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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.


Review by Brian Clegg


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