We’re a few years shy of two decades into the 21st century, and I’m a graying, spectacled, middle-aged geek who’s now living in the “future”of his childhood.
And so far it’s not quite the future I imagined in my youth. Parts of it still amaze me, but the bulk of it is very underwhelming and more than a little disappointing, to be honest.
I’m still a bit blown away by how far computer technology has come. The smartphone in my pocket is essentially a tiny mobile computer. Video phone calls (via Skype or FaceTime) are a real thing now. And I don’t need a clunky ‘vid-phone’ (ala Blade Runner or “2001”) to make a call either. The phone in my pocket does quite nicely, as does my iPad or my desktop. Computers have completely changed (and opened) the world in a way that no single technological breakthrough has to date.
I have friends (whom I’ve never met in person) who live on the other side of the globe that I keep in touch with via computer. The dream of the global village, at least in communications, is pretty much here.
But most of these advances are mainly in the areas of personal electronics. We never got servant robots in every kitchen (never really wanted an electronic slave, but okay…), never got the flying/hovering cars, or giant orbiting Hilton space stations, or routine passenger flights to the moon, or those long-promised manned missions on Mars.
But the most personally disappointing aspect of our 21st century so far is that we still get most of our energy from decayed, polluting matter that is extracted harmfully (and at great cost) from the ground and oceans. You’d think by now we’d have clean electric vehicles everywhere, and solar power stations in orbit that could stream pure energy to earth completely unabated by weather. But no, we don’t.
We have tangible proof now (collected over the last four decades) that our activities in energy production directly influence our climate, so the ‘debate’ is long over. We may, in fact, have already passed the tipping point for effective reversal. In that regard our 21st century looks a bit less like “The Jetsons” and a lot more “Mad Max.” Disappointing, and alarming as well.
However, I’m not going to go on about climate change for now (that’s a whole other subject). Instead I’d like to use this entry to explore the futures we were supposed to have, according to mainstream science fiction. The futures past. The futures that never were.
I’ll kick things off with the year I got married:
I. Party like it’s 1999…
What was supposed to happen:
- By this time, according to the TV series’ Star Trek, we were supposed to have just survived the Eugenics Wars” (1992-1996), which were led by the genetically-engineered tyrant Khan Noonien Singh (played by Ricardo Montalban). Khan led 80-or so fellow ‘supermen’ to rule over a quarter of the world’s population. The eugenics wars were started by a group of ambitious scientists who sought to ‘improve the breed’ and wound up creating a group of Napoleons & Caesars for their troubles.
- The 80-odd remaining supermen were eventually defeated and driven into space aboard a DY-100 class ‘sleeper ship,’ the S.S. Botany Bay (named after the Australian penal settlement) launched in 1996. 72 of them would survive into the 23rd century.
What really happened:
- In 1996, researchers cloned a sheep named Dolly, and the US was making modest advancement in the field of stem cell research which, to date, hasn’t (and won’t) create a race of muscular Montalbans anytime soon. But it may lead to cures for spinal cord injuries and countless other maladies someday, so… yay (?). Maybe a little controlled genetic engineering, in areas like reparative gene therapies or stem cell treatments, ain’t so bad after all.
- No sleeper ship SS Botany Bay was ever built. In fact, manned spaceflight in the 1990s was dominated by the Russian Mir space station and the US space shuttle program (beginning in 1995, the shuttle and Mir even docked a few times). But alas, no sleeper ships capable of limited interstellar flight (below). Suspended animation research for humans hit something of a snag in the last 20 or so years, as it’s found that human (or most animal) cell walls turn to mush when they thaw. Some kind of human-safe ‘antifreeze’ to preserve frozen cell walls would have to be perfected for it to work, and even that couldn’t fight off muscular atrophy and bone loss that occur in real-life longterm spaceflight.
Moving on from Star Trek, some of the funniest, cheesiest prophecies for 1999 came from the show that actually included the year in its title; one of my favorite guilty pleasure TV series “Space: 1999” (1975-77).
^ Barbara Bain and Martin Landau (a real-life couple who also appeared together on “Mission: Impossible” years earlier) played the coolheaded Dr. Helena Russell and the warmer-blooded Commander John Koenig, respectively. They were aided by science officer Victor Bergman (“The Fugitive”‘s Barry Morse) and later the shapeshifting alien Maya (Catherine Schell) in season 2.
Other character/cast members included Aussie Eagle pilot Alan Carter (played by Nick Tate), data analyst Sandra Benes (Zienia Merton), the computer-repeating Kano (Clifton Jones) and S2’s Tony Verdeschi (played by Tony Anholt). Not the greatest TV ensemble ever developed (this ain’t MASH or Star Trek, folks) but sadly, character development was not Space: 1999’s strong suit.
My then-12 year old self really didn’t care, either.
I used to watch this show in reruns on a local station, and I would audio-tape a few of them off of the TV speaker back in that dim days before VHS, DVDs and DVRs (yes, there was a time we had to watch what was on, WHEN it was on…).
And oh, how I SO wanted a model kit of one of those Eagle transporters! Yes, they looked like big flying tinker toys, but there was something so retro-cool about them! The special effects of this show were fairly groundbreaking in the pre-Star Wars era. In fact, lead FX artist Brian Johnson would later work on “The Empire Strikes Back.” The show’s ‘science’ was utterly absurd, but it didn’t really matter; “Space: 1999” worked more on a visual and aural level. It was pure escapism… and did I mention that it had those cool Eagle transporters??
^ The citizens of Moonbase Alpha have fleets of Eagle transporters, a self-contained ecology, and absolutely NO fashion sense whatsoever…
What happened in the year 1999 of the show:
- According to the show, in September of 1999, nuclear dumping sites on the far side of the moon reach critical mass and explode, sending the moon hurling through deep space. The crew of Moonbase Alpha are thus stranded without their mother planet, and are on their own. They go from planet-to-planet (don’t ask how they do this at the ridiculously slow speeds of a planetary-sized mass), usually encountering snobbish aliens who essentially tell these pilgrims to get lost week after week.
What really happened in the year 1999:
- After December of 1972*, human beings never set foot upon the moon again (and probably won’t, at least for the foreseeable future). A real cosmic bummer. No moonbases, let alone toxic nuclear dumping sites. A few automated Soviet rovers in the 1970s (the Lunakhod series) and later on, a Chinese rover named Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”) have reached the moon, along with a few orbiters, but no Moonbase Alpha. And no tacky, bell-bottomed, tan-and-taupe uniforms either.
- George Lucas disappointed the world with “The Phantom Menace” (oops… wrong place for this)
- I married the love of my geeky life…
II. 2001. No Space Odyssey(?)
What was supposed to happen by the year 2001, according to the 1968 Stanley Kubrick masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey”:
- Video phones would be commonplace (^ “Hello squirt… where’s mommy?”).
- There would be a giant spoked-wheel design space station with a Hilton hotel and a Howard Johnson’s aboard. The station would also accommodate regular connecting shuttle flights from Earth to the moon. The station was not fully completed in the movie, but was “coming along nicely…”
- There would be fully manned (and huge) lunar bases; with at least one Soviet base (hehe… Soviet) and a US moonbase at Clavius (no, not Moonbase Alpha).
- Near the very-real Tycho crater, an ancient, rectangular monolith from an alien civilization would be unearthed and kept secret.
- A giant, bone-shaped space vessel called Discovery One would be sent on a half-billion mile voyage to Jupiter, along with a crew of five men (three of them in suspended animation) and the latest generation of supercomputer, the HAL 9000; which could effectively mimic human responses and emotions.
- The HAL 9000 would kill four of the five members of the Discovery crew, but would be effectively lobotomized by the surviving commander, Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea).
- Bowman would discover a giant monolith at Jupiter and disappear into it, only to reemerge in Earth orbit as a giant star-baby (I know, it sounds kinda WTF…but just see the movie, OK? Trust me… it’s amazing).
What really happened in the year 2001 (aside from the worst terrorist attack on US soil, a more somber topic for another forum):
- Video calling existed in 2001, but it was somewhat crude compared to modern Skype/FaceTime.
- The real ISS (international space station) was only partly assembled then (above left); it is completed now (above right), and has been more or less operational for over 18 years now. Doesn’t have a Howard Johnson’s or a Hilton, but it has booked a few tourists.
- Computers made incredible advances, with home computers becoming commonplace; and the internet rapidly evolving into the permanent fixture of world culture, commerce and communication that it is today. But those computers of 2001 would be considered utterly archaic and ridiculously obsolete today. Most desktop monitors were bulky, cathode-ray tube numbers. No flat screens. And certainly there were no sentient, ship-running, murdering HAL 9000s either. Though I’m convinced my last laptop (rest in pieces) tried to drive me insane before it died (an accident, I swear!).
- No moonbases (see: 1999)
- There would be unmanned probes at Jupiter, but no manned spacecraft (a living crew would have a very hard time in Jupiter’s intense radiation belts and magnetosphere anyway). Jupiter was visited by Pioneers 10,11 and Voyagers 1 and 2 in the 1970s. And by 2001, there was also the Galileo probe, launched from the space shuttle in 1989. It arrived at Jupiter in December of 1995 and remained operational until it was sent plunging (deliberately) into Jupiter’s atmosphere in September of 2003. It did surveys of the moons and made many discoveries of its own (despite a glitchy main antenna, which never fully unfurled). So yes, there was a probe at Jupiter in 2001, but alas… no monoliths or giant star babies.
III. 2010. The Year We Didn’t Make Contact.
There was a sequel to “2001” called “2010: The Year We Make Contact” (1984). The 1982 Arthur C. Clarke book it was based on was simply subtitled “Odyssey Two” (I prefer the simpler title). The sequel picks up 9 years after the failed Discovery mission with a Soviet-American crew aboard the Russian ship Alexei Leonov (named after the first spacewalker). They return to Jupiter to find out what happened to Discovery and her crew, and to see if the sleeping HAL 9000 computer can be safely resurrected.
“2010” was actually a solid science fiction film (one of the better ones of 1984), with beautiful special effects (the Io-Discovery spacewalk is still breathtaking) and a warmer, more emotional cast (led by the late Roy Scheider, Helen Mirren and John Lithgow, with an extended cameo by 2001 star Keir Dullea).
What happened in 2010 according to “2010”:
- The US president is referred to by the NCA chairman (National Council of Astronautics) as a ‘reactionary’ who’s not into ‘health foods.’
- An electric car is heard whizzing by a beach as Heywood Floyd jogs with his young son.
- Floyd has a house built over the pacific ocean, with regular visits from dolphins.
- The Russians are still Soviet.
- The Soviets build the spaceship Leonov; with a giant, mid-section of the hull constantly rotating to simulate gravity.
- Chlorophyl-based life is discovered on the icy Jovian moon of Europa.
- The HAL 9000 computer of the USS Discovery is still more advanced than the computers used aboard her Russian counterpart Leonov, even after 9 years (!).
- The giant, orbiting monolith at Jupiter is absorbed into the planet, multiplies into millions of new monoliths, increases Jupiter’s overall mass and eventually turns the gas giant into a miniature sun.
- Earth is now a world with two suns in the sky, and no darkness at night.
What really happened in the year 2010:
- The US president of 2010 is Barack Obama, who is not a reactionary (more of a centrist) and a fairly healthy guy, despite a longtime struggle with smoking. He was also the first African-American president in US history.
- Electric hybrid cars are officially a thing; using combination electric and gas motors. The Toyota Prius was the big pioneer in this field. Most manufacturers today create hybrid cars. There are also the all-electric Teslas, but they are prohibitively expensive.
- Dolphins aren’t exactly family pets yet, nor are they likely to be in the near-future.
- The Russians officially stopped being Soviet in the year 1991, a year which saw the breakup of the Soviet Union (no one saw that coming in 1984).
- No giant manned Russian spaceships to Jupiter, though they are currently partners in the International Space Station (ISS), along with the ESA (European Space Agency). Also includes associate memberships of the UK, Canada, and Japan. The Chinese are going it alone with their own space station (in Clarke’s book “2010: Odyssey Two”, the Chinese ship Tsien reached Europa first, but with tragic results).
- No life is discovered on Jupiter’s moon of Europa, however, the Galileo spacecraft has confirmed the existence of a huge briny ocean below the icy surface of that moon. NASA is planning a return to Europa someday.
- In 2010, Russian computers are about as advanced as their American counterparts.
- Jupiter doesn’t turn into a second sun (which would arguably be a disaster for the entire solar system, let alone Earth).
- Earth still has but one sun… though it IS getting a bit warm down here.
IV: 2015. Specifically, October 21, 2015… back to the future.
SO MANY WEBSITES have already chronicled how “Back to the Future 2” (1989) chronicled the ‘future’ of October 21st, 2015, so rather than repeat their predictions-vs-realities word for word? I’ll just link to a nice comparison I found in The NY Daily News:
Just wanted to add that the so-called ‘hoverboards’ we have today do NOT hover. They are, in fact, little more than easily-combustible scooters.
But the flatscreen TVs are pretty sweet. No word yet on flying car technology though. And last time I checked? The skyways were pretty clear.
Also of note: The movie’s villain, Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) who turns Hill Valley into his personal Las Vegas, was actually based loosely on current real-life (and recently sworn-in) US president Donald J. Trump (!). Rollingstone.com
^ How I sincerely wish that last paragraph were fiction.
I’d also like to throw in one of my other favorite ‘near-future’ films, the 1982 classic “Blade Runner,” which took place in the year 2019 (2 years from now):
V. The era of the Nexus 6….
What happened in the 2019 of “Blade Runner”:
- Off-world colonies exist (not sure which planets those colonies exist on, but they exist… so there).
- Blimps hover ominously over Los Angeles, repeatedly promoting “a new life” on the off-world colonies.
- Flying cars called ‘spinners’ are fairly commonplace, but are used mostly by the police.
- Los Angeles of 2019 is drenched in a near constant downpour of acid rain, and factories belch fire and pollutants like latter-day dragons.
- Asian-noodle ads are on giant LED screens, which are mounted on the sides of skyscrapers.
- Vid-phons replaced the phone booth (which were still common in 1982).
- Replicants, synthetic humans, mimic human form down to the cellular level. They are manufactured by the Tyrell Corporation and are used as slaves, soldiers and ‘pleasure models’ on the off-world colonies, but are strictly prohibited on Earth.
- The Voigt-Kampf test is similar to the Turing Test, but is used to gauge emotional responses, rather than sentience.
- Animals like owls and snakes are very rare in 2019; the ones in the film are synthetic.
- Los Angeles has a new sub tongue; “Streetspeak” (a mishmash of Spanish, Japanese and other languages/dialects).
What’s most likely to happen in two years:
- No off-world colonies, though Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation and the Dutch group Mars One are still working to have the first Martian colony up and running sometime in the 2020s. I wish them lotsa luck, but I don’t think it’ll happen.
- Blimps are mainly relegated to football games. Not seen over Los Angeles very often.
- No flying cars. The helicopter is still the hover-transport of choice for Los Angeles.
- ^ Acid rain is a reality, but strict environmental reforms in California over the last few decades have reversed some of the worst of our pollution problems. Hybrid vehicles with fewer emissions are also catching on. Here’s hoping our clean-air protocols stay in place and are only strengthened in the years to come.
- Giant LED advertisement screens on sides of buildings are real, at least in major cities like New York and Los Angeles; I’ve seen them in both. No Asian noodle company ads, but I have seen a few for Japanese/Korean import cars and electronics.
- Vid-phons never happened, as personal cell phones are mostly capable of Skype and/or FaceTime apps. And no need for public booths, as they fit in your purse or pocket.
- No replicants. In fact, humanoid animatronics are about the closest we have to replicants, and they’re mainly used for entertainment.
- No Voigt-Kampf tests needed, since we’ve no replicants to test them on; let alone gauge their emotional responses…
- Animals ARE becoming increasingly rare; world wildlife estimates say roughly 2/3rds of all animal life on Earth could be extinct by 2020 (!). This is a prediction that “Blade Runner” got all too right, I’m afraid.
- Los Angeles has many foreign languages and “Little” districts (Little Tokyo, Little Saigon, Little Russia, etc). And while slang is increasingly complex (at least to old farts like me), it’s not become “Streetspeak” just yet…
So now that we’re actually IN the future, or at least the future envisioned in sci-fi movies of my younger days, it’s clear this future is a hodgepodge of many visions. Some things have come true, many have not. Most of these cinematic prophecies haven’t been realized as they were forecast onscreen, but they have became reality nevertheless.
The question is, what kind of future lies ahead for us? Will it be a Star Trek-style utopia where everyone lives in harmony as we unite to explore space, or will we be killing each other in thunderdomes over the last barrels of gasoline or water? I honestly don’t know. I suspect some awkward combination of both. I believe the future, like today, will be the same perverse dynamic of future chic and ongoing barbarism.
But as a science fiction fan? I guess I’m also a bit predisposed towards optimism. As “Back to the Future”‘s Doc Brown (Chris Lloyd) says…
^ Best advice yet.