'2010' vs. 201022 Jul, 2010 By: John Latchem
Writers from a simpler time often looked to the 21st century as a utopia of technological change, where robots and computers would ferry people across the stars. In the movie 2010, for instance, people can visit the moon or explore Jupiter with massive spaceships. But the actuality of 2010 presents a different story. We compared a few staples of science-fiction, all available on DVD, to determine how accurate they were in depicting a future that is now our present.
Movies such as 1956’s Forbidden Planet didn’t have a man on the moon until the 21st century, but with space race in the 1960s changed that idea. Looking beyond the first lunar landing in 1969, “Star Trek” projected a manned trip to Saturn around 2009. Decades later, “Star Trek: Voyager” revised the timeline a bit to put the first manned Mars missions in the 2030s.
In 1967, 2001: A Space Odyssey speculated that space tourism and moon bases would all be commonplace by the dawn of the 21st century. Other technological wonders included a space station shared by the United States and the Soviet Union, plus long-duration trips to Jupiter with the aid of cryogenic sleep and artificial intelligence. The 1984 sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, offered more of the same, with a joint U.S.-Soviet mission to Jupiter as the superpowers prepared for war on Earth.
Political and economic factors have limited the extent of visions of the future taking hold. Most sci-fi stories in the 1960s projected from the successes of the Apollo program, when missions to Mars were considered as a possibility for the 1980s. Instead, budget cuts ended the moon program and limited the operational capabilities of the space shuttle, which first launched in 1981. The International Space Station represents an engineering marvel and echoes the joint projects from fiction, but is a far cry from the elaborate space colonies sci-fi likes to portray. The shuttle program is ending in 2010, and attempts to implement the next generation of spaceflight, including a return to the moon, have stalled due to budget shortfalls, leading to a sense of uncertainty about the future of America’s space program. If anything, our approach to space travel has gotten much more utilitarian than adventuresome. Private industry has been tasked with building cheaper low-orbit ships, and the 2004 flight of Spaceship One is a good start, but a practical multi-use design is still years away.
More than 40 years later, Russia still uses the Soyuz capsule for basic spaceflight, and countries such as China and India are still playing catch-up.
It’s interesting to note, though, that 2010 depicted Jupiter’s clouds acting up, and scientists recently noted that some of Jupiter’s cloud bands have disappeared.
Computers offer the perfect plot device, a way to achieve an end without explaining the means, since the complexities of programming are often enough to justify whatever advanced capabilities need to be depicted.
The biggest conceit of science-fiction has been artificial intelligence, which more often than not set up storylines about how dangerous it was for man to rely on machines. In 2001, the HAL 9000 tried to kill everybody to protect the mission. (According to the film, HAL 9000 came online at Jan. 12, 1992.)
The “Terminator” and “Matrix” movies took the idea a step further, depicting futures in which our machine creations tried to wipe us out completely.
With the exception of artificial intelligence, this is where reality has most exceeded fiction, if only because some of the biggest technological breakthroughs were impossible to conceive of for most sci-fi writers. “Star Trek,” for example, had to extrapolate from analog technologies available at the time, offering a 23rd century computer that, while advanced for the 1960s, seems primitive even today. In the digital age, the complex calculations needed to land on the moon could be handled by something as small as an iPod. Computers are everywhere, and the Internet has become a dominant tool of communication (consider Back to the Future Part II’s depiction of an all-Fax future). Now we have the iPad and other tablet computers, which seem very similar to the PADD devices that have replaced paper and books in the later “Star Trek” shows.
As for our machines turning on us, well, other than a few out-of-control Toyotas, most devices are simply products of the people who make them, which means our biggest worries are usually shoddy craftsmanship or operating systems that freeze up at the most inopportune times.
The Flying Car
In pop culture terms, the idea of the flying car has become something of a mythical benchmark for “the future,” a sign of a world so advanced that everybody would have one. That’s why many sci-fi movies like to establish their future settings with some variety of hover-vehicle. The stereotypical example is “The Jetsons,” in which the cars were mini-spaceships that ferried people among buildings that floated far above the ground. Blade Runner, set in 2019, featured a flying car called a spinner, used by the police to patrol complex cityscapes. In Back to the Future Part II, set in 2015, cars were designed to both fly and drive as usual, through the magic of the hover-conversion, which helped Doc Brown give a little lift to his time traveling DeLorean. The congested skyways of The Fifth Element show a 23rd century dominated by flying cars that in many ways are just hovering versions of the cars of today.
In 2010, we’re still using the good old internal combustion engine, and the discussion over the future of the automobile is more focused on the power source, and not flight. So the idea of a flying car within the next decade, as seen in Blade Runner and Back to the Future Part II, is far-fetched. But people have been trying to build flying cars for decades, though these designs are usually involve little more than turning cars into airplanes, rather than the elegant hover capabilities seen in the movies. While many of these aerocars do fly, none have caught on as a practical mode of everyday transportation. Many companies are still hard at work trying to deliver a commercially viable flying car. The Moller M400 Skycar (pictured), for example, is designed with vertical take-off and landing capability, has a range of 750 miles, can fly at about 300 mph, gets 20 mpg using ethanol fuel, and can fit in a garage. Early models, which may be available within the next few years, could sell for about $500,000 apiece.