I've Seen the Future and It Is…Safe?

This is an awkward way to begin, but I must start off with two apologies. First I apologize for being too long absent from this site, due to many deadlines, too much travel to wonderful places, and a protracted bout with that deadly killer flu thing that is the current deadly killer flu thing going around. I intend not to stay away so long from now on.

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Next I must apologize to the non-geek contingent of our readership. The essay which follows might not be your cup of tea Klingon blood wine. It hinges too much on a presumed knowledge of obscure science fictiony things that only those with a truly Jonah Goldbergian depth of geek arcana can fully appreciate. Then again, I might be underestimating the level to which the fantastical subdivision of pop culture has permeated the mainstream. You might grok this if you know at least two Vulcans other than Spock, who Tim Drake is (as opposed to Dick Grayson), what the Kzinti are, and where the word ‘grok’ came from. If not, you’re excused without penalty.

A day or two ago I happened across the online announcement of a wonderful new technological device that made me think, “That’s it. We’re finally in the future.” And then, almost as if the words were spoken aloud, I heard the voice of my friend (and excellent Science Fiction author) Chris Roberson in my head, scolding me with his oft-repeated, always cranky, litany: “It’s not the future until we have jetpacks and flying cars. They promised us jetpacks and flying cars! Where are they?” And I realized there’s no escaping this question, either from Chris or any of a myriad other sources. The future isn’t allowed to be here until we have our jetpacks and flying cars. And that’s just the minimum. Space stations, moon cities and personal household robots are also to be desired for a fully functioning future.

I pondered this dilemma. On the one hand we have this wonderful new device (the exact nature of the device isn’t important, but for the record it’s a full tabletop sized flat computer screen you can play Dungeons & Dragons on, just like they did in the Legion of Superheroes — which is definitely in the future, so far in fact that jetpacks and flying cars are already outmoded, having been replaced by Flight Rings), and we’re blessed (and/or cursed) with so many other technological wonders hardly even imagined by those who designed our future so long ago, but we don’t have the jetpacks and the flying cars. They’re our duel required tickets to the future, without which we simply aren’t allowed to enter. Lacking those, we’re confined to an eternal and frustrating now, no matter how exciting and interesting our now might become.

I pondered, and then despaired when a terrible realization hit me. We are in the future, Chris. We got our jetpacks and flying cars. We’ve had them for years. Whoever the ‘they’ are that promised us those things, they kept their promise. They delivered. Look at this:

The Moller M200G flying car. Coming soon to an abandoned warehouse near you.

The Moller M400 flying car. Coming soon to an abandoned warehouse near you.

It’s the Moller M400 Skycar. They built it and it works, designed to sell for something in the neighborhood of $90k when and if it ever goes on sale (I’ll predict right now that it won’t). They also have the M200G Volantor — a saucer shaped vehicle that flies ten feet above the earth at 50 mph.

These were debuted a few years ago, and they weren’t the first personal flying cars, and saucers, and jetpacks. Not by a long shot. They’ve been building them almost for as long as you and I have been alive.

So what’s the problem then. Where are they? Why haven’t we got one in every garage in the good old US of A? That’s the depressing part, my friend. We don’t have them, not because there isn’t (or wasn’t) any entrepreneur willing to make them available. We don’t have them because we rejected them. We collectively said, and continue to say, “No thanks.”

And why is that?

Because they’re not safe.

Dr. Paul Moller at the controls of the M200 X prototype of his flying car.

Dr. Paul Moller at the controls of the M200 X prototype of his flying car.

Sure, they’re safer than the first airplanes were in their infancy, even safer than modern airplanes are now, when not operated by a highly-trained pilot. They may even be safer than the first ground-confined motor cars. But airplanes and motor cars were invented and introduced to the public in a more adventurous age. Here’s the thing: we want more safety now than we did then. We expect it. Hell, we demand it. If cars and airplanes were introduced for the first time today I’ve no doubt that a vast hue and cry would go up about how dangerous they are. They’d never get government approval. They’d never be able to jump through all of the regulatory hoops any new product has to overcome today. The problem with jetpacks and flying cars is that they aren’t already 100% safe to all potential users. They don’t get, and never will get, the time to develop and perfect that we’ve given our airplanes and ground cars. We have our jetpacks and flying cars and we simply aren’t going to use them.

Which brings me to my next point. We are indeed in the future, but we’ve chosen a far different future than the one we originally imagined for ourselves.

In his Known Space series of novels and stories, the vastly talented and industrious science fiction author Larry Niven created a race of aliens called the Pierson’s Puppeteers. They’re an odd race that looks something like a set of two hand puppets (from which their name is derived) mounted on a distorted three-legged deer’s body. But their given name also does a sinister sort of double duty, since the Puppeteers are a race of manipulators. They manipulate and fiddle with the other races of Known Space, including humans, working behind the scenes, to direct our destinies. Why do they do this? Because they are a species of genetic and cultural cowards. More than anything else they are motivated by the desire, by the all-encompassing need, to be safe.

There are no sharp corners on the Puppeteer homeworld. There’s no possibility of a stray splinter or of tripping over a badly placed paving stone. All is designed to keep everyone safe from even the smallest possibility of harm. They build indestructible space ships and then refuse to make use of them, because space travel is far too dangerous. And they manipulate mankind and other races, causing us to fight devastating wars with each other, in order to weed out our more aggressive individuals — to keep themselves safer by gelding us barbaric types.

An old time jetpack, never fully developed and now relegated to the occasional performance at county fairs.

An old time jetpack, never fully developed and now relegated to the occasional performance at county fairs.

I’m afraid that’s who we’ve chosen to become, Chris, old buddy. We had our chance at a jetpack future but turned them down. We chose instead to be safe. We chose to become the Pierson’s Puppeteers. Look at the evidence, so much of which exists I couldn’t possibly begin to scratch the surface in listing all of the ways we’ve changed ourselves in my lifetime:

In my childhood I rode my bike everywhere, with my parent’s blessing, even 200 miles away to visit a married sister on the other side of the state. And the thought of wearing a helmet never occurred to me or my parents. Now a child even on a tricycle in his own yard damn well better be wearing a helmet, or his parents are guilty of child abuse. Manufacturers are sued nigh unto extinction every time one of their products is even tangentially involved in an accident, because their product isn’t safe enough. The greatest cost in manufacturing a ladder is to offset the cost of the inevitable lawsuits brought by those who hurt themselves using it. How dare ladders not be made 100% safe, no matter how it’s used or misused? The notion, that was alive and well in my youth, that life is risky and certain bad things are just going to happen from time to time, is a dead notion today. Now life must be safe, and anything that makes it unsafe must be done away with, or at least severely punished.

In the recent past it was a given that a man has a right to risk his own life and even be a damned fool about it if he so chose. That is a dying concept today. Now, every time something tragic happens as a result of adventurers doing adventurous things, such as a death or injury during a mountain climb, there follows the reflexive cry to outlaw said activity “for their own good.” Safety must be imposed on the foolish and daring for their own good.

Need any more examples? I’ve got a million of them. Space travel? Some still yearn for the adventure and romance of it, but we are a minority. Most think it’s a waste of resources that could be better used to make us more safe here at home. That’s why we got to the moon and stopped. That’s why Luna City doesn’t exist today. We could have had it if we wanted it bad enough. We have the technology. We just didn’t have the will.

We’ve shown ourselves all too often willing to trade freedom for safety. Regulate us, in case we make dangerous choices. Tax us so we don’t spend our wealth in foolish pursuits. Confine us in the group, the herd, just like Niven’s Puppeteers, ostracizing all adventurous individuals as dangerous and insane. MAKE US SAFE!

Oh how I could go on, Chris, listing so many ways in which the desire for safety has eclipsed all else, and infected every American endeavor. Even the current Global Warming hysteria. Granted, it’s a vast scam, perpetrated by hucksters who want power and money to flow into their clutches, aided and abetted by activist scientists who know very well where their grants come from, but the scam couldn’t work if it wasn’t fueled by a culture that more and more responds to the promise of increased safety as the acme of human existence.

In the future we don't get to hunt dinosaurs with jetpacks and bazookas.

In the future we don't get to hunt dinosaurs with jetpacks and bazookas.

So here we are, buddy, living in the future we selected. We had our chance at the jetpacks and flying cars. Turns out we had plenty of chances to embrace them. But we decided instead to become the Puppeteers of Larry Niven’s gifted (and unfortunately prescient) imagination. We can still watch Race Bannon and Johnny Quest hunt dinosaurs with jetpacks and bazookas in old cartoon shows, and still pretend we want to do the same, as long as we realize it’s only pretend, as long as we watch the adventures in the safety of our home.

But let me close with one cautionary note. In all of Niven’s stories set in Known Space there was ever only one interesting Puppeteer character, the one who was insane enough to have a sense of adventure and daring. We haven’t quite wiped out the human need for adventure, daring and a desire to face danger. Far from it. Some may argue that we can’t ever fully exorcise that from the human condition, and I pray that’s true. But I have no doubt that we’re on the terrible path to “safety above all else.” I have no doubt that too many of us, including the majority who seek political power over us, subscribe to the safety gospel (probably because safety and under-control are synonymous — freedom being such a messy thing). But the distinguished Mr. Niven has shown us, maybe unintentionally, one thing, if we’re prepared to see it: we can’t be both safe and interesting.

I vote for interesting.


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