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You Call This The Future?: The Greatest Inventions Sci-Fi Imagined and Science Promised

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Apr 4, 2008
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In a 2000 TV advertisement, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) demanded to know where the "flying cars" of the future were. With You Call This the Future?, Nick Sagan pursues that question, plus a whole lot more.

Sagan (son of famed astronomer and educator Carl Sagan), along with co-authors Mark Frary (a science and technology writer) and Andy Walker (a technology journalist) want to know about the flying cars, but they also ask about other high-tech innovations that we’ve long heard about. Where are the teleportation devices and invisibility cloaks? Where are the life-saving force fields to shield us from death rays or, if it comes to that, lead bullets? How about the easy-to-use video phone or the ability to clone oneself at the drop of a stem cell?

Chasing down the technological visions of the past century is the crux of the book, and Sagan and co. make it a fun ride. Sub-titled The Greatest Inventions Sci-Fi Imagined and Science Promised, the book is a manual on where we have come in terms of gadgets and sophisticated scientific concepts, traces the histories of various machines, devices, and systems in science fiction as well as in science labs, and provides a handy update as to just how close we are to seeing some of those perennial scientific marvels enter everyday life.

As it turns out, futuristic concepts like cyborgs and genetic engineering are more than staples of science fiction. In some cases, what was sci-fi a few years ago has outstripped the imaginations of the writers who come up with far-flung futures and their accessories: Star Trek’s flip-top communicator doesn’t hold a candle to today’s multi-tasking abilities of the cell phone, and as the book’s authors point out some tools we routinely use today, like the Internet and wireless connections, were almost overlooked by the science fiction genre.

That’s not to say that sci-fi and science fact don’t inform and inspire one another. If it seems remarkable that Jules Verne conceived of the video phone, it’s equally telling that it took so long to make the leap from what Verne imagined to today’s i-Sight and other means of real-time long-distance face-to-face communications.

Indeed, the antiquity of some of the ideas that are only now gaining traction in the real world is astonishing, and the authors know their fan-boy source material (at one point a short story from 1911--a year well before the very term "science fiction" was coined--is cited). Compared to similar books that derive their content entirely from movies like The Matrix and Star Wars, the detail and historical depth of You Call This the Future? is downright scholarly. (But don’t misunderstand: Sagan, Frary, and Walker aren’t snobs. They cite The Matrix, Star Wars, and other pop-culture sources frequently.)

Clearly, while our ability to think up new applications for science comes easily, the science itself is a good deal harder. But Sagan, Frary, and Walker are not intimidated by the complexity of their subject matter. On every page, the layout of the book’s content makes practical use of yet another high-tech innovation: the science of visually organizing complex information. Each brief section addresses one specific technological idea, and does so with a combination of text, capsule histories and specifications write-ups, graphics, and time-lines that lay out the evolution of ideas, from first inkling to prototypes and, in a few cases, to mass-production.

The result is a fast, absorbing read that possesses a kinetic feel. The fact that there’s not a lot of cumbersome technobabble to sort through is one of the book’s main virtues--the text is well written and makes the technological underpinnings clear and graspable--but for deeper, more detailed information you’ll need to do a bit more reading on your own. This book points the way by telling you what’s actually possible and what’s in the pipeline right now. (A section listing titles for further reading would have been nice, but given the book’s format, might also have seemed too stodgy.)

A few technologies get short shrift. Medical and manufacturing applications of nanotechnology (which seems likely to have a huge impact on the economic system and quality of life of the future) are mentioned only in passing, and there’s no section on the possibilities (or difficulties) of power grids sustained by nuclear fusion or on the promise of quantum computing.

But that may be appropriate for a book about the future. After all, if the first edition contained everything of note, what need would there be for a second, expanded edition?

by Nick Sagan, Mark Frary, and Andy Walker

Publisher: Chicago Review Press. Publication Date: April, 2008. Pages: 160. Price: $14.95. Format: Trade Softcover Original. ISBN 978-155-6-526-855

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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