Imagineering

July 20, 2019:
Life in the 21st Century
By Arthur C. Clarke
Collier Macmillan; 282 pp.

“Unimaginable pleasures await the sexual traveler of 2019.”  –  A Night in the Bedroom, July 20, 2019

The trick in casting prognostications, as anyone who has watched television evangelists will attest, is to predict a future that is appealing, yet simultaneously plausible to one’s audience. That’s why futurism, ever since about 1970, has been so difficult to carry off, and therefore so rarely attempted. What is appealing is no longer plausible; what is plausible is far from appealing.

In brief, the future no longer looms large in popular culture as a realm of tantalizing possibilities. On the contrary, serious consideration of what lies beyond tomorrow for the Western world is enough to give most people the willies. The future circa 1936 may have looked like Things to Come, but the future circa 1987 looks more like The Road Warrior.

As a result, Arthur C. Clarke’s guide to what life will be like 32 years hence, July 20, 2019, is an anachronism, if only in its impatience to get the future under way. In the 21st century, it insists, there will be machines without mechanization, industrialism without the associated ills. There will be space stations and suborbital supersonic airliners, 3-D movies and magnetic monorails, giant transport hovercraft and personal robots. The future will be a place of increased comfort and endless leisure – a perfected, souped-up version of the present.

One gathers this is the sort of thing Ronald Reagan has in mind.

Reassuring though it may be, and as sleek as Clarke attempts to portray it, it’s a future that by now is almost 50 years old: specifically, it’s the future that was unveiled at the 1939 New York World’s Fair; a throwback to a time when science held the promise of undoing all that had gone wrong with the 20th century. Science would feed the world, it would build gleaming cities, it would deliver the citizenry from drudgery and tyranny, it would make war obsolete by making it unthinkable.

No such luck. As the century rolls to a close, popular will resigns itself to the realization that there are no solutions to any of the day’s most pressing problems, and little likelihood that the problems will simply go away. Environmental erosion will get worse, not better. The global economy shows no signs of freeing itself from the cycle of depression-recovery-depression. The only way to get rid of nuclear weapons, it would seem, is to use them. In fact, what the future promises is the present, only more so – one huge crisis to be managed.

Clarke’s cheery vision falls flat, as a result, not because it’s inaccurate  – there probably will be rustproof cars and artificial “intelligence” – but because he’s addressing a generation that already has VCRs and personal computers and laser disc stereos, and has learned the hard way that new and better gizmos do not a paradise make.

The blurred vision of the book is all the more surprising, given its author. Arthur C. Clarke is a towering figure in science fiction – a writer whose skill and intelligence helped to shape the concerns of the post-war genre and to remake its literary standards. He is the author of not only 2001: A Space Odyssey but the earlier, superior Childhood’s End. He is a past recipient of the U.N.’s Kalinga Award for science popularization, and is one of the few science-fiction writers who can point to a prognostication dramatically fulfilled: he is credited with proposing the possibility of satellite communications.

He is, however, fast becoming the Orson Welles of his genre. His best work apparently behind him, he has been reduced of late to hosting low-budget syndicated documentaries on mental telepathy, the Loch Ness monster and the like, and to cashing in on his reputation with glossy, effortless volumes like this one.

In the future, baseball pitchers will have bionic arms, houses will have built-in intelligence, drugs and therapy will eradicate mental illness, people will live into triple figures, men will have babies, women will win political equality, there will be unimaginable sexual pleasures (although they’re not actually described, being unimaginable).

There’s no mention of what will happen to erase the mounting deficits of the Western nations. Or what we can expect once the characters who currently hijack airliners with grenades eventually get their hands on atomic bombs that fit inside suitcases. Or what technical miracle is going to do away with bigotry, class stratification and international hostility.

Instead, (and oddly, since Clarke is an expatriate Brit who now makes his home in Sri Lanka) there is the fierce conviction that the future will be wonderful because it will be so thoroughly American.

Take, for example, the future of health care. In Clarke’s vision, medicine will become fully commercialized, to the extent that we will have a small number of price-competitive “hospitels” – sort of combination Holiday Inns and operating theatres – while most health services will be available at medical malls, where each specialty will be run as a franchise. This is what we have to look forward to: treatment at the McClinic. It is presented as a good thing.

It’s no accident then that Clarke chooses the 50th anniversary of Apollo XI’s moon landing as the date for his excursion into the 21st century. He is a space race nostalgic of the most devout hue, one who misses not only the thrill of the moon shot, but the country that made it possible: the America that might have been, and the America that might yet be.

He sees the Apollo program as the most lofty symbol of what that America might accomplish, and by detailing the technical prowess yet to come, July 20, 2019 presumes to give the future an ideal on which to converge.

Sadly, while one should avoid the temptation to blame the Americans for the fix in which the late 20th century finds itself, at this late stage surely no one believes that America is somehow the answer.eg

  • Montreal Gazette, January 24, 1987