To the editor ...

I'm not sure things have changed so much. Science fiction has always been a commentary on society, and Popular Mechanics is not science fiction. Early authors clearly understood the threat of socialism. Perhaps Mr. Wright missed reading other sci-fi authors such as Asimov, Heinlein, or Vonnegut. "Harrison Bergeron" was written about the same time as Fahrenheit 451, and it certainly describes political correctness and its consequences. Ayn Rand, not normally considered a sci-fi author, projected a dystopian view of the future in Anthem. Actually, I can't think of any science-fiction authors who had a "Jetsons" view of the future. I'm sure there were some, but they don't seem to be memorable.

Mary Lynn Bailey
August 11, 2003


Mr. Wright replies

I thank Miss Bailey for her observations. She is right that dystopia was no stranger to science fiction before the '70s — look at 1984 and Brave New World, not to mention Fritz Lang's classic 1920s movie "Metropolis." However, while science fiction has, as she said, always commented on society and societal trends, it seems to me that its scenarios of the future weren't always as collectively bleak as they are today. For instance, in Starship Troopers Heinlein wrote about a world in which everybody spoke Esperanto and lived in a kind of idealized Roman-Republic-style society where only veterans of the armed services could be citizens. (Heinlein apparently thought that would be great, but the idea makes my skin crawl.) All is copacetic until the Bugs hit and mess everything up. Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars and his other books for adolescents depicted similarly benign futures. Then there are Arthur C. Clarke's strange technocratic quasi-paradises.

In any case, I'm not really talking about science fiction but about the way the "future" was presented to the general public. True, Popular Mechanics was not science fiction, but I'll bet a lot more people read it than read Heinlein or Asimov. And other magazines also carried articles on idealized futures — I especially remember Boys Life, as well as Life and other mainstream mags.

The New York World's Fair of 1939-40 is a great example of this tendency. Almost all the buildings were in dramatic Modernist styles, and the fair purported to show the "World of Tomorrow," complete with an idealized "Democracity" diorama. (It also boasted a Federal Government pavilion with a giant bust of the current Emperor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.) The General Motors pavilion had the "Futurama" exhibit, a 36,000-square-foot model of a predicted America of 1960, with broad, gleaming expressways, towering apartment buildings, and so on. Ford had the "Road of Tomorrow"; Westinghouse had a friendly, helpful robot. The future there was a happy, technocratic triumph. Those and similar visions were what inspired the Jetsons' world, not true science fiction.

Later on we got "cars of tomorrow," both in steel and on paper. In 1953, GM built a set of "Futureliners," modified cross-country buses with streamlined, futuristic styling carrying traveling exhibits. And so on. Few movies, besides kiddy serials, dealt with futuristic scenarios: most science fiction movies in the '50s and '60s featured bug-eyed monsters or aliens. The few exceptions, such as "When Worlds Collide," "Forbidden Planet," and especially "2001," are exceptions that prove the rule. The science fiction TV series "Lost in Space" and "Star Trek" showed us optimistic views of the future, despite the travails to which the protagonists were subject.

And then, sometime in the late '60s or early '70s, future dystopias replace idealized futures in popular culture. That's what I'm talking about.

August 15, 2003
Posted August 22, 2003


Nicholas Strakon comments

To pick up on what Mr. Wright says, I vividly remember a 1962 issue of Look magazine with a cover story envisioning the wonderful world of tomorrow — that is to say, 1987. We were supposed to get air cars, videophones, big-wheel space stations, and, I'm pretty sure, superfast monorails as well. (Heck, we were always supposed to get those superfast monorails. But the way it turned out, even the Japanese and the French are still using two whole rails.) I don't remember anything about social upheaval, a metastasizing leviathan, or cultural collapse.

An 85-year-old relative of mine has another vivid memory — of reading a whole sheaf of media accounts, thirty and forty years ago, of how disease would be abolished by the year 2000, and we'd all live forever. I think he feels a little betrayed.

Mass-media visions of the political and cultural climate in the future tended to be pretty bland — Arthur C. Clarke / World Federalist / "Star Trek" bland — when they weren't absent altogether. But even their visions of future technology left a lot to be desired. Maybe one has to be of a certain age to remember what the future was like.

August 22, 2003

Back to Mr. Wright's article.

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