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Profiles of the Future by Arthur C Clarke
(211 pages, revised edition; Victor Gollancz, hardback, 18.99, published 25 November 1999; Indigo, paperback, 7.99, published 14 December 2000. Original edition first published in 1962.)

The recent profile of Arthur C Clarke has been remarkable, with interviews popping cover scanup all over the place, a new collection (Greetings, Carbon-based Bipeds!) and this revised "Millennium edition" (er, who has been telling us for years that the Millennium begins on January 1st 2001?) of one of his best-known non-fiction works.

Forecasting the future is common enough, and after a while such forecasts all sound the same -- a mixture of naivety, gullibility and technocratic populism which after a decade or two is at best an exercise in the bleedin' obvious and at worst either overtaken by unforeseen events or revealed as wishful fantasising. One could do worse than to compare Profiles with a book Clarke mentions but not by name: M Vasiliev and S Gouschev's Life in the 21st Century (1959: translated 1960). Its mixture of propaganda and techno-utopianism makes depressing reading now. Clarke, though, has never been afraid of sounding naïve if overtaken by enthusiasm and is too sharp a thinker to be unaware that Clarke's First Law can be amended thus: When a distinguished and elderly futurologist says that predictions of the future are only provisional, he is almost certainly right. If he hints that his predictions are to be taken seriously, he is almost certainly not speculating wildly enough.

Why do we need another edition of Profiles? Partly so that Clarke can take us through his visions and show us where he was wrong, where he overlooked trends, misread signs and was simply unaware that somewhere someone was working on a tool or process that would change the world. So he revisits earlier enthusiasms -- such as his insistence that "Ground Effect Machines" would be the next transport revolution -- with some wryness. The new Profiles -- revised several times over the years -- now refers to DVD and microchips (which word replaces the earlier "waveguides": if I knew what that was I've forgotten). The "few hundred feet of tape" on which the Ninth Symphony can be stored becomes "a small silvery disc". Some chapters are extensively revised. "Ages of Plenty" (Ch 12) contains interpolations referring to space elevators and the carbon-atom structure known as "Buckminsterfullerene". Chapter 11 ("About Time") discusses Frank Tipler's "Omega Point" theory (although it's interesting to see the original chapter discussing essentially the same idea.)

If libraries buy the new edition, I hope they refrain from jettisoning the battered earlier copies because what that gives them is a record of the process rather than the immediate action of the speculative games to be played with science. It's actually important to know that things Clarke wrote about with such apparent authority 40 years ago never came to fruition, while others (the telecommunications revolution, for example) happened considerably quicker, although in different form, than Clarke imagined. The reason why is not so that we can dock him merit marks for forecasting wrongly (no planetary colonies, artificial intelligences, understanding of Cetacean languages), or award him bonus point for his undoubted shaping of parts of our present, but so that we can understand the reasons for his authority when he tells us that the future is still open.

What's fascinating-- even slightly sad -- is that many of the wilder speculations of today were firmly embedded in the original edition. Neumann-type "replicator" machines, downloading consciousness, cyborgs -- all part of today's sf and popular science -- are "big ideas" today but they were "big ideas" then. Is there anything new? Perhaps the most obvious -- and most depressing -- "uncharted" change since the 60s is the coming struggle between humanity and the viruses and bacteria which have shrugged off the defences supposed to create a disease-free world. But in a sense, the jury is still out. We're now living in the world which Clarke knew would be transformed in ways beyond his speculation. But he has also been instrumental in popularising and forming this change and the most interesting speculation of all might be to wonder if our present might be different if Profiles of the Future had never been published in the first place.


Review by Andy Sawyer.
This review first appeared in the March/April 2000 issue of Vector.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

  • nonfiction - more reviews of Arthur C Clarke's work.

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© Andy Sawyer 20 May 2000