I’m pretty sure that if there isn’t already a sport that involves mocking what people of the past predicted our society would be like, then we need to invent it. Right now. Tomorrow: Science Fiction and the Future has some gems. It opens with a piece by Isaac Asimov, who begins:
Predicting the future is a hopeless, thankless task, with ridicule to begin with and, all too often, scorn to end with. Still, since I have been writing science fiction for over a quarter of a century, such prediction is expected of me and it would be cowardly to try to evade it.
Brave words from a brave and prolific author who gave us laws of robotics, the term robotics itself, and the Foundation series. Asimov immediately acknowledges the futility of the task he has set himself, as well as the ridicule he will receive for such statements as:
Sports also will be stressed in the world of 1990 as a good and harmless time consumer. I suspect that the great sports novelty will be flying. Small motors, mounted on the back, will lift a man clear of the ground.
Now, this book was published in 1973, but the original form of this essay, “The World in 1990”, was published in 1965. So it is further removed from 1990 than the book’s age would indicate—but only slightly more so than 1990 is removed from us here in 2011! And I still don’t have a jetpack for playing aerial golf.
I could go on, but it wouldn’t really be sporting of me. Asimov is right: predicting the future is a hopeless and silly task, and I suspect the academic tone he takes in this piece is there for effect (if you are going to be silly, be silly all the way). Yet even amid this facetious undertaking, there are currents of the tensions of the 1960s: “What will the situation be a generation from now, say in 1990, assuming that we avoid a thermonuclear war?” For those of us born into a world that does not, generally, fear the looming thermonuclear apocalypse, this question elicits snickers—I know it did from me. It makes me wonder what the next generations will think about my generation’s obsession with global warming and other environmental issues. I hope that this obsession, like our obsession with avoiding nuclear war, ultimately makes such concerns obsolete for our children and grandchildren.
The remainder of Tomorrow is an eclectic compilation of various works of science fiction, both prose and poetry. These works span several decades, with excerpts from an E.M. Forester story from 1928, to an adaptation of Rod Serling’s “Class of ’99” into a playscript. There is a breadth of material here, all organized around the common theme of stories that show us what the world of tomorrow could be. They are glimpses of our possible futures.
As an avid science-fiction reader, this book tickles my brain cells but does little more than that. Just as I’m starting to think, it shifts gears slightly and moves on to the next piece. Nevertheless, there are still some gems in here. I liked reading Asimov’s essay, and there is a neat Arthur C. Clarke short story, “The Awakening”, which I swear I have read in a different form somewhere.
I looked at this book in a group of two other people for my English curriculum instruction course. We had to evaluate the book’s value as a possible textbook: would we buy a class set? Our professor provided a detailed list of criteria. My group concluded that, while the book has an amazing amount of nostalgia value, it would not make a suitable textbook in today’s classroom. Tomorrow’s time, alas, has come and gone. But I still borrowed the book to read it in its entirety anyway.