July 23, 2012
In 1985, author Orson Scott Card made a name for himself with the publication of his now-classic science fiction novel Ender’s Game. His book would go on to win the 1985 Nebula Award for best novel, the 1986 Hugo Award for best novel and would become required reading around the world (I remember reading it in a middle school English class).
But Card is perhaps better known today for his socially conservative political activism. The celebrated author is a National Organization for Marriage board member and has repeatedly spoken out against same-sex marriage, most recently supporting North Carolina’s controversial Amendment One.
Two years after the publication of Ender’s Game, Card contributed to a time capsule which was compiled by the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest and filled with predictions for the future. Specifically, the organizers asked contributors, “What will life be like in the year 2012?” The 1987 time capsule was opened this past April in Los Angeles and included contributions not only from Card, but 23 other science fiction writers, including Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, and Jack Williamson.
However you interpret Card’s 1987 predictions ideologically, his vision of the future seems pessimistic to say the least—including worldwide economic collapse and human life without leisure. You can read his time capsule entry in its entirety below.
We must count ourselves lucky if anyone has leisure enough in 2012 to open this time capsule and care what is inside. In 2012 Americans will see the collapse of Imperial America, the Pax Americana, as having ended with our loss of national will and national selflessness in the 1970s. Worldwide economic collapse will have cost America its dominant world role; but it will not result in Russian hegemony; their economy is too dependent on the world economy to maintain an irresistible military force. A new world order will emerge from famine, disease, and social dislocations. The re-tribalization of Africa, the destruction of the illusion of Islamic unity, the struggle between aristocracy and proletariat in Latin America — without the financial support of the industrialized nations, the old order will be gone. The changes will be great as those emerging from the fall of Rome, with new power centers emerging wherever stability and security are established. The homogeneity of Israel will probably allow it to survive; Mexico and Japan may change rulers, but they will still be strong. If America is to recover, we must stop pretending to be what we were in 1950, and reorder our values away from pursuit of privilege.
The location of the time capsule ceremony points to how much can radically change in 25 short years. The ceremony took place in April 1987 at the Windows on the World restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, which was destroyed by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The time capsule was kept in a bank vault until it was opened at a ceremony this past April in Los Angeles.
We can probably expect Orson Scott Card to be making headlines in the coming year, though less for his politics and more for his creative output, as Hollywood is currently working on bringing Ender’s Game to the big screen. With director Gavin Hood (Rendition, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) at the helm and actors Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley starring, the film is set to be released in November 2013.
Reading through the various 1987 predictions for the year 2012 gives us a fascinating peek at the minds of authors who spent a lot of time thinking about the future, and we’ll no doubt look at other predictions from this capsule of yestermorrow in the coming weeks.
May 25, 2012
The October 1944 issue of Science and Mechanics looked at what technological advancements Americans might expect after WWII with an article titled, “Big Things Ahead — But Keep Your Shirt On,” by John Silence.
What makes this article so fascinating is that it looks at the advances of the future with optimism, but tempers that rosey outlook with realistic predictions. There were a number of stories in the early 1940s offering American readers a vision of the future after the war, but this is one of the few that asks people to keep their expectations in check. The article opens with the common assumptions of the day about the futuristic post-war world Americans would be living in:
Many of us have the idea that when Johnny comes marching home to his post-war world, he won’t know the old place. He’ll zing in on some contraption just short of the fourth dimension, and before he can zip himself out of his uniform and into his civvies, the walls of his pre-fabricated house will glow with electronic heat or his brow will be cooled by costless air conditioning.
The freezer in the basement will yield a perfect sirloin steak that the radio oven will broil to his favorite turn in something under 10 seconds, and while they’re bringing it in on an electric-plastic tray that keeps it hot, the dehydrated mush is being turned back into honest potatoes. And so on.
The piece then warns that you shouldn’t get your hopes up too much. It’s really one of the most sober and subdued pieces of futurism I’ve read from the last 100 years, but it gives us a fascinating look at the thinking of the time:
But don’t expect too much. And don’t expect it all at once. For many reasons, we aren’t going to turn things upside down as soon as the last shot is fired in this conflict. The people who risk their money to provide the things you buy are going to hold back to find out if you’ll take it before they plunge too deep. And all their research may be overruled on appeal.
The article says that frozen food will be the food of the future, with refrigerated trucks making regular deliveries to homes that have large freezers in their basements:
Foods—Quick freezing has pretty much passed its tests. People will buy frozen foods, and they’ll also store their own produce in rented lockers or home freezers. Which way will the cat jump? There are some folks who think the frozen food industry may eventually—get that “eventually”—work around to a system whereby you’ll keep a large frozen food locker in your basement, and make your purchases from a refrigerated delivery truck that comes around every week or so.
The article has a little fun with the idea that huge windows would be in fashion after the war, but may not be terribly practical:
Housing—It isn’t cricket to throw cold water on your ideas about letting the sun heat your home through huge plate glass windows. But please bear in mind that Mama is going to have something to say, too, and if your big windows open up the innards of your house to prying eyes 20 feet across the lot line, you may come in some fine sunny day to find the drapes drawn and the furnace pumping away.
The piece pointed out that advances in medicine would revolutionize our world, though they may not get as much attention as advances in consumer goods.
Medicine—Among all the scientific advances being made during the war, medicine and surgical methods probably will draw the least public attention, but they probably will influence your post-war life more than any other. The mold drugs give one example. Penicillin, the wonder mold derivative, already has been released, in controlled amounts, to the public.
And speaking of consumer goods, the writer acknowledges the sales pitches that were so common from peddlers of the era:
Household appliances—When the post-war planner regales you with stories about automatic washers, ironers, dish washers, garbage disposal machines, tell him to smile when he says it. You had all those things before the war, and you’ll have them again, if you’ve got what it takes—and that’s money and time to wait for more to be made.
In describing the community of tomorrow the writer makes reference to an illustration from 1895 that humorously imagined the future. The writer predicts that any changes in the community of the future really can’t be foreseen, but will likely be basic and simple.
Community Planning—A half century ago an artist did the same kind of thinking about his future that many people today are doing about ours. He came up with an idea of what the skyscraper of the future—say about now—would look like. [...] He reserved a large section of the building for a hay and feed store! He reckoned without the automobile, which was to change the whole complexion of things within 10 years and make his drawing appear fantastic. We can still count on a wonderful new world opening up before our eyes, but the man who promises you a preview of it just can’t deliver. The furbelows and fripperies that ease the life of the next generation are going to be governed largely on basic, probably simple, changes in our way of living that perhaps no one today can see.
The writer expects that tomorrow’s cars will be leaner and more efficient with engineers figuring out how to produce more with less. Curiously, he also holds out hope for a steam-powered car.
Motoring—On the basis of our wartime scare on the scarcity of petroleum products, it would almost seem safe to predict that the automobile of the future will be lighter and more efficient, getting as much as 50 or 100 miles to a gallon of the best grades of gasoline. The engineers probably will add strength while casting off weight. But who is to say that we won’t be extracting a fuel like gasoline from other products that will permit us to continue running our two-ton heaps because, if for no other reason, we like ‘em? And besides, although steam was tried and discarded once as an automobile power source, such improvements have been made in boilers and heating plants, as well as in the engines themselves, it is entirely possible someone will market, some day, a steam automobile that will go when you press your foot on the accelerator first thing in the morning. There are startling things afoot in both power and fuel developments. But they will be announced slowly and carefully. Watch also transmissions, especially in the hydraulics and electrical fields.
The writer predicts quite accurately that after the war the American public will see FM radio and television.
Radio—What can we look for may be these things:
- At first, a set just like we’ve always had, because the manufacturer will have all he can do at first just to fill the demand.
- Then, likely, FM, because it was about ready for the public when the conflict started, and the transmitters are already reaching a good portion of listeners.
- Television—later. Because of the short carrying qualities of television waves, it will come out first in heavily populated centers where there are transmitters.
The machine tools of war are seen as the most obvious advances that would be quickly converted for peacetime purposes.
Machine Tools—It’s most likely that the greatest advances are being made now, and not waiting until after victory is won. The stress and pressure for speedy production is bringing about advancement in the field of specialized machine tools that make our country the undisputed leader of the world’s industrial production. It may be this will prove our real victory in the war.
Futurists of the 1940s had a particular interest in helicopters, predicting that there would be a flying machine in every garage after the war. But the writer of this article is quick to explain the hurdles to such a helicopter-centric society.
Aircraft—A helicopter in your back yard? The picture is bright. You go out behind the apple tree, give the rotors a whirl, and whizz!—you’re on the office roof. At the end of the day, whizz!—and you’re back in Suburbia, tending your delphiniums. Beautiful picture, isn’t it? But you’ll probably have to keep your machine in perfect condition, to be passed on by some safety agency, and it won’t be the perfunctory windshield wiper and horn test, either. The neighbors may not care if you crack your own skull, but they won’t want you doing it on their sun porches. So for some years after the war is over, the first helicopters, and other airplanes for that matter, will be flown by people who can scrape together enough money to insure: (1) a machine in perfect condition; (2) maintenance that will keep it that way; (3) expert training in the operation of the machine. The designers say helicopters are harder to fly than airplanes.
May 18, 2012
Chemical warfare is nothing new. As early as 428 BC the Spartans were burning wood soaked in resin and sulfur for use against their enemies. And the First World War is often remembered for its horrific deaths due to mustard gas. But the mid-20th century ushered in a new futuristic chemical weapon: LSD.
Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mescaline (peyote), and psilocybin (psychedelic mushrooms) were all seen as possible contenders for non-lethal weapons of the future; sprayed on an unsuspecting army or civilian population and making them vulnerable to invasion.
An Associated Press story from the September 6, 1959 Cedar Rapids Gazette in Iowa warned that the nuclear stalemate with the Soviet Union might prompt the Russians to develop chemicals that could be used against the United States. Americans scientists were said to have developed their own weapons to counter-attack.
Working in deep secrecy, U.S. scientists almost overnight have developed an arsenal of fantastic new weapons, variously known as psycho-chemicals and “madness” gases, which could virtually paralyze an enemy nation without firing a shot.
Interestingly, the article doesn’t name the chemicals, instead calling them “madness gases” or surgical anesthetics:
By way of definition, chemical warfare embraces the use of such compounds as the psycho-chemicals to create hallucinations in the enemy’s mind or the deadly nerve gases and other toxic substances to kill.
Some of the new chemicals act much faster than ether, the anesthetic used to put surgical patients to sleep, and have an effect lasting 24 to 48 hours. One means of dispersal is a newly developed “smoke ginny” with which 2 men can lay a blanket of chemical fog over an area 5 miles long and 200 yards wide.
The February 28, 1960 edition of the Sunday comic strip “Closer Than We Think” by Arthur Radebaugh pulled this idea from the headlines and illustrated it in the picture above. The strip quotes Lt. Gen Arthur Trudeau from the U.S. Army as warning that the Soviets are developing weaponized versions of “psycho-chemicals” and that the U.S. should follow suit:
New nerve drugs may be used to immobilize whole cities or battle areas in tomorrow’s warfare. The Chemical Corps knows about a complete arsenal of “nerve gases” that can make fighting men and embattled citizenry as happy and peaceable as kids playing tag.
Lt. Gen. Arthur Trudeau, chief of Army research and development, is worried about possible attacks with these drugs. He fears the United States might become a victim. “The Soviet [Union] has 15% of its munitions in chemicals,” he said. “I think psycho-chemicals are the coming weapon — we are missing out if we don’t capitalize on them.”
The 1981 children’s book World of Tomorrow: War and Weapons by Neil Ardley also illustrated what a psycho-chemical attack might look like, with soldiers believing they’re being hunted by giant flying pterodactyl-like creatures:
This isn’t a scene from a science fiction story in which flying monsters take over the world. It is a view of a future battle as seen through the eyes of a defending soldier. He and his fellow troops reel back as invading aircraft fire shells containing chemicals. The chemicals are drugs that produce dream-like reactions or hallucinations in people. The soldiers see the aircraft turning into flying monsters and the buildings bend over, and they flee in terror. Invading forces protected from the effects of the drugs will soon arrive easily take over the city.
March 30, 2012
There’s no city that Americans fictionally destroy more often than New York.
New York has been blown up, beaten down and attacked in every medium imaginable throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. From movies to novels to newspapers, there’s just something so terribly apocalyptic in the American psyche that we must see our most populous city’s demise over and over again.
Before WWII, these visions of New York’s destruction took the form of tidal waves, fires or giant ape attacks — but after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in Hiroshima and Nagaski, the atom was suddenly the new leveler of cities.
The August 5, 1950 cover of Collier’s magazine ran an illustration of a mushroom cloud over Manhattan, with the headline reading: “Hiroshima, U.S.A.: Can Anything be Done About It?” Written by John Lear, with paintings by Chesley Bonestell and Birney Lettick, Collier’s obliterates New York through horrifying words and pictures. The first page of the article explains “the story of this story”:
For five years now the world has lived with the dreadful knowledge that atomic warfare is possible. Since last September, when the President announced publicly that the Russians too had produced an atomic explosion, this nation has lived face to face with the terrifying realization that an attack with atomic weapons could be made against us.
But, until now, no responsible voice has evaluated the problem constructively, in words everybody can understand. This article performs that service. Collier’s gives it more than customary space in the conviction that, when the danger is delineated and the means to combat it effectively is made clear, democracy will have an infinitely stronger chance to survive.
The illustrator who painted the cover was Chesley Bonestell and it is no doubt one of the most frightening images to ever grace the cover of a major American magazine. Opening up to the story inside, we see a city aflame.
A kind of wire service ticker tape runs across the top of the images inside the magazine:
BULLETIN NOTE TO EDITORS — ADVISORY ONLY — NEWARK NJ — HUGE EXPLOSION REPORTED IN LOWER NEW YORK CITY. IMMEDIATE CONFIRMATION UNAVAILABLE. WIRE CONNECTIONS WITH MANHATTAN ARE DOWN. NEW YORK HAS ADVISED IT WILL FILE FROM HERE SHORTLY . . . BULLETIN — HOBOKEN NJ — DOCK WORKERS ON THE NEW JERSEY SIDE OF THE HUDSON RIVER THIS AFTERNOON REPORTED A THUNDEROUS EXPLOSION IN THE DIRECTION OF NEW YORK CITY. THEY SAID THEY SAW A TREMENDOUS BALL OF FIRE RISING INTO THE SKY
The first few pages of the article tell the story of a typical Tuesday in New York City, with people going about their business. Suddenly a radiant heat is felt and a great flash engulfs the city. People in Coney Island mistake it for a lightning bolt. A housewife in the Bronx goes to the kitchen window to investigate where the light came from, only to have the window smash in front of her, sending thousands of “slashing bits” toward her body. As Lear describes it, it doesn’t take long for “millions of people, scattered over thousands of miles” to discover what has taken place.
The aftermath is one of great panic with emergency vehicles unable to move and people rushing to find transportation. Collier’s would touch on this theme of urban panic a few years later in their August 21, 1953 issue. One of the many fictional characters we follow in this story (an Associated Press reporter named John McKee) somehow manages to hail a cab in all this madness. McKee eventually gets to his office and begins reading the bulletins:
(NR) New York — (AP) — An A-bomb fell on the lower East Side of Manhattan Island at 5:13 P.M. (edt) today — across the East River from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The story goes on to describe how news coverage is largely crippled by the fact that 16 telephone exchanges were out, leaving 200,000 telephones useless. Ham radios, naturally, come to the rescue in their ability to spread emergency messages.
The cover ran almost 5 years to the day of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The military was able to go in after the attack and measure the extent of the devastation. The graphs below, which ran with the Collier’s article, explain what kind of impact would be felt at various distances from ground zero.
The article explained that our understanding of what a nuclear attack on New York would look like came straight from U.S. measurements in Japan:
The opening account of an A-bombing of Manhattan Island may seem highly imaginative. Actually, little of it is invention. Incidents are related in circumstances identical with or extremely close to those which really happened elsewhere in World War II. Property damage is described as it occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with allowance for differences between Oriental and Occidental standards of building. Death and injury were computed by correlating Census Bureau figures on population or particular sections of New York with Atomic Energy Commission and U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey data on the two A-bombs that fell on Japan. Every place and name used is real.
This Collier’s article wasn’t the first to warn of the devastating effect an atomic bomb could have on New York. A four-part series ran in newspapers across the country in April of 1948 which also described how awful a nuclear attack on New York could be. Written by S. Burton Heath, the first article in the series ran with the headline, “One A-Bomb Dropped In New York Would Take 800,000 Lives.”
One atomic bomb, exploded over New York’s Times Square on a working day, could be expected to kill several hundred thousand men, women and children.
No reputable atomic expert, in Washington or elsewhere, will estimate the exact number. The New York fire department says 100,000. On the basis of Hiroshima and Nagasaki it would be more than 800,000. The most reliable experts say the fire department’s guess is absurdly low. They think the bigger figure is too high.
After the surreal devastation that we witnessed during the terrorist attacks upon New York on September 11, 2001 ,we have some idea of what true horror looks like when inflicted upon a major American city. But a nuclear bomb is still something altogether different. The level of destruction that would result from nuclear warfare remains an abstraction for many — until you flip through old magazines of the Cold War.
March 21, 2012
The 1981 book World of Tomorrow: Future War and Weapons by Neil Ardley is (naturally) a little dark for juvenile literature. Space pirates slaughter families while they picnic on space colonies, armies poison each other to create vivid hallucinations, and people on Earth live in underground shelters after a horrifying nuclear war destroys life as we know it.
Most of the book hasn’t yet come to pass in its bleak depiction of a world engulfed by hyper-futuristic weaponry and mayhem. But one two-page spread sticks out as a prescient vision of our world today. Ardley’s description of the soldier of the future forecasts technologies that currently exist or are under development: GPS guided weapons, helmets with eye-tracking sensors and flame-resistant uniforms that can protect against 2nd or 3rd-degree burns:
In several ways the soldier of the future will resemble the soldier of the distant past. He or she will be heavily protected — not encased in a suit of iron but clothed in ultrastrong materials that will resist rifle fire and radiation. The soldier may look out through a mask that cleans the air of radioactive dust, chemical poisons or disease germs used by the enemy. To attack, the soldier could use a future version of the crossbow — a small portable missile launcher. However, the solider will not have to aim the weapon. Using a computer, the position of the target can be fed into the missile’s guidance system and it will streak home. If the target moves, the missile will pursue it automatically, or the soldier may “see” or even “think” it home using a guidance computer linked to the soldier’s own eyes or brain!
The book is obviously rooted in the concerns of the time. One concern was terrorism, especially as it related to aircraft hijackings. Hijackings were at their peak between 1968 and 1972, when there were 137 attempted commercial aircraft hijackings in the United States.
The illustration below shows soldiers of the future dealing with terrorists who have taken over an airport. Terrorists and hostages alike flee from the burning wreckage of a commercial plane.
The book doesn’t rule out the possibility of nuclear weapons being used in the future, while mentioning that domestic terrorism may be just as large a threat in the years to come.
A future nuclear conflict or one using neutron weapons or energy beams would destroy human forces. There would be little that soldiers could do to help win such a war. It seems likely that the future role of the soldier will not always be to fight foreign enemies but often terrorists within a nation. The soldiers of the future could be more like heavily armed policemen than a fighting force.