A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov, by Peter J. Bowler

Book of the week: The reality of the present world has fallen short of science fiction’s predictions, says Jon Turney

November 9, 2017
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Nostalgia for the future is easily evoked in the early 21st century.

No one knows what the future holds, but we can explore a growing archive of past prognostications. Their depictions of days to come are as often dire as desirable. But flashy, technophile futures, often vividly illustrated, offer a handy contrast to the fearful mood of a time when confidence that change might be for the better is in short supply.

This has led to a literature of disappointed hopes. Why aren’t we vacationing in undersea cities, embarking from the spaceport, taking a spin in a flying car, enjoying a perfect martini mixed by our robot butler? As the title of one book-length compilation puts it, Where’s My Jetpack? Peter Bowler’s engaging study offers a more scholarly assessment of yesterday’s tomorrows. The book builds on his previous survey of neglected early 20th-century popular science. Quite a few non-fiction authors of the time offered speculative works alongside more straightforward accounts of contemporary research. Along with the rise of science fiction, that made the future a highly visible subject.

The book’s subtitle is an accurate reflection of the coverage – mainly British and American authors, from around the turn of the century to the years after the end of the Second World War. There are a few items from France, Germany and the Soviet Union, but this isn’t the place to reflect on whether the future looked different from different countries. The manic radicalism of the Italian Futurist movement, for instance, is barely glimpsed.

Thermonuclear megadeath strategist turned futurist Herman Kahn and Alvin (Future Shock) Toffler both appear fleetingly in the epilogue. Otherwise, the main text stops short of the era when futures study was professionalised by a motley collection of small university institutes, thinktanks, offshoots of intelligence agencies and fast-talking corporate consultancies – whose efforts began in the 1960s but have become fashionable again in the past couple of decades.

The focus on the period before more formal futures thinking developed goes with adopting terms that today’s writers might be uncomfortable with. Current futurists eschew prediction. They typically discuss alternative scenarios, as a way into thinking about possible futures, and how we might steer trajectories in desirable directions. As his subtitle indicates, Bowler seems more interested in whether past prophecies proved well founded than in what they reveal about the period when they appeared. Even when he turns to fiction, he consistently describes science fiction authors as making predictions, largely ignoring the critical commonplace that future-oriented SF is best seen as a commentary on the present. To be fair, the SF authors he turns to most often – H. G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov – also wrote a good deal of non-fiction, and that gets closer attention.

Their books, some newspaper and magazine pieces, a selection of other SF and a few films offer a broad range of purported future visions that are efficiently catalogued here. They are organised thematically, with chapters on daily life (and work), housing, communication, transport, war and energy. The emphasis throughout is on science and technology, usually in the relatively near future, reflecting the preoccupations of the early 20th century. A wave of innovation since late Victorian times had established that things could change drastically within a lifetime. Future-gazers expected more of the same.

Bowler says that his main interest is in reading his collection of predictions as an indicator of public perceptions of science and technology. His analysis of this theme is somewhat limited by the fact that the texts are simply presented as exemplary without, for instance, any formal sampling of newspaper articles. And while the examples are well chosen, there is scant evidence about readers or their responses.

Still, the wide range of opinions presented allows him to trace some interesting continuities. In particular, he shows how there has long been debate over the effects of new technology – most simply sketched as between techno-optimists who gloried in the benefits of new inventions and conservative thinkers who saw them as threats to traditional values.

The latter have had more prominence in previous accounts of this period, Bowler argues, because these have examined literary intellectuals, who were most often technological pessimists. A classic 1970s study by I. F. Clarke, The Pattern of Expectation, depicts the years between the world wars as filled with desperate predictions of war, depression and totalitarian rule. True for the literati, says Bowler, but there were plenty of technological optimists writing then, too. They just contributed to less prestigious genres. His overall conclusion is that positive and negative views of science and technology are both always present, although either can grow stronger or weaker at different times.

This is a persuasively modest historical claim. It would be good to have more discussion of just what promotes adherence to one view or the other, but there is not much here to go on, beyond the clear influence of 20th-century wars, and the suggestion that scientists generally believe that they are working for the common good.

Much of the commentary departs from Bowler’s main topic and discusses a different historical problem. Which predictions proved technically feasible and, of those that were, which were widely adopted? At times this leads to capsule accounts of the development of 20th-century technologies that have little to do with futures literature. But in general the book stresses how fully realised technologies are never inevitable, but shaped by competing interests, often contending over multiple possibilities. Long-haul air travel was eagerly anticipated for decades, for instance. Yet we forget that flying boats and airships were long seen as more promising carriers than wheeled aeroplanes.

There’s still a whiff of technological determinism about the way these stories are told, however. Casting futures writings as predictions suggests that it is up to technologists to realise them, and the outcome depends on what proves feasible. Television, like air travel, was widely anticipated, and its development, writes Bowler, saw “prophecy driving or at least encouraging innovation”.

He acknowledges more complexity on occasion. So the story of air travel illustrates “how technical progress interacts with public expectations and the realities of the physical world and economic viability”, an interaction underpinned by “imagination and practical reality in constant dialogue”.

A different framing might make the histories of technology seem more connected with futures texts. Take any technological project: a high-speed rail line north from London, perhaps; a new nuclear power station; a self-driving taxi; a lab-grown burger. Each begins as a story about what life will be like in the world in which this is realised. That story is a tale of the future in which purportedly non-fictional elements are invariably combined with informed guesswork, conjecture and outright wishful thinking. It is often strongly contested by people who wish to imagine a different future. The way that such contests are decided is through a lengthy social process shaped by inequalities in cultural resources, media reach, political influence and other ways of levering preferred futures into place, as well as “economic and technical” considerations. For all the fascination of the material that Bowler has unearthed, these things are treated only glancingly here. But perhaps that just means that there is much more history of the future still to be written.

Jon Turney is an associate lecturer in publishing at Bath Spa University, and author of The Rough Guide to the Future.

A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov
By Peter J. Bowler
Cambridge University Press, 286pp, £19.99
ISBN 9781316602621
Published 26 October 2017

Peter J. Bowler

The author

Peter J. Bowler, emeritus professor of the history of science at Queen’s University Belfast, was born in Leicester and grew up both there and in Nottingham. Going up to study natural science at King’s College, Cambridge in 1963, he had initially intended to focus on the physical sciences, but switched to the history and philosophy of science for the second part of his degree (in the very first year this option was available). He was greatly influenced by the historian of science Robert M. Young, who, he says, “converted me to working on Darwinism”. He went on to an MSc in the history of science at the University of Sussex and then, after teaching in a technical college, a PhD at the University of Toronto’s new Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.

As his career progressed, Bowler’s interests have “moved from 20th-century Darwinism to debates on science and religion and then on to popular science. My interest in science fiction has been largely recreational.” He sees A History of the Future as “a development of my interest in early 20th-century popular science, which emerged as part of a general move into that period prompted by the tendency (pre-2000) for historians of science to focus on the Victorians”.

Asked about the value of studying such themes, Bowler points to the fact that his research “confirm[s] that the debate between the optimists and pessimists has always been present, and that the pessimists’ visions of global catastrophe were being aired long before the nuclear age. It also shows that predicting the future is a very uncertain project – some predictions came true fairly quickly (eg, television) but sometimes not via the originally suggested technologies (eg, airships). But many predictions don’t work out, and some real-world developments were never anticipated in the popular media.”

Matthew Reisz

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