Future events such as these

iPad connected to TV to show facetime on large screen.
Jared attending an editorial meeting via FaceTime. (Click to embiggen)
I like living in the future.

We had an editorial board meeting last night, and it being busy, crazy summertime, we almost didn’t have quorum. Fortunately, Jared was able to join us via FaceTime. We’ve done it a couple of times before, propping up my iPad so the person could see most of us. Chuck thought we should do it on the big screen, and I almost never hook the iPad up to the TV, so we did.

Now the future hasn’t quite turned out as we were promised. If I mention “flying cars” certain people will snarkily repeat a meme that’s been going around lately. The first variant I saw was, “Unless you’re 60 or older, you weren’t promised flying cars. You were promised an oppressive cyberpunk dystopia.”

That’s simply wrong, on many, many levels. The “we were promised {fill in the blank} in the future!” is a reference to things we learned during our childhood from popular culture about what the future would be like. The first appearance of cyberpunk, in any way, shape, or form, was the 1980 novel Web of Angels, by John M. Ford. Therefore, a person who is 59 now, would have been 26 years old when the first hint of a cyberpunk dystopia could have appeared in any popular culture. Twenty-six is not childhood.

The Jetsons, broadcast Sunday nights from 1962-63, reruns Saturday mornings from 1964-73.
The Jetsons, broadcast Sunday nights from 1962-63, reruns Saturday mornings from 1964-73.
I’m still a half-dozen years below 59, and I can assure you that my childhood pop culture did, indeed, promise me flying cars.

The Jetsons was the first show to be broadcast in color on ABC-TV. A cartoon set 100 years in the future, the show ran during primetime beginning in 1962. That’s right, it was not meant to be a children’s show. After it complete its primetime run, the existing episodes were re-run as a Saturday morning cartoon for nearly 10 years. The screen shot is a frame from the opening seconds of the opening theme song of the show. Right there, flying cars. The show depicted a fairly utopian future, with robot maids, devices that could create an entire new outfit, on your body, in seconds, and so forth.

If your childhood included any of the years from 1962-1974, you were, indeed promised flying cars. If we assume one needs to be a minimum of four years old to recall a television series, that means anyone 43 or older can legitimately claim that The Jetsons, at least, promised them a utopian flying cars future.

Jonny Quest floats in midair wearing a jet backpack.
Jonny Quest flying in a jet pack (some of his villains had flying cars).
That time period also included the iconic TV series Lost in Space, the original Star Trek, and Johnny Quest. Not to mention such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey. They didn’t all have flying cars (some had transporters—even better!), but their futures are each the opposite of an oppressive cyberpunk dystopia.

But let’s loop back to that first cyberpunk book. How many people who know what cyberpunk is have even heard of Web of Angels? Most people think of cyberpunk as beginning with either Blade Runner (1982) or Neuromancer (1984). And while Blade Runner is the greatest movie ever made, bar none, the sad truth is it didn’t do well in theaters the first time, and didn’t start developing a cult following until it started appearing on cable in late 1983. So I’m going to say that the beginning of the switch-over to cyberpunk dystopias becoming dominant in pop culture was 1984.

That means 1983 is the last year in which the flying car utopia was promised as a future to kids, so anyone who was at least four in 1983 would be the actual cut-off age, rather than 60, so that means the meme should state: “Unless you’re 34 or older, you weren’t promised flying cars. You were promised an oppressive cyberpunk dystopia.”

Movie poster from 1985's Back to the Future.
Marty McFly, trying to get back to the future…
But wait! That calculation assumes a very simple binary situation. Cyberpunk dystopias became one possible future in 1984, but it wasn’t the only one. Because in 1985 we got Back to the Future! While the movie primarily follows the adventures of our young hero, Marty McFly, trapped in the 1950s in a time traveling car, trying not to screw up his own future before getting back to his own time. At the end of the movie, Doc Brown goes 30 years into the future, and then comes back, showing off a much upgraded version of the time-traveling car. So, as my friend, Matt, pointed out, if your formative years include Back to the Future, then not only were you promised flying cars, you were promised time-traveling fusion-powered flying cars fueled by household garbage!

So, no, we were promised flying cars!

I’ve had more than one person bring up the fact that Blade Runner had flying cars. I know that. When I said that Blade Runner was the greatest movie ever? Implicit in that statement is the fact that I owned several different cuts on VHS back in the day, and I watched at least two of the tapes so many times that they wore out. I am well aware of the flying cars in Blade Runner. But as I explained on Twitter, the invalidity of the assertion of a dichotomy between flying cars and cyberpunk dystopias is worthy of a posting of its own.

5 thoughts on “Future events such as these

  1. Interesting. I’ve never actually heard of Web of Angels… definitely will have to look that one up. It even predates the initial publication of “True Names” by Vernor Vinge.

    1. It’s tricky.

      Despite my use of the phrase “in any way, shape, or form” arguments can be made for earlier works being the real beginning (some of J.G. Ballard’s work, for instance, though I think he is more rightly described as a critical forebear of cyberpunk)

      I, myself, have argued that the “punk” half of cyberpunk first entered literature when Charles Dickens wrote, Our Mutual Friend and Hard Times, with their depiction of the de-humanizing effect of industrialization, and the industrialization of “charity.” But there was absolutely no cyber in Dickens’s 1850s work, of course. ^_^

      1. I knew that Ballard had done some proto-cyberpunk… and I’ve been trying to remember another book I read that did the same. Written, I think, in the 1970s and I keep wanting to say it was Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick, but I’m not really positive. Or wait… was it one by Alfred Bester? And, of course, all of our books are still packed so I can’t easily look it up.

        1. Bester’s sensibilities definitely leaned pretty heavily in the direction that would become cyberpunk. Philip K. Dick and Thomas Disch (Disch’s 334 especially) as well, of course. And Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said used a lot of themes (including a completely non-digital form of personal erasure) that characterize cyberpunk.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.