Looking back into the future

"The future isn't what it used to be," to quote Paul Valéry. And, it seems, neither is the business of predicting the future. Granted, learned men and women still generate hypotheses about the prospects for mankind. But they don't seem to have the public exposure that they did in the first half of the 20th century, when both science fiction and science fact magazines were painting pictures of rooftop airports, nuclear-powered everything, and vacations on the moon. Whatever the reasons for the current lack of a future in Futures, it can still be interesting to look back and see where we were supposed to be by now, and Tales of Future Past offers a thorough selection of the early pulp prophets' hits and - mostly - misses.

The personal project of webmaster David Szondy, Tales of Future Past is a collection, with commentary, of early magazine covers and other speculative illustrations - portraying life on distant planets and in the distant future...like the 1970s. The first thing that surfers with smaller screens will notice about Tales is that the content is too wide for an 800x600 resolution. Things aren't as bad as they first appear though, since the indexes down the right and left sides of the page are text and image mirrors of each other - and one side or the other, along with the main content of the site, will fit into an Explorer browser window. Those still using 640x480 screens or those with Netscape - non-standard coding, presumably - will still be doing a good deal of horizontal scrolling when they visit the site.

That minor distraction aside, most of Tales' pages are dominated with an opening image from the early 20th century, followed by text and additional graphics. (The first theme, Life on Other Worlds, features a three-eyed 'blob' - I hope that's not politically incorrect - on an extraterrestrial Segway, lecturing a pair of fedora-ed Earthmen.) Along with the entertainment value of the subject matter, the scans also reveal a period when magazine artists were really using color for all it was worth - while the text by Szondy adds the occasional bit of factual background as well as more subjective, 'editorial,' observations. ("Welcome to Mercury; tanning salon of the Solar System.")

While the Life on Other Worlds section is - by necessity - almost purely speculative on the part of both original artist and contemporary commentator, Future City holds more that we can relate to - if only in the context that the cities we have bear no relation to the cities they thought we'd have. (Lucky for us.) Ironically, with gargantuan buildings, commuters travelling in personal aircraft, and antiseptic living of the highest order, the thing that these metropoli resemble most is the vision that many current sci-fi writers have for cities in our future.

Future Living narrows its focus to the personal level, from the Dymaxion Home, to Robot Dogs (well, at least that one came to pass), to the office of 1972 - complete with its "Radio Business Controller." Future War illustrates that humor can be found even on the battlefield - as with the "Gyro-Electric Destroyer." (Think tin cans with gun slits hanging inside a rolling ferris wheel.) Atomic Power reminds us of a time when people looked forward to the imminent arrival of nuclear-powered cars (imagine the consequences of a 10-car pile up), and Future Space offers early predictions of orbital exploration - including a launch method that involved being flung from an appropriately large flywheel.

Future Flight includes another eventually-correct prediction (in this case, the 'flying wing'), while a page dedicated to Atomic Bomber Aircraft ("Atomic" in this case referring to the power source rather than the payload) includes a link to a 2004 Popular Mechanics article reviving the concept of nuclear-powered flight. Future Driving shows that some 'ahead of their time' creations (such as the 1955 Ford Futura) only need a bit of time and tweaking to find their niche (as the 1966 Batmobile). Finally, Tales looks back at Hugo Gernsback - inventor, publisher, and originator of the term "science fiction."

As a private endeavor, Tales of Future Past is subsidized with advertising along the edges of the browser windows, but they're unobtrusive, and there are no pop-ups to distract you from your surfing. Perhaps for the same reason, and with concerns about exceeding the site's bandwidth, images have no links to full-screen versions - though most of the magazine covers are adequately sized. A more vexing problem is the site's navigation. While sub-topic indexes have a back (or in this case, "up") button to incrementally retrace your steps, there is no site navigation bar. And the "home" link takes surfers to the page that hosts Tales, rather than Tales' own home page. You might want to bookmark your starting point and keep it handy for the duration of your visit.

Futurist Jim Dator (really, that's his name) once declared that "any useful statement about the future should seem ridiculous." Well, it's certainly the case that much here seems ridiculous, so perhaps we should wait another 50 years or so before passing judgment. Regardless of their current or eventual accuracy, the Tales of Future Past have undeniable entertainment value.

Tales of Future Past can be found at http://www.davidszondy.com/future/futurepast.htm.

P.S.

And if the whole, 'Wasn't the Future Wonderful' concept appeals to you, a similarly-themed site, reviewed in this space way back in 2001, has a new interface and more content. So if you'd like to learn more about Smell-O-Vision, or a 1959 experiment in delivering mail via rocket (not door-to-door, fortunately), drop by the - dare we say it - 'new and improved' http://www.retrofuture.com/.

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