A couple days ago, a Slovakian (yes, I know) company called Klein Automobil introduced a commercial flying car and at the same time Virgin Galactic began testing its prototype spacecraft to take tourists into low-earth orbit. Naturally my response was “It’s like we’re in the future.”
But that got me thinking: why do we imagine that the future will be flying cars and jetpacks and casual space travel? Because it’s always either that or nuclear war followed by a planet-wide dark age. Neither set of predictions came true (as if you hadn’t noticed) and the year 2000 was a lot like any other year. Apart from one of my sisters wanting to make a Hogwarts letter for my 11th birthday and some stuff about the presidential election, I don’t remember too much.
If you look at science fiction in the nineteenth century or earlier, from the heavy hitters like Verne and Wells to the less well-known pioneers like Edward Bellamy or Samuel Madden, it’s very allegorical. In the cases of Bellamy and Madden they were obvious allegories about how great socialism was and how evil the Jesuits were, while Verne and Wells earned their immortal fame by disguising their didactic purpose with adventure stories, although both were famous in their lifetimes for more “literary” works best not spoken of today.
But beginning with World War One, when True Art became Incomprehensible or just plain egotistic, a new sort of science fiction. While a lot of “literary” science fiction continued to be political, the stories that really defined the genre exploded in scope. Published in pulp magazines for mass audiences, they ceased to be purely allegorical and instead became a kind of mythology, where authors explored the issues raised by the Industrial Revolution and the advances in science — not in a Marxist, class struggle way — but with two-fisted tales of adventure. They told stories where characters interacted with the science of the day, using or combating it as necessary. But the science had no moral agency of its own — heroic characters used it heroically, villainous characters used it villianously. And because writers were, as ever, paid shit they reused plots constantly. Once they found something popular they beat to cliche in no time.
In the same way that “The War of the Worlds” appeared as part of invasion literature, pulp science fiction incorporated elements from Westerns, hardboiled crime fiction and contemporary concerns. Many people likely only know about the “Yellow Peril” idea today because “Flash Gordon” has long survived it. As a result, the stories, instead of being hamfisted political or philosophical allegories, became about contemporary people dealing with contemporary issues with scientifictive props and stages.
That’s where the flying car comes from: 1920’s concerns about cities as unhealthy, lacking in light and air and with ever bigger, ever taller buildings threatening to overwhelm everything even as the early promise of the car was running up against inadequate roads for going along at the break-neck speed of 20 miles per hour.
Since the concerns about cities were either unrealistic or based in earlier hypertrophic design failures, the flying car was an ingenious solution to a problem that should never have existed in the first place.