Thirteen Notes for Another Future Passed

So science fiction doesn't predict the future, its visions of tomorrow can still be filled with beauty

<i>Motor Car No.9 (without tail fin)</i>, ca. 1933
Motor Car No.9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933

1) In April of 1926, the first issue of Hugo Gerns­back's Amazing Stories – the first magazine dedicated entirely to science fiction – hit the pulp-bearing newsstands. Never mind that radio engineer Gernsback preferred to call these technology-fetishizing narratives "scientifiction," just note that the periodical hit a certain pleasure center in the ur-geek zeitgeist and flourished along with, eventually, many others. And about half a dozen of those others? Also published by Gernsback.

2) In 1927, successful theatre set designer Norman Bel Geddes opened an industrial design studio and began smoothing out the more complicated jags and rounding the speed-reducing corners of Jazz Age Art Deco. In 1932, he published Horizons, a sort of extended manifesto replete with drawings, models, and photos of his many industrial innovations; the book helped to amplify the streamlining trend he'd introduced. And then Bel Geddes designed an exhibition called Futurama for the General Motors Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair.

3) "We are all interested in the future, for that is where we will spend the rest of our lives!" The hokey prognosticator Criswell – Criswell Predicts! – says this as a character in Tim Burton's 1994 biopic Ed Wood, as the actual Criswell may well have said it in real life. Either of them were cribbing from the voiceover of "To New Horizons," a short film from General Motors that documented 1939's Futurama exhibition. "With new agriculture and industry," the voiceover says, "with new forms of education and recreation, a new world is constantly opening before us at an ever-accelerating rate of progress. A greater world. A better world. A world which will always grow forward." Criswell, too, was often off-target.

4) The 1981 science-fiction anthology Universe 11, edited by Terry Carr, included "The Gernsback Continuum," a short story by William Gibson. The story concerns a contemporary man haunted by visions of a utopian future that had never come to pass – a can-do future of immense multilane highways and soaring architecture and giant zeppelins and flying wings, a fully machined and streamlined future such as those championed by Gernsback's writers and illustrators in fiction, designed by Norman Bel Geddes and others for the real-life marketplace, and vigorously promoted by General Motors, RCA, General Electric, AT&T, and their corporate ilk.

5) "By 'scientifiction,'" Gernsback wrote in his editorial for that first issue of Amazing Stories, "I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision."

Aerial view of Bel Geddes' flying car over model neighborhood, ca. 1945
Aerial view of Bel Geddes' flying car over model neighborhood, ca. 1945

6) "By looking into the future and using a little imagination, vision, and courage," Bel Geddes wrote in Horizons, "we can attain results that will mean untold savings for future generations."

7) What are the reports generated by "futurists" in government think tanks or by writers and designers in the R&D departments of big-business concerns, other than "scientific fact and prophetic vision" without any bothersome "charming romance" to distract the audience?

8) In 1949, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was published. In 1984, William Gibson's Neuro­mancer was published. In 2012, I interviewed Gibson (who originally coined the term "cyberspace"), who reiterated that science fiction, and especially his, doesn't really predict the future.

9) I predict that you will have read the previous paragraph before reading this one. Kiss me, baby, I'm psychic.

10) Three propositions: 1) Science fiction often promotes new technology because the people who tend to write and/or revere it are just, well, really into new technology. 2) Big business often promotes new technology because, well, that's where a lot of money is. 3) If love is blind, generally, then the love of money has had its eyes sewn shut and the visual cortex of its brain destroyed.

11) The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley.

12) There's a chambered nautilus somewhere, but it's really a vision of the future. And the particular future that it is never comes to pass, and, in the fullness of time, the nautilus dies. And yet there is such incredible beauty in a room – or a museum, say – filled with empty nautilus shells.

13) Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul.

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Norman Bel Geddes, 'I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America', Ransom Center, Flair Symposium, futurism

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