Remember in 1991 when intelligent apes took over the planet? And the nuclear fallout that caused our ape overlords to become more and more intelligent while we grew more docile? You don't remember that?
Perhaps you remember in 1992 when scientists developed an artificially intelligent computer named HAL, or in 1999 and 2001 when alien monoliths were discovered on the moon and Jupiter? You don't recall?
Surely you must remember in 2006, when an alien ship crashed in London, and 10 Downing Street, the home of the British prime minister, was destroyed? Doesn't ring a bell?
No doubt you're too busy to think about such ancient history, given the wealth of technological wonders currently available to us, from undersea elevators and gravity tubes, to bartending robots, to USB/WiFi flashdrives for our brains. Why are you giving me a funny look?
Since science fiction began with Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" in 1726, writers have created futuristic worlds of imaginary but plausible settings. They have explored the possibilities and consequences of science and technology, space travel, aliens and paranormal abilities, always beginning with the phrase "What if?"
For many of those writers, the far-flung year 2000 seemed incredibly remote and therefore a ripe staging ground for dramatically different worlds. It must have been all those zeroes. And yet, as many of us lament, it is 2012 already, and we have no jet packs or flying cars.
We may not have those things, but the truth is that current technology does render them feasible. In fact, working jet packs are currently for sale by a Mexican start-up that also offers flying lessons. But at $250,000 US each, they are a long way from being universally adopted. Similarly, prototypes for flying cars are under development, but unlikely to become widely available for decades, at least. For practical reasons, these inventions will probably remain playthings for the wealthy and privileged, because of the imposing logistics involved in keeping thousands (or millions) of flying vehicles from crashing into each other!
Of course, the only reason anyone is developing jet packs and flying cars in the first place is because they are part of the futuristic world we've read about, courtesy of science fiction. Why did those authors posit such flying devices to begin with? For that answer, you need to look at the past.
Like any literary genre, science fiction at heart is an exploration of the human condition. SF writers create imaginary worlds and technology to cope with basic human concerns and conundrums. Wouldn't it be nice, they ask, if human beings didn't have to worry about physical ailments? In response, they posited a treasure trove of miraculous medical devices, from Uniflesh (flesh for every occasion) to hand-held germ detectors. If some medical solutions depicted now exist -- such as face transplants -- it is because scientists and doctors also imagine a world where the effects of disease and physical ailments can be minimized.
It is amusing to look at SF versions of our current time period and see how many things writers got wrong. In some cases, it was because they wrongly assessed our priorities. Why develop a food pill (which would strip all enjoyment out of obtaining nutrition) when cancer hadn't yet been cured? Why develop something as expensive and nonproductive as fully-functioning virtual reality when you could spend a lot less (and make more) developing new ways to communicate with real people?
Even though our world might not resemble the world that writers like Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke imagined, it's still far more technologically advanced than the world of the early 1900s. My grandmother passed away in the late '80s, so she never got to make a cell-phone call or use a hands-free faucet, but in her 88 years she witnessed the birth of radio, then television, of desktop computers and grocery-store checkout scanners. She grew up using a gas oven but in her later years cooked meals with microwaves. I'm sure it all seemed near miraculous to a women who bragged about how she'd predicted television in a high-school essay and received a poor grade from a teacher with no imagination.
It tickles me to think what Grandma Heritage would make of our current technology. We don't have laser pens yet, Grandma, but we can video chat with friends and family all over the globe. We may not have robot butlers, but we can type nearly anything into our computers and purchase it with electronic money, to have it brought directly to our door.
Who knows? Maybe we will one day have flying cars. (Though I do hope we manage to avoid an ape uprising.) Regardless of what the future brings, we will continue to build on the dreams of the past. I firmly believe that some of the best inventions are yet to come.