Book Review — A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov

A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov by Peter J Bowler is look back on science-fiction prophecy and what the future actually became. Bowler is Emeritus Professor of the History of Science at Queen’s University Belfast. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, a Member of the Royal Irish Academy, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has published a number of books on the history of biology and several general surveys.

Flying cars, wristwatch phones, and robot servants were all part of the future when I was young.  There was plenty of disappointment growing up with 8-track tapes and phones that were still affixed to the wall.  Some things, however, did come about.  The electronic pad that Captain Kirk regularly signed is close to an iPad, the computer may be an advanced “Alexa” device, and the communicator is much like a cellphone.  Yes, there are differences but not bad for a 50-year-old science fiction show that begins with the launch of the Enterprise in the year 2245.

Bowler pulls heavily from several writers in the book; Wells, Huxley, and a little Asimov and Clarke.  Perhaps much of the predictions of the future as more so come from the understanding of man than science.  One thing many writers got right is man’s willingness for war and creating better weapons.  Airships and aircraft are a means for more destructive warfare that targets cities and civilians.  Much of the pulp fiction, however, are stories of “cowboys and Indians” played out in space as earthlings against aliens.  Little is done to explain the technology of ray guns and rockets.  It’s just entertainment.

Many future predictions in science fiction were based on the newest technology of the time.   Electricity was more than a power source it was the path to utopia.  Radiation, on the other hand, could be a blessing or a bane.  Flying cars, an idea which seems to be as old as cars themselves is never clearly thought out.  Thought to be the end of road-bound traffic, however, no thought, however, is given how to organize and control an airborne rush hour.  Outside of the science, many thoughts are given on future governments — World government, weakness of democracy, totalitarian rule, interplanetary rule.

As I sit here and write this review there is one thing the past never predicted.  There were predictions of robots with computer brains.  There are predictions of computers the size of city blocks. But perhaps the biggest miss of science fiction predictions is the personal computer.  The machine that has transformed modern life like no other is missing.  No internet.  No social media.  No online shopping.  No movies on demand.  It is the unexpected that makes the future.

Bowler gives a detailed look at the past looking forward.  Nearly one-third of the book is source material providing even more detail for those interested.  How the past saw the future is interesting in the evolution of the newest technology of the time.  Nuclear power held the promise of almost free electricity (another marvel of the past) but no thought of what to do with the nuclear waste.  Visionaries of the past did understand human nature and saw the many dangers the atom could bring as well as the dangers man could bring on himself.  The history of the future depends on man’s development as much as the development of science.

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