26 February 2016

A Very Old-Fashioned Future


Imperial Earth
by Arthur C. Clarke

I just re-read this after an interval of roughly 35 years. Written to commemorate the US bicentennial in 1976, it’s basically propaganda for space travel and technological innovation, aimed at young Americans. It’s set in a future where space travel within the solar system is common, colonies have been established on (at least) Mercury, the Moon, Mars and Titan, and the American political model, tempered by a degree of enlightened authoritarianism, has been extended throughout the Solar System.

The central character is a man from Titan, locally rich and very powerful, who is travelling to Earth to clone himself an heir. He does not, however, behave as you might expect such a person to behave. Instead, he comes across as a cerebral, tentative, effete introvert – a bit like the author himself, then. The other characters are even less convincing – they’re just outlines, not even cardboard cutouts.

But the point of the book is not the characters. It’s the gee-whiz technology and the surprising science facts. As a young reader, I found these sufficiently diverting. Sadly, I no longer do. Part of the trouble is that here we have Clarke in ‘prophet of the Space Age’ mode, but his prophecies are trivial and cockeyed.

He himself once divided insufficiently radical predictions about the future into two kinds: failures of nerve and failures of imagination. In this book, he displays few failures of nerve, but several, unusually for him, of imagination. He foresees (at least implicitly) the personal computer, the mobile personal assistant, the mobile communicator and the internet, but he doesn’t put them together and completely fails (as, to be fair, everybody did) to realize the massive consequences that would result from their amalgamation.

Consequently, his vision of how information is distributed in his imagined future is very centralized, bureaucratic and in some ways almost authoritarian. And when he gets down to the details of user interfaces, menus and things like that, he visualizes a very clunky, library-catalogue-type presentation, not terribly user-friendly at all.

What seems to be missing is any appreciation of the effect of competitive consumer capitalism on the design and presentation of technologies. Its absence here may tell us something useful about the distinction between ‘constructive’ technologies (whose consequences may be foreseen) and ‘disruptive’ technologies (which change our lives in unpredictable ways). Having failed to imagine the disruption, Clarke ends up profiling a future that looks more old-fashioned than the reality of our present day. Actually, it looks a bit old-fashioned even from a 1976 perspective.

To sum up: this is an entirely disposable part of the Clarke canon, lacking any of the sense of wonder he deploys to such magnificent effect elsewhere. Avoid unless bored and seriously stuck for reading matter.

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