The 1939 World’s Fair, with its auspicious “World of Tomorrow” theme, is the kind of cultural touchstone that evokes nostalgia beyond its own generation. Its iconic structures have embedded themselves as a collective phantom memory, yielding multiple creative responses in the decades since. And while the cubist, metallic aesthetic is integral to the Fair’s lasting appeal, most of our fascination stems from what it represented. The organizers and attendees were clearly yearning for “Tomorrow.” Voracious for new technologies and the promise of globalism, they were coveting the future we now so cavalierly inhabit.
In Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, Brian Fies focuses on the disjunct between this hopeful, retro-futuristic vision and the much more complex and understated world that emerged from it. Told from the perspective of a boundlessly optimistic boy named Buddy, the book straddles the period from 1939 to the last Apollo mission in 1972, with a coda set in a speculative future. Buddy is frozen in childhood during these decades, a narrative peculiarity that Fies acknowledges in the foreword. His fixed age is initially distracting, but gradually, it becomes clear that the most evocative way to watch the advent of atomic energy, television and rockets unfold is through the eyes of a perpetual child.
The book suffers slightly from Fies’ attempt to definitively answer the titular question. It is an ambitious attempt, but plenty falls through his fingers. He decries the current prevalence of cynicism, but cynics are hardly a recent phenomenon; skepticism is as old as faith, if not older. It’s also hard to believe that we — the inheritors of the World of Tomorrow — regard the promise of our future that much differently than other generations. Interestingly, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? on some level agrees, eventually undermining its own qualms with the modern lack of curiosity and wonder. Fies’ rendering of a close parent-child bond, the stirring images of the World’s Fair, and the book’s refrain of ad astra per aspera, would fail to impact us so effectively had we truly lost our ability to be inspired and awestruck by possibility.