Yeah, I know it’s a cliche — here we are in the high-tech future, a whole other century from when most of the sci-fi we grew up on was written, and there are no flying cars. It’s been said many times before.
But I just got to thinking about it in terms that hadn’t occurred to me before.
My wife was reading a book out on the deck this morning (while the weather was still pleasant), and referred to it having been written 50 years ago.
That’s the shocking thing, you see. It seems that 1961 is no longer just a brief while back. It’s 50 years ago now.
As anyone who has read Gene Sculatti‘s delightful and authoritative Catalog of Cool knows, 1962 was the Last Good Year. But the year before had much to recommend it as well. It’s the year that the iconic 60’s cult novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, made its appearance. Heinlein assumed that by the end of the 20th century (there is one vague reference to the date that places it at the end of a long, hard century — and Jubal Harshaw had served in North Africa in WWII), there would be flying cars — flying cars that flew to one’s destination without being guided by a human occupant. Say your destination aloud, and the car would take you there.
Now we have the technology for most of that. We can do voice commands, and something like Google Maps and GPS working together, along with the ability that SUVs and some other cars have now for sensing the proximity of other vehicles, etc. — we could make the car go where we wanted without guiding it, although personal I wouldn’t want to be one of the first few thousand people to trust my life to it.
It’s the flying part that’s tricky. Heinlein wasn’t specific about how the cars flew. He mentioned the “Lyle Drive” for spacecraft, but not the means for making the cars fly. Aldous Huxley, years before, had had people routinely flying helicopters, but Heinlein was not so explanatory, although one gets the impression that they flew Jetson-style. His characters took such transport for granted, suggesting the technology had been around awhile, so we are expected to take it for granted as well.
There were other things — such as a form of 3D TV called “stereovision,” which I sort of gathered was holographic, and watched in a “tank” like an aquarium. And videophones — although apparently landline-based. And most dramatically (and centrally to the plot) there had been two rather significant manned flights to Mars, the second one leaving colonists.
The assumption in those days seemed to be — with jets relatively new, and JFK pushing us to the moon — that our main technological advances would be in the area of transportation. Little thought was given to information technology. While a number of the things he imagined would have been unlikely without computers — such as doors that opened to spoken commands, and “bounce tubes” replacing elevators — the idea of the personal computer, as an important element of the typical consumer’s life, from the desktop to the smartphone — was completely absent. No email, no texting, no Skype (except from the landline). Hilariously, when a character wanted to send a written message and have a record of it rather than speaking by TV phone, he went to something that sounded like a telegraph office and sent a “statprint.” Ben Caxton, a nationally syndicated columnist in the novel, has such an advanced office that it has its own “statprinter.”
A lot can change in 50 years. Especially the future. What I can’t believe is that it’s been so long.