Now I've always been a sucker for the 1939 New York World's Fair and that's definitely what drew my attention towards this book; the Fair's Trylon and Perisphere make an appearance early on and the very term "World of Tomorrow" is inextricably associated with that Fair (as well as the superb early 80's documentary about the Fair narrated by Jason Robards). The young boy and his father set out on a train to the New York World's Fair in May 1939 and soon find themselves enthralled (along with everybody else) by the confident, optimistic view of what the future would be like: glittering, gleaming supercities with robot servants, miracle food production and . . . gasp . . . television! This view of the dawning "space age" kindles a burning interest in both father and son to follow the space race through the years. While both start out on the same page, the son slowly diverges from his father's opinions as they pass through the paranoid 1950's era (son views rocket scientist Werner Von Braun as a hero while father views him as a Nazi criminal) all the way to post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era pessimism.
Besides viewing the relationship between father and son, the book also examines how we as a culture went from the optimism for a better tomorrow (as demonstrated by the World's Fair and 50's Atomic Optimism) to what we have today: a view that sees the future as probably being worse than the past and humankind probably heading toward a post-apocalyptic ruin as seen in so many books and movies of recent years. Fies himself claims to still be an optimist: "There is a slight sense of disappointment from my generation and anyone who hoped for the promise of the space age," says Fies. "But there is also many new ideas, both actual and hypothetical, that seem to be taking the world into a better tomorrow. I want this book to show that it’s a good thing to hope and think that tomorrow might actually be better than today."
Also scattered periodically throughout the book is the boy's favourite comic book: Space Age Adventures featuring Commander Cap Crater & the Cosmic Kid. The first issue is purchased for the boy at the NY World's Fair by his father and we are treated to a reproduction of the comic book bound right into the book itself. The high quality paper which the book has been printed on so far changes to the rough newprint of the day while colour printing mistakes, fake ads and even metal staples are reproduced. The comic book adventures of Cap Carter reappear at each ten year interval of the main story as something like a "greek chorus" commenting on the world view of each succeeding decade during the space race. Cap Carter & the Cosmic Kid's battle cry "Ad Astra Per Aspera" (meaning "through hardships to the stars") takes on a different meaning as the years flow by.
Besides the character development between father and son, Fies also manages to cram in fountains of information concerning everything from the experience of NY World's fairgoers (each visitor to the "World of Tomorrow" exhibit is handed upon leaving a pin that says "I Have Seen the Future"), geosynchronous orbit (discovered by Arthur C. Clarke) which allows communications satellites to function, vacuum tubes and transitor technology, the plans of Walt Disney to produce a "city of the future", the building of basement fallout shelters during the Cold War and the astronomical artwork of Chesley Bonestell which captivated Colliers Magazine readers. All this makes for a fascinating and entertaining read which really gives the flavour of those "space age" years from 1939 to 1975. After the first moon landing, the public somehow lost interest and the idea of a promising future sort of dissipated towards what we have now. The 1969 moon landing which had everyone glued to their television sets morphed into the later moon landings which had people complaining to the networks for interrupting their favourite regular programming to show moon footage. That was a pretty big change in only a few years. And while Fies does present this factually, he still manages to make the reader believe (without becoming a Pollyana) that their IS still optimism for a better future. It's just not the better future we had expected. It's different. It's probably better to let the author himself explain it. From his own "Author's Note":
"The millenial complaint 'Where's my flying car and jetpack?' was a joke, but one that hinted at the hurt of a broken promise. Somewhere along the way, we lost something more important and profound than personal light aircraft. As the World of Tomorrow's dark and unintended consequences emerged, the very idea of a hopeful future worth working toward became old-fashioned and naive. Onetime heroes became villains. Optimism was for saps; dystopian doom was where all the smart, cool, cynical people placed their bets. I disagree. Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? is an appreciation of, and an argument for, an increasingly rare way of thinking, creating, working, and living that has value. There was a time when building the future was inspirational. Ambitious. Romantic. Even ennobling. I think it can be again."