• Otter Views: Of Futures Past

    by Tom Stevens

    Emerging onto the quiet, fog-blown streets of PG one recent night after watching the Matt Damon film “Elysium,” I felt the little shiver of cognitive dissonance sci-fi fans cherish. What century is this? What galaxy?

    “Elysium” takes place mostly on Earth, but it is a badly scarred future Earth. Like those envisioned in “The Fifth Element” and “Wall-E,” this despoiled planet gazes enviously up at a glittering artificial moon; an orbiting pleasure palace for the wealthy.

    “Elysium’s” ethical references are too numerous to process here, especially so soon after “car week.” But the movie did put me into a time machine of sorts, sending me back to the early 1950s. That was when pulp science fiction magazines first sowed in my small but receptive brain a childhood vision of the future so seductive the present has disappointed me ever since.

    From the pages of “Analog” and “Astounding” arose spired cities whose citizens glided along on moving sidewalks and zoomed through the sky wearing jet shoes. Antigravity cars zipped about like bumblebees, and vast “aquafarms” produced pelletized algae in 56 delicious flavors.

    The people of the future had big brains and shaven heads. They lived in spherical apartments, played three-dimensional chess and sipped smoky blue cocktails. Their clothes were exciting: sleek bodysuits with peaked cowls and translucent, shimmering capes.

    1950s sci fiThe most highly advanced people could “jaunt” to London or Jupiter just by thinking about those places. Even regular people could leave their bodies at the dentist’s or the chiropractor’s and come back later. Everyone had robot servants. The servants had little robot pets.

    To a kid growing up in Honolulu during the drowsy years between World War II and statehood, those old sci-fi magazines kindled expectations the town proved ill-equipped to meet. There were no moving sidewalks, no spherical apartments, no jet shoes. Blue cocktails wouldn’t arrive until Elvis.

    There was an elevator, though. It serviced the Alexander Young building, old Honolulu’s version of Holman’s. This imposing edifice towered four stories above the street and housed the city’s lone public elevator, a brass-railed conveyance that rose and descended as tremulously as a dowager at tea.

    Its progress marked by the creak of pulleys and the whine of fraying cables, the elevator shuddered when it started, jolted when it stopped, and moaned inconsolably in between. To a young futurist, though, it was a portal between worlds. Closing one’s eyes, feeling the pull of gravity, you could imagine an ascent to . . . the dentist’s office.

    As the years went by, Honolulu became more futuristic, but not futuristic enough. The 1960s brought escalators, jetliners, geodesic domes, Don Ho. But few islanders shaved their heads in those days, and no one had yet “jaunted” to Jupiter. It was time to visit other places.

    In New York, elevators soared 60 floors in a minute, trains ran underground, and the airport had moving sidewalks. Chicago had a building 1,000 feet tall; Hartford, one fashioned entirely of glass. Tokyo had a disco five flights beneath the street; Paris, an escalator rising five stories above. Los Angeles had laser beam sculptures; Seattle, a space needle.

    Then I went to the San Francisco Bay Area. There, in a land governed by a Moonbeam, I found a spired city where citizens slept on water beds, ate pelletized algae, and took their leisure in bubbling cauldrons. Shaved heads abounded, and no one had to work. The people just inserted plastic cards into the sides of banks, and money tumbled out.

    It was my childhood vision made real. Yet one nagging doubt remained. Could the people of this Utopia leave their bodies and come back later? To find out, I scooped up some money that had tumbled from a building and went to Berkeley, home of the Bay Area’s biggest brains.

    My destination was the “Megabrain” clinic, a sort of cerebral fitness salon in the basement of a rambling old brownstone house. Once there, I joined several other futurists arrayed in a semi-circle of deck chairs. We would binge on what “Forbes” magazine had dubbed “brain cocktails.”

    After we paid, the Megabrain trainer hustled around the basement fitting each of us with oversized dark glasses and sensitive headphones. Once hooked up, we lay back and waited for the future to kick in.

    For the rest of the afternoon, the Megabrain machine generated pinpoint light flashes and a dazzling aurora borealis of colors and shapes, synchronized with pulsing showers of sound. After four hours, we heaved ourselves up from the deck chairs and wobbled back up the stairs to street level. I felt a little shiver of cognitive dissonance on re-entry.

    That was 1992. From the perspective of 2013 and Google Glass, Megabrain seems quaint. That future came and went in a hurry.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on September 4, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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