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Where's My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived by Daniel H. Wilson
Review by Ernest Lilley
Bloomsbury USA Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 1596911360
Date: 17 April, 2007 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author Blog / Show Official Info /

Like any other child of the golden age of Science Fiction I grew up expecting to travel to the moon (at least), fly around in my jet car and naturally, own a jet pack. Daniel Wilson uses humor to ease the pain of our frustrated expectations in this excellent survey of the future as it was supposed to be. The world of tomorrow turns out to be closer than you probably thought. So, the next time anyone turns to you and asks, at least with regard to the future, "Are we there yet?" don't threaten to turn the time machine around. Tell them to read Where's my Jetpack? while you concentrate on driving, because the future is only a few exits away.

I was prepared to argue with Dr. Daniel Wilson over the sorry state of the future-present we're living in. I'm tired of folks whining over what might have been while they live in the midst of more modern miracles than you can shake a World's Fair Pavilion at. Okay, maybe that's not a useful metaphor, but you get my point. The problem is that Daniel not only knows what he's talking about, but he does it with a delightful mix of humor and good old fashioned expertise. As soon as you start in on Where's My Jetpack? you realize that the beloved science fiction future you grew up wishing for is closer than you think. So close, in fact that all that really separates us from it is a small step on our part, but one that takes a giant leap of courage and commitment none the less.

The jetpack mentioned in the title really does seem to be one of the most requested tech toys from our childhoods. Consider: When Bill Gates appeared on the Jon Steward show to promote the launch of Windows Vista, the first question that Stewart asked him wasn't "why does Windows crashes so often", "what's it like to be the richest geek on the planet", or "what his password was" (though he did get around to the password eventually). No, he asked Bill where his jetpack was. And Bill promised to look into it.

The story of the jetpack turns out to be the story of many of the different pieces of technology covered in this enjoyable, and none too thick, volume. Cooked up by a daring pioneer (Wendell Moore of Bell Aerosystems) in the early sixties and variously refined by a few brave souls over the ensuing decades, it's not so much that this technology never became available...as that it never caught on. Though the early ones only had flight times of a minute or so, the later ones, true "jet" packs, had expected flight times of about half an hour, and who knows where the end might have been had it caught on. But the death of the jetpack turned out to be that from a military standpoint it's more of an opportunity to get soldiers shot at, than anything else, and from a civilian standpoint the likelihood of midair collisions between jetpack commuters outweighs the fun factor by a wide margin. In a turn of fate worthy of science fiction, when the original inventor of the jetpack died the jetpack died with him. Not in this case because he'd taken the formula to his grave, but because the cause had lost its champion. The rest of us excepted, but without the lucrative contracts to keep it alive.

There's a lot of technology in this book that comes off in the same way. Where's my atomic zeppelin, moving sidewalk, autocar, flying car, hoverboard or quantum teleporter (and that's just the transport chapter)? To varying degrees they're all possible, even the teleportation device, and many of them either have working prototypes or concept studies that show how to get them built. It's not the laws of physics that stand in our way...it's the grim realities of economics. Cost versus benefit. It's not that we don't want them enough, but that we don't actually need them.

Interestingly, the author doesn't talk about the alternative energy for cars, possibly because it's been done already, but it would serve to make the point. As long as oil prices make gasoline affordable, and a future of energy dependence doesn't scare the daylights out of the majority of car buyers, there's no real incentive to build the car of the future today.

There are some gadgets and groovy ideas that haven't quite made it of the drawing boards yet, but the author gives us a guided tour of the research being done to get us there, and gizmo after gizmo, the world of tomorrow turns out to be just about ready for delivery next week. Or at least next year.

What I found interesting about the lag in delivery of our dream machines was that I'd always assumed it was the lack of adequate power to do the job that was holding up flying cars and whatnot. The author though, makes a pretty good case for the lack of really good automated control systems instead, and I think he's got a point. One of the nice things about this book is that (for the next few minutes) it's quite current, and the research he talks about, including the current state of the DARPA robotic vehicle challenge is pretty much up to date. Of course, that won't last...though it would be interesting to see if he comes out with updates, or if his blog keeps things current.

Meanwhile, I'm sending my copy off to my 12 year old nephew. With any luck reading it will infect him with the future dreaming virus, just like reading Arthur C. Clarke's, Profiles of the Future did me at his age. At the very least he'll come away with a much better idea of what it takes to build his own hoverboard.

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