Non-Fiction Reviews

Future Stories
A user's guide to the future

(2022) David Christian, Bantam Press, £14.99, trdpbk, 248pp, ISBN 978-1-787-63647-7


The future is something we are all headed towards with a certain finality. The future is also fascinating. Fundamental questions include what will it be like? How will it impact me? All of which beg more insightful questions as to how can we predict the future, let alone philosophical ones such as what is the future and the nature of time…?

David Christian is a historian at the Macquarie University in Australia, which in one sense makes perfect sense – historians look at events across the sweep of time. Yet in another sense it is surprising as science is usually the tool to denote the nature of time and predict things in the future, such as global warming scenarios. Indeed, my own work in science policy for the British biological community has seen myself (an environmental scientist) in what in UK science policy parlance are 'horizon scanning' exercises that try to identify future problem issues to politicians. (These last usually do not listen unless it is a critical problem likely to affect them during their five-year term but such predicaments are invariably so in-your-face that horizon scanning is not needed to identify them: hence, issues that are identified are usually ignored by politicians… But I digress, though it is my way of signalling that I know a little about the subject at hand.)

For a historian, David Christian more than makes a fair fist of exploring this topic and writes with enthusiasm which is infectious. But then he is respected in his field and has spoken at key venues such as the Davos World Economic Forum and TED talks (garnering some 19 million views). Perhaps mercifully for potential non-science readers, he steers discussion away from more technical matters such as Type I and Type II errors, difference of means, chi square, Gott analysis and the like, but strips it down to key descriptors. This, though is fascinating enough and more than needed to sate scientists with a casual interesting futurology as well as SF aficionados with sensawunda (sense-of-wonder).

Future Stories is divided into four parts. The first looks at how we (humans) think of time and relate to it: a watched kettle never boils. The second looks at how cells, plants and animals manage the future.  How we prepare and anticipate potential futures is next considered. Finally, there is a fascinating, albeit in parts highly speculative look at near, middle and remote futures.

Those who are more science fictionally centred will find David Christian's exploration adequately signalled with SFnal references. These include Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians, Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, Huxley's Brave New World among others. Plus there are SF name-checks that include H. G. Wells, Stanislaw Lem and the like. Along the way we also get some astrophysical wild thinking including Kardashev civilisations, Hoag's galaxies and so forth. While the more sober will enjoy the discussion in the evolution of thinking about the nature of the future from a Laplacian Newtonian perspective through to chaos theory. It's all good stuff.

To cut to the chase, David Christian envisages four possible futures: continued growth, down-sizing sustainably, collapse and recovery or just collapse. And here in the mix arte things like nanotechnology and unaligned artificial intelligence. In the long term – and he does look at long-term prospects – we need to learn to manage the planet in a sustainable way. This is something I'm sure with which we will all agree. However it the getting to that state that counts and to do that we all need to think about the future, which is, of course, where this book comes in.

Future Stories, despite its complex subject matter, is a straightforward read, made all the more accessible with line diagrams. There is much here for the scientist into science fiction, as well as SF aficionados into science. In short, it is the sort of book that will go down well with our SF² Concatenation regulars. But it also should with all those concerned about the future. Let's hope this book finds its readership.

Do check it out.

Jonathan Cowie


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