Better Than Jet-Packs

This is the year of another forgotten SF anniversary. Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1986, the first Universal Trans matter-transmitter terminals went into commercial operation. Their network hub was in New York, with connecting sites all over the world. Airline bookings plummeted as travellers realised that all you had to do (after, of course, paying Universal Trans lots of money) was to walk into a transmitter frame and, instantly, emerge from another one hundreds or thousands of miles away. Farewell at last to cramped seats and plastic food! Bliss.

Well, that was how it was in the 1963 SF novel All the Colours of Darkness by the late Lloyd Biggle Jr. I liked the way he dealt with matter transmitters, not as a fiddly lab demonstration but as something with massive commercial impact. Before long, Universal Trans did a deal with NASA to put a terminal on the Moon, and a new tourist industry loomed. Admittedly they had a slight problem with passengers vanishing in mid-transmission. That, however, wasn't a flaw in the transmitter technology, but sabotage by interfering aliens ...

Paul Merton used to grumble regularly on Have I Got News For You about how SF had failed in its promise to let us all fly around with jet-packs. Personally I never felt those things were safe, especially if Paul Merton had one, but I've been waiting far too long for Universal Trans to open for business and take the pain out of public transport. If only I could beam down to distant SF conventions, I'd be prepared to forgive the newspapers for their patronising stories about sci-fi geeks beaming in. Except that, when everybody travelled by matter transmitter, the reporters would need to find an alternative sneer. It would probably be something to do with jet-packs.

I could even live with the sad result that – since no one would need to drive long distances any more – the M1 would lose its classic, scenic beauty and become all run-down and overgrown. (Lloyd Biggle discussed such issues in his follow-up novel, Watchers of the Dark.) I am prepared to make that sacrifice. Just let me use those dull, boring, utilitarian matter transmitters instead. It's definitely time that scientists moved on from announcements about how they've managed to teleport one single lousy photon, and tackled the infinitely more significant problem of me. Not forgetting my hand luggage.

I'm rather less keen on videophones, which SF has been predicting for much longer. Hugo Gernsback's famously clunky novel Ralph 124C41+ (whose original magazine instalments appeared in 1911-1912) demonstrates his flair for lumpish names by calling a videophone the Telephot. In italics. Every time. And while Biggle reckoned that 1986 was a reasonable launch date for matter transmitters, Gernsback nervously put his public videophones on hold until the year 2660.

Strangely enough, it was a mainstream rather than a science fiction novelist who imagined near-future videophones in England. Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm (1932) is famous not as SF but as a luscious parody of a whole bygone genre of earthy, rustic novels full of ploughing, primordial passions, and purple prose. The doomed farm suffers from the King's Evil, the Queen's Bane, and the Prince's Forfeit, and even its cows apparently have leprosy – anyway, bits of them keep dropping off.

But in a quiet way, Cold Comfort Farm is SF. It's set after the grim "Anglo-Nicaraguan Wars of '46". There's internal air mail in Britain, with the air-postman dropping packets of letters into your back garden. And there are videophones, with the oddity that public call-boxes are fitted with cameras but not displays. When the heroine calls her boy-friend from a box, he can study her face but she can't see his.

Ordinary mobile phones were imagined by several SF authors. My favourite example comes from Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet (1948), which astonishingly predicts how mobile owners will behave in company. "Say, your telephone is sounding," someone says, and the hero pulls out his phone. After a very few words: "... I'll have to sign off – I'm in a crowd. Good-bye. Thanks for calling." The etiquette of the future isn't what it used to be.

Which brings me to another great selling point for Universal Trans. With instantaneous journey times, you'd never have to sit next to someone shouting into his mobile: "Hi, I'm on the matter transmitter!"

David Langford remembers when we were all going to live on food pills.