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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Carlo Rotella

Flying cars: Not just for escaping zombies

 The Terrafugia Transition is the latest in a storied culture of flying cars, both real and imagined

Terrafugia

The Terrafugia Transition is the latest in a storied culture of flying cars, both real and imagined

Terrafugia, a company based in Woburn, says it’s getting close to putting a flying car into production. Terrafugia’s Transition is really an airplane-that-rolls more than a car-that-flies, but still, you will be able to fly it between airports and also drive it on streets and highways. Among the features that can be yours for a list price of $279,000 are patented elecro-mechanical folding wings, an airframe parachute, all-wheel hydraulic disc brakes, and a golf club storage compartment. Also, the company’s promotional literature adds, “you can call it your ‘flying car.’ ”

This development should make any remaining fans of the future very happy. There used to be a lot more of them. As other commentators have recently pointed out, including Edward Rothstein of The New York Times and Virginia Postrel of Bloomberg, Americans used to be high on the future. Its reputation boomed during the first two-thirds of the 20th century, from the era of horseless carriages, skyscrapers, and global expansion through the golden age of World’s Fairs and science fiction, the rise of robotics and aviation, and the postwar era of “The Jetsons” and the space race, arriving at a climax in, say, 1969, the year of both the first moon landing and the final season of the original “Star Trek.”

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The flying car, a symbol of the expansion of individual freedom and the conquering of physical limits made possible by technological advances, was a frequently recurring figure in these imagined futures. It wouldn’t be just superheroes and astronauts who could fly; it would be families, average citizens, everybody.

Then the future began to fall into disrepute. The crises of the 1960s and especially the 1970s — riots, a lost war, the rise of OPEC, stagflation — helped set the new tone. By 1982, in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” an enormously influential science-fiction portrait of the near future, the flying car had turned definitively noir. Cops lifted off in them from decaying, ungovernable streets, nosing through the perpetual twilight of neon-lit pollution.

These days we seem to have even less use for sunny visions of the future, instead favoring zombie plagues, enslavement by machines, endless young-adult dystopias, and apocalypses of every stripe. (Today being the big day for Mayan doom, I trust you’re watching the heavens for the approach of Nibiru.) Then, in the real world, there’s climate change, peak oil, and more esoteric forms of resource depletion (we’re running out of magnesium?!), the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent, and the imperial tristesse that infuses the idea of America’s declining power in the world.

Why does this culture tell itself this story in this way at this time?

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The skies of the future are no longer filled with flying cars. Maybe I’m just typical of my time, or maybe the cultural moment has come around to better fit my own flatliner tendency, but this comes as a relief to me. Judging from how poorly we handle the gee-whiz technologies of the present, I can’t help but see the flying car as death from above. Emboldened by the myth of multitasking, we’re hellbent on operating our plain old ground-bound motor vehicles while eating, drinking, texting, emailing, trying to follow GPS directions, and talking on the phone — even if it kills us and anyone in our way. Flying cars would just add spectacular new opportunities to demonstrate incompetence behind the wheel, yielding midair collisions that rain flaming debris onto our streets and homes.

Why does this culture tell itself this story in this way at this time? That’s an essential question at the heart of American Studies, my scholarly field. Americans used to tell themselves lots of stories about flying cars because they gave us ways to think about the possibilities for a better life associated with exciting new technology. Now, though, at the moment when the flying car is no longer a pipe dream, that romantic vision of progress overleaping all limits seems obsolete. If flying cars still did figure prominently in our imagined future, what would they be good for, other than a temporary escape from the zombies running amok at ground level?

The flying car can’t stay up there in the blue sky forever. It has to land again sometime, and when it does, you’ll be right back in the middle of the mess we’ve made.

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’

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