The future we lost

Now I’m done for a while with trying to fathom the actual, you know, future – something of a relief – I’m getting drawn back to a fascination with futures past. Once a historian…

Aside from my historical instincts, though, there is a sense of unfinished business here because I am uncertain what I think about the “recent future”, as it were.

There seems to be an awful lot of it about.

The culture, certainly Anglophone or Anglo-American culture, is registering lots of uncertain feelings about the future at the moment – and showing a large appetite for apocalyptic futures like the one depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (the novel and now the film), and numerous other stories. At the same time, there is ever more curating and commentary of images of futures past. Are these connected, I wonder?

Before getting into that, it is maybe worth reviewing just how much cultural output is now dedicated to futures past. Here’s a non-exhaustive rundown.

Books, of course. The basic template here is pretty clear. Round up some past techno-futures, preferably with wacky pictures. Send them up, bemoan the fact that they aren’t here yet, or explain how science and technology may yet produce something quite like what was once predicted. Five exemplary titles (there may be more):

Where’s My Jetpack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived. Daniel H. Wilson. (Bloomsbury 2007).

Probably the definitive title in this genre (Where’s my flying car? would work as well – see below). Whatever happened, also, to underwater cities, food pills, X-ray specs? Jokey but technically well-informed guide to toys boys still really want.

The Jetpack’s iconic status is confirmed by the fact that there is a whole book about it, Jetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (but Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was by Mac Montandon. (Da Capo, 2008).

Then there’s Eric Dregni and Jonathan Dregni’s
Follies of Science – 20th Century Visions of Our Fantastic Future
Speck Press, 2006
Another richly documented and not terribly serious compilation of past forecasts, ranging over fiction and non-fiction, lavishly illustrated.

and Nick Sagan, Mark Frary and Andy Walker’s Future Proof: The Greatest Gadgets and Gizmos Ever Imagined (Icon, 2008)
which the UK publisher describes as “Detailing the history, the reality and the tech spec of 50 of science fiction’s most brilliant crime-fighting, space-travelling, remote controlled, lightspeed, artificially intelligent inventions, Future Proof is required reading for anyone who knows their wormhole from their black hole…”

and features:

Buck Rogers’ jetpack <of course! > – The Jetsons’ Flying cars – Star Trek’s transporters – The Six Million-Dollar Man’s cyborg – Sleeper’s Orgasmatron – 2001’s artificial intelligence – Lost in Space’s remote controlled robots – Vanilla Sky’s Cryonics – Star Wars’ Warp Drives – Back to the Future’s time travel – Total Recall’s Terraforming – Doctor Who’s robot pets – Galactic Patrol’s Cybernetics – A Fall of Moondust’s space tourism – Stargate’s wormholes – Brave New World’s Hypnopedia.

Also worth mentioning is Mark Brake and Neil Hook’s, Different Engines (Macmillan, 2008). This is a little more complex than the others, being a history of interaction – both ways – between science/technology and science fiction, not prediction as such.

Most recently, we have Paul Milo, Your Flying Car Awaits: Robot Butlers, Lunar Vacations, And other Dead-Wrong Predictions of the Twentieth Century (Harper, 2009) Haven’t read this one, but the subtitle gives a good sense of the approach,

and the blurb confirms similarity with the others…

“For centuries people have been making predictions about the future. Most of these are not only wrong, they are really, really wrong. “Your Flying Car Awaits” looks at the scientists, novelists, and social commentators who throughout the 20th century used their ‘expertise’ to make a host of terrible, inaccurate, overzealous predictions about what the future would bring. From underwater cities to talking dolphins to 200-year life spans, “Your Flying Car Awaits” covers them all. Examining the most outrageous predictions from the last 100 years in entertaining, bite-sized descriptions, “Your Flying Car Awaits” is organised by type (transportation, the human body). Its individual entries detail the technologies and philosophies of the times that led some great (and not so great) minds think the ridiculous was achievable. Sample Bad Predictions include: Space tourism will be ubiquitous by the year 2000; nuclear explosives will be used for commercial demolition; engineered and man-made oceans will cover the planet; and, weather will be controllable like a train schedule.”

(As the title attests, and as I keep pointing out here, the flying car is constantly reborn – most recently in the form of a DARPA project – wonder if they are still thinking about the jet-pack, too.)

ADDITION – there’s a nice rundown of some of the predictions featured in the book here

So much for books. Then there are a slew of websites, including
David Zondy’s Tales of Future Past
A fascinating compilation of images and commentary on frequently infeasible futures usefully divided into themes – cities, food, transport, war, and so forth.

Matt Nowak’s teriffic Paleofuture blog
Similar to the above, but a different – and equally diverting – collection of press cuttings, magazine articles and graphics about what the future was going to be like. Regular additions are still appearing.

and http://www.retrofuture.com/
“Where Yesterday’s Tomorrow Is Still in the Future”
Another extensive collection, including cartoons and video as well as magazine clippings etc.

The videos there and elsewhere help point to one of the main sources for much of this stuff – the locations where the recent future crystallised out from the wider culture: The World’s Fairs. The “Futurama” pavilions at the Fairs of 1939, and again in 1964 – both sponsored by GM – epitomise this but there are plenty of others.

More recently, the spirit of that once upon a time future is preserved in Disney’s Tomorrowland, originally a supposedly genuine attempt to look at the future. Significantly, I think, Tomorrowland  was completely refurbished in 1998, when the corporation described their latest creation “a classic future environment”, in a style which P.J. O’ Rourke dubbed the Jules Vernacular. Tomorrowland’s equivalent on Disney’s Paris site, Discoveryland, is actually a tribute to Verne, among other past futurists. For real fans, there is even a website preserving images of the Tomorrowlands of the past along with other old Disney attractions … it is the yester-tomorrowland section of the site, which is a neologism too far, but good for a browse for all that.

Altogether, I think these add up to a strong interest, at the least, in a future we feel is lost. It is the future of those World’s Fairs, of Dan Dare, perhaps, and, somewhat later, of Omni magazine (as  this thoughtful retrospective article in the Washington Post recalled the other day.

We regret it, in a way, and we make fun of it – see Futurama the cartoon series. Does it relate to any more serious feelings about the future?   More to come on that. Meanwhile, any other futures past to add to this quick compilation would be welcome…

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5 Comments on “The future we lost”

  1. blackwatertown Says:

    We’ve become jaded and used to disappointment. The future is just not what is was.

  2. Oliver Says:

    Poss relevant
    The dreams our stuff is made of (Tom Disch on impacts of SFnal imaginings of teh past)
    1939, lost world of teh fair (David Gerlenter)

  3. jonturney Says:

    Yes, I liked the Disch (esp title). Have Gelernter on order, but seems to have got lost in mid-Atlantic… What I’ve read of it looks intriguing.

  4. alice Says:

    Didn’t the BSHS try to publish a book of essays on histories of the future a couple of years ago? (think Graeme Gooday was chap running the project, might be worth asking him).

    There is also *cough* my paper on how contemporary aesthetic for anachronism (e.g. steampunk) reflect our various hang ups over modernity’s futures (not to mention nostalgia for imagined time when futures were more exhilarating) – International Journal of Cultural Studies, 2009, Vol: 12.


  5. […] lengthy post here earlier this year ruminated on how much old futures stuff people now have access to, and […]


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