Chicon 2000

Radio Skates

Rev. 15-Sep-1999
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Radio Skates, Teletheatres, and Rocket Jockeys

by Bill Higgins

The preface to Lester del Rey's 1953 novel Rocket Jockey contains one of science fiction's most astonishing predictions. Writing under the pseudonym "Philip St. John," del Rey correctly predicted the name of the first man to walk on the Moon! He also predicted the astronaut's first words:

"When Major Armstrong landed on the Moon in 1964 his first words over the radar to Earth were `Who won the Indianapolis Classic?'"

Oh, well, even the best prophets can't be accurate 100% of the time.

As Rocket Jockey illustrates, science fiction's record at predicting the future is, at best, spotty. SF stories are not about what will happen, they're about what might happen. You and I understand this, but it's not always clear to the rest of the world. Nevertheless, I enjoy the guilty pleasure of comparing the developments in SF stories to those in the so-called real world.

Hugo Gernsback -- the guy who gave SF its name -- was as gadget-happy as anyone who has ever written the stuff. In the early days of radio, he published magazines for electrical hobbyists, and sometimes wrote fiction for the amusement of his readers. His best-remembered novel, Ralph 124C41+, is crammed with speculations about technology.

Hugo's most famous hit: The eponymous Ralph uses reflected radio waves to learn the distance and location of the bad guy's spaceship, anticipating the invention that warned British interceptors of Luftwaffe bomber attacks 28 years after the story's publication.

The book also describes restaurants which serve food exclusively in liquid form, through hoses running to each patron's seat. Rocket ships have runningboards. And commuters zoom through the metal streets of the Big Apple on motorized roller skates powered by titanic radio transmitters. (Gernsback had more uses for radio than George Washington Carver had for the peanut.) Seems unlikely now.

But another success in Ralph 124C41+ appears as Ralph shows his girlfriend what we would today call his "home entertainment center."

Theatregoers of the past, he explains, "if they did not happen to like the production, had either to sit all through it or else go home. They probably would have rejoiced at the ease of our Tele-Theaters, where we can switch from one play to another in five seconds, until we find the one that suits us best."

Hugo could have been describing my living room at the end of the 1990s. Except that electronic wizardry allows me to switch from one play to another in a fifth of a second, sometimes to the dismay of my wife. Fortunately, I know better than to try this when Xena is on.

Other stories have used certain inventions as props for so long that we're all expecting them to appear any day now. For example, cities of the future always seem to have swarms of flying cars. Some of those stories were decades old when I read them as a kid. At some point I noticed that we had advanced fairly far into the future, and there was a notable shortage of flying cars.

I investigated this. The first Chicagoan to commute by air was Harold McCormick, who used Lake Michigan as a handy runway for his 1913-model seaplane, hopping the 28 miles from his Evanston home to the downtown Chicago Yacht Club in minutes, then strolling to the office. This is way better than radio-powered roller skates.

It turns out that the technology to make a flying car has been with us since the first workable types were built in the 1930s. Some models folded their wings, others detached the car and left the wings at the airport, others used rotors to land vertically. Several were quite good. None of the inventors was able to muster the money to go into mass production.

Maybe it's the costly maintenance, maybe it's the piloting skill they'd require, maybe it's the compromises the designers must make between a good car and a good aircraft. For whatever reasons, the "roadable aircraft" has never become a commonplace. It may belong to the past, rather than the future.

Ignoring these inconvenient facts, SF writers continue blithely to fill their fictional skies with aircars. A tiny group of engineers and pilots meets every year in Oshkosh to discuss their designs for future flying cars, so there may yet be hope.

The SF prediction that's chilled me recently is Fritz Leiber's 1954 story "The Creature from Cleveland Depths." The Tickler begins as a gadget for playing back recorded sound-memos at pre-set times, to remind its user of appointments and such. As subsequent models develop, Ticklers acquire more features, and become so useful that sales grow explosively. Everybody needs one.

More and more of my friends are buying Palm Pilot "personal digital assistants." They're getting bleeped at just before appointments. They're shooting data on infrared beams. They're modifying their own handwriting to satisfy the device's word-recognition software. They're reading bedtime stories to their kids from its electroluminescent screen.

As I watch this, I think of the glassy-eyed inhabitants of Leiber's Cleveland Depths. Their Ticklers whisper upbeat motivational messages and inject mood-altering drugs into users' bloodstreams to improve productivity. They are zombies completely under the control of the machines they love.

Hope this is one prediction that doesn't prove accurate.

But some folks at MIT are saying that "wearable computing" is the next big trend... hmmm.

Stay tuned.

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