Top 10 Things Science Fiction Promised Us That Didn’t Happen in 2010

The Jetsons

Image © Warner Bros. Animation

Science fiction makes a lot of predictions about the future — that’s really the point, isn’t it? The best science fiction looks at the future, trying to see where we are headed and what it will be like when we get there. Some authors are so good at this it seems as though they actually are able to peer into the future (even if only through a scanner darkly) and tell stories of what is to come. But even the best sci-fi has, over the years, gotten a lot wrong about what was the future when it was written.

2010 is almost over, and I thought it would be an appropriate time to look at a few things that were supposed to happen (or have happened) by this year, but didn’t.

  1. Flying Cars — This is a popular one to gripe about, but I’ve got bad news for you: it ain’t ever gonna happen. It’s not that flying cars are technically impossible, but they are socially impossible. I have little doubt that if our best and brightest applied themselves to the task, we could mass-produce personal travel devices that would allow us to rise off the ground and zoom through the air just like George Jetson. But imagine a world where the millions of cars on the road are replaced by millions of flying cars, or, should I say, millions of potential flying bombs. Even if we were to create some system that automatically forces cars to avoid buildings, how long before some moron with a beef against a particular government, philosophy, or just against sanity in general hacks that system and heads towards the closest sky scraper in a flying car packed with C4 explosive? No thanks, I’ll stick to the ground.
  2. A Moon Base — We were supposed to have Moon Base Alpha by 1999, or at least by 2001, but for sure by 2010. That didn’t happen. What did happen in 2010 was some unmanned moon landings (deliberate crashes, really) that provided new evidence that it might be technically possible and financially rewarding one-day to establish a permanent (but small) outpost on our lonely satellite. Well, I guess that’s something. The goalpost for a working Moon base has now been pushed all the way to 2069, according to a recent design challenge from Shift Boston. I’ll be 101 years old in 2069, so I just hope we have anti-aging pills soon.
  3. Anti-Aging Pills — Although you can not yet pop a pill and stay 36 forever, the possibility of arresting or reversing aging is looking promising. New advances in unlikely places such as nano-technology are pointing to ways that we might ingest little robots that rebuild our systems from within. But nano-bots are also the bane of a lot of sci-fi stories, turning the world into a mass of gray goo.
  4. Trips to Jupiter — Zooming off to planets far was a staple of 1950s sci-fi. What’s changed in the nearly-50 years since Yuri Gagarin took the first off-planet jaunt is that we learned space is a really inhospitable climate. No air, no water, no heat, no gravity and no magnetosphere leads to dead humans. And recreating all of this in a portable format has proven far more elusive than the dreamers of the golden-age of sci-fi first thought. Even the more realistic versions shown in 2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequel 2010: Odyssey Two may be centuries away.
  5. Nuclear Holocaust — OK, so it’s a good thing this one didn’t happen, obviously, but when I was a child in the 1970s, it seemed like a high probability. Growing up with the specter of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction, for anyone too young to remember it) looming over you was a way of life that we hoped no one was mad enough to test. The made-for-TV movie The Day After scared the hell out of me when I was a teen. But no one would have guessed in 1980 that by the end of the decade the Soviet Union would no longer exist. The nuclear threat may not have disappeared with it; however, the constant specter of nuclear holocaust has, if not disappeared, at least become less of a daily concern.
  6. Virtual Reality — Sure, we have Second Life, World of Warcraft and Toy Story 3D, but the truly immersive user interface that is virtual reality is still just a dream. There’s some promising work being done with wearable computing, but its still a long way from being able to jack your cranium straight into the net as in Neuromancer, or even hacking your optic nerve with VR goggles as in Snow Crash.
  7. AI Robot Butlers & Self-Driving Cars — I want my piña colada served to me on the veranda at the perfect temperature by a slave robot. I want to be chauffeured around the city at night in my high speed luxury electric car while it reads to me the news of the day customized to my unique interests. I want all of this and I want it all guilt free. Oh sure, I can get a Roomba to vacuum my house or a Lexus which can park itself, but that’s not really the same thing, is it.
  8. Computer Overlords — On the up side, none of the non-existent robot butlers and self-aware cars have risen up to overthrow their human oppressors and imprison them in The Matrix. We’ll call this one and #7 even.
  9. Commercial Supersonic Air Travel — We actually had this mode of travel, but lost it in 2003 with the last flight of the Concorde (although we did get a very funny semi-eponymous TV show). There is some movement to bring back supersonic commercial flights, but I suspect you’ll be buying tickets to Moon Base Alpha before you are buying supersonic airplane tickets again.
  10. Cheap, Clean, and Unlimited Energy — Nikola Tesla’s dream of free and unlimited electricity seems even more impossible today than when he first proposed it in the early 20th century. Many of the wars on this small blue marble we call home are in large or small part over energy resources. Global climate change is intrinsically linked to the ways in which we produce energy. Whether it’s gas for your car or electricity for your house, we all spend a lot of money on energy. A limitless, non-polluting, inexpensive (or even free) energy source could completely transform humanity, taking us out of the energy dark age we live in now, and leading to a true peace on Earth and good will between all mankind. That’s my wintertime wish for the future. Do you have one?

Later this week: 10 for ‘10: 10 things sci-fi promised that DID happen in (or by) 2010.