Saturday, April 28, 2007

The View From 1900

Yesterday a member of sfconsim-l posted a link to this article, predicting the technological wonders of the year 2000, apparently published in the December, 1900* issue of the Ladies' Home Journal. The author's 28 predictions (one is a repeat) are a combination of startling prescience - air forces and global real-time telecommunications, for example - interesting near misses (60-knot transatlantic ocean liners riding on combination hydrofoil/air-cushions; television that you have to go to a movie theater to watch), and sheer quaint oddities (Peas as large as beets!). Since I detest peas, I'm glad the last one didn't come true.

All of it is infused with the sepia-toned glow of the Belle Epoque; you can just see the ladies in their long dresses, elegantly spinning their parasols as they stroll about the promenade deck of a hydrofoil ocean liner. No surly teenagers would be found in the year 2000, nor perhaps many sloppy homes, since Etiquette and housekeeping will be important studies in the public schools. Pre-cooked meals would be available, delivered right to your dining parlor by pneumatic tubes. (The Paris post office had an extensive network of these, only taken out of service in 1984.)

As was the norm until our own dystopian age, The Future worked rather better in prospect than it proved to in the event. The trip from suburban home to office will require a few minutes only. A penny will pay the fare. Fleas and mosquitos - even the sneers-at-nuclear-radiation roach - would be exterminated. Indeed, so would nearly all wild animals, an outcome that seems dystopian to us, though apparently it wasn't to our great-grandparents.

A fair proviso must be made that one member of sfconsim, its founder in fact, has questioned whether this article is a hoax. It's an interesting commentary on the limits of online research that no amoung of googling would provide a fully reliable answer; the only real test is to go to a brick-and-mortar library and look up the hardcopy issue. If it is a hoax, though, it is a very well-crafted one; it reeks of its purported era, right down to the archaism of hyphenating "warships" when speaking of aerial war-ships.

My own guess is that it is real; the pattern of hits and misses is consistant with other prognostications that I have seen from this era, and the style is thoroughly period.

On Edit: Its authenticity has been confirmed, and a link to a Google scan of the source text supplied, by kedamono in the comments below. I spoke too soon about the limits of online research!
The (presumed) author, an eminent engineer of the time, did a great deal better than the futurists of midcentury did in predicting The Future that I thought I would be growing up in. I'm still waiting for my household robot, let alone my ticket to the Moon.

The Future, in fact, was still a pretty novel concept in 1900. People in 1800 could have had scarcely any concept of it; though the Industrial Revolution had (in retrospect) already begun, it had not yet effected their lives enough for them to be aware of the potential for and effects of rapid technological change. Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations (published in 1776), has a great deal to say about improvements in technique, but only mentions the steam engine once, in a footnote.

The Future is now largely passé; I don't recall seeing any articles about Life in 2100 in the past few years - no doubt there were a few, but none that caught my eye. Eager anticipation of hypersonic transports (LA to New Delhi in an hour!) has been replaced by glum realization that we'd just end up stuck in freeway traffic for hours getting to the airport, and lurking concern that both places will be largely underwater due to global warming.

Thus the crisis of science fiction. The cool stuff, space colonies and the like, has largely given way to dystopias on the one hand, or transhumanism and the Singularity ("Rapture of the Nerds") on the other. Neither one, to put it plainly, is very much fun. Hence my offering of Rocketpunk as a way to breathe some retro-life into the genre. Without it, the current trend will probably continue, and our children will know everything about dragons and nothing about spaceships.

* People a century ago were more pedantic than we are, and universally accepted that the 20th century began only in 1901, not in 1900 - unlike the case a few years ago, when the New Millennium was celebrated at the start of 2000, not when it technically should have been, at the start of 2001. (To be sure, the odometer turning all four digits was a big benchmark in its own right - and in retrospect, 2001 brought us absolutely nothing to celebrate, and much to regret.)


Bernita said...

There does seem to be an inward turning, does there not? A journey to the center of the earth?
Lack of vision = re-vision.

Rick said...

Or perhaps science fiction as a distinct genre was peculiar to the 20th century, and over time will simply merge back into the broad super-genre of Romance.

Kedamono said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kedamono said...

The list has been verified by a person on the SFconsim-l list. Seems that a book containing stories from the Ladies Home Journal was scanned in by Google!

Ladies Home Journal

Rick said...

I guess I spoke too soon about the limitations of online research! (Also what I get for not having gotten over to sfconsim yet this morning.)

One oddity - the original article had its predictions in quite a different order from the version that I linked. I wonder why the order was changed?

J said...

It seems that because there was so much excitement for the future, we ran head on and now need to counteract and look at it all pessimistically (is that a word?!)...