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A New History of the Future in 100 Objects - Adrian Hon ***

Adrian Hon has taken the concept of the successful BBC radio series 'A History of the World in 100 Objects' and imagined a future version of this, looking at dates from 2020 to 2079. Hon makes it clear in his author's note that this is intended to be informative fiction rather than futurology, but the reality is that all futurology is fiction, and it's inevitable to read this book as much in the vein of futurology as pure science fiction.

Certainly the New History shows the futility of futurology as anything other than fiction, since the 2020/2021 examples have no reference to the pandemic - which is particularly ironic as object number 10 is an automated courier, first used to take something to a market, which is demonstrated in Wuhan.

To begin with, I really enjoyed the entries. (They can't really be referred to as objects because many of them are events, people or documents, rather than actual objects.) The first, for example, really brings out the power of the approach when it presents us with the pros and cons of an ankle tag for convicted criminals that is combined with smart speaker type technology to monitor exactly what they do and say.

Admittedly, some entries have irritating omissions, often when Hon becomes a bit too enthusiastic about the technology without thinking through downsides. So, for example, the second entry is a children's toy that is made lifelike by being effectively a remote-controlled puppet - there is no consideration of the potential for child abuse here. Similarly, the timescales can be hilariously over-compressed. So, for example, we see the adoption of a whole new hardware and (sub-vocal) messaging system which is already carrying billions of messages per day by 2022.

Nonetheless, for the first third of the book or so, I very much enjoyed reading the entries. After that, the novelty started to wear out and it became something of a chore to read the rest. It might have been better to pick fewer items and to have given longer and more interesting stories to them - the 100 objects format constrained the book into something that wasn't as readable as it could have been.

Two other moans. You can't blame the author, but some of the ideas are very familiar from existing science fiction. So, for example, 'object' 72 is downvoting, which is almost identical to the premise of the Black Mirror episode Nosedive. Perhaps less forgivable is the lack of portrayal of political developments outside of China. There is a lot of focus on China, but Russia hardly gets mentioned, while the assumption seems to be that both the USA and the EU will not see any further developments as a result of the political problems they are both currently facing.

A genuinely fun and interesting idea, but as the dire H. G. Wells future history style The Shape of Things to Come demonstrated, even the best writer of science fiction can struggle to make this kind of material enjoyable reading for a full-length book.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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