Column: Wiley's Follies
Hyperloops And The Millenium Falcon
Published: Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 01:09
Elon Husk, founder of SpaceX and co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, recently proposed the “Hyperloop”—an invention he describes as the “fifth mode of transportation”—as an alternative proposal to the $68 billion high-speed rail currently in the works to run from San Francisco to Los Angeles. As laid out in Husk’s plans, the Hyperloop could complete the 354-mile route in 35 minutes, it’s construction costing a slight $7.5 billion. The concept of Hyperloop suggests by using linear induction motors—a technology frequently employed in the roller coaster industry—capsule-like vehicles, suspended on a cushion of air, could be propelled through elevated tubes at speeds up to 760 mph.
The proposal has received mild to harsh criticism—understandably so, the scientific claims hoisting the idea are ruffling many a feather in the academic world. Meanwhile, the proposed cost has a fine pool of business-types scrambling angrily to their calculators.
I don’t wholly blame these skeptics for my indignation. So it seems George Lucas raised me to believe—and wrongfully, I might add—that by 2013, the world could have squeezed out something a little more special than this cynicism. It also doesn’t help that the better part of my formative years was spent running between my kitchen and living room with a plastic Millennium Falcon, performing feats of derring-do. Han Solo and his wholesome Wookie companion Chewbacca weren’t even capable of imagining what a flip phone might do, and yet they together could travel through hyperspace in a hamburger-shaped spacecraft.
And how about William Shatner and his travels with the USS Enterprise? He literally navigated the Milky Way Galaxy using a series of panels with blinking lights as a primary interface. Yeah, I’m not buying any of this: it’s absolutely absurd we can’t get our Hyperloop.
I suppose I’ve always been captivated by the science fiction genre, and its fabricated tomorrow, and in time, that fabricated tomorrow seems to change. In 1927, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis showed us this dystopian vision, a world covered in massive cities, in which the poor live and die in the underbelly of the city, performing the manual labor to preserve the decadent lifestyles of the privileged few. And in the 1920s, with all talk of the “affluent” society, this version of tomorrow perhaps was certainly one of the most daunting, even quite plausible for the imaginative type of the time.
Flash forward to 1977, the year the original Star Wars trilogy began with what we now know as Episode IV: A New Hope. The great threat of 1977 is no longer the extreme outcomes of capitalism depicted in Metropolis. Director George Lucas addressed suspicions of the great “other,” whether that be the Galactic Empire in a galaxy far, far away or the Soviet Union a bit closer to home.
By no accident, the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy (1999-2003) gave a portrait of a world cheated of its humanity by technological isolation, right as the Internet began to play a pervasive role in everyday life. A healthy chunk of science fiction films produced over the last decade have similarly taken on this theme of an intrusive cyber reality: Inception, Source Code, and Minority Report to name a few. The sci-fi genre, in its noblest functioning, does not predict a future, but prevents one.
Similarly playing into the fears of the last decade, even Pixar’s Wall-E gave us a dystopian vision. Not entirely unlike Metropolis, this film took us to the ruins of an unsustainable society, bringing environmentalism into the science fiction genre, with this adorable, yet heart-wrenching parable of a kind-souled robot, depicting man a threat to himself in ways Lang’s tomorrow could hardly have uncovered.
This summer, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim took on an entirely different fear of the 21st century. Alien forces are now a threat from within, not without, in films such as these, engaging themes of terrorism. The age-old alien invasion plot-line gains an emotional viscosity as it evokes images of a very real sort of violence.
So what is science fiction: the Hyperloop or the plastic Millennium Falcon? Or maybe we let little boys play with Millennium Falcons because the real tomorrow is too scary to imagine, and the imaginary tomorrow is too real to shoot down.