Monday, February 17, 1997

The 20th Century Fair

12 Mar 2497: Sarasota.

People take the John and Mable Ringling/Burt Reynolds Museum and Holographic Simulation Array for granted around here. Bring the kids for a Saturday, interact with anyone you want to from the Baroque era; walk inside a Reubens with Paul Rubens as your host; recreate the Deliverance canoe ride.

It’s all there, anytime you want it. Sure.

But it’s not all simulated.

Somebody has to pay for it — and these days, they’re paying with thin sheets of printed green paper known as “money.” History buffs will be familiar with the term — that’s the basic medium of exchange before the North American Federation moved to an energy standard in 2044.

But it’s coin of the realm in the 20th Century Fair — all credit chips must be exchanged on the way in!

It’s like taking a step back in time.

Merchants are hawking their wares at “the Mall” — anything from microwave ovens to printed paper magazines to polyester shirts.

There’s an exciting recreation of what it must have been like to wait at the primitive Sarasota-Bradenton airport terminal; a hauntingly detailed condominium “model unit” — not a re-creation, but a one-of-a-kind historical artifact preserved in volcanic ash after the tragic eruption of 1998. All that, and exotic period foods like “pizza,” “hotdogs,” and “hamburgers,” along with colorful strolling musicians playing the quaint “rock” music of the period — with games like “miniature golf,” “bowling,” and “pinball” for those who want to recreate the ancient tradition of “fun on the weekend.”

Enjoy — but beware of the roaming “Muggers” and “Street People” who just might come up to you saying "empty your pockets.”

It’s all part of the fun!

Authentic traffic jams are staged daily employing authentic — gas powered internal combustion! — automobiles from the late 20th century period. Excited throngs watch as professional anachronists recreate what the dreaded “Tamiami Trail” must have actually looked — and sounded — like!

Crowds gasp in horror as the cars execute “passing maneuvers,” “giving the finger,” “cutting somebody off in traffic,” “out-running the police car.” Or at least that’s what the white Lexus was trying to do until the police car slammed into it at 110 kilometers an hour.

“Ooooh,” said the crowd, feeling the crash in their bones. No hologram could prepare you for this—this is what a car wreck actually looked like!

But everybody was “OK,” as they used to say.

“Agghhh,” said Officer Bill, pulling his body loose from the accordion-folded remains of his vintage police car, “I'm all right," he said, brushing himself off. "They were tough back then. There’s no way to fake it. If you want to do this you have to be tough—not like him.”

He was pointing at the driver of the Lexus—an entertainer dressed in the colorful “Yuppie” garb of the day complete with "cel-phone" and pony-tail. Officer Bill began squinting at the driver of the Lexus, studying him coldly for a moment, before he began shouting: “Hey! How much memory you got in that CPU you jacked in—huh? Biochips or silicon?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Well, you’re using AI, right? I’m just curious. You can tell me. What you got in that thing?”

“I’m not using AI.”

Which is when Officer Bill “got in his face,” as they used to say in olden times.

“Don’t lie to me—I saw that evasive manoeuvre, pal. You're enhanced. Nobody reacts that fast. Nobody.”

“Hey—I do, ‘kay? I do. I got the stuff.”

“You? That wasn’t you — that was the car. You got that thing rigged with proximity sensors, inertial dampers and some kind of virtual net to jack up your reaction time. You’re not using the steering wheel — you’re driving up here."

Officer Bill pointed to his forehead. The Yuppie seemed ashamed.

"Am I right?”

“Yeah.” the Yuppie mumbled, “You're right — I'm enhanced. But look at the car. That’s a ‘94 Lexus. I can’t afford to wreck it—”

“So you falsify the experience for everybody else — that’s good. That’s not what this is all about, is it?”

The Yuppie was starting to walk away now.

“It’s ‘kay,” he said. “Just forget it.”

“Kay? Kay? You’re starting to irritate me, pal — they didn’t say ’kay back then—they said “OK.”

“They were starting to say 'kay.

“Not most people. Not until 2010—get it right or don’t do it at all!”

Which is when Officer Bill began shouting “Somebody throw this bum out of here.”

And they did — the fair officials are very strict when it comes to falsifying the experience. No simulations. No enhancements. No computers except for primitive 20th century models. This is as close to the real thing as possible — which is why the crowds keep coming back, year after year. They know this is not a hologram, not VR. Real car wrecks. Real fights. Real pizza.

Real smog.

So maybe it’s a matter of ticket sales — but it was clearly more than that to “Officer Bill.”

“I can’t stand people like that. I mean — what’s the point of all this if we’re
faking it? They didn’t have a user interface to the cerebral cortex back then — and cars didn’t think. All you had was the steering wheel and your nerve.”

How did you get involved with the 20th Century Fair?

"Well, it's hard to remember when I started. The 20th century has an interesting period to me, even when I was a kid — I was always a romantic, a dreamer. Just imagine! Flat-picture TV sets! Soldiers! Garbage cans! Cars! Cars that couldn’t think, couldn’t talk back to you — you actually had to drive them! The world was divided into different countries. They hadn’t invented cold fusion yet. There still had war. There still had criminals. No worries about galactic politics. Armadillos couldn’t even fly.”

Wasn't he romanticising it? Wasn't there a lot about this period that really wasn't all that wonderful? The disease? The violence?

“But that's part of what I liked about it. People were more alive back then because there was more risk, more danger.”

And then he was off—to an exciting recreation of the Rodney King riots of 1994. What joy it was to be alive in those days.

But, thanks to entertainers like Officer Bill, at least we have the next best thing.

Originally published in The Sarasota Arts Review.

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