Kilbarrack, 1973 and the World of Tomorrow… December 7, 2008Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Science, Science Fiction, The Left.
Get your ticket to that wheel in space
While there’s time
The fix is in
You’ll be a witness to that game of chance in the sky
You know we’ve got to win
Here at home we’ll play in the city
Powered by the sun
Perfect weather for a streamlined world
There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone
What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
I G Y – Donald Fagan.
When I was seven, or perhaps eight, I found a book in the Library of Scoil Lorcáin National School in Kilbarrack. All told it was a pretty good library with a fairly large selection of books. Even today I can remember many of the volumes that were there – a book about BOAC passenger aircraft which had silver Constellations and Viscounts set against improbably azure skies, another about Russian Fairy Tales with strong expressionistic illustrations that simultaneously were attractive and terrifying, another on Irish history with muddy watercolour paintings of round towers and crannógs. But the book which has stayed with me most was a volume entitled The World of Tomorrow. Written by Kenneth Goldstein in the late 1960s it sought to describe developments in technology, science and society in the future.
I can’t quite work out was it the book which sparked my interest in all things futurological or did the interest come earlier? My Dad had had a small selection of science fiction titles he had picked up in the late 60s or early 1970s. I studied the covers first and then later read them. Jack Vance’s superlative The Dying Earth, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. There were others, an Asimov or two… but I don’t remember all of them. And I can’t work out the chronology accurately. I think the books came after The World of Tomorrow.
The most remarkable aspect of it was that in addition to the usual illustrations it was interspersed with photographs of a remarkable installation at the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair entitled – Futurama II. This installation was a model constructed by General Motors of their predictions for the future. Spectators would be brought through it on a ride train. As it happens, and the numerals area clue, there was a Futurama I which was shown at the 1939-40 Worlds Fair. But I knew nothing of the history of this until much much later.
As Wired Magazine commented in an article on the Futurama…
Futurama II looked even further into the future, presenting predictions of a time that most fair visitors won’t live to see. In this world, mankind had dominion over the entire universe. Six-wheeled moon buggies moved easily over the lunar surface, ritzy hotels had been built deep beneath the ocean, tree-devouring machinery carved highways through jungles. The point of view wasn’t quite as distanced as the original Futurama. The far-fetched vehicles were much larger, and they were piloted by tiny human puppets.
Either way I spent hours poring over the photographs of the Futurama. The rest of the book was good, I remember particularly vivid photographs of amoeba, an artificial heart valve, illustrations of interstellar colonists in suspended animation pods in a vast chamber inside a spaceship, full wall screens that would replace television in a truly immersive environment. And these memories were forensic. But the photographs were the gleaming heart of the book.
They depicted lunar bases, undersea colonies and most interestingly – for me at least – the City of the Future. Capital C, Capital F. This gleaming construct looked, well – it looked real. It was clear that the vehicles, gleaming darts, moved along the roadways. There was a weight to the buildings. The parks. The walkways. The windows. This might only be a model, but it was a model of a realisable future. Now I can’t quite be sure the idea that comes to mind looking at the buildings that sliding down the side of some of the more curvilinear ones would be fun is my seven year old self reaching out across the decades or just retrospective nonsense on my part now.
And I’ll bet that one Gerry Anderson paid close attention. There’s a certain something about the shape of the machines set in jungle (no worries about deforestation here) building roads that is undeniably reminiscent of the plethora of vehicles he had designed for UFO. Wired notes that:
The overall look was strikingly similar to the campy TV show Thunderbirds, which premiered as the 1964-1965 World’s Fair was closing.
You bet. Moreover I’d be almost certain that a very few years later when Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were collaborating on 2001: A Space Odyssey they took visual cues from the designs of this exhibit. It’s not quite as antiseptic in tone, there is earth and sand and dirt, but the city doesn’t have any sense of the grime of reality.
Heady stuff, you might guess for someone in the Library of a school in a northside housing estate, and you’d be right. But then Scoil Lorcáin itself was fairly new and the Community School across the road was in its own way modernist, all exposed vents, electrical trunking and piping, like a Pompidou Centre writ small. Very very small indeed. And what of the flats across the train line? They too were examples of modernity as was the churned earth and mud of the field that I’d cross on my way home pretending I was a lunar rover (I was an oddish kid on occasion, that I’ll admit). That field later became a shopping centre. Because in its odd low level way urban Ireland in the early 1970s had a brief flash of expansion, all too rapidly stifled by the Oil Crisis, and the future was what was happening, right there and then. And although economic contraction, and slightly later adolescent cynicism, saw it become decrepit and dull within a short few years (and not just cynicism, the flats eventually saw more than their fair share of heroin users and were eventually demolished some while back) that environment remained a fading testament to a future that had at least some visionary aspects, stranded in a present of dwindling budgets, unemployment and hyper-taxation.
And I’m not unaware of the probability that it was the model aspect of these which gave them a powerful attractiveness – as well as my age. The Wired article references this:
“Detailed miniatures are always compelling,” says Dan Howland, editor of the Journal of Ride Theory. “It doesn’t matter whether they are doll houses or model trains or it’s Legoland, something about them just sucks you in.
Still, I don’t think that’s the whole story. There were other attempts to show the future. Brian Stableford and David Langford wrote The Third Millennium: A History of the World AD 2000-3000 in the early 1980s. It was interesting, but not quite as convincing (although that’s worth a post of its own). The images seemed to be that which they were, small scale models of spacecraft or machines set in diorama’s of varying degrees of credibility. These were the children of 2001, attempting to appropriate some of its often glum yet pristine magic but not quite succeeding. They didn’t have the feel, that sense of a coherent world worked out in detail and precision.
I’m fairly certain no-one would portray the future in such a way any more. Future cities are now restricted to the identikit imagery of science fiction dust-jacket illustration. I still love that. Chris Moore, Chris Foss and others provide a backdrop to my thoughts on occasion, but it’s a different sort of love from that I have for the World of Tomorrow. The vast world cities sit on the spectrum of the fantastical, Trantor or – if you prefer your pleasures on the cheap – Coruscant.
They may well be built, or may well exist elsewhere, but I’ll never know them. They’re not my future. Or yours. The World of Tomorrow, though, was. It was perhaps 2050, an unimaginable date when sitting cross-legged on the tiled floor of the Library in 1973, but one that, if I did the math, was just about feasible as a time that I’d live to see. I didn’t have any conception of what being 85 might be like, anymore than I knew what 12 would be. But that didn’t matter. It was possible. That’s all I needed to know. And, being 8 I guess I thought that the world changed more quickly than it really did. Who could blame me or legions like me, who had actual memories of seeing a man, no – two men, land at Tranquility Base? I read Speed & Power and Look and Learn. I saw the Hardy illustrations of a future that was – so it seemed – just seconds away.
Lest it seem like a vision of the future with no flaws – and in fairness it did deal with pollution and energy conservation – let me quote you the following from a description of home life:
There are smaller screens in the other rooms of the house but this is the one Mother usually uses.
When she wants to shop, she dials the store or market, and as soon as her call is answered, the store or market appears on the wall screen. She can talk to the assitants, who will show her a range of goods from clothing to the fruit bought in that day from the greenhouses in the Antarctic.
To pay the bills, Mother again uses the telephone which identifies the family’s account. All the money Father earns is automatically credited to his account. he never sees it, but only uses it. Mother signals the bank computer to check the amount in the accounte, just to make sure there is enough money in hand to pay the bills.
The newspapers we mentioned are not the kind you know. they come in over the new facsimile communications channel. Printed electrostatically on paper, they roll out of the machine, giving you an almost instant newspaper day or night. You can dial for a regular daily paper if you wish. But Mother may dial for only the women’s page features of a dozen newspapers, while Father may be more interested in the science, cultural and political news.
Even to me, with a “Mother” who worked, and a Gran living at home who had done likewise in her time this seemed a bit odd, even old-fashioned, and even the futurist gloss of ‘Father being a spaceship designer’ toiling away in his ‘workroom’ while Mother prepared lunch appeared in its own way as fantastical – but not in a good way – as some of the other aspects of the book.
And as to why no-one would present us with such predictions any more, well I’m not entirely certain. Perhaps there has been a collective and global loss of faith in the idea that the tomorrow can, or even should, be better than today. In a world where the very shape of the continents will be changed by global warming who would casually predict what the future will hold? That’s understandable, yet I think that if true something has been lost for there was an instructive quality to that future vision.
Did the sense of wonder (natch) that came from viewing this transfer in some way from a belief that the future would be better to a belief that the future could be better? In other words did this become in some respect an element of a broader political belief system that I would then develop? The contrast between “The World of Tomorrow” and Kilbarrack, or Dublin in the 1970s was huge, yet all three were expressions of modernity, and re-reading the book (after finding it on Amazon – tellingly it seemed a lot smaller than I remembered it) the thought struck me that maybe the distinctions between the two ultimately pushed me towards some sort of political engagement, something that literally expressed progress, albeit in a somewhat different way.
It’s a bit self-serving, a bit too neat, isn’t it? Yet I’d still like to think it was so.