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On Sci-fi Vehicles: Our Cars, Our Selves, Good and Bad.

The philosopher William James was once speculating about personal identity--what makes us what we are, over time. He said words to the effect of 'first comes the body--and next comes the clothes.' Which is to say, we are what we wear. Had he lived 100 years later, he might have said 'and next comes the car'--we are what we drive, or so it seems for many at least.

Vehicles of all sorts are a perennial playground of science-fiction, and how they are depicted--smooth, ergonomic, gleaming and rational, or patched-together, ungainly, flimsy and monstrous--is a function of the stories of which they are a part. How we depict our future vehicles--these intimate extensions of ourselves--is a sure barometer of whether the future we're depicting is utopian or dystopian.

The image above (from my new book How to Draw Sci-fi Utopias and Dystopias)is my depiction of a 'supertruck' of the near(ish) future--a vehicle from a time in which most cars are airborne, and in which ground transport is reserved for vehicles that are too big and heavy to fly.

This particular truck is designed to permanently accommodate a family of four--its cab is actually a 400 square-foot apartment.

The interior is designed to maximize ergonomic efficiency, and above all to be comfortable, cozy, soothing (everything is in Earth tones). I describe this in the book as an image from a distinctly American utopia--one in which the problems of ground congestion, fossil-fuel consumption and pollution have been pretty much solved--but in which the romance of life on the road persists.

There's a long tradition in sci-fi of the hero and his or her vehicle--again, the vehicle in question is generally an expression or extension of the hero's character. A few examples that spring to mind are:

Above: Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) and his Ford Falcon V8 Interceptor (from Mad Max, 1979, directed by George Miller). George Miller virtually created from whole cloth the post-apocalyptic dystopian road genre, which persists with such fury to the present day. The interceptor was destroyed in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)--but was (somehow) brought back to life in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) (in which it was totaled yet again). Max's character just demands that car.

Above: The Time Traveler (Rod Taylor) and the Time Machine (from The Time Machine, 1960, directed by George Pal). One of the most famous props in cinematic history, the 1960 time machine was most recently used in an episode of The Big Bang Theory.

Above: Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and the Millenium Falcon (from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, 1980, directed by Irvin Kershner).

Other noteworthy examples: Captain Kirk and his Enterprise, Metron and his Mobius Chair (from DC Comics' New Gods), Dr. Who and his Tardis (a time machine disguised as a police box), Marty McFly's Delorean (from the Back to the Future trilogy), Morpheus and the Nebuchadnezzar (from the Matrix trilogy), and of course Captain Nemo and his Nautilus.

Above: My take on The Nautilus (from How to Draw Sci-fi Utopias and Dystopias). One of the most iconic (and frequently re-designed) vehicles in all of sci-fi, from sci-fi's first real novel (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne). Harper Goff's design of the Nautilus from the Disney film of 20,000 Leagues is the most famous version of this ship, and one of the great early touchstones of the steampunk movement.

We in the developed world tend to view our vehicles and conveyances as more than mere expressions of our tastes or means of getting from A to B--they are almost literally parts of ourselves. The reasons for this are historical and psychological, but the result is the same: insult a man's car and as often as not you've insulted him; damage a man's car and the result could be catastrophic. In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), the Enterprise is destroyed in a battle with some renegade Klingons; the scene is more momentous and dramatically draining--for James Kirk and the viewer--than the death of Kirk's only son, which happened about 5 minutes earlier! This seldom-remarked upon fact is testament to the virtual identification of Kirk and his ship--how can one survive without the other?

My 'supertruck' was very much inspired by the work of the great designer Syd Mead--one of my chief influences. Mead is a great visionary and draughtsman, and his visions are almost always at the utopian end of the visual spectrum: visitations from a future that is sleek, gleaming, aerodynamic, peaceful, and prosperous.

Both of the above are by Syd Mead (from Steel Couture--Syd Mead-Futurist, Kodansha).

A couple more examples of mid 20th-century utopian-futurist vehicles:

Above: 'Super Train of Tomorrow' by James B. Settles, 1944 (from Out of Time--Designs for the Twentieth-Century Future by Norman Brosterman, Abrams, 2000). Sometimes the utopian is impressive for its sheer overwhelming scale, its bigness.

Above: 'Capri Satellite' by Russ Heath, 1957 (from Out of Time--Designs for the Twentieth-Century Future by Norman Brosterman, Abrams, 2000). And sometimes the utopian is impressive for the cleverness of ability to compress what is currently big into a small package. With my supertruck I tried to exploit both tendencies: big truck, little apartment.

And above: The Oyster, a scientific research vehicle, designed by me for How to Draw Sci-fi Utopias and Dystopias.

In general it can be said that the more utopian the vision of the future, the more smooth, shiny, rounded and ergonomic the surfaces. Aesthetic balance and geometrical pleasantness are outward signs and symbols of rationality; and the rational is coterminous with the good. And the good, with respect to the future of humanity, is the utopian.

And the evil, the irrational, the geometrically unpleasant and disordered=dystopian. I'll close this out with a final image from my book--that of a LandShip, a cobbled-together monstrosity trundling through a post-apocalyptic landscape, belching black smoke all the way:

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