Sandie Oram looks at some predictions of the shape of things to come.
Fantasies of the future are becoming more of a reasoned guess given our knowledge of current technological development. It doesn’t seem unreasonable for Robin Kerrod to speculate in The World of Tomorrow what the probable shape of a city in space will be and how it will be powered, because we could virtually build it now given the finance. Mr Kerrod’s is a sophisticated, stimulating armchair adventure into cities in space and cities on the sea, and would appeal to a suitably sophisticated teenager. He makes many aspects of progress sound fun, but he doesn’t shirk all of the less agreeable aspects of that progress, even if he can’t provide solutions: the chip’s potential in automation is discussed in the light of what people will then be doing to fill out their time. He admits that we still don’t really know if we’re damaging the ozone layer. He confesses that although massive-scale tower building of complete cities seems inevitable, it won’t necessarily be considered desirable by everyone. He raises the question of whether there is a ‘machine intelligence’ or whether we will always be able to control computers. He is fairly encouraging about the prospects of keeping mankind fed: for example, increasing fish-farming instead of over-fishing the current stock, or developing hovering weather blankets to create rain and reclaim the desert for agriculture. It’s a relief to see vitally important issues raised and dealt with in a responsible way, even if the solutions aren’t yet there; it’s all too easy with a lavishly-illustrated book like this for publishers to feel that they have to appeal to an international market in order to get co-productions to keep the price down – and then opt for a bland approach so that no-one can take offence.
With Living in the Future, done by Macdonald in conjunction with ITV (it’s the book of the series), there can be no excuse of foreign productions, because English words appear in colour in the pictures, which makes it virtually impossible to sell to foreigners. The captions to the illustrations, which are usually supposed to make a topic easier to understand, are higher in comprehension level than the actual text, and some of the illustrations are so confusing as to be almost misleading, apart from looking like a badly-organised Fifties advertising campaign. In the house of the future there is one armchair per room – and Mum’s always left standing. The book promotes the virtues of the micro-chip, which will mean shopping by TV from home, having a teaching computer at home instead of going to school, even being diagnosed by the doctor by TV – so you never really have to leave home, although ‘You will have time to travel to countries all over the world, such as China, India and probably Russia‘ (my italics). What have their spies told them? And in the picture of a modern kitchen, with fridge and TV, Mum’s still mixing the cake with a wooden spoon! About the only admission of the nitty-gritty is in one caption about super new home technology: ‘for those who can afford these, life will become more comfortable’. In saying that this is a project which should never have rolled off the presses, I also feel the need to declare that I once worked for this particular publisher, did not leave under a cloud, am still a great admirer of most of their books but don’t feel they should be allowed to get away with this one! There, that’s off my chest!
Fortunately, there is one new publication which is ideal for the younger reader on this subject. Earthship is thought-provoking, with a strongly-worded foreword on conservation, and with emphasis on the things we need to think hard about: transport pollution, animal conservation, damage to ecosystems, the urgent need to research alternative energy sources, and even the dangers nuclear power. Plenty here to prompt classroom or tea table discussion that will carry on and on into that future under discussion.
The World of Tomorrow, Robin Kerrod, Longman, 0 582 39102 4, £5.95
Living in the Future, Alan Radnor, ITV Books/Macdonald, 0 356 07542 7, £3.50
Earthship, Longman, 0 582 39092 3, £3.25
Sandie Oram is Deputy Literary Editor on the Sunday Telegraph.