Economic Stimulus? Brush off the Tales of Superscience
by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
sfrevu ISBN/ITEM#: EL0903
Date: 15 February 2009 / Roddenbury's High Speed Train Series: Planet Earth /
The economy is in the dumps. Real estate prices are way down. Ph.Ds and poets are driving cabs. The infrastructure of the last century is crumbling. And possibly most important, we're choking on our carbon footprint. What to do? Editor Ernest Lilley thinks the answer may lie in our past - in the super-science tales of engineering marvels of the early part of the last century, when they were dealing with the economic woes of the Great Depression.
I've got a book on my reference shelf that I've always wanted to do a revised edition of. It's called Engineers' Dreams: Great Projects That Could Come True, written by none other than Willy Ley, and published in 1954, which happens to be the year I was born. Given the timing, perhaps it's not surprising that, like many other SF readers, it's a compendium of the dreams that I grew up dreaming.
The dreams these engineers had were all large scale projects, massive feats of concrete and steel technology, of which a surprising number spelled out in the book have actually come to pass. The Forbidden Tunnel (Chapter 1) is now known as the Chunnel, and does indeed span the distance between England and France. Floating Islands (Chapter 2) never came to much, being preempted by artificial ones like the 970 km2 Flevopolder (1969) in the Netherlands, the Kansai International Airport (1994) in Japan, the exotic Palm city/resort off Dubai, and others. Of course, most any aircraft carrier qualifies pretty nearly as a floating city, population about 5,000 and nuclear powered besides. Then there were dams supplying energy in the Jordan Valley, or Africa's central lakes. Not to mention the superdam he proposed to cut the Mediterranean off from the Atlantic. Major dams, like Aswan's were certainly features of the decades after his book, though they've turned out to be as much menace as marvel, clogging rivers with silt that once fertilized their deltas and consolidating infrastructure under badly managed governments.
There are plenty of energy ideas in the book that are only now coming into their own: geothermal, ocean waves, wind, and sun are all put forth as plausible power sources. Indeed one does not have to look far to find examples of the realizations of his dreams. Even the gasification of coal, makes its way into the book in a proposal to "mine" thin coal seams by electrically induced fires and sprayed with steam to produce a hydrogen gas rich output. Atomic power barely makes it into the book as well, mentioned only in the epilogue. Considering that the worlds' first electricity producing reactor, EBR-I, had only gone online at the end of 1951, lighting up a whopping array of four 200 watt light bulbs, it was still pretty forward thinking of Ley to include it.
Surprisingly, there were no dreams of space listed in the book, but only because Willy had given them a book of their own two years before: Across the Frontiers of Space (1952).
But while Willy Ley dreamed big, practical dreams, science fiction authors have dared to dream bigger, wilder ones...though many are not as far fetched as they might have once seemed. Anything thought up by Arthur C. Clarke was pretty much guaranteed to have solid science behind it, including the elevator to orbit that he featured in Fountains of Paradise, but neither it, nor cities in space (either L5 colonies like that in William Gibson's Neuromancer or more recently in Matthew Jarpe's Radio Freefall) have exactly gotten off the ground...not because we couldn't build them, but because we haven't found the economic compulsion to do so.
The one thing that SF visionaries have long wanted to see come to pass (besides dirigibles) which might yet happen is a high speed rail system in the US. Japan has Bullet trains, as does Europe, but the United State's idea of fast rail is the Acela run from DC to NYC...zooming along at a conservative 150 mph...less than half the top speed of Japan's Shinkansen maglev trains, which have been clocked at 361 mph. The Acela has train wheels, though it does tilt to keep passengers from getting pulled sideways on turns, a pretty good trick. The Acela's top speed is actually 200 mph, but unfortunately, our train tracks aren't up to the job of high speed rail.
Built in the Great Depression, our rail system has lasted pretty well till now, but with the advent of air travel, putting the entire country within half a day's flight time, rail has become a local alternative, more useful for getting to the airport than traveling from city to city. That's a shame, because it's got a lot going for it: low carbon footprint, the ability to put stations in the middle of cities, and (even at 300 mph) a great view out the window.
It's fitting that President Obama's plans for a stimulus package in the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression includes funds for high speed rail and rebuilding of our rail infrastructure. I just wish it would go all the way to match the dreams of authors like Clarke, (City and the Stars) or even Gene Roddenberry, whose 1974 series Planet Earth starred Dylan Hunt, a name that's popped up in three of Roddenberry's projects, though the last, Andromeda, wasn't actually executed by the Star Trek creator.
In Planet Earth, the United States had collapsed after a global disaster, and a team of scientist were traveling around the country trying to put communities back on their feet while fighting off mutant hordes. Standard fare in a lot of respects, but the whiz bang gizmo used to trek around was none other than a network of subterranean high speed trains, a legacy of the fallen civilization.
There are a lot of SF dreams I'm willing to let slip away for the moment, and I'm afraid that manned missions to Mars are among them. Anyone who wants to go to Mars is welcome to mount an expedition, and I might even kick in a few bucks. But an ultra-high speed network of trains that connected the entire country...I'd be willing to pay actual tax-dollars for.