Back when I was a kid I read an awful lot of science fiction – mostly Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein with a fair amount of Niven, Pournelle and others stirred into the mix. All of them portrayed futures in which the engineering problems that still confront us today had been largely solved. Space travel was commonplace in all their futures, usually. But there was something that almost all of them missed: the information revolution, social media, and the democratisation of computing power that enabled it.
The epitome of the ‘super-engineering future’, to me, was Heinlein’s Starman Jones, an early-1950’s ‘juvenile’. Today we’d call it a YA novel. Here he portrayed a future with supersonic trains running through magnetic loops and trucks that levitated from super-highways. His spacecraft were propelled by drives that (somehow) both created artificial gravity aboard and which (somehow) ‘clutched’ at the very ‘fabric’ of space-time itself to ‘impel’ the ship up to light-speed. But they were piloted by astrogators who had to use log-tables and hex-coding to get the on-board computer to solve equations. He had, in short, 1950’s-era computing in a 23rd century setting.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about this at the time. The vision of the future, as seen from the mid-twentieth century, was very much one of grand engineering projects. Super-cities, Moon bases, Mars colonisation and all the rest were just around the corner. It wasn’t surprising that this is where science fiction generally went. The Second World War, particularly, had been a war of physicists, and it also introduced new technologies that promised to transform the world. Jet aircraft, in particular, appeared to open the way to a new age of fast travel; and, of course, rockets were becoming practical. The sky suddenly appeared to offer no limits.
What actually happened, of course, was that engineering hit the limits of the new technologies fairly quickly. Instead – and thanks, largely, to the Apollo programme which kick-started it – we’ve reaped the benefits of the micro-processor industry that flourished from the 1960s. Our real present – the ‘future’ of the twentieth century – is one where we haven’t much got beyond the big-scale engineering achievements of 50 or 60 years ago, but where we have utterly transformed the intangible world of information flows and communications.
Nobody in the sci-fi community predicted this in every detail. With one exception. Arthur C. Clarke got most of it right – and did so back when everybody else was thinking of supersonic jets, Mars rockets and the rest.
His thinking flowed from his invention of the communications satellite in 1945 – something he never patented – nearly two decades before the first ever flew. And although much of his material was very hard science fiction – sci-fi with proper science in it – this was mere backdrop to his real interest, which was exploring the way societies might evolve. So he put a good deal of thought from the late 1940s into figuring out how free communication would change society. And what did he predict? It’s uncanny: he nailed today’s world of social media, remote-working and (inevitably) the fact that free worldwide communications could also be used to deliver salacious content, something he warned about in a 1960 short story, ‘I Remember Babylon’. This was apparently first published in Playboy magazine. Later it was anthologised in Tales of Ten Worlds, which is where I read it: I have the 1971 Corgi edition.
Here’s Clarke describing his vision of how free communications will change the nature of society – notably enabling remote ‘working from home’, and rendering the location of that home irrelevant – in a BBC Horizon documentary of 1964:
Soon afterwards he came up with one way it might happen. The device he described in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ – as seen on film in 1968 – was basically an Apple iPad or Microsoft Surface, with that functionality in terms of being a device to access remote information of all kinds, from news to encyclopaedia entries and the rest. Later he looked to the way computers were developing to further shape his ideas. Here he is in 1974, describing how his vision of a society connected by free communications worldwide might be realised through a desktop computer in every home – a computer on which they can get all the information they need to live in everyday society, even do their own banking.
So yeah. In many major respects, it seems, we’re living the sci-fi future predicted not by Heinlein, Asimov or any of the others – but by Arthur C. Clarke. I like it. Though I do miss the Mars rockets. Any thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022