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:  

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Jim Baggott - Four Way Interview

Jim Baggott is a freelance science writer. He trained as a scientist, completing a doctorate in physical chemistry at Oxford in the early 80s, before embarking on post-doctoral research studies at Oxford and at Stanford University in California. He gave up a tenured lectureship at the University of Reading after five years in order to gain experience in the commercial world. He worked for Shell International Petroleum for 11 years before leaving to establish his own business consultancy and training practice. He writes about science, science history and philosophy in what spare time he can find. His books include Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb (2009), Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ (2012), Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields (2017), and, most recently, Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018). For more info see: www…

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…