Today is October 21, 2015; the date Doc took Marty to in order to fix the future . Except, as of today, it’s no longer the future. Forever more, it’ll be the past.
Back to the Future was a smash hit in 1985, one that came out of nowhere and went through a lot of crap in order to even get made. It has long since become a classic film, not a cult classic but a fairly broad hit that continues to delight. Two sequels were written — one taking the story from the 1985 ‘present’ into the future 2015, and another that took it into the distant past of 1885. Starting about three and a half months after it released, the first and third took place entirely in the past; but the second was still ‘futuristic’ in that it was set in the middle decade of the twenty-first century.
The entire franchise is now officially behind us, chronologically. It’s a moment that’s pretty odd to be dealing with for a child of the 80s. I mean, we already passed a couple of others by. But reaching August 29 1997 and not seeing a nuclear war erupt was pretty easy to handle; it was like Reese and Sarah had taken care of Skynet’s T-800 without issue. The calender reached 2010 without San Francisco and Los Angeles merging into Demolition Man’s San Angeles. October 16 1997 came and went without a nuclear family — plus one crazy doctor and one quirky robot — launching off on an endless adventure lost in space.
But somehow, this feels different. And I’m trying to figure out why.
Part of it Back to the Future itself. The movie was very special. I saw it over and over on cable, on HBO and the movie channels, because that was the main luxury my family had when I was growing up. We didn’t actually go to the movies all that often, we never vacationed, or went out to restaurants or threw money around on this or that; but we had cable. I’m convinced part of my love of movies and storytelling comes from that; when I couldn’t get my hands on a computer or game console to play a game (which wasn’t often; I didn’t dive into my computer habit until I graduated high school and bought my own), I was watching movies and reading books.
And in the 80s, I became a pretty big Michael J Fox fan. A lot of articles have been written about Fox and his surprise success on Family Ties. Fox is actually a good example of another article I might write — the breakout character and how audiences always pick it regardless of what the writers, showrunners, actors, editors, executives, or anyone else involved might think about the selection — but that’s for another time. Fox had hit it pretty big on the success meter playing Alex P Keaton on Family Ties, and famously was finally allowed to fit Back to the Future into his nights and weekends. It had to have been hell on him; he was literally putting in a full day on the TV show, then another one (at night, plus weekends during actual daylight) on Back to the Future.
Only a young, hungry, and driven actor could’ve pulled it off.
And it worked. Fox had been Zemeckis’ first choice for Marty McFly, and he was proven right when the film turned into a hit. A huge hit. Highest grossing film of 1985. Time has not taken any of the sheen off it either; audiences still love the film. We’re talking about it right now aren’t we? Back to the Future led to a spate of other Fox films; some good, some less so, most of them interesting, and all of them a lot of fun. He was one of the iconic actors of the 80s for me; right up there with the Brat Pack.
I’ve long since accepted that scientists and engineers are never going to get me my personal jetpack or flying car. I can handle how my computer still doesn’t talk to me, or let me control it as effortlessly as Spock or Data do the Enterprise’s. So that today’s 2015 doesn’t look anything like Back to the Future II’s is something I can get past. Even though a hoverboard would be a pretty cool way to bust my ass, and we don’t have one of those either. But the date, it’s pretty tough to see and realize that this film I grew up with is now fully in the past.
It was always science fiction. I get that. I know that. But the thing that has kept me so invested in scifi all these years isn’t really the settings and trappings, though those are fun and interesting. It’s the concept, the hope, that the future can be something better than we’re going to more or less ignore our way into letting it turn out. That’s the part that really bugs me about October 21 2015 and not seeing flying cars, hoverboards, and prevalent holograms everywhere.
Babylon 5, by J. Michael Straczynski, has a scene where Lennier says the following:
“Delenn does not walk in the same world you and I walk in. She does not see the same world that you and I see. In her world, we are better than we are. We care more than we care. We act towards each other with compassion. I much prefer her world to our own.”
This is a core concept about what I love in science fiction. Some pedantic definitions of science fiction strenuously argue that it’s not ‘true’ science fiction unless science — some exhibition or development or application of a scientific concept that doesn’t yet exist in the present — is integral to the story. I think that’s a pretty extreme definition that takes a lot of the heart and soul out of the genre. I relax it somewhat. To me, science fiction usually incorporates a look at how science can change things; usually for the better since most genres and audiences don’t like downer stories.
Writers, authors, are creators. We think about what could be. Science fiction writers tend to deal in the future as a regular role of our occupation. Yet, as more and more of these ‘visions of the future’ arrive, and are nothing like the present, it just . . . bugs me. Not because the writers were wrong, but because people — the people in reality — can’t get with it and let things grow and evolve and change for the better. Science fiction is about a vision of the world, one that’s usually better than the one we have or end up getting. Not all of those visions are great — a post apocalyptic one would suck, obviously — but most of them showcase something way better than we’re stuck with when reality reaches the writing.
Google has been working on computer driven cars for a while now, I think over ten years. When I was a kid, in the 80s, Knight Rider was one of my favorite TV shows. Come on . . . a cool Pontiac Firebird Trans Am with super powers, how could I not have loved that? A factoid I read — in Byte, because computers are awesome — back then quoted one of the show’s consulting engineers saying it would take about two semi trucks to haul all the computer power needed to let K.I.T.T. drive itself down the street like routinely happened in the show. Computer power has steadily multiplied, and now that computer power doesn’t even take up any of the car’s cargo or passenger space to fit into the vehicle.
And yet, even though Google’s got some ungodly number of self-drive miles on their computer car fleet without any computer car caused accidents, we’re still being bogged down with the most ridiculous questions. What if something happens, people ask. Who’s at fault, they wonder. It’s a very American — and annoying — reaction to a new thing; who would we sue. No one seems terribly interested in the car being able to drive perfectly and without the slightest bit of human error intervening to cause an accident. Instead, governments and advocacy groups and manufacturers are all running scared over who would be dragged into court when something happens. I’ve even seen a few isolated comments from municipalities that hate the concept of a computer driven car because the cars would obey all the traffic laws, and more or less eliminate traffic fines as a source of revenue.
I really wish they were kidding, but they’re dead serious.
Elon Musk is a guy who wants things to happen. He’s a guy I’d like to meet, because he seems as impatient as I am for the future to hurry up and get here already. But he, unlike me, is a billionaire. And he’s not lazy like just about every other super wealthy person on the planet; he doesn’t spend his money on useless crap and impressing others with extravagances and luxuries. His wealth, he spends on the future. Tesla recently launched software upgrades — tied to a sensor package — that let the electric cars self drive. They’re not full K.I.T.T. yet, but what Tesla has available to ordinary Tesla owners as you read this lets you put your car on autopilot in stop and go traffic and trust that it won’t veer off out of its lane or run into the car ahead of it. The Teslas can even maintain speed and lane on the highway; you can ‘drive’ somewhere without actually having to drive.
Americans ‘spent’ 6.9 billion hours stuck in traffic in 2014. They say that works out to 42 hours per year per commuter. That’s not how long everyone’s commute took; that’s supposedly the time spent idling in traffic unable to go anywhere because of, you know, traffic. How anyone could be against something that takes the drudgery out of commuting, letting us have that time back to invest in something more interesting, engaging, and profitable than staring at the brake lights of the car ahead of us poking along at three miles per hours, is beyond me.
Today, October 21 2015, was supposed to be a vision of the future. It hasn’t come out that way. I really wish it had. Think of all the cool things we could be working on next, if we’d only stopped all the bickering and delaying and time wasting long enough to do all the stuff we could’ve gotten done by now.
Think of all the cool selfies we could be enjoying with hoverboards!