Notes from The Buffer Zone: The Jetsons And The Alternate Future

In the summer of 1964, my father took a teaching job at the University of California-Santa Barbara. I was four. I have distinct memories of that trip—all age appropriate. I got angry when my mother gave my comic books to another child, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t walk barefoot in the desert when our car broke down in the intense heat, and I got scared of the Wicked Witch at Disneyland, screaming, “Let’s get out of here!” and trying to flee the boat that had trapped us for the duration of the ride.

I also remember the strange sunlight (at least to these Midwestern eyes) and the clean lines of the Southern California architecture—the modern buildings that looked like something from TV.

Those modern buildings came from the mind of Gin D. Wong, an architect who died this fall at the age of 94. Mr. Wong designed the spaceshippy-type building (actually called The Theme Building) at Los Angeles International Airport that you always see in photographs of LAX. He designed a lot of impressive buildings with clean lines, things like the TransAmerica Building in San Francisco and a very famous Union/76 gas station in Beverly Hills.

I didn’t know until I Googled some of Wong’s other projects that his style is considered to be a cross between Mid-Century Modern—a term for buildings that we used to call “new” when I was a kid (sigh)—and Googie, a specifically Southern California style that combined car culture and Jet Age futurism. In Googie, you’ll find a lot of cantilevered roofs, starbursts, and hard angles.

What’s bizarre to me about Googie buildings is that I see them with two kinds of vision: the vision of that four-year-old Midwestern girl on her first trip to the west, and the vision of her older self. That four-year-old sees these buildings as new and fresh and exciting, promising a future that she’s going to live in.

That older self—fifty-three years older—sees those buildings as tired, worn out, and representative of a future that never really arrived. That future, with all its hope and optimism, got derailed by the cataclysms of the late 1960s, the long national nightmare that was the 1970s, the weirdness of the Reagan Era, and the hard lurch in a completely different direction in the 1990s.

According to Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog, Wong is the architect who inspired the look of The Jetsons TV show, particularly that iconic building at LAX, which shows up in almost every scene on that old Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

I didn’t like The Jetsons as a kid, although I watched it avidly. I hated the idea that Jane Jetson was a homemaker and that Judy Jetson (their daughter) was too dumb to live. Their son Elroy was as annoying as the kids in my class. I hated the idea that future lives would be so very much like my present. My mother was a homemaker. My sister had just left her teenage years (although my sister was anything but dumb), and like Judy Jetson, was interested in clothes and boys and the gee-gaws of the era.

I wanted difference. I wanted a future that didn’t look anything like our present. I wanted something so strange that I would struggle to recognize it.

Of course, at four, I couldn’t articulate that. I got closer at 12, when I discovered Star Trek in reruns. In that future, women were in space and were serving alongside their (very sexy) captain. (Yes, I had moved into that teenage phase in which I was interested in clothes and boys and gee-gaws too.) There were possibilities, finally, possibilities that I hoped might come true.

I grew up in the Jet Age, and everyone knew that would become the Space Age. We would live on the Moon and travel to the stars and discover all kinds of cool things including, maybe, aliens. We would leave the shackles of the Earth behind, but not before solving all of her problems. The future was going to be (in the words of Tony The Tiger) “grrrrrrrrrr-ate!”

Bits of that future did arrive. The news mentions the International Space Station almost in passing. Driverless cars are beginning to appear, and I’ve heard talk about the unwieldy nature of flying cars. (People can’t drive on the road! What will they do in the air?) Drones are causing privacy issues. And some of our billionaire businessmen are talking about trips to Mars—and beyond.

But we only have bits, and part of me was a little disappointed. The nuclear family of The Jetsons is no longer the norm—that stay-at-home mom is now a stay-at-home parent, and not the dominant form of living for the American middle class. I’m sure that would have pleased my young ambitious self (I wanna be an astronaut, a baseball player, a scientist, a writer, an actor! I don’t wanna stay home. Home is boooooring).

But my young self would have been confused by the lack of flying cars and the fact that space travel is not ubiquitous. Sometimes my adult self is confused by the same thing.

Gin D. Wong died in September, and I heard about his death—and his architecture—the same week I was putting together a video for a Kickstarter that my husband Dean Wesley Smith and I were doing for the reincarnation of Pulphouse Fiction Magazine.

We had shut down the magazine 21 years ago, due to a variety of circumstances, and we are now reviving it because technology has made it easy to do so. Dean never lost his vision for the magazine, and has threatened to revive it every year for the past twenty-one. I agreed only last year.

And then we made plans.

I wanted that Kickstarter video to reflect the old magazine, but to take it—and us—into the modern era. And as I wrote the script for the video, I realized things had changed dramatically from the early 1990s. The publishing world we find ourselves in is unrecognizable. The world we find ourselves in is unrecognizable.

It’s not the Space Age. It’s not even the Computer Age, not really. It’s something else.

This afternoon, as I went on my daily walk, I passed some teenage girls staring at their phones and holding a running conversation about the apps they were opening at the same time. I only heard them because I was crossing the street and had stopped listening to one of my favorite podcasts on my phone.

I had taken the walk after doing an interview with a woman in London, who will run an online program with Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany. Some of the online material will come from programs at the book fair, but some, like the interview she did with me and Dean, will be prerecorded.

On my computer and hers. Over the internet. Our conversation was free. (Rather than being charged by the minute, the way international calls in the previous century were.) Yes, this is a form of video phone, but most people don’t use their phones for video. The default is still audio.

Or rather, the default is text, because we’re all too busy for long conversations.

We don’t argue any more about little details. We look them up instead—sometimes using our thumbs to tap in the question and sometimes asking Siri or Alexa or any one of a number of other devices to tell us the answer we seek.

I’ve written about these differences before, but until I did that video, I hadn’t realized how very much had changed. How different this future is from the future of The Jetsons, the future we thought would be designed by people like Gin D. Wong.

For example, I wrote, produced, and edited the video myself, with two assists—some special effects, designs, and final tweaking from two of WMG Publishing’s employees. Frankly, though, I could have done all of the work myself. A 90-second video, which went from conception to completion in less than six hours—without a large production team and studio work. That’s a miracle of the modern era all by itself.

By the time you read this, the Kickstarter will have ended. But travel over to our page anyway and look at the video. It expresses exactly what I’m trying to say about the new future we find ourselves in, only much more concisely.

If you had asked me in 1980, 1990, or even in the year 2000 what 2017 would be like, I would never have told you that it would look like this.

What I discovered working on that video, however, is just how much I love this new world—and how reluctant I am to go back to the old imagined future. Yes, I want my space flight and colonization, but I have a hunch that will come. I just don’t want to give up my smartphone to get there.

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