New Book of the Week: Profiles of the Future

If you consult The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction – and, of course, you DO, don’t you? On a regular basis – you will find the following in the Titles check-list at the bottom of the entry on Arthur C. Clarke:

Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible (New York: Harper and Row, 1962) [nonfiction: hb/]

So. A 51-year-old non-fiction book about the future. Even at the time I read it (circa 1980 – in the Pan paperback edition shown to the left, if I recall correctly) it was old enough to vote. What – given that we’re living in its future – could a half-century-old book possibly have to teach us? Well, if the author of that book is one Arthur Charles Clarke, the answer is: plenty. Take a look at some of the essays contained in the book:

Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Nerve
Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination
Beyond Gravity
Rocket to the Renaissance
Space, the Unconquerable
About Time
The Road to Lilliput
Brain and Body
The Obsolescence of Man

The first two are explorations of Clarke’s take on the two great mistakes open to the would-be prophet or futurist and he expounds at length about both (this is the man who foresaw the telecommunications satellite, remember – he knows whereof he speaks). In others, you have his thoughts on space travel – both the pursuit itself and the mechanics of how to get there – and the approaching singularity (although that term is not used to the best of my memory). While we have certainly added to the sum of human knowledge in all of these areas, we are distinctly short of writers able to convey the ideas in an accessible and interesting manner – something at which Clarke excelled.

Personally, I think it’s a book worth re-reading just for Clarke’s take on the future that awaited the world of 1962 and to see how his short-term predictions panned out – but there’s also the vision of the medium-to-far future, which seems to me to be more Clarke’s natural territory. What he thought might happen is less interesting than why he thought it. There’s still wisdom to be gained from examining the cognitive processes of such an intelligent thinker, even 50 years after the fact.

And then, of course, this is the book that gave us Clarke’s Laws. The third is the most often quoted (and misquoted!) but all three are worth revisiting:

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Distilled wisdom in three bites. So what other gems lurk in this time capsule from half a century ago? You’ll have to read Profiles of the Future and decide for yourself . . .