Breaking News! As of yesterday, Wanderings on Writing is now available as an e-book. POD will follow soon. More details next Wednesday!
Now, back to our regularly scheduled Tangent…
JANE: Over the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about cars… This time, I have some SF thoughts, but first…
I’m not denying that American culture – if not all Americans – has a love affair with vehicles. Many of our cities – including Albuquerque – have poor mass transit so, if you want to get anywhere in anything like a timely fashion, you need a vehicle.
Some families spend so much time in their vehicles that they start personalizing them as if they’re mobile houses. Stickers with outlines representing the number of members in the family have become common. At a glance you can see Mother, Father, two boys, one girl, dog, and two cats.
An outgrowth of this has been stickers that also include some idea of the family’s interests. The characters might wear mouse ears (Disney fans) or Star Wars outfits, carry sports equipment, or even, in one memorable occasion, be zombies. (Presumably, these were horror fans, not actual zombies.)
Do you have anything like this?
ALAN: Yes – we have exactly the same phenomenon. Indeed, it’s become so much of a cliche now that people are starting to sneer at it and it’s falling out of fashion again.
JANE: Darn! Jim and I had been considering getting some, but if they’re out of fashion…
Another way to customize a vehicle is by using bumper stickers. You can learn about political preferences, sports teams, and club memberships. Parking permit stickers give a hint where people work and go to school. You can even figure out other, less mainstream interests. I’ve seen “My other car is a broom.” And, “Save the Earth. It’s the only planet with chocolate.”
ALAN: We seldom have those – they do exist, but I don’t recall seeing any interesting ones, though the “My other car is a (something)” formula does ring bells. We’ve also had a trend for people to hang a sign saying “Baby on Board” in the back window, presumably to try and force drivers around them to take more care than normal. However, so many people who obviously don’t have a baby with them have taken to using the sign that it too is starting to disappear.
JANE: Oh, wow… The “baby on board” sign came and went here a long while back… 1990’s, maybe? It morphed into “Dog on Board,” “Fill-in-the-blank Sports Team Fan on Board,” and other variations before, gratefully, slipping into oblivion.
We also have personalized license plates, where letters and numbers are used to spell out messages. Now that texting has become common, lots of license plates read like texts.
ALAN: Ah! We are really big on personalised number plates. A science fiction fan friend of mine has the number plate SF. It cost her $300 to buy when personalised plates first became legal (I think she was at the head of the queue) and she was once offered $10,000 for it from an avid collector. She refused the offer. She claims, with some justification, that the plate is her retirement investment.
JANE: Uh, Alan. Why do you call them “number plates” if they have letters? Shouldn’t they be “number and letter plates”?
ALAN: I suppose they should, though until you mentioned it, that had never occurred to me. I’ve done a bit of digging and I’ve discovered that the first plates in the UK were issued in 1903. They consisted of an aphabetic prefix that identified the local council that issued them and an incrementing numeric suffix that identified the vehicle. So I presume they were “number” plates because the number was the only bit that varied – all the vehicles in the same geographic area would have the same prefix.
JANE: Now that’s cool… I love hearing the history behind a term. But I interrupted you. Did you have any other customized plates you wanted to mention?
ALAN: Once, parked in a supermarket car park, I saw a most magnificent Rolls Royce (that aristocrat of cars) with the equally magnificent number plate STOLEN.
JANE: Oh! That’s a good one!
Reminds me of another good bumper sticker, often seen on older cars. It reads “Paid For.” I like it, since so many of those people out there driving fancy cars are also driving piles of debt.
Do you folks have license – excuse me, “number” plates – on both the front and back of your vehicles or just in the back?
ALAN: We are required to have them on both the front and the back. Until you mentioned it, I’d never realised that any other convention was possible.
JANE: The reason I ask is that here it seems to vary from state to state. In New Mexico, license plates are only required on the back, so ornamental plates on the front of the car have become another means of personalizing.
My godmother gave me a plate ornamented with the head and shoulders of a black wolf. I’d never done anything to personalize a car before, but I put this on my sedan. Now, to my amusement, friends will often pick my car out when we’re meeting somewhere because of that plate. It’s a wolf. It must be Jane.
ALAN: Well of course it must. I’d make the same assumption.
JANE: The American love affair with vehicles even has a skiffy tie-in.
ALAN: What’s that?
JANE: Roger Zelazny wrote at least two different “takes” on the futuristic car. One appears in his novel The Dream Master (also published in a shorter form as the novella “He Who Shapes.”)
In this story, cars can be driven by autopilot. Now, Roger was hardly the first SF novelist to come up with this idea. Being Roger, however, he came up with a unique take: blindspinning. In this, coordinates are randomly punched in and while the car does the driving, often the riders do… Uh, well… Y’know… Um… Other sort of riding…
ALAN: (puzzled…) But wouldn’t that make the windows steam up so you couldn’t enjoy the scenery?
JANE: Oh… I’m going to be good and go back to SF!
Roger also combined the American tendency to romanticize the wild horse and with the romance of the automobile in two short stories: “Last of the Wild Ones” and “Devil Car.”
ALAN: When I was a little boy, there was a TV series called Supercar! It was one of Gerry Anderson’s early puppet series (what did he call it? Supermarionation?). Anyway, I was enthralled by it and I watched it every week. The supercar itself was a combination car and aeroplane that was driven (perhaps flown would be a better word) by Mike Mercury who had lots of exciting adventures in it.
JANE: I never watched it, but I think there was an update of that idea in a television program called Knight Rider or something like that.
ALAN: And of course if there is any SF symbol that epitomises the future, it’s the symbol of the flying car even though I suspect it’s quite impractical. You can date it all the way back to Hugo Gernsback himself. In his novel Ralph 124C 41+ people commute in aeroflyers that can reach speeds of more than 600mph!
JANE: Ah, yes, flying cars. I actually know a man who is working on one. Seriously. He’s a retired engineer and this is his dream project.
Clifford Simak extrapolated how flying cars would change settlement patterns in his novel City. Sometimes the implications are as or more interesting than the vehicle would be.
In Gordon Dickson’s Necromancer, the private car is combined with mass transit, so that rather than taking a seat on a train, you go to the equivalent of a train station and pick up a vehicle that will take you to your individual destination.
I bet there are other good SF stories out there built around vehicles. I wonder if our readers have any suggestions?