No Automobiles in this Retrofuture

Retrofuturist fiction creates a world of the past where someone anachronistic either introduces the technology of the future or states a guiding principle for it. In my Iskander series novels I have a small castaway team of engineers and scientists introduce advanced technology into a 17th century world. I picked the 17th century (even if I like to stray into the 16th and early 1700s) because it is accepted that this was the pre-industrial-revolution period. I wanted to have my modern people start from scratch.

Having worked with people from a pre-industrial society – the desert Arabs we hired for our oil exploration crews in Libya in the 1960s – I have had first-hand experience with some of the difficulties the moderns might face. One of our fresh-out-of-the-oasis new hires rode out from camp in the cab of a pickup on his first morning – very much plunged into a new world because he’d only ever seen a vehicle from the outside before. He was wonderstruck until we arrived and everyone climbed out – leaving him in the passenger seat. Then he freaked out – hysterically pounding against the door and windshield. He had no idea how to get out. Who knew? We soon rescued him and showed him how a door handle worked.

Imagine this happening with an important personage – say an armed personage – in a retrofuturist scenario in one of my novels. He might try to shoot his way out, or smash a window, and at the very least form a very unfavorable opinion of the people trying to impress him with the ride. What if he was the king? Not knowing enough to give him a careful intro to what was about to happen could be a political disaster.

The locals in my stories are all depicted as very cautious and skeptical at first, when confronted with the Iskanders’ technology and philosophies. The Gaians have to be won over. In our world, every new development had to go through the process of introduction and gradual acceptance. We have grown so accustomed to most that the idea some might be suspect could hardly be further from our minds. Even offering the Gaians an opportunity to have shares in the only modern steelworks on the planet is met by suspicion. “If this is so good, why do you have to share it with me?” “Do I look fool enough to hand over my hard earned gold to some unheard of scheme?”

The fellow who was used to riding a horse to visit the distant capital would think twice before accepting that this steam contrivance could get him there in hours. His mind goes little further than the possible advantage or harm to himself, but he might gather his courage to buy a ticket to try it. He wouldn’t have the slightest idea that the coal and smoke could, over many years, do serious harm to the world – but he’s already suspicious that this gimcrackery goes against all that is tried and true in his world. Only the moderns who build the machines are aware of the whole picture – pro and con – and it is their responsibility to avoid the problems that will develop in the more distant future.

I have depicted the developments to be aimed at mass transit rather than private. The railroad is inevitably mass transit, even if certain individuals might have private carriages, and ships too are mass transit. They do not attempt to introduce individual vehicles like automobiles, or even bikes – rather let the locals continue to use horses, carts and carriages for their local transport. They also need their own people to move about unobtrusively, so horse and carriage works best for them. Both the railroad and the sea transport can be switched to modern, pollution free propulsion once the local labour force has reached the required level of sophistication. As I mentioned before, a star traveling culture must have fusion power, and once they reach the development level where they can build new reactors the railroads can be electrified and the ships carry their own reactors of suitable size.

In our world, the current designs of automobile were never inevitable. The steam truck (lorry in Britain) held its own against the internal combustion engine until political influence in the 1930s was used to impose taxation and regulation to kill steam. The electric vehicle had a short run until fashion turned to gasoline – assisted mightily, of course, by the oil companies. The curse of suburbia and the huge subsidies that created the road network that makes an automobile almost essential today are not a product of superiority over other modes, but the product of manipulated social planning. Manipulated, of course, by those who stood to gain from it.

In the parts of Gaia that come under the Iskanders’ technological influence the political and taxation advantages will all be directed at keeping cities concentrated and viable, and public transit affordable and efficient. Those self propelled machines like dozers, backhoes, cranes, and heavy haulers will remain steam powered until the availability of cheap electric power and rare materials make it practical to switch them to long life batteries or fuel cells. The diversion of almost all of our transport and trade to the least efficient prime movers on highways was never inevitable. It will take us generations to undo these effects of greed in the past. I intend to show the advantages the Gaians will enjoy by never being seduced into these wealth destroyers.

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One Response to “No Automobiles in this Retrofuture”

  1. M. Simon Says:

    Fusion power for a star culture:

    Bussard’s IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained
    Why hasn’t Polywell Fusion been funded by the Obama administration?

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