Sunday, December 28, 2008

Where's My Jetpack by Daniel H. Wilson

I don't remember whether I saw this randomly in the catalog or had it recommended to me, but the whole concept just seemed amazing. A book about stuff we've been reading about since H.G. Wells? I'm totally there.

The results didn't disappoint.

Written by a CMU alumni in a style that's both entertaining and factual (think Mythbusters, for instance), Wilson takes us down the road of all the things we've ever wanted: Flying cars, X-ray glasses, food pills, living on the moon, and, of course, jet packs. Where are we at in terms of their development? How much might it cost? Is there even a prayer of such a thing existing?

Written as a straight book, this would have been interesting. I had no idea, for instance, that we could theoretically have a space elevator, but that the cost (about a billion) combined with the danger (one small rock could send you on the stairway to heaven) are still too high. But what makes this one work so well is the fact that Wilson writes with a sarcastic flair worthy of a good parody film. Take this section on Zeppelins:

"Blimpin' ain't easy, but the ostentatious airship of yesteryear was one sweet ride."

Or perhaps this, from the X-Ray glasses: "gawking at naked people is always good fun, but what about using your abilities for the forces of good?"

One more, so you can feel the tone of the text: "Why transport when you can teleport? In the classic Star Trek television series teleportation was commonplace from the deck of the USS Enterprise. The only danger was to nonessential actors, who were fated to be torn limb from limb by a paper-mache moon beast upon being 'beamed' to the surface. Now, brace yourself for a total brain meltdown: Teleportation is a real area of research and scientists are making solid progress with microscopic, inanimate objects."

Yes folks, you, too, can soon be getting to work much faster--so long as you don't wear a red shirt on your daily commute.

Now lest you think this book is a big joke, I would note that Wilson goes into great layman-style detail of things. The teleportation article noted above is a particularly good example, as he tries to explain how the matter is moved. Turns out, by the way, that it can be done. Just not for humans---yet.

The book itself is divided into five sections: Advanced Transportation, Future-tainment, Superhuman Abilities, The Home of the Future, and Humans...In Space! The entries themselves are short, generally running about five pages each. They start with a brief and witty remark about where we got the idea, then move into the attempts to bring the dream into reality. The verdict seems to be about 50% fairly practical, 50% not likely, depending on how you look at things. Some are already here but not in the way we'd hoped, such as (not quite) universal translators or the titular jet pack.

One thing I found particularly interesting was just how much of the items were being developed or are being worked on by the US Military, from jet packs to diet pills to being able to imitate Susan Richards. I tend to think of the Armed Forces as being anything but cutting edge or imaginative, but apparently they're reading Analog in the Pentagon or something, because it seems a fair piece of the defense budget over the years has gone to some really wacky ideas. (Think about that next time you protest military spending, huh? Maybe you're keeping us from living on the moon, ya damned hippie!)

As times change and the economy gets worse, one wonders how long it will be before someone out there decides that the time is ripe to create a few thousand jobs trying to make Philip K. Dick look like Benjamin Franklin. If they do, this book would serve as a good reference point on what can be done, and what likely can't. (Sorry, but we won't be seeing any space-age Bart Simpsons on hoverboards anytime soon, possibly anytime ever.) As Wilson notes, "Wherever a dangerous new technology exists, there is a guy with cool goggles and streaky blonde hair waiting to shatter his fibula. Totally." In the meantime, totally read this book. You'll be glad you did.

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