June 2012

Gadabout TM 1050 Cudworth-Hooper Owner’s Manual

Central Questions: What’s a genre? What’s not a genre?
Pages: 96; Price: $44.95; Supposed dates of publication: 1953 and 2350; Publisher: Curio & Co.; Also published by Curio & Co.: annotated collections of “lost” comics by nonexistent midcentury comic-strip creator Clarence “Otis” Dooley; Risk that time travelers will kill their grandfathers: small, unless they set out to do so; Risk that time travelers will change history in other, unforeseeable ways: considerably larger (see Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder”); Name of phenomenon made famous by Bradbury’s story and later incorporated into the disciplines of chaos theory and weather forecasting: “butterfly effect”; First book about time travel to the past, according to science-fiction scholar Bud Foote: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

This elegant, fun, costly, thin, pale green book says it’s the owner’s manual for a time machine, the Gadabout TM 1050. It’s a pitch-perfect and perfectly consistent imitation of a manual you might really own for a car or a blender, though its carefully retro design (rounded pages, slim fonts, black and white illustrations) makes it look more like a manual that your parents or grandparents might have owned. It’s a gag gift, a prompt for fan-fiction, an excuse to imagine the short jaunts you might take (forgot a birthday? no problem!) if the manual came with the product whose use it describes. There are guidelines for regular maintenance; a warranty voucher that you can clip out and send back; safety instructions and directions for troubleshooting; even happy talk about how this model and brand rise above their competitors to become “the most economical choice for all household errands and short journeys,” thanks to “fully automatic space-time configurations and patented Chrono-matic Accuracy.” Page after page of lists and explanations mixes banal items shared with DeSoto sedans and Sears refrigerators (parking brake, ice dispenser) and phrases that make no sense outside of science fiction (“Never, ever attempt to operate the unit if the dimensional collapse has malfunctioned”).

A deadpan success in its writing, the manual stands out the more for its graphic design, black and white sketches, and diagrams from the age of Ma Bell. Like other retro-look things that evoke the same era, it invites us to remember, and to revive, the optimism that came with midcentury science fiction and the early space race. The remote-displacement control looks like an old thermostat dial; the longitude knob—to be used when you “set the location of your desired space-time destination”—looks like a joystick from an early video game. The Gadabout also sports analog clocks and a ’50s-style dashboard console radio, and there’s a compass, an ashtray dump, even a hand-crank, appropriately diagrammed “to allow for manual cranking of the critical core mass.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

—Stephen Burt

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