Wasn’t the future wonderful?, Tim Onosko

Dutton Paperback, 1979, 188 pages, C$12.95 tpb, ISBN 0-525-47551-6

Save for the occasional odd SF paperback, most of the books reviewed in these chronicles are easily available from libraries or used bookstores. Anything that makes it up to frosty Ottawa, Ontario can probably be acquired anywhere else in North America, so I feel safe in not boring my readers with arcane material or, worse, whipping them up in a frenzy about some obscure book they’ll never find.

So it pains me to have to rave about a full-page coffee-table paperback published in the late seventies. Most certainly long out of print, presumably unfindable by casual readers, Wasn’t the Future Wonderful? is nevertheless a must-read, a definite curio for anyone interested in social change, science-fiction, history, futurism or what I’d call innovation management.

Subtitled A View of Trends and Technology from the 1930s, Wasn’t the Future Wonderful? is simply a collection of the most outrageous articles published by “Popular Mechanics”-type magazines during the 1930s, wrapped in an introduction and a few follow-up notes.

It doesn’t sound like much, a reprint of musty old mags, but when you encounter such grandiose headlines as “Explaining technocracy: A revolution without bloodshed”, “Airport in the Heart of a City Provided by Logical Design”, “Big Cities to Have COOLED Sidewalks”, “The Great Wall of China to be Motor Highway” or “Science Shows NOISE Causes Indigestion”, there’s bound to be more than nostalgic interest.

Each article is accompanied by superb illustrations that are often more interesting than the articles themselves. As only full plates are reprinted, some pages -such as an article by the great Nikola Tesla himself- are adorned by flavor-of-the-time advertisements. Tires for $2!

In any case, it’s certainly fascinating to peer at what the forward-thinkers of the 1930s were planning for the future. Granted, many things came to pass (like television), but in almost all cases, the end result was realized using much different means, and with far different consequences, than the idealized version.

But it’s for the futures that never happened that Wasn’t the Future Wonderful? becomes fascinating. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the fields of large-scale engineering, where dozens of gargantuan schemes (an air-protection installation inside London, a fighter-jet skyscraper dwarfing the Eiffel tower, six-level highways, plans to radically modify intersections, etc…) are proposed without any regard as to who would want such a thing. Wasn’t the Future Wonderful? then becomes an exercise in how -or why- some things just aren’t practical.

Granted, Popular Mechanics probably wasn’t the orthodox view of the nineteen thirties, but was it so different from today’s “Major new breakthrough!” articles published on a daily basis in our newspapers? Predictions might be more restrained, more subtle today, but it doesn’t mean they’re better, or more accurate.

The book concludes with a wonderful article entitled “Most Scientific Fiction CAN’T COME TRUE”, in which such wacko schemes as teleportation, travels to the moon or radio signals to Mars are relentlessly debunked. I hope they’re as right about teleportation as everything else.

In any case, Wasn’t the future wonderful? is a wonderful book, filled with surprises and unusually good at giving a sense of technical perspective. Teachers could use it to develop scientific literacy. SF Writers could use it as a guide to non-silly prediction. Artists could use it to acquire a sense of realistic craziness. Everyone else can use it to spark discussion, jog those little gray cells or simply have a good time. It’s a fun book. Bring it back in print!

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