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

Peter J. Bowler, A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) 298 p. $20.00 PDF, £59.99 Hb. £19.99 Pb. ISBN: 9781107148734

Peter Bowler starts A History of the Future by making two key arguments in the opening two chapters. Firstly, that it is necessary to have a more comprehensive overview of the ways in which people in the first half of the twentieth century thought science and technology would affect the future. Secondly, and very much related, Bowler argues that observing writing across a spectrum of perceived literary merit is important as the representation of science and technology tended to shift thematically from low to high-brow literature. Interestingly, as he goes on to discuss the sources for his work in the second chapter, Bowler does not draw much of a distinction between science fiction and popular, non-fiction science writing, highlighting that many authors regularly crossed those boundaries, both from fiction to futurology and from a technical background to narrative prose.

From this point on Bowler structures the remaining chapters thematically. Chapter Three is concerned with how early twentieth-century writers imagined we might live in the future. Here he explains the dichotomy between the convenience household gadgets might bring on a domestic level, as well as the increased leisure time afforded by the mechanisation of industry, compared with the physical and existential threat posed by these imagined machines. Crucially, Bowler asserts, this threat was often shown to be to the human spirit, with some contemplating that humanity would fall prey to sloth, moral turpitude, or a cessation of endeavour. For example, the altogether pointless games played by the people of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This is also placed within the historical context of the growing unease regarding totalitarian regimes and state control. Beyond this, he examines the effect of electrification, the clothes it was suggested we might wear, and even the food that we might eat.

Chapter Four thinks outside the home and into the spaces in which it was thought we would live. As Bowler highlights, this was probably the area where predictions, made both in fiction and technical writing, fell furthest from reality (at least as we have experienced it so far). As he says, this is caused by the enormous complexity of ‘the interplay between technology and social forces’ (84). From the prefabricated houses espoused by Popular Mechanics to the megapolis of H. G. Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes, Bowler explores the many options presented, as well as how this presentation might leave the reader feeling. This provides a good example of the argument, or perhaps bias, that runs throughout A History of the Future. The technically minded writers are shown to not only be positive about their expectations for the impact of future science and technology, but progressive for being so. On the other hand, those such as Wells, who imagined more negative consequences, are often presented as reactionary and pessimistic.

However, this is slightly lessened in Chapter Five, which is principally concerned with communications and computing. A great deal of potential was already seen in these fields, as Bowler points out, largely because of the success of radios for both communication and broadcasting. As with the rest of the book, Bowler uses a wide range of sources, both fiction and non-fiction, to highlight how people thought instant communication could, to paraphrase Wells as cited by Bowler, make ‘the whole world a meeting place’ (102-03). However, also like the rest of the book and despite Bowler’s expressed intentions, the sources drawn from are almost exclusively British or American, which somewhat limits the global view of the work.

To continue the theme of making the world smaller however, in Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight, Bowler explores how it was imagined we might travel. From automobiles and trains to planes and then spacecraft, perhaps the most common trope of writing on the future in the early twentieth century, he explains, is that we would not be stationary. As well as examining the many methods by which it was suggested we might get about, Bowler also looks at how these new technologies might have been used. With aviation in particular he makes clear that there was both enormous excitement and a clear undercurrent of fear in the writing of the time. He also examines some of the technologies that, (pardon the pun), did not take off. Notably Henry Ford’s personal flying product the Fliver, introduced in 1926 as ‘the Model T of the air’, or the wide-held belief that airships would be the aviation method of choice, as demonstrated by the attention of writers and publications as diverse as Rudyard Kipling and Popular Mechanics (166).

In Chapter Nine, Bowler picks up the concern many felt around aviation and, with the advent of the Cold War, space travel. As he says, ‘[t]he public’s expectation of benefits from applied science was constantly balanced by fears of a war that might end in global catastrophe’ (194). The threat of atomic weapons was much speculated upon and Bowler surveys many texts from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles to C. P. Snow’s writings in Discovery, the year before events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that deal with potential nuclear holocaust. However, he also spends some time examining other weapons of terror such as death rays and gas attacks. That one seems to be clearly in the realm of fiction now in no way negates its perceived threat in the moment given how quickly the other was developed into a devastating weapon used in wars many of these writers fought in. Bowler examines this by looking at Harry Grindell Matthews, whose supposed invention of a death ray was widely publicised in 1923-24. He quotes the Illustrated London News’s description of the device as an ‘electric light ray … a Wells prophecy that might be fulfilled’ (206). Here, the interplay between science writing and science fiction that was so prevalent at the time is neatly exposed by Bowler’s choice of reference.

In the final two chapters, Bowler first looks at energy and the environment and then human nature. The first of these is perhaps the most surprising collection of sources in A History of the Future as it is often assumed that we have only recently seriously begun to think about renewable energy and our impact on the environment. As with war, Bowler examines the negative impacts many felt would come with the application of new scientific and technological discoveries. This is continued into the final chapter in which he looks at the decline of the family, psychological conditioning, and controlled breeding, regularly drawing upon Brave New World. He also touches upon the possible advancement of medicine and the extension of life through science, although even here Bowler frequently returns to the pessimistic potential uses as seen in texts such as Huxley’s.

Overall, Bowler’s work serves as an intriguing starting point for anyone interested in studying predictions for the future made in the first half of the twentieth century. His range of sources, as he set out in the opening chapter, is extensive if somewhat limited in geographic scope. The interplay between fiction and non-fiction as seen in the scientific writing of the time is expertly drawn out and is again helped by the sweep of texts called upon. However, in places, his arguments lack nuance. The technically minded are shown to be progressive, forward thinkers whilst the literary heavyweights are often portrayed as short-sighted and pessimistic. In this Bowler neglects to examine that some of the ideas espoused by the technophiles, such as eugenics, would be considered anything but progressive today, whilst the warnings of authors such as Wells, Orwell, or Huxley are not necessarily explicitly aimed at the technology, but human nature itself. A History of the Future is clearly an exceedingly well researched work that would serve as a wonderful index for study, but it is far more a survey than a critical analysis and should be viewed as such.

Adam Teall, University of Hertfordshire