Archive for Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Seers should sharpen focus on mundane

November 24, 2004

When I was a sixth-grader, I became a science fiction fan. Why not? It was the era of the space race, astronaut adoration, flying saucer hysteria, and cars with tail fins so large they appeared ready to pilot to Neptune.

I was introduced to the genre through the books of the Winston Science Fiction Series that were buried like rubies among the room libraries in the elementary school I attended. I remember searching through library stacks looking for the Winston rocket ship brand on the spine.

They were my introduction to asteroid mining, spoke-wheel space stations, space pirates and other cliches of science fiction. In one that was understandably my favorite, a guy named Jones was basically a futuristic Alexander the Great, conquering the galaxy for humankind (and doing so in a very humane way, thank you).

I recently found a complete list of the series on the Internet. Apparently, they're now collectors' items because of their graphic book-cover art. The art looked pretty tacky to me, but I can understand it being rare. The paper slip covers didn't survive on books with checkout cards filled with the names of junior high school boys.

The series list didn't jive with my memory. Some of the books I long associated with the rocket ship icon -- titles like "The Blue Barbarians" and Robert Heinlein's "Have Spacesuit -- Will Travel" -- weren't on the list (which taught me the order of the planets with the mnemonic device "Mother Very thoughtfully Made a Jelly Sandwich Under No Protest"). But then, the school had a sizeable paperback library of donated (cast off) books. For some reason, a disproportionate share of these books were science fiction.

As I look back, the books promised much that hasn't came to pass by the first decade of the 21st century. Huge, crowded space stations should be observable on a clear night with a good pair of binoculars. There would of course be colonies on the moon and the hopeful start of one on Mars. Another set of pioneers should be populating the sea floor. A flying car should be parked beside everyone's bubble home. And everybody should have a name like Na Thon or Badac El.

While at K-State in the early 1970s, I attended an Arthur C. Clarke lecture, one of the authors in the Winston series. He said in the near future we would all have home computers with which we would communicate with people all over the globe. It wasn't a prediction so much as a statement of fact, like Sunday follows Saturday. I wondered what the heck I'd do with a computer, thinking at the time computers basically computed.

He didn't mention flying cars.

Somehow, Winston authors -- even the presciently minded Clarke -- missed battery-operated safety razors with names like Turbo Shave. I'm pretty sure they never mentioned microwave popcorn, Botox or copy machine centers. But they were big-picture guys, and the future is in the details.

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