|Justin B Rye 01-Aug-08|
This is a thoroughly predictable companion to my review of Heinlein's prophecies for 2000 AD. That old page already mentioned Clarke's rival forecasts (because Heinlein's own postscripts did), and it would have made sense to follow up with a 2001 page assessing them; but it's against the rules to start mocking a prophet during his lifetime, so publication of this page has been on hold.
|Part 1: Introductions|
|TABLE OF CONTENTS|
|Part 2: Laws|
|1ST 2ND 3RD 4TH|
|Part 3: Essays|
|01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10|
|11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20|
|Part 4: Predictions|
|COL A COL B COL C COL D COL E|
|Part 5: Conclusions|
The other problem with this comparison is that instead of being
obliging enough to give a list of hard predictions as hostages to
an eventual performance evaluation, the late Arthur C. Clarke was
more cautious. This may seem strange from someone who was
prepared to use specific dates as the titles of some of his
best-known works of fiction; but his 1962 collection of
Profiles of the Future,
took a quite different approach – as indicated by its
An Inquiry into the Limits of the
Oddly enough, the part of Profiles that has had most
impact on popular culture wasn't part of the original text.
As first published, the book didn't include any numbered
laws: those were an editorial addition for the French
translation! However, later revisions (in 1973, 1982, and
1999) adopted Clarke's Laws into their footnotes.
(Nor, by the way, does Profiles say that all revolutionary
ideas pass through the three stages of
impossible – don't waste my time,
probably can be done, but it's not worth doing, and
I knew it was a good idea all along! –
that's from The Promise of Space, 1968.)
Clarke's First Law:
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.
This stereotype of authority-figures declaring things impossible reflects Clarke's personal experience as an early advocate of astronautics. Being fifty years younger naturally gives me a quite different viewpoint: when I was growing up, the space race was over, but government think tanks were predicting that given funding they could build a global missile defence network of X-ray lasersats by the end of Reagan's term in office. Most of it sounded like vapourware then, and another generation later it's evident that it was. (Yes, I know there are people who can't face this fact. I dare say they also still think that if 'Nam goes Commie the rest of south-east Asia will fall like dominoes.)
Regardless of this clash of biasses, I have to acknowledge that it's a handy rule of thumb. With a few caveats.
And then there's Asimov's corollary:
When, however, the lay public rallies round an idea that is denounced by distinguished but elderly scientists and supports that idea with great fervour and emotion, the distinguished but elderly scientists are then, after all, probably right.
That mention of the public hints at the real issue, which is that this law isn't about technological progress so much as the way it's reported; and the journalistic prejudices it was designed to counterbalance are those of a bygone era. These days if an undistinguished biotech company flack says that in principle you could genetically modify insects to secrete valuable pharmaceuticals, the risk isn't that it'll be disbelieved; it's that the labs will be besieged by a pitchfork-wielding mob of tabloid readers convinced that scientists have already done that and need to be stopped before they start breeding giant baby-eating drug-hornets for the sheer hell of it.
Clarke's Second Law:
The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
If what you're hoping for is clear-cut predictions like Heinlein's, Clarke's Second Law is always going to look a bit of a cop-out; he gets to churn out fantasies, taking the credit if they materialise but ignoring all the misses. This is especially noticeable with the highly variable wish-fulfilment level of the separate chapters (which were originally published as essays between 1959 and 1961). But Clarke was always more interested in grand panoramas of things to come than in mapping current social trends, and it's not as if he wasn't up-front about it.
Then again, as any advertising executive will tell you, the limits of the possible aren't always relevant. The Reagan-era Star Wars schemes influenced the course of the Cold War regardless of their feasibility, while on the other hand there are plenty of technologies that have been developed, proved workable, and abandoned, like dirigibles and supersonic passenger jets.
Clarke's Third Law:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
This law is another one that lends itself to corollaries and
parodies, of which my favourite is
any technology is
indistinguishable from magic to the sufficiently retarded.
And of course it's presented as upbeat, since again it's a
justification for flights of fancy – the point being
that you can't rule a technology impossible just because you can't
imagine it as a practical engineering project. However, the
down side is that you can't make useful forecasts about something
you're writing off as magic, so any sufficiently steep
technological slope necessarily creates an
While that's a problem for writers of futurology or fiction, it
has at least given us a whole new subgenre of SF that takes
seriously the idea of an exponential technological
Singularity SF, such as Accelerando
(which of course I'm plugging only so that I can casually mention
that I was briefly Charles Stross's Systems Administrator while
he was writing it), follows naturally from the view of the future
described in Profiles. So it's striking how
completely different it is from the subgenre Clarke himself was
most comfortable writing, with its sweeping cosmic vistas in the
tradition of Olaf Stapledon's Last and
Clarke's Fourth Law:
For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert.
You didn't hear about the fourth law? Well, yes, he did
promise to stop with the third (like
Isaacs), but the nineties edition of Profiles
added this blatant contravention of the standard
do-everything-in-threes protocol. That said, I think I'm
going to declare from this point onward that the 1999 revised
version doesn't get to count here, since for all I know it might
have been inspired by my Heinlein page!
Next up, quick highlights from each chapter of Profiles,
with comments. Instead of three laws, the book starts with
Hazards, each of which gets a chapter to itself.
It's some sort of mark of how things have changed that he needed most of a chapter of examples to lead up to something that today reads as a truism.
Anything that is theoretically possible will be achieved in practice, no matter what the technical difficulties, if it is desired greatly enough. It is no argument against any project to say:The idea's fantastic!
and more interesting): the failure to acknowledge that there might be crucial facts yet to be discovered that convert the impossible into the trivial.
Personally I would add a third Hazard of Prophecy: the Failure of Cynicism.
From their very nature, these breakthroughs can never be anticipated; but they have enabled us to by-pass so many insuperable obstacles in the past that no picture of the future can hope to be valid if it ignores them.
Meteorology is a good example of a field where unanticipated breakthroughs (in this case in the mathematics of nonlinear systems) have pushed hitherto plausible technologies back towards infeasibility: even with supercomputers and satellite data, we can't tell whether it'll be raining this time next week.
In the cities, of course, the weather will be fully controlled before another century has passed; and outside them, even if we cannot control it, we will certainly be able to predict it and make plans accordingly.
My hovercraft is full of electric eels.
It is only fair to point out that the large-scale use of private or family GEMs may not be a very practical proposition while we have to depend on the petrol engine. […] But the petrol engine is on its way out, as any petroleum geologist will assure you in his more unguarded moments.
So far we haven't bothered with anything even as fancy as robots – just remote-controlled vehicles with a trivial amount of local processing capability. When one gets into trouble, we radio it a software upgrade.
I doubt this; in any event, there are always going to be cases where robots get into trouble and men will have to get them out of it.
I do not believe that uranium and plutonium-fuelled devices should be allowed off the ground), he projected this trend continuing:
Not detectably; back in 1969, Apollo 10 hit 24,791 mph (that's 11 km/s), and it still holds the record for fastest-ever manned vehicle to this day. Since then we've given up on supersonic passenger transports, and we're retiring the space shuttle fleet.
Man's love of record-breaking will presumably lead to ultra-high-speed circuits of the globe as soon as they become technically feasible.
Thus once you've got the Internet, you can
Telecommunication and transportation are opposing forces
telecommutein to work, do your shopping online, and join your MMORPG team-mates for a night on the virtual town without once setting foot outside your room. Of all the topics Clarke prognosticated about, this for some reason is the one Heinlein chose to pick a fight about… demonstrating that not only could he not make decent predictions, he couldn't recognise them either.
If reckless, unsustainable expansionism is a prerequisite for civilisation, what was Imperial China? As far as I'm concerned, people who go to places just so they can say they were the first to leave footprints there are no more admirable than the ones who get in the record books by attaching clothes pegs to their faces.
The road to the stars has been discovered none too soon. Civilization cannot exist without new frontiers; it needs them both physically and spiritually.
And more importantly, he wouldn't get to leave footprints.
A man-carrying, nuclear-poweredsubterreneis a nice concept for any claustrophobe to meditate on. For most purposes, there would be little point in putting a man in it; he would have to rely entirely upon the machine's instruments, and his own senses would contribute nothing to the enterprise.
What, not even if his journey takes him a subjective (time-dilated) week of hibernation, and his friends back home are AIs and immortals? This may yet turn out to be a Failure of Nerve.
Vega of the Lyre, twenty-six years away at the speed of light, near enough the point-of-no-return for us short-lived creatures […] For no man will ever turn homewards from beyond Vega, to greet again those he knew and loved on Earth.
You'd think he'd have been in a hurry to update this once the existence of black holes was established, but even the eighties edition only added a line about neutron stars.
If we ever learn to control gravity, we may also learn to control time. Once again, titanic forces would be required to produce minute time-distortions. Even on the surface of a White Dwarf star, where gravity is thousands of times more powerful than on Earth, it would require very accurate clocks to reveal that time was running slowly.
If, as is perfectly possible, we are short of energy two generations from now, it will be through our own incompetence.
Santa Claus machinesto be the killer app (let's hope not) of nanotechnology.
He meant the kind of atom-perfect Star Trek replicator you could put a human being through, which is indeed a tall order, but
It is certainly fortunate that the Replicator, if it can ever be built at all, lies far in the future, at the end of many social revolutions.
3D photocopiersare coming along faster than anticipated.
Sorry, Sir Arthur – modern cutting-edge physics postulates at least half a dozen more dimensions than that!
In a Four Dimensional universe the distinction vanishes, and so, accordingly, does the paradox now worrying the physicists. The Nobel Prize committee can contact me through my publishers.
Or a nanotechnological mothership; just not a spaceship with flesh-and-blood crew.
We can dismiss, therefore, those ingenious stories of midget (or even microscopic) spaceships as pure fantasy. If you are ever persistently buzzed by a strange metallic object that looks like a beetle, it will be a beetle.
Now that's Failure of Cynicism.
The very profusion of available channels, each capable of being received by most of the human race, will make possible services of a quality and specialized nature quite out of the question today.
Teaching machines? [PS: oh, like these! Skinner-box-tastic.]
It is hard to think of any invention that would be more valuable than the device which science fiction writers have called a Mechanical Educator. As depicted by authors and artists, this remarkable gadget usually resembles the permanent-wave machine at a ladies' hair-dressers, and it performs a similar function – though on the material inside the skull. It is not to be confused with the teaching machines now coming into widespread use, though one day these may be recognised as its remote ancestors.
The only part of this that now seems ludicrous is the assumption that you'd stick with the same PDA/PA your mother bought you, back in the days when quantum computers were a novelty!
For a few generations, perhaps, every man will go through life with an electronic companion, which may be no bigger than today's transistor radios. It willgrow upwith him from infancy, learning his habits, his business affairs, taking over all the minor chores like routine correspondence and income tax returns and engagements.
So we're not entitled to penalise Clarke for auguries that fail to come true before the sun goes out…
Our Galaxy is now in the brief springtime of its life – a springtime made glorious by such brilliant blue-white stars as Vega and Sirius, and on a more humble scale, our own Sun. Not until all these have flamed through their incandescent youth, in a few fleeting billions of years, will the real history of the universe begin.
Okay, so now I've clarified that I can get on with ripping it to shreds.
And because I am trying to visualize ultimate goals, there is little discussion of timescales (apart from a light-heartedChart of the Futureto be taken no more seriously than all such predictions).
Clarke's Chart of the Future had five columns, which I'll handle
one by one. Later revisions of Profiles left the
five categories unchanged, but rescheduled and reorganised a lot
of the contents; dates in the following with
deletion tags indicate emendations, usually in the
1981 edition. For obvious reasons, I'm ignoring the
retrodictions placed before 1960, but I'm including only the
items that were (at some stage) due before 2060. Later
decades were for all intents and purposes the futurological
Here Be Dragons.
springboardfor later predictions, in this case Hypersonic Transport.
The Core, which I don't recommend)… do news editors always file it under
Space Drivewas due by 2070! It's not as if it would need a human pilot… or even cost anything, once you've got Fusion Power plus Space Mining plus Replicators.
global mobile phone networks.
Discovery of Extra-Solar Intelligence.
controlis a long way off.
confirmedlist by ignoring the question of whether we'd ever use it to control human heredity.
Artificial Life, while moving it down the list against the tide of biotech optimism. That's still a fuzzy target, but people have already produced bacteria with synthesised genomes.
What, were you expecting me to end by awarding him a score? That's a tricky one. Well, let's focus on the predictions from the chart that were for a future decade when they were made, but which we are now in a position to evaluate; by my tally there are about two dozen. Of these, how many have come true? I'd say there are at least half a dozen definites plus about as many arguable or partial hits. There's no obvious way of organising deductions for late arrivals (come to that, do early arrivals give a bonus or a penalty?), so at present my best estimate is that Clarke should get something like 35±10%.
However, that's only an interim appraisal. As time goes by and more decades on the chart become judgeable, we can expect the figures to rise and (past 2060, especially) fall. Eventually it will be possible to divide the list into prognostications that arrived early, promptly, late, or never, and award a final score on that basis. But I'm not going to be so foolish as to pretend I can predict how soon that day will arrive!
One could write a history of science in reverse by
assembling the solemn pronouncements of highest authority about
what could not be done and could never happen.
Robert A. Heinlein (1952)
Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and
although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions
Isaac Asimov (1975)