Monday, August 18, 2014

Retro-future Double-Take

I've been on a bit of a retro-future kick recently, and wanted to point you guys at a pair of books that are feeding my dorky obsession.I've been on a bit of a retro-future kick recently, and wanted to point you guys at a pair of books that are feeding my dorky obsession. Sure, I watched and read science fiction as a kid, but I think it was my deep and abiding love for The Jetsons that instilled in me my persistent fascination with the retro-future, or the future of the past, or, less pretentiously, what old, mostly now-dead, folks thought the future would be like while they were driving their lead-fume-spitting automobiles and gleefully testing atomic weaponry upwind of desert communities throughout the southwest. How's that for a run-on sentence?

Where's My Jetpack by Daniel H. Wilson

This look at sci-fi mainstays like moon colonies, underwater hotels, robot helpers, flying cars, and the like is a brief, but very fun and surprisingly well-researched look at a wide array of futuristic technologies we were supposed to have by now, and where they're at now. Did you know Dubai is still trying to make the underwater hotel a reality? By now we all know that Google and others are close to perfecting the driverless car, but what about the countless other DARPA projects that still promise to make our world a terrifying technological wasteleand of automation that will one day become sentient and rise up to crush us?

I read this book when it was originally released five or six years ago, and just tackled it again our of a mix of nostalgia (of course) and to see how much of what seemed imminent then actually came to pass now. Driverless cars are one example. Daniel Wilson went on to greater fame as the writer of Robopocalypse, which Steven Spielberg picked up to adapt, but his early non-fiction books like this one, The Mad Scientist Hall of Fame and others are tremendously enjoyable and legitimately enlightening.

The Wonderful Future that Never Was by Gregory Binford and the Editors of Popular Mechanics

Despite an astoundingly bad proofreading job in the introduction, which had me shelve this book for a little while, it turns out to be exactly what is advertised, and a lot of fun. With a little bit of commentary woven throughout by Binford, this book is mostly paragraphs and blurbs taken from the pages of Popular Mechanics magazine since its inception about the world we may potentially live in one day. Many are hysterically wrong (like the synthetic homes stocked with furniture made of plastic, so you can clean your house simply by dousing it with the garden hose), many are eerily accurate, some manage to be both, and others are just cool (like the section on mega cities), providing innovative looks at problems that still persist, and I kinda wish we'd tried out.

One neat feature is that many stories are tagged as "True!," where the editors have pointed something out that actually came to pass, but savvy readers will catch many more that are not labelled as true, but are perhaps more obscure features of our actual daily lives. Take, for instance, the blurb from the 1950s that food may one day be made of sawdust. Laughable, right? Except that a lot of our food is actually made of sawdust now.

Posted by -- Vance K, cult film reviewer and resident Jetsons nerd at Nerds of a Feather since 2012.