. . . or at least that’s what some science fiction authors would have you believe.

The other day, I happened upon the movie Forbidden Planet on TCM. It was just about to start. I wanted to avoid working. A match made in heaven!

I’ve seen this movie a bunch of times—I own the DVD, actually—and I love it. It really is a classic of the genre. In it we see the 200,000-year-old alien technology that is every 1950s engineer’s dream. It’s self-cleaning, self-correcting, self-calibrating, and always perfect. It wasn’t the machines that created the monster from the id, it was user error on the part of Professor Morpheus (spoiler alert . . . sorry, but if you’re reading this blog and haven’t seen Forbidden freakin’ Planet, well . . .)


Surely this is what machines of The Future will be like, right? Perfectly always functional for hundreds of thousands of years—for forever.

We actually live in The Future, at least from Forbidden Planet’s writers’ point of view, and so is this true?

Let’s see . . . Right around the same time I was watching this movie my $500 Android smartphone was dying a pitiful death. And this is the old phone that was replaced a couple years ago by a newer $500 Android smartphone my daughter knocked out of my hand on the way to Emerald City Comicon and broke, so rather than pay another $500 to replace it I went back to the old $500 phone. This weekend I bought another new $500 smartphone, this time an iPhone.

A few weeks before that we came down in the morning to a terrible grinding rumble coming from our refrigerator then spent the better part of that Saturday living in denial while touching various jars of stuff and saying, “It’s still cold!” with a pitiful squeak in our voices until I put a little thermometer on the inside of it and it was the same temperature inside as it was outside, which was about 69°F. It was broken. It was about fourteen years old. I found a “cheap” replacement for about $800 that’s a swell deal as long as you’re okay with the loudest ice maker on Earth. For the record, I’m okay with that since the next price level up added $1000. Now the sound of cascading ice cubes rattling around in a plastic box sounds like savings!

About a week before that tragic refrigerator death my wife was leaving for work then came right back in because she thought one of the tires on the Mustang looked “low.” I went out to discover that it was flat. She took the minivan that morning instead—the minivan we had put new tires on a week before.

A couple months before that we were experiencing weird cable TV malfunctions so I went into the little Comcast store in Redmond and a nice young man* sold me on their new Xfinity platform, which is really way, way better in that instead of working one-third of the time it works about two-thirds of the time. Progress!

Wouldn’t all those 1950s science fiction fans be disappointed.

As a fifty-year-old science fiction fan, I know I am—but then tires last a lot longer now than they did in the 50s. Refrigerators probably had about the same life span but the newer ones use a fraction of the electricity. And in the 50s there was no such thing as a smartphone nor a digital cable platform with hundreds of channels, thousand of on-demand TV shows and movies, and DVR that allows me control over time and space the likes of which a 1950s TV viewer could only dream of—at least, y’know, one- to two-thirds of the time.

Lesson for science fiction authors, then:

New technology is awesome and cool and creates whole new universes, and will break down. George Lucas had some fun with the used car unreliability of the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars—this isn’t a fresh idea. But keep this in mind. Cell phones are awesome, except when there’s inexplicably no service. Digital cable is great except for the hopelessly buggy software. And all of this stuff wears out.

The idea that there will be an iPhone in a museum in 200,000 years is pretty difficult to imagine. That it might still be working is . . . well, I like my new iPhone and less than a week in it’s functioning perfectly, so I don’t want to be a dick.


—Philip Athans


* Holy Jesus on His Cross, I just referred to a guy in his twenties as “a nice young man”! That’s it for me. I am now officially old.


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Craig says:

    Well, a future where companies manufacture stuff without a built-in obsolescence is indeed fiction, in my opinion 🙂

    I don’t doubt for a second that today’s engineers and manufacturers could build a fridge that could last 100+ years. Unfortunately for them that would mean you’re not buying a new one…

  2. Charles says:

    I look on Forbidden Planet as a lesson in prognostication. They hit some things, like interstellar travel and thinking robots, but they miss on the little things, and it’s the little things that really matter in an easy-to-use future: whe Leslie Neilson walks out of the ship, talking with his crew, on the microphone, his dragging around a big ass cable.

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