INTERVIEW: David Zondy of "Tales of Future Past"

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 10/12/09

Today we've got David Zondy with us. He's the creator, host, and all-around Grand Exalted Poobah of the excellent "Tales of Future Past" website, which some of our more attentive readers will recall I was inadvertantly ripping off some months ago. David, thank you very much for being with us.

DAVID:
Glad to be here–speaking metaphorically, of course.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Again, sorry about unknowingly ripping you off. Thank you for being a good sport about that.

DAVID:
Hey, no problem. "Unknowingly", like trousers, covers a multitude of sins, so no harm done.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Your site scratches a very real, but seldom-remarked-upon itch in society: The fact that the future is never what we're promised. I don't know anyone over the age of 10 who goes to Tomorrowland or Epcot or a World's Fair, and really expects the future to be like it's depicted there, and yet we all feel so very ripped off when tomorrow gets here, and it's full of prison riots, value-added taxes, boring-looking airplanes that smell of stale coffee, and an utter lack of outer space adventure, just like the day before. Why do you think that is? Why do we feel cheated by the present?

DAVID:
I think part of the problem is that it is the present–and that's always disappointing. It's a bit like opening your Christmas presents and discovering that the really cool toy you waited six months for isn't nearly as flashy and fun as the picture on the box made it out to be. It's really hard for reality to compete with expectation; especially when it needs batteries.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Do you think that these visions of the future fulfil a social or psychological function, aside from just slick advertising and fashion?

DAVID:
Absolutely. They're how we used to express not only our hopes, desires, and fears about the future, but also how we saw ourselves. When you're looking confidently toward a future of moon colonies and robots without a hint of irony, it tells a lot about you. When you aren't, that tells just as much.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
"The Past is a separate country," but one we're frequently over-familiar with. Do you think that some of the 20th Century's fascination with "The Future" might be simply a desire to visit a place that's just like where they are right now, but much, much better? That's how Laurie Anderson described Paradise once...

DAVID:
I'd say. yes, but not "simply". It's actually a very profound phenomena. Future Past was an incredible six decades when people stopped looking at the future as a time when stuff happens and started looking at as a very different place that made the wildest revolutionary seem tame. It was a concerete tomorrow where the human condition might well be transcended.

It's an interesting point, though, about the phrase "just like where they are". One of the criticisms about Future Past that we here today is that they didn't predict things like Feminism, Multiculturalism, or this that or the other ism. The answer to that is that in many cases they actually did, but they weren't really interested in those sort of social changes. The people of, for example, 1950s America weren't interested in the future of another people. They were interested in their future. To them, dwelling on a Post Modernist future was as pointless as an Egyptian pondering life in 21st century China.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
On that note, once upon a time there was a genuine "Futurian" movement, a real, vigorous desire to promote artistic, social, architectural, and industrial change, and that 'if it's new, it must be better." I think this crazy-optomistic vision of tomorrow probably peaked around the time Space: 1999 hit the airwaves, and has been in steady retreat ever since then. In fact, Laurie Anderson is really the last artist I know who identifies herself as a "Futurian." Why do you think this is? Why did we stop believing in tomorrow as a place that's better than today? (I, myself, blame it on the filthy hippies and the disco era)

DAVID:
Futurian? Gads, for a moment I thought you wanted to talk about 1940s sci fi fans who took themselves way too seriously. I agree with your assessment, though I put the watershed at 1964 and the New York Wor'ds Fair with another ten years for the whole thing to run out of steam. There a lot of reasons why this happened and yes, I too blame hippies and disco. Or more to the point, the same crisis of confidence that lead to those horrors caused the death of Future Past. The details of which I leave for a time when I've had too much beer and don't care if people hear me shouting in public.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Speaking of which, have you ever heard "Fifty Years After The Fair" by Aimee Mann? "How beautiful it was/ tomorrow/ We'll never have a day of sorrow/we got through the 30s/but our belts were tight/we conceived of a future with no hope in sight/we've got decades ahead of us to get it right/I swear/ fifgy years after the fair." Breaks my heart every time I hear it.

DAVID:
Oh, dear. A question about pop music. I'm probably the least pop music inclined person on the planet. I once chatted with a gentleman named David Bowie and I think he was a bit nonplussed that I had absolutely no idea who he was even when someone told me his name.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
[Laughing] So you don't have any favorite modern-day song or art that, you know, kind of articulates that sort of heartbreak? The pain that the present never really measures up with our anticipation for it?

DAVID:
Um...

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Ok, ok, sorry. So tell us a bit about yourself. You're English, right? Is 'Zondy' an English name? What's your day job?

DAVID:
Born in Yorkshire and proud of it, though I've been bounced around the world a lot, so the Northern accent doesn't come out unless I'm drunk or angry. As to the name, "Szondy" is from my mother's first husband. After that it gets complicated. Day job? I'm a freelance writer doing everything from feature articles to business writing to stage plays. Currently, I'm collaborating with my wife on a screenplay set in the world of celebrity chefs.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
How does the English experience of "The Future" differ from the American one? Were we both anticipating the same thing, but with cars on opposite sides of the road, or is there a fundamentally different underlying set of desires and expectations that permeate both?

DAVID:
I think the main difference between the American and British view of the future is that the British are more skeptical about it. We invented the Industrial Revolution and a lot else besides, so we've had a close up look at the nastier side effects. The British attitude is best summed up by the Hammer film Moon Zero Two; we'll colonise the moon, but it when we do we'll still be lumbered by regulations and officious customs inspectors.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Since I had it pointed out to me, I've totally fallen in love with your website, and I strongly reccomend all our readers should visit it and swim around there for a while, it's a lot of fun. When did you start it, and what were you hoping to accomplish with it?

DAVID:
I started it in 2003 when I was looking for a project to practice HTML on and I hit on the idea of a website that I could use to explore some writing ideas. The original plan was to put stuff up about Future Past for a couple of months and then go on with a section about James Bond or homicidal penguins or something. Here it is six years later and I'm still working on Future Past.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
What kind of responses have you gotten to the site? Encouraging, or just a lot of confused Emails from people saying "There weren't no peoples on Mars in 1981?" I tend to get a few of the latter whenever I review alternate history stories...

DAVID:
I'm amazed at how universally positive the response has been. I think the only negative response I ever had with someone who complained that there weren't any actual "tales" on the site. I think he got pulled over for surfing the Internet without a clue.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
What's your take on the recent "Steampunk" trend? Has it affected your site at all, or your outlook? Or the outlook of people visiting you?

DAVID:
I was around when Steampunk meant episodes of the Wild, Wild West, so the current trend was interesting when it started, but I can't help feeling that it's got so out of hand that it's less about coming up with plausible "This is what a PC would look like if it was built in 1870" and more "Let's stick lots of gears and brass tubing on it". I think the daftest thing is when they steampunk devices that were already around in the Victorian era. A steampunk watch? Oh, dear, oh, dear.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
[Laughing again] Yeah, I've seen those. It seems to me a steampunk watch really should be a digital watch made with 19th century technology, Rumikof coils, coal furnaces, a magic lantern to project the numbers - if you're going to do a steampunk "Watch" it should be the size of a rail road car. So anyway, What is your absolute favorite thing about the future that we didn't get? Was there one thing that we were supposed to have by now that makes you ache in an empty spot deep in your soul every time you think of it? For me, it's LaGrange colonies.

DAVID:
I'm really disappointed that we didn't get those wonderful Sir Arthur C Clarke spaceships plying the Solar System. As a realist I understand that unmanned probes are the best, and maybe only practical, way to explore space, but it really galls me that we never found anything out there that could justify building proper ships that carried hundreds of passengers and were as disposable as the Queen Mary.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
I get like that too, only with me it's all those vacuum-tube powered ships from the Venus Equilateral stories in the 40s. Space Ships without having invented RADAR first? It's madness! What is something about traditional visions of the future that you think is over-represented and that doesn't really connect with you? What is something that everone equates with "Tomorrow," but which you couldn't care less about? For me, it's Mars. I couldn't give less of a rat's ass about Mars if I tried, particularly since the people obsessed with Mars seem mostly unaware that the rest of the solar system even exists, yet it gets all the love...drives me nuts.

DAVID:
I'd say that it's a toss up between true artificial intelligence and the quest for extraterrestrail life. The first may not even be theoretically possible and the second is so full of metaphysical yearnigs that it often comes across as an atheist proudly declaring that he doesn't believe in God, but he does believe in aliens indistinguishable from Him. My own take is similar to that of Douglas Adams; if we do ever have intelligent aliens and robots in our future, they'll be really annoying.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
What's the most surprising thing you've learned while doing Tales of Future Past? What did you not know going in that you've learned that made you sit back and go "Whoa?"

DAVID:
I think the most astonishing thing was when I was looking at future aircraft. Normally, when I look at a subject I expect it to be full of sci fi covers or cinema fnatasies, but with aircraft the field was progressing so fast that more than half the time the predictions were made up of prototype craft that engineers where actually putting into the air. It says something when the production model is already being built while the paint on the mock up is still drying.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Is there anything you've accomplished on your site that you're particularly proud of? Something that justifies the exercise more than you anticipated when going in to it?

DAVID:
I think my proudest accomplishment is that so many people like it and that I can reach such a large audience so quickly. I teach as well as write and it sobers me that Future Past is read by more people in a week than pass through my class room in a decade.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
And finally - what's next for David Zondy? Where do you go from here?

DAVID:
To finish Tales of Future Past. I still have a few hundred pages left to go and maybe more to follow. After that, I'd like to come up with a book tie-in or maybe a documentary.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
Oooh! Please do let us know when it's updated, that's the kind of thing we'd like to make sure our readers know about. And that's it. David, I want to thank you again for being here, it's been a pleasure talking to you, and a pleasure perusing your online efforts. Thank you very much!

DAVID:
It's been my pleasure.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:
The website is called "Tales of Future Past" and it's one of a small handfull of sites I reccomend without reservations. Check it out here http://davidszondy.com/future/futurepast.htm and if you don't like it, there's something fundamentally wrong with you.

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