When 1997 was the future

I’ve been rereading some short science fiction stories by Ray Bradbury, author of Faranheit 451. The collection, published in 1958, made me smile because of the future that Bradbury imagined but which didn’t happen, and in fact cannot happen. Perhaps the funniest example is the “space man” in the story Perchance to Dream smoking a cigarette through”a special helmet tube” after crashing on a planetoid. But elsewhere Bradbury writes of frequent breathable atmospheres (though this is a common phenomenon in lots of other Sci-Fi adventures, Star Trek being a major culprit), canned space flight food, a colonisable Mars and many other impossibilities or improbabilities. In Referent, Bradbury sets his story 40 years in his future, in 1997. Its characters whizzed from place to place in tubes, presumably powered by pressurised air, and small, spherical space ships plopped down in gardens willy-nilly (the main character carries out another Sci-Fi cliche by being able to commandeer and pilot a space ship without any training). Of course, the 1997 I remember clearly didn’t feature travel by cylindrical tubes or spherical space ships; that year I made a seven-month road trip across Canada in a battered Chevrolet panel van that would have been very familiar to Bradbury, and uploaded my first web site via an achingly slow dial-up connection.

But though I found the stories amusing, in the end I wondered what people in 60 years’ time reading (I assume they will still read) today’s science fiction will think of our predictions and the future we imagine. Will they laugh at our thoughts on artificial intelligence, space travel, aliens and the like. Bradbury assumed that changes happened quickly. But although he would be surprised perhaps by the roles in our lives of the Internet or the power squeezed into our smartphones, he would recognise our principal means of travel (metal boxes, four wheels, internal combustion engines; fixed wing aircraft; railway trains using infrastructure already 100 years old in his time), the food we eat, the places we live in, the diseases we die from and much besides . He would probably laugh at the crudity of what we call “robots,” space ships and space stations.

We reached the moon just over a decade after he published these stories. Space travel is still in its infancy 50 years later. He feared and wrote about atomic armageddon and totalitarianism; perhaps climate change and far-right nationalism will produce a similar end times. I wonder that it might be better to get the future wrong!

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