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Book review: ‘A History of the Future’ by Peter J Bowler

Futurology isn’t what it used to be.

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there,” LP Hartley famously wrote in his 1957 novel ‘The Hireling’. What about the future? Does it have its own history, too?

In ‘A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from HG Wells to Isaac Asimov’ (Cambridge University Press, £19.99, ISBN 978 1 107 14873 4), Peter Bowler, emeritus professor of the history of science at Queen’s University Belfast, answers this question in the affirmative. Not only does the future, or rather the science of futurology, has its own distinctive history, but this history is subject to change depending on the period in the past when it was predicted and on who or what was behind those forecasts.

It was widely believed from the 19th century onwards that technology would stand at the core of the upcoming social changes and would therefore pretty much define the future of humankind. In this momentous and fascinating book, Bowler takes a critical look at works by the 20th century’s most prominent literary forecasters - or, to use a modern term, futurologists. As well as creators of famous literary dystopias like HG Wells, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Yevgeny Zamyatin, there are less widely known scientists, such as Dr. Serge Voronoff, for example. A Paris-based White Russian émigré, Voronoff claimed to have found a remedy for old age and promised “an amazing future” to all in his once very popular book ‘The Conquest of Life’.

Bowler also devotes a full chapter (‘From Suburbia to the Garden City’) to social pioneers, including Le Corbusier and Ebenezer Howard, who believed in achieving a better future in their own lifetime and tried to change people’s lives for the better by designing brutalist high-rise buildings or environmentally friendly garden cities. This writer lives in one of Ebenezer Howard’s creations – Letchworth Garden City - and can confirm that it still works.

To me, Bowler’s observations seem to suggest unequivocally that the future, predicted and at times even implemented (pace Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities) by scientists, engineers and environmentalists was not only much more optimistic, but also much more realistic than the one foreseen by writers, in whose eyes it was predominantly dystopian, even if they were often able to predict correctly some forthcoming technological breakthroughs. The works of HG Wells alone contain many examples.

Just as history in general tends to repeat itself, so does the history of the future. Modern molecular biologist Aubrey de Grey, interviewed by E&T in 2009, can be regarded as Dr Serge Voronoff’s successor in his attempts to reverse the aging process, while writers like Christopher Priest (‘The Space Machine’) and Ronald Wright (‘A Scientific Romance’) are in a way repeating the mostly dystopian predictions of the 20th century’s literary classics, often putting inventions like HG Wells’s time machine at the centre of their own futuristic fiction. 

As Bowler himself concludes, “Attitudes to science reflect changing circumstances, but they also reflect professional interests and ideological commitments. Literary figures and moralists tend to be suspicious, while the scientists and engineers actually engaged in the process of development, tend to be enthusiastic, perhaps uncritically so.”

A conclusion most E&T readers will be likely to agree with, even if not entirely ‘uncritically’.

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