivalents of Buckminster Fuller or Alvin Toffler. The latter, probably still the most famous futurologist in the world, warned in his 1970 bestseller "Future Shock" that change was moving too fast for ordinary citizens' nervous systems and adaptive mechanisms to cope with; 1980's "The Third Wave" sounded a more positive note about the democratic possibilities of technology. But Toffler was just the most visible exponent of a bustling paperback subgenre of "popular thought." I recall getting one such fat paperback for my 16th birthday, a book predicting all kinds of marvels, such as the resurgence of lighter-than-air travel, which would fill the skies with giant freight-carrying balloons and the aerial equivalent of ocean cruise liners transporting people across the seas and continents in leisurely fashion.

Some of the 1950s and 1960s anticipation and confidence in the future had worn off by the '70s: Ecological anxieties manifested in everything from Neil Young's "After the Goldrush" to the movie "Silent Running," while science fiction writers like John Brunner and Harry Harrison imagined grim and gritty realistic early 21st century scenarios of overpopulation, pollution and fuel crises in novels like "Stand on Zanzibar" and "Make Room! Make Room!" (the latter adapted into the far inferior movie "Soylent Green"). But the 1970s still contained a strong current of popular futurism, reflected in the success of magazines like Omni and in the popular music of the day, the pioneering electronic sounds of Kraftwerk, Jean-Michel Jarre and Donna Summer producer Giorgio Moroder. It was a conflicted decade, though, with nostalgia gradually becoming a more dominant force ("Happy Days," "Grease," '20s chic). Even science fiction itself began to regress, following the lead of "Star Wars" by abandoning the sophistication of the 1960s "New Wave" of sci-fi (with its explorations of "inner space") and reverting to the swashbuckling space fantasies of the genre's pulpy early days.

In the '80s, thinking about the future in nonnegative terms seemed to become almost impossible. Yesteryear seemed more attractive: Postmodernism and retro recycling ruled popular culture, while politically the presiding spirits of the era, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, were dedicated to restoration of an older order, to rolling back the gains of the abhorred '60s. Futurology's profile waned (can you name anything Toffler wrote after 1980?) and the bestsellers in the "popular thought" tended to be jeremiads and "Where did we go wrong?" investigations like Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death" (1985) and Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" (1987).

The '90s, however, saw a slight resurgence of futurism, driven by the information technology boom, theorized by magazines like Wired and Mondo 2000, soundtracked by another wave of electronic music (the techno-tronica rave-olution). While some of the new breed of futurologists were classic gee-whiz technology types like Kevin Kelly, others were "zippies," hippies sans any Luddite technophobia or back-to-the-land nostalgia, people like Jaron Lanier and Ray Kurzweil. All panaceas and marvels, the talk could get pretty wacky: nanotechnology, virtual reality, trans-humanism. Kurzweil preached the notion that the law of accelerating returns was propelling us at breakneck speed toward a singularity: Fueled by cross-catalyzing innovations, the exponential curve of progress will inevitably, sooner rather than later, hit vertical, resulting in a rupture in human history, most likely entailing sentient machines, the dis-incarnation of human intelligence, immortality. Basically the rapture, with technological accouterments. Some of Kurzweil's predictions were more prosaic: By the middle of the 21st century he imagined computers becoming so intelligent they could be genuinely musical, which for him translated as being able to jam with human guitarists, Jerry Garcia/Carlos Santana-style.

After the info-tech boom's bust and 9/11, we haven't heard as much from these digi-prophets. All that Dow Jones-indexed mania has sagged to a sour calm. Futurology as a popular nonfiction genre has been largely reduced to short-term trend watching, cool hunting in the service of marketing people and brand makers. Take the recently published "The Next Now: Trends for the Future" by Marian Salzman and Ira Matathia. Even taking into consideration the authors' modest ambition to look a mere five years ahead, this book's bundle of predictions is frankly feeble. Almost without exception, everything Salzman and Matathia "prophesy" is already a highly visible and well-established trend: wikis, blogging, celebrity chefs, gastro-porn, branding, the privatization of space, overwork/sleep deprivation, the prolongation of adolescence into the '30s and beyond, online dating, an aging population ... The near future, apparently, will just consist of more of the exact same.

Then again, perhaps sociocultural and political prediction is simply a mug's game. In the 1970s, no one would or could have imagined that the dominant form of pop music of the last two decades of the 20th century would be rhythmatized boasts and threats delivered over beats; few would have foreseen the emergence of reality TV as the most popular entertainment format. On the political front, the annals of sci-fi are littered with dystopian soothsayings that now look laughably off-base, from Anthony Burgess' "1985," a 1978 novel about a trade-union-dominated U.K. of the near future in which the country is brought to a standstill on a weekly basis by general strikes, to Kingsley Amis' 1980 novel "Russian Hide-and-Seek," a vision of Britain 50 years after its conquest by the Soviets. "Where's My Jetpack?" shrewdly sticks to science and technology. But this relentless focus on machines, gadgets and life-enhancing innovations means that Wilson never touches on that whole other aspect of the "unrequited future" -- the dismay and disbelief felt by many who came of age in the '60s and '70s only to witness a drastic deceleration in the rate of social and cultural progress.

Perhaps the expectations of the 1960s, that era of rampant radicalisms, were hopelessly unrealistic. Still, if you grew up, like me, reading radical feminists like Shulamith Firestone (who argued in "The Dialectic of Sex" that female liberation would come only with the invention of an artificial womb that could unshackle women from the procreative function) or New Wave of science fiction authors like Thomas M. Disch (who in his novel "334" imagined men being able to get mammary implants and breast-feed their offspring), scanning contemporary popular culture with its supermodel competitions, desperate housewives and scantily clad pop divas is acutely disheartening. And these are about gender, just one zone of stalled progress or outright regression. Race, gay rights, drugs, socioeconomic equality, religion -- on just about every front, things either are not nearly as advanced as we'd have once expected or have actually gone into reverse. Forget the goddamn jetpack: It's the sociocultural version of the "amazing future that never arrived" that really warrants our anguish.

By Simon Reynolds

Simon Reynolds is the author of "Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84." A collection of his writing, "Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing About Hip Rock and Hip Hop," is being published in the U.K. in May 2007. He maintains a blog at

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