Science Fiction Freeway

Scene from The Fantastic Voyage (1966, 20th Century Fox).

Last Tuesday, I realized that being caught in freeway traffic was a science fiction experience.

Let me back up, so to speak. That afternoon, instead of going straight home, I took a bus to West Edmonton Mall to run an errand. On the way back, we hit the tail end of rush hour. The ride home takes about 45 minutes, so I like to settle in and read, write, tweet, and/or listen to an audiobook. Time passes quickly when your mind is focused on another world.

The driver on the ride back had a heavy foot, so we were speeding up Whitemud Drive. However, at around 149th Street, the driver suddenly decelerated. The bus was still moving, but very slowly. I could hear a siren closing the distance from behind us. By now, cars had edged of if the emergency vehicle’s way as best they could, pulling over to the right. Some squeezed in front of the bus; others came in tight alongside it.

I looked up from reading N. K. Jemisin’s “The Great City Born”, and saw a fire engine come into view and, slowly but steadily, pass us. The moment induced a bit of vertigo: it felt like the fire engine was passing while the bus was still, but both vehicles were moving at a disconcertingly almost-synchronized pace. Finally, there was a crossover moment when the fire engine slowed to a stop and the bus continued, speeding past as firefighters disembarked from the truck and walked up to three cars which had clearly crashed into each other. An  ambulance was already at the other end of this chain of vehicles, with paramedics checking out one of the vehicles or walking in the opposite direction to meet up with the firefighters. It was this moment that felt so science fiction to me.

Why? There were no aliens or futuristic technology or anything out of the ordinary for a mid-week rush hour. That was the thing. This all felt normal. We were on a curvy stretch of a freeway bordered by landscaped embankments, trimmed with Jersey barriers, and spanned by an overpass. No houses were in sight. Neither were there bikes or pedestrians (other than the emergency responders), let alone bike paths or sidewalks. But there was the bus I was on, and all the surrounding vehicles which may as well have been operating on a single track, like a monorail, or like automated vehicles programmed to drive in an orderly fashion.

It felt like being in a closed experimental system. The three vehicles in the accident were like pathogens, and the emergency vehicles were deployed like antigens. (After all, the Whitemud is considered an “arterial” road.) Despite these biological metaphors, we humans were essentially encapsulated in machines made of metal, fiberglass, and concrete. We made those materials, and we built systems that use them.  We’ve created machines made of metal, and other human-made material, that run on concrete tracks. The science of roadway construction enables the fiction that humans live in a machine world.

I only get this feeling on the freeway. More recently, I was in a bus on Whyte Avenue that passed an accident which also brought out a fire engine and an ambulance. However, things felt more like a part of life, not fiction. There was a lot of traffic, but it was stop-and-go, and the bus stopped at each of its scheduled stops to let people on and off. I could have gotten off at any point and walked to my destination, joining the hundreds of pedestrians strolling along the avenue.

The freeway eliminates that choice. If you’re on the freeway, you’re most likely inside a vehicle. If you’re a driver, you’re steering a ship within a known system, but with the potential for being knocked off the path by unknowns, like you’re piloting the Proteus in The Fantastic Voyage.

If you’re on a bus, like I was, you just board at the transit station, turn on your phone, that gateway to other realities, and let the vehicle convey you from one location to another. You might lose the sense of time and get caught up in a far-away world, and you might find yourself in your own neighbourhood in the present time. It’s not a time machine, but it can sure feel like it.



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