The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
I end my look at the Future in 1962 with The Jetsons. The animators trotted out every cliché and rode them into the ground; after that, everything became camp. (Or worse, hollow repetitions that failed the wonder test, like the 1964 World's Fair.)
We still remember The Jetsons. Do you still remember The House of Formica? The Enchanted Forest of Paper Products? The World's Largest Replica Cheese? All real attractions at the Fair, they make parodies of the past future a fool's game. Who can top these? Who'd want to try?
Ask a hundred people what they remember from The Jetsons, and 99 will blurt out that they want George's car, the one that folds up into a briefcase light enough for him to carry into the office on that moving sidewalk.
Suitcase cars never made it into our real world. For a long time I thought that was a brilliant visual dreamed up by Hanna-Barbara cartoonists. Likely they did. Someone beat them to it by 30 years, though, and it's barely possible that a dim memory fired a synapse in a brain looking for a good gag.
Hugo Gernsback's publishing empire went into bankruptcy early in 1929. His last issue of the seminal Amazing Stories was cover-dated April 1929, a run of a mere three years. He immediately turned around and started a series of Wonder magazines: Science Wonder Stories dated June 1929, Air Wonder Stories, July 1929, and Science Wonder Quarterly, Fall 1929. In 1930, the first two were merged into a single Wonder Stories title, while the quarterly became Wonder Stories Quarterly. Gernsback kept them going for a few years more but they were all second-rank titles, Air Wonder Stories in particular. Nobody wanted airplane science fiction: the aviation buffs demanded serious airplane talk or WWI-style aerial derring-do; the Amazing readers deserted Gernsback for magazines with rocketships and aliens.
In the November 1929 issue, Gernsback seems to have recognized this, publishing a story by E. D. Skinner, who was smack in the middle of a three-story career, the first and last of which were published in Amazing, spoofing Gernsback's Ralph 124c 41+. Gernsback is not noted for his sense of humor, but he must have liked Skinner's because "Suitcase Airplanes" is also a Gernsback spoof, a lengthy catalog of wonders of the future, each explained in minuter detail than the previous. Nothing is known of Skinner, including his full name, save that he hailed from Cincinnati. His sketched portrait makes him look older and better established than the teen-age and twenty-someone names that filled the rest of the pages of the Wonder titles. Presumably he wrote the occasional spoof just for the fun of it.
"Suitcase Airplanes" starts with "Samuel Vandusanberry von Browne de Symthe, euphemistically known as plain 'Sam Brown'" stumbling into his office late and with a huge hangover. Sam, who is head of sales for United States Amalgamated Aviation Consolidated, is summoned by his irascible boss and needs time to get himself into shape. Not too much time: this is the year 2029 and there's a gadget for everything. Turning to a receptacle for "Pasteurized Water," he presses a secret button and gets a cup of highly illegal real coffee. To get rid of his hangover he adds to the coffee a not-yet-illegal pill of Formine, "a superlative corrective for the after-effects of intoxication." (These are all anti-Prohibition jokes.) If that weren't enough, here comes the sentence/paragraph that makes me list this here under Food Pills rather than mere SF:
Having hastily swallowed this cup of coffee, Sam promptly drew a second one, dropped another tiny pill into it which he took from a receptacle in the secret drawer and which was stamped "Essence of Sugar," followed this with another which was marked "Essence of Cream," stirred the mixture up with a spoon, extracted two of the larger pills, which were stamped "Equivalent - 1 Meal" from his fob, deliberated for a moment as to how many meals he had missed and decided that this would sufficiently readjust the gastronomic deficiencies in his system, and, finally, hastily swallowed the two pills and washed this his double meal down with the one cup of coffee.
Quickly taking a shower and stepping into a "suit of armor lined with Turkish towelling" for an even quicker rub-down, he dresses in a business suit laid out by a dialect comic's idea of a negro servant, and enters yet another device, this one a pneumatic tube that sends him directly into the company President's office. Total time elapsed: fifteen minutes and four seconds.
Presciently predicting a war in Abyssinia by an invading Italian army - though here abetted by the French and English, Skinner makes the connection to the Abyssinian king of kings in a way that might pop eyes even more today than in 1929.
If you had this little instrument in working order yesterday, you would not have had to guess at things from the unreliable reports of unreliable spies. Wherever there's electrical wires into the interior of any building, this little instrument, in connection with a regular "Electro-Visional" apparatus, steps right in and reveals everything that is there.
Who invented the "regular 'Electro-Visional' apparatus"? Skinner himself in his previous story, "Electro-Exploded in A.D. 2025," which ran in Gernsback's Amazing Stories in the August 1928 issue. That's a very cool callback connecting his future world to what was presumably a totally separate story.
Armed with full knowledge of the Abyssinians situation - the Electro-Visual apparatus has the nifty property of seeing into the past if the "visonal airwaves" hadn't escaped the room - they sell the King a mere million airplanes for a measly eleven billion dollars plus a "blanket concession on all mineral wealth in the mountains" he's not already mining. (In our jaded world, these numbers might seem reasonable. However, the entire federal budget for 1929 was about three billion dollars. To a contemporary reader, an eleven billion dollar deal was an example of what Gernsback's introduction called "subtle humor.")
Is that a good deal? Sam hops over to Addis Ababa in a solid copper monstrosity that "looked like the old Biblical Ark of the Covenant, but [with] a heavy prow like a battering ram." It's powered by ... I'll let Skinner explain it, since I can't.
Next a turned pointer on the indicator of an "Interior Temperature Regulator," and a pulled lever, started that apparatus going at a 65-degree adjustment, another lever started the "Electro-Visional" to operating, and a third connected a small dynamo with the "Atomic-energy Reservoir" and started it to supplying the comparatively trifling electrical needs, while a fourth completed a similar direct connection with the rest of the intricate mechanisms and a fifth released electrons of atomic energy from the basic atoms into the "Atomic-energy Reservoir" to maintain the parity of the supply.
Once in the King's chambers, he demonstrates his product. It's an airplane. In a suitcase.
[T]he two-passenger size is the more popular one. You will notice that it is folded and telescoped into a compact mass which fits the suitcase nicely. The whole thing weighs less than ten pounds. It is constructed throughout of the latest improved "Electro-retempered" steel. The tensile strength of this new metal is so great that, although the wings have been rolled to the thinness of gold plate, they have withstood a factory test of one million pounds to the square inch. Therefore, the other gossamer-like parts, some of which are so delicate that it requires a powerful microscope to detect them, are amply sufficient in actual strength.
Done and done. The two million soldiers from the King's army mow down the opposition forces with machine gun fire from a million lightweight aircraft. It's a slaughter, with the Africans winning. It's often hard while reading this story to decide which elements are supposed to be spoofs and which are standard-run extrapolations, but a 1929 ending with the blacks winning over the whites - albeit with good ol' American know-how - has to be considered farcical, just as the casual slaughter of millions with advanced weaponry – weapons so powerful that they would make further war impossible – was completely serious and part of a long tradition. So much has changed, and so little.