Jetpack Dreams


End of chapter one

The Voluptuous Panic, Part I

See my lips tremble and my eyeballs roll, Suck my last breath, and catch my flying soul.

Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard”

Flying fantasies confront us at every turn. And there is evidence it’s been this way for a very long time. A recent fossil discovery revealed that the first mammals capable of gliding flight lived many millions of years ago. The fossil in question belongs to a Chinese squirrel-like creature, which possessed a stretchy membrane between its front and back legs that served as wings. Some scientists believe the animal may have lived as long ago as 164 million years, meaning that mammals were taking to the air before birds.

Yet, still we, the ultimate mammals, have no jetpack.

Flash forward 164 million years. By the summer of my thirty-fifth year, my life was evidently half over, and I’d come to accept that I was never going to play shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles or be the next Spencer Tracey or Kurt Cobain. That’s when the question was zapped my way like a laser shot from robot eyes: Where’s my jetpack? Whatever happened to what must surely be the greatest promise never kept?

Soon an idea began to take shape. I could go out into the world, wherever it made sense to go, and some places that perhaps it did not, and find out what happened to our jetpacks. I mean, is this the future or is it not? And as a serious bonus, perhaps my quest would lead me to someone who could still make the dream come true. Some might not consider it on par with the stuff of Michelangelo or Mozart, but it was something I thought I could do.

As I began telling friends and colleagues about my plan, I quickly realized that I was far from alone. In fact, just about every (male) friend I told, regardless of age, responded with what can only be called spazzy enthusiasm. One guy, a majestically ironic twenty-something magazine editor, confessed manically to me: “Yes! Yes, totally. I remember sitting in class when I was a little kid just wishing I could blast off with a jetpack and get out of there.” He gripped the side of his chair to demonstrate and shook like a hipster epileptic while making throaty blast-off noises: “Shhhhrrrrrruugghhhh!”

We were having lunch in one of those Manhattan restaurants where the wait staff consists entirely of supermodels, and by acting so publicly geeky, he was ensuring that he would never get to date one. By extension, my friend was basically telling me that he’d rather talk about jetpacks than have sex with a supermodel.

Most other people had similarly impassioned responses to the mere mention of the wordjetpack. But not always. Sometimes when I explained my plan to a female friend, her expression would say to me, “I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about, and in fact if a telemarketer called my cell phone right now, I’d answer.” But that was rare, and at those moments all I had to do was pantomime wearing a backpack equipped with launch-capable, powerfully thrusting engines and taking off with it to win over such a friend. “Oh,” she’d say then. “That does sound pretty cool.”

You’re damn right it does. Before I knew it, I’d become completely enchanted with the idea of hunting one down. Soon I started to feel all Star Warsy, as more and more it began to seem like my destiny to bring the good people of the world their rightful jetpacks. In order to do so, I thought, I must first look to the past, the better to launch into the future.

Beginning of chapter two

The Past Is Prologue?

I want to fly like an eagle.

The Steve Miller Band, “Fly Like An Eagle”

The jetpack was first popularized in a novella published in the August 1928 issue of a once widely read pulp magazine called Amazing Stories. The first science fiction magazine in the United States, Amazing Stories began in 1926, with the enticing tagline: “Extravagant Fiction Today: Cold Fact Tomorrow.”

In “Armageddon 2419 A.D.,” author Philip Francis Nowlan used the time-honored narrative device known as the Radioactive Experiment Disaster Technique to transport his protagonist, veteran World War I pilot Captain Anthony Rogers, five hundred years into the future. In Tony’s future, the planet is populated by people who concoct synthetic foods, wield ray guns, and have the good sense to travel via jetpack rather than automobile. (Hard-core fans will point out, however, that in early episodes Rogers’s compact backpack contains a chunk of antigravity, making flight possible. This technology eventually morphed into rocket engines, in part, some have speculated, because readers wanted to see the machine at work in greater detail.) Our hero is soon blasting off the page and into the hearts of adolescent boys everywhere.

Interestingly, the cover of the Amazing Stories featuring Anthony’s debut was devoted not to Rogers but to a story written in 1918 by a former chemical engineer named Edward Elmer Smith, “The Skylark of Space.” The cover illustration shows a young man wearing what appears to be an old-fashioned leather football helmet, a form-fitting racing suit, and knee-high boots of the sort that remain in fashion with chic metropolitan women the world over. This is the future as imagined in post-World War I America. The man is hovering in midair with a very elaborate device strapped around his groin area, continuing over his shoulders and halfway down his back, not unlike a high-tech man-purse. With his right hand he is waving to an attractive, slightly neurotic-looking woman who is waving back to The Skylark from what must be the outskirts of her family’s farm. In the man’s left hand he is holding a joystick-like apparatus that glows green, indicating the groin-back machine is indeed on. This is either a very early depiction of an antigravity machine in action or The Skylark of Space is an incredibly talented, if perhaps a bit too flamboyant, leaper.

Nowlan’s Anthony Rogers narrative proved such a hit with readers that it led in quick succession to a sequel, a wildly popular comic stripthe first science fiction strip on recordmovie and television franchises, and eventually, many years later, to video- game spin-offs. The character is still most famously associated with the long-running comic strip, which debuted in 1929, wherein Rogers’s creator smartly changed his name from Anthony to the much more rugged-sounding “Buck.” That series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, ran regularly until 1967. At its peak it was syndicated to more than four hundred newspapers across the globe and translated into eighteen languages. According to legend, the character was so beloved that a Virginia department store celebrated Christmas in 1934 not with an appearance by Santa Claus but with an actor dressed as Buck.

For several years following the publication of Nowlan’s tale, it seemed as if the technology that had so enchanted readers would remain solely in the realm of science fiction. Though the stubborn, frustrated genius Robert Goddard (much more on him later) had launched the first liquid-fueled rocket a good two years before Buck made his debut, for some reason it hadn’t yet occurred to anyone to strap a real rocket to a real man’s back and launch him heavenward.