Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Rough Guide to the Future – Jon Turney ***

This is a really interesting book, which is why I feel I need to explain up front why it only has three stars. In part it’s because this is a science website, and there is an awful lot of this book that isn’t science. ‘Futurology’ itself certainly isn’t a science – it’s collection of opinion. As the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data, and collecting together opinions is not science. It’s also notable that the chapter on ‘science futures’ is practically all about technology. Nothing about future discoveries in physics, cosmology, chemistry or even biology (as opposed to biotech and medicine).
The other reason I can’t give the book too high a score is that it’s not always great to read. This says nothing about Jon Turney’s writing, which is great, wonderfully readable and well crafted. It’s all down to the topic and the format. The problem with the topic is that, frankly, when you get down to looking at the future (future of economics, future of politics, future of food supply…) it starts reading like a government ministry checklist. It’s only likely to really excite a civil servant. We want the future to be all about ray guns and jet packs, not supply and demand curves.
As for the format, it’s a case of boxitis. I don’t know why, but some publishers love having little boxes on the page with separate bits of text. I started writing business books before I got into popular science and business publishers absolutely insist on boxes, as, apparently, do the Rough Guide people – I can’t imagine Turney wanted it. Boxes work fine in a traditional Dorling Kindersley style two page spread, where the main body text is complete in itself on the two pages. But in a normal book, where the body text flows from page to page, as it does here, when are you supposed to read the boxes? If you do it at the start or end of the page, you often have to stop reading midsentence. It’s just irritating.
There’s a lot to be interested by and enjoy in this book. I particularly liked it when Turney invoked science fiction and made comparisons with the more way-out ideas of the future from the past. We find out a lot about important topics like climate change, energy problems, water problems and more in a very approachable way. I really, really wanted to like this book. But I didn’t. I would have liked to have seen more comparison of old futurology with what really happened (for example Tofler’s fascinating but almost entirely disastrously wrong ideas in Future Shock). And I’m disappointed that the book tells us that the world’s first maglev train runs from Shanghai Airport. (What about Birmingham Airport’s maglev from last century?) But on the whole the coverage is fine – it’s just the problems detailed above that prevented me from enjoying this ride into the future.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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