Uber has unveiled its first passenger-carrying rideshare aircraft, Business Insider reported. The hybrid helicopter/airplane design can fly customers across cities at 150 mph. Science fiction predicted such vehicles to traverse endless landscapes.
Readers of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune or William Gibson’s short story, “The Gernsback Continuum,” may recall the dragonfly-like helicopters used in both stories for rapid aerial transit. The sprawling desert planet in Dune and the urban landscape of “The Gernsback Continuum” are two nearly opposite terrains, but each necessitates quick travel over long distances of land. Now, rideshare companies like Uber are unveiling plans for new passenger drones that are expected to take flight in the next one to four years. Whether piloted or unmanned, these upcoming modes of transportation echo sci-fi classics of decades past.
Rapid Transit Built for Rapid Expansion
As Earth’s population continued to grow in the early 20th century, science fiction writers quickly looked ahead to problems of overpopulation. “Whether Utopian or Dystopian, the ever-expanding city seemed to be the inevitable habitation of the future, since, in America at least, the whole history of the country could be viewed in terms of migration to the cities,” said Dr. Gary K. Wolfe, Professor of Humanities in Roosevelt University’s Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies. “In the 1790 census, only 5 percent of the population lived in urban areas, but by 1920, the urban population outnumbered the rural population for the first time, thanks in part to waves of immigration.”
Obviously, Earth isn’t independently growing to accommodate our increasing population, and yet everyone needs a place to live. Some futurists imagined cities built ever upward, while others wrote of urban areas that pushed further and further out from their centers. Dr. Wolfe mentioned the Robert Heinlein story, “The Roads Must Roll,” which envisioned Chicago and St. Louis building further and further out until meeting somewhere near Bloomington, Illinois. “That’s an early vision of the sprawl that later featured in William Gibson’s Neuromancer and its sequels, a huge unbroken urban area that stretched all the way from Boston to Atlanta,” he said.
Writing against the City
Urbanization isn’t the only science fiction-based mother of invention when it comes to rapid aerial transportation. In the aforementioned Dune, the desert planet Arrakis is impossible to traverse by foot. Water is extremely scarce. Enormous subterranean worms sense vibrations in the ground and burrow rapidly to consume anything they detect. Therefore, humans use aircraft similar to Uber’s planned hybrid helicopter-airplanes to travel from one location to another. Dune‘s protagonist, Paul, uses such a ship early in the novel to escape a political coup set in motion against his family, fleeing his past life.
Similarly, Philip K. Dick novels like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and The Martian Time-Slip make use of small, advanced passenger aircraft to travel across the sparse and lifeless Martian terrain. This is notable especially in The Martian Time-Slip, which notably features a scene with Arnie Kott, the head of a workers’ union—and commercial helicopter passenger—who has just been detoured against his wishes by his pilot to offer aid to a stranded Martian family. In this novel, commercial helicopter travel has become so commonplace that even answering an emergency mandate to save the lives of a dying group of Martians is a bore.
Dr. Wolfe offered a similar example with Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 novel, The City in the Stars. In this book, the isolated city of Diaspar is said to be humanity’s final bastion after a war against an ancient alien species. The protagonist, Alvin, is overcome with curiosity and eventually steals a spaceship to investigate humanity’s distant, unclear past. “As this narrative circles outward, growing ever more cosmic in scope, we meet a vast, disembodied intelligence—we meet a mostly deserted universe,” he said. “And Alvin eventually learns that, in fact, a portion of humanity was simply left behind when the galactic civilization achieved a kind of universal consciousness and just moved on to another universe entirely.”
“So we end not with a vision of the city as the best the future has to offer, but as an image of retreat, of fear, of the end of ambition,” Dr. Wolfe said. In a sense, then, the sci-fi transportation of Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert offer their high-speed commercial aircraft as a means of leaving something behind just as much as—if not more than—a way to reach a destination.
Dr. Gary K. Wolfe contributed to this article. Dr. Wolfe is a Professor of Humanities in Roosevelt University’s Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies. He earned his B.A. from the University of Kansas and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.