Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Future Proof [You Call This the Future] – Nick Sagan ***

There’s something about future-gazing that is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. You just know it’s going to go horribly wrong. Although very little science fiction is really about predicting the future, science fiction writers are often portrayed as future visionaries – so, for instance, Arthur C. Clarke gets lots of brownie points for predicting the geostationary satellite. Sadly he gets less for 2001 A Space Odyssey. I’m not talking about the storyline, but more the technology in the Clarke/Kubrick film. Remember this was set in 2001, a good few years in the past. Not only do we have a talking computer with apparent consciousness we have full screen video phones, a manned mission to Jupiter’s moons and – best of all – PanAm operating a routine shuttle flight to a huge space station. Hands up who remembers PanAm?
In this glossy, well illustrated little book, Nick Sagan (yes, son of Carl) looks at some of the predictions of the future, giving references to science fiction occurrences, and shows how on the whole they haven’t come true. It’s a neat idea (not the first book to do this by any means), and well executed with some fun and interesting bits of technology as well as the yawn-makers like flying cars, but for some reason it doesn’t excite me. It probably would have appealed more to me when I was a teenager, but I did get a slight feeling of ‘yes, and?’ as I read.
There were one or two oddities in the contents too. The travel section inevitably included those iconic jet packs, but didn’t make reference to the juicy material provided by The Rocketbelt Caper. There were also one or two points where the facts got a bit wobbly. The section on teleportation got the whole business of quantum teleportation rather tangled up, commenting that quantum teleportation is only possible if the original is destroyed and that ‘This problem has not yet been resolved.’ This problem never could be resolved – leaving aside the no cloning requirement in quantum theory, there are only really two choices. Either you destroy the original, or you end up with two versions of the person – Nick Sagan seems to miss the entire point of teleportation. Similarly, the section on space tourism is hopelessly optimistic – Sagan seems not to have picked up the main theme of the book. As Richard Muller points out in Physics for Future Presidents, space travel with rocket technology is never going to be suitable for tourism – it’s just too dangerous.
Overall, then, a little frustrating. It is a good idea, but this book seems to going through the motions, rather than really delivering. There is some good stuff in there, it will appeal to geeky teenagers, but it doesn’t quite make the grade.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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