Sci Fi writers have it tough. They are tasked with creating believable depictions of life following a number of massive scientific breakthroughs. They have to predict the future, and be entertaining doing it. Think of Nostradamus having to not only make sure that his nifty little quatrains seemed likely, but set them to rockin’ music too. Tricky stuff. Since the job is so hard, we can overlook it if some of the more drastic concepts don’t hit the mark. Okay, so we don’t eat dehydrated food pills. Fine, we aren’t all wearing awesome silver jumpsuits. We can let these things go because they were cool, but what about the other stuff? The obvious stuff? Sometimes a Sci Fi writer will completely and flawlessly predict something like satellite communication but miss something that, in hindsight, seems obvious and simple. As tends to be the case in fiction, we the viewers can swallow the big stuff, but choke on the small stuff. And in anticipation of the flood of furious corrections and such this is likely to spur, let me just specify that I’m talking the Sci Fi of old. The 50’s and 60’s stuff. And I’m also talking about mainstream stuff, which is defined, as always, as the stuff I’ve seen and read.
The launching point for this analysis was the Jetsons. They have flying cars. Awesome. The cars fold up into suitcases. More awesome. The suitcases don’t have shoulder straps… wait a minute. If we are going for ease of use, you can’t beat the shoulder strap. I mean, look at laptop bags. I challenge you to find one without at least one strap. Somehow these cartoonists were able to devise the ultimate in convenient transportation, but couldn’t take that last step to making it hands-free afterwards. Slowly, other missing elements began to emerge. Watch a count down in a Sci Fi movie from the 60s. You are going to see a LOT of second hands. This movie is set ALL THE WAY IN THE YEAR 2000, and yet no one predicted there might be a digital watch by then. It isn’t like they hadn’t thought of it. They had those weird clocks with the flap that falls to show the time in numbers. It was only one little step to get to digital, but no. In the future envisioned by these writers, we would have robots winding our watches for us.
Another thing missing from the old future is cell phones. Oh, sure, we have future walkie talkies. We have video phones. Heck, we might even have holograms. But rare is the writer who predicted that virtually everyone in an urban area would carry their own phone with them. So we see Harrison Ford in Blade Runner jog over and place a call in a video phone booth. A video phone booth with a CRT in it, might I add. No one really saw LCDs or plasmas coming, apparently. The odd flat TV might show up, but it is usually a HUGE one, like a movie screen or something taking up a whole wall. The average everyday display is still on the good old cathode ray tube. This gets especially hilarious on things like the Tricorder of Star Trek fame. In the Original Series we see Spock walking around with something the size of a hefty purse (on a shoulder strap, proving the world has advanced at least somewhat since the Jetsons at this point) with a little three inch CRT on it. You can tell, because the screen is rounded. Strangely there WERE flat screen TVs in Enterprise, despite it taking place BEFORE The Original Series by over… you know what? I’m going to stop the Trek talk here before I completely destroy any chances of being touched by a woman again.
The Internet is kind of a tricky one here. Obviously they don’t have something called the Internet, because you can hardly expect the writers to predict the name. Often, though, you will find the concept of a computer network upon which everything you might need to know is stored. What they didn’t see coming is the RECREATIONAL Internet. The Sci Fi Internet is a big electric encyclopedia filled with absolutely trustworthy reference material. The real Internet is at least 80% boobs. The remaining 20% is divided between reference material, made-up reference material, rumors, gossip, pop culture, arguments, and humorous pictures of cats. In a genre almost defined by imagining that man will travel a slippery slope of misusing technology, somehow rick-rolling slipped through the cracks.
Lighting tech didn’t really progress as quickly in Sci Fi as in the real world, either. I’ve seen plenty shots of space explorers walking along with an almost hilariously traditional flashlight. This is probably because the furthest lighting tech is likely to get according to the Sci Fi visionaries of old is flickery florescent. We may have deflector shields, but hit us with a photon torpedo and those lights are going to rattle in their sockets and blink until you either give them a good whack or press some buttons on your ludicrously enormous keyboard. The graphical user interface wasn’t foreseen either, apparently. There are no mice, and no touch screens. Instead, we get the all powerful voice interface, which is better at understanding us than in the real world, but often much worse at speaking than in the real world. They actually managed to get BOTH halves of that one wrong.
Voice interfaces bring us to the things that they predicted but totally overestimated the popularity of. Sliding doors for instance. Sliding doors are EVERYWHERE in Sci Fi. Every door goes PHSSSHHH before it opens. Which is odd, because you’d think by now they’d have gotten them whisper quiet, but no. We’ve got 100 dB door noises in our nursery. It turns out that now that the future is here, you only get sliding doors in convenience stores, hospitals, and air ports. Which brings me to another prediction. Moving sidewalks. Sci Fi writers would have us believe that in the future you never have to WALK anywhere. The ground just moves you where you want to go. For some reason, though, this particular convenience is ALSO limited only to airports.
That leads me neatly to the final thing that none of these Sci Fi writers seemed to see coming. Obesity. All of them are positively dedicated to showing the labor saving devices and lives of idyllic ease ushered in by advanced technology, but none seemed aware that sitting around not doing anything would lead to a society of hulking mounds of ambulatory cellulite, scooting around on motorized chairs and gulping down fried cheese. Heck, it is a good thing they were wrong about those food pills. Can you imagine what kind of a shape we’d be in if you could shovel down a handful of chocolate sundaes, or a big heaping bowl of meat lover’s pizzas? I already eat M&Ms; by the handful. If each of those was the nutritional equivalent to a bucket of fried chicken I wouldn’t NEED a digital watch. I could track the passage of time by how many heart attacks I’ve had that day. The sidewalk would move and my blood wouldn’t.
Hopefully this will serve as a motivation to aspiring Sci Fi writers of today to be a little more detail oriented. Shooting aliens with laser guns makes for a great story, but having the hero pause to tie their shoe because Velcro never came to fruition can be a stumbling block for future generations. Take a look at the little problems and make up solutions to those too. What will we be using in the future instead of toilet paper? Will we come up with something better than the condom? How will showers become obsolete? What is the next exciting space condiment? In the long run, considering these things will lead to a more thorough appreciation of your art in the years to come. In the short run, you might come up with the idea that leads to the anti-facial hair pill. And get a move on, will you? I’m getting sick of razor rash.