Books

You Call This the Future? by Nick Sagan, Mark Frary, Andy Walker

Raymond Cummings

The authors seize on our lingering disappointment in the past's prediction of the gadgets we'd have in the future (that is, now) with this user-friendly book; a 'where are they now?' revisiting of future myths.


You Call This the Future?

Publisher: Chicago Review
Subtitle: The Greatest Inventions Sci-Fi Imagined and Science Promised
Author: Andy Walker
Price: $14.95
Display Artist: Nick Sagan, Mark Frary, Andy Walker
Length: 160
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 1556526857
US publication date: 2008-04
Amazon

Remember the late 20th Century? Tipsy on evening newsmagazine programs promising electric cars and talking VCRs and popular entertainments propogating the possibilities of hover boards, evil clones, and deep space travel (cf. the Back to the Future trilogy, the Star Trek franchise, Blade Runner), we were gradually conditioned to envision the present millenium as an era of extensive technological advancement. Reality hasn't quite lived up to our overinflated expectations: laser-based weaponry isn't available at gun shows, virtual-reality addiction clinics don't exist, and no-one's colonized Mars, yet.

Alongside journalists Mark Frary and Andy Walker, sci-fi writer Nick Sagan (son of astronomer Carl) seizes on this lingering, irrational sense of disappointment with the user-friendly You Call This The Future?, a through-and-through 'where are they now?' revisiting of future myths. Each sub-chapter is presented in four parts: the scientific history of whichever subject is at hand, a summary of how close a given technology is to fruition, science-fiction/pop culture referents, and a technical explanation of one sort or another penned in straightforward layman's terms.

With its charts, illustrations, and screenshots broken up by generous helpings of white space and its text chopped into short paragraphs, You Call This The Future? feels unabashedly modern, accommodating to the short-attention-span multitudes: one can easily breeze through the book in an hour or two. The overall authorial tone is sober and direct, with just the slightest tinge of snark.

Unsurprisingly, Frary, Walker, and Sagan spend most of their time filling us in on stuff that hasn't happened just yet or hasn't become commonplace for various reasons. Warp drives and antimatter engines that'll help us escape the bounds of our solar system? No dice. 'Manufacturing antimatter in particle accelerators in physics laboratories is expensive: the 10 milligrams needed to fuel a Mars mission would cost about $250 million. Meanwhile, the antimatter/matter reaction produced deadly radioactive gamma rays, which would lethally irradiate any passengers long before they reached their destination.'

Videophone technology exists, but failed commercially. U.S.S. Enterprise -esque forcefields are still in the works. Not only are hydrogen peroxide-fueled jet packs dangerous and expensive, but 'it's simply not possible to carry enough fuel to fly for more than 30 seconds, with a maximum range of 800 feet.' Time travel's stuck in the theoretical stage; invisibility is, too, unless we're talking about the ability of some aircraft to evade radar detection. Though teleportation is possible -- scientists have accomplished this feat with molecules -- at present the process consists of destroying what's being sent and creating a sort of Xerox copy, which presents obvious problems if we were to teleport humans.

Yet hope springs eternal and some innovations are going places: flying cars do exist, and if you've got a spare $500,000, you can probably get on the waiting list for a Moller M400 Skycar. If that price is too steep, there's always the $90,000 Moller M200G flying saucer: 'It cruises at 10 feet above the ground and can speed over difficult terrain such as swampland or rocky streambeds at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour.'

Richard 'Virgin' Branson will take you to the edge of space for $200,000 on one of hus Gulfstream-sized shuttles. Cost is the elephant in the Future room; until demand for these unusual products and services increases, they'll remain beyond the reach of the average consumer. For mere mortals, the proliferation of pocket computers did come to pass, in the form of Blackberries and PDAs -- it's possible you're using one to read this review.

Millions of cyborgs existed on our planet even before the current millennium began, outfitted with pacemakers and other internal medical devices. You can purchase robot pets, even if they're a bit dim and more like glorified toys. Household robot helpers? Not so much, unless one factors in those scooting Roomba vacuum discs.

As informative and nostalgia-inducing as You Call This the Future? can often be -- honestly, this writer had forgotten all about Minority Report's grim vision of tomorrow, the world-expanding thrill of reading H.G. Wells' The Time Machine for the first time, and National Geographic's fact-filled, mindblowing Our Universe coffeetable slab -- one is left wanting something a little more in-depth than provided here.

Maybe that's the point, secretly; perhaps this book is meant to push readers in the direction of longer studies of underrealized technological achievements. There's gotta be a 500-page, footnote-riddled history of the flying car out there somewhere, right?

5
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