Marginalia Futurologica 15, 2008


The Science Fiction of Mass Mobility

In 2007, Superfast Ferries closed the ferry service between Rosyth (Edinburgh) and Zeebrugge. In summer 2008, DFDS Seaways closed the service between Newcastle and Bergen. The reason for both? Cheap flights, of course.

It seems a strange coincidence, however, that in summer 2008 we have seen a point where the airline industry itself has got under enormous pressure. Alitalia seems on the verge of collaps and break-up, the low cost carries suffer from rising fuel prices. The higher the oil prices the more likely is a serious decline in air traffic.

While General Motors has introduced the Volt, an all-new electric car, promised to be the future of the automobile, new alternative power sources for aircraft are nowhere to be seen.

Even a hydrogen-powered aircraft (which in itself is science fiction in the foreseeable future) would probably be smaller and with reduced range and carrying capacity, resulting in higher prices. And as nobody seems seriously committed to building anything bigger than the A380 or faster than the Concorde, present-day passenger aircraft seem to be the climax of traditional kerosene-based types.

The SF questions in it

Is there any chance to develop new power sources that allow 300 people to fly in the same aircraft over the oceans – for a reasonable price? If not, will only a few people fly that far? Will more smaller planes be built? Or will many people together fly only on short flights?

Will we be flying to the Mediterranean in 30 years? Probably not. How will this future world organise trans-continental mass mobility without mass air traffic? With ships? Ferry services like the ones recently discontinued? Equipped with hyper-modern, automatic plastic sails?

If there is no way to organise quick and cheap transcontinental mass mobility like today – will we see the return of the jet set, a class of super rich defined by their use of jets? If future mass mobility is surface travel alone (cars, trains etc), what are the consequences for tourism on the Canaries? For the UK? For Hawaii? What will this decline in air travel mean for the mobility patterns of the US, a country with practically no useful long range trains?

The SF answers in it

The answers to these questions are clearly SF: A technological problem, in the future, and the social consequences of this problem. But what could answers be like? How would SF writers respond to the problems posed? Cross-continental maglev trains? Giant bridges across the Straits of Gibraltar? Over to Sicily? How would the world look like after the return of helium-filled dirigibles? Or a world where the mass mobility of the second half of the 20th century is simply not possible anymore? Where ordinary people simply do not go on holidays more than 100km from home?

We are waiting for your stories…

Matthias Bode und non volio 2008