Skip to main content

A History of the Future - Peter Bowler ***

Having just read What's Next, a book of futurology, it was quite interesting to move onto a book about futurology - specifically futurology in the first half of the twentieth century before it became such a recognised entity in its own right.

It's interesting that in the subtitle, Peter Bowler chooses H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov to bracket the periods he is covering, as both are better known as science fiction writers than for their non-fiction. Although Bowler does bring in a number of 'straight' writers on the future, he doesn't draw a hard line between science fiction and futurology, which makes a lot of sense. As he points out, while there have always been SF writers who go way beyond extrapolation to the near future - think, for example, E. E. 'Doc' Smith's wide ranging space operas or Asimov's Foundation series - there has equally always been plenty of science fiction where we are dealing with the near future and science/technology that is based on what's current. And while the purpose of science fiction is not to predict the future, science fiction writers inevitably speculate about what is to come.

Personally, I found the content of the book very interesting, but the way that it was presented less so. Although I had heard of many of the books that Bowler references and read some of them, from Bernal's quirky futurology in The World, The Flesh and The Devil (not a Hammer Horror as the title suggests) to Brave New World, there was plenty in here that was new to me. I wasn't aware, for example, that there was a lot of interest in renewable energy in the first half of the twentieth century. Though driven more by concerns about running out of oil than climate change it seems the ideas were ahead of the technology. Apparently, for example, the British Empire Exhibition, held at Wembley in 1924, featured a discussion of alternative power sources, taking in geothermal, tidal, solar and wind.

Another interesting point that Bowler makes frequently is the distinction between the future visions of those with a science and engineering background - usually overly rosy - and those from a literary background - mostly distinctly dystopian. The visions of the future both in non-fiction and fiction seemed strongly tied to the level (or lack) of scientific expertise in the writer.

Lots of information, then. Unfortunately, though, it was quite heavy going to read, because most of it consists of unadulterated collections of facts. 'X said Y in 19zz in this publication.' There's very little in the way of narrative flow, which makes it stodgy to digest. On top of this, the approach taken can feel quite repetitive. I think this is because Bowler has chosen to split up the book by topic - but futurology or science fiction rarely covers a single future topic, so we get the same books mentioned over and over again. Brave New World, for example, is mentioned in over a dozen places. H. G. Wells alone takes up half a page in the index.

I don't think I can recommend this book as popular science or (or even popular history of science communication). However, it certainly should be of interest to anyone who has an academic interest in either science fiction or futurology. And that definitely includes me.

Paperback:  
 
Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…