This is a book first published in 1962, a nonfiction book speculating on potential technological developments and human achievements. The subtitle is “An Inquiry in the Limits of the Possible.” Clarke revised it three times, the last in 1999 (he died in 2008). I first read the book around 1970, in a paperback of what must have been the original edition. Later I bought a copy of the revised edition and (unwisely in retrospect) sold off the earlier copy. Then recently I discovered the book had two more revisions, the fourth published only in the UK. I tracked a copy down on Abebooks and have now read that, checking it against the earlier, 2nd, edition I have to see how substantial the revisions were. (In some cases, from chapter to chapter, very minor; in others quite substantial. Serious updates are noted with chapter prefaces or postscripts.)
The fun of a book like this, even one just 20 years old, is to see where the author correctly anticipated the future, and where he went awry.
The first thing I noticed about this book is that the introduction advises that it was written as a series of essays for Playboy magazine. This is interesting because Playboy is and was a high-end market (i.e. despite its reputation as a skin magazine, it makes, or made, enough in advertising to attract top-drawer writers), and I hadn’t realized Clarke had that kind of mainstream success so early (in contrast to his celebrity years following 2001 in 1968). And it’s significant because the book isn’t a sustained or organized argument about various aspects of the future; it’s a collection of individual topics, without the focus or progression one might expect of a nonfiction book written from scratch. Yet I realize as I glance through my shelf of other Clarke nonfiction titles, virtually all of Clarke’s nonfiction books (except perhaps personal narratives like The Treasure of the Great Reef) are similar collections of essays.
This fourth ‘Millennium Edition’ begins by recalling Clarke’s so-called Three Laws:
- When a distinguished by elderly scientist says that something is possible, (s)he is almost certainly right. When (s)he says it is impossible, s(he) is very probably wrong.
- The only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible.
- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
The third is the most famous, of course. He further advises that this book isn’t about what’s probable, or desirable, but what’s possible.
The first two chapters (which perhaps were written especially for the book) discuss two “Hazards of Prophecy.” The first is “The Failure of Nerve.” Examples of are usually cases that fit the first law above: some authority claims such and such is impossible, without thinking through the evidence or presenting a case. Thus, fears of how locomotives would suffocate people by reaching 20 mph. How heavier-than-air flight was thought to be impossible. And how the idea of space flight was dismissed, citing one example in detail, where the math was right but the assumptions incorrect. As late as 1956 came that famous remark, “Space travel is utter bilge” – from Britain’s Astronomer Royal. As a result only Germany and Russia pursued rocketry, and Russia won the race into space. Lesson: “Anything that is theoretically possible will be achieved in practice, no matter what the technical difficulties, if it is desired greatly enough.”
“Failures of Imagination” account for known facts but don’t anticipate things that might yet be discovered. In 1835 it was thought the composition of the stars could never be known. How the idea of harnessing the energy of the atom was dismissed, 5 years before it happened. Consider how much of today’s technology would have seemed incomprehensible in 1900; some of our machines would have seemed sensible to past minds, e.g. cars and trains, but not computers, radar or VCRs [Blu-Ray players, we might say now].
The remaining chapters jump from topic to topic.
Ch3 is on transport, noting how throughout most of human history the speed of transportation has been no more than 10mph, while the ranges of mph in the next three orders of magnitude have been achieved in the past century. Clarke concludes that in the short range (10-100 miles) it’s hard to imagine anything fundamentally different replacing cars. But—they will become more efficient, electric, and will drive themselves, and you can dismiss them. [[ Thus he’s anticipating self-driving electric cars, and the sharing economy. ]] Railroads will fade as industry decentralizes; planes for intercontinental, getting bigger; sea travel shifting to comfort and leisure. (Most on the mark here.)
Ch4 discusses Clarke’s biggest miss from 1962, as he admits in 1999. It’s about GEMs, Ground Effect Machines (what we now call hovercraft). How they can cross rough terrain without any kind of highway, travel at sea, and can transition from sea to land anywhere, rendering coastal ports obsolete. His 1999 postscript admits this hasn’t worked out: because they turned out to be gas guzzlers, were noisy, messy, and hard to control. They do have certain limited uses, like channel crossings. But they didn’t revolutionize the world.
Ch5 is about overcoming gravity, an ancient dream. Notes how small animals are unaware of it. Advises that weightlessness in orbit is not about being “beyond the pull of gravity”; that’s nonsense. If some negative-gravity matter were found, gravity control would be propulsion, to move freight, to visit Jupiter in person. Gravity belts might make elevators obsolete; our homes could take to the air and we’d be nomads, with the end of cities and national boundaries. [[ So here we have an admittedly far-fetched premise, but we see how Clarke extrapolates its consequences in unexpected ways, which is what futurists and science fiction writers do. ]]
Ch6 is more about speed. The rate increase discussed in Ch3 cannot continue. Talk of nuclear propulsion, or ramjets. But with great speed comes high acceleration. Gravity control might give rise to an ‘inertialess’ drive.
Ch7 is about a world without distance. Suppose we could teleport ourselves, like in that Alfred Bester novel [[ The Stars My Destination ]] ? Issues include how long it would take to scan a human body, and the fact that a transmitter would actually be a multiplier. [[ The issue with Star Trek‘s transporter, as James Blish explored in his one original Trek novel, Spock Must Die. ]] The real answer may be in the nature of space; the bending of space, as on a Mobius strip.
Ch8 outlines the near future of space, from 1960. Space travel will provide a sense of wonder, but in no way a solution to the problem of overpopulation. Culture is shifting (he said back in 1962), with toys and TV shows on space themes. Space exploration might affect art: writers respond to the existence of frontiers. Space flight is less like aviation than like ocean voyaging. Aesthetics will be affected by alien environments. Alien life is unlikely in our solar system; contact with races on planets of other suns, likely via radio, would have profound impacts on our cultures, and on our religions — “if there are any gods whose chief concern is man, they cannot be very important gods.”
Ch9: Is there any place that will forever be inaccessible to us? Considers the center of the earth, Jupiter, Mercury, the sun, dwarf stars; pulsars. We can approach all of these, at least.
Ch10: We’ll never ‘conquer’ space – it’s unimaginably vast. Even if we settle the solar system, conversation won’t be possible, because of the time lag. And stellar space is millions of times vaster that solar space. That’s not to say stars will never be reached; there are various ways of achieving such travel. But interstellar empires are fantasy. Any settled planets would be independent. Even if we could surpass the speed of light, we would still have the enormity of space, considering the number of stars, of planets. Again: space will never be conquered.
Ch11, About Time. Will we ever be able to visit the past, change it, travel to it, or to the future? What would it be like to actually know the complete past? Perhaps people in the future are looking back at us. Altering the past involves too many paradoxes and contradictions. Some writers have tried to circumvent these. Many worlds; or history has inertia. [[ all common science fiction premises ]] Why have we seen there no time travelers, if such travel is possible? Clarke doesn’t take these ideas very seriously. Drugs can alter the apparent passage of time. Relativity predicts the time paradox of space travelers returning to earth. Travel to the future? Easy. Suspended animation is one way. Cryonics. Seeing the future? It was once thought that if given the position and velocities of all atoms in the universe, the future was predetermined. But not anymore. Still, we can’t rule anything out…
Ch12, Are we running out of resources? Previous worries haven’t happened yet. But fossil fuels can’t last forever. Fission is an unpleasant method. Fusion is the best solution, though likely only as very large plants. Batteries will be needed to transport that energy to cars and planes. Broadcast energy has its problems p131. Other sources? Solar. Hydro-electric. Perhaps sources we can’t imagine yet. As for raw materials, we’ve used up in a few centuries the easily mined ores that took hundreds of millions of years to form. We can get some minerals from ordinary rocks, from sea water, or from deep mining with machines. Or other planets in the solar system, transported via a ‘funicular’ to lift payload into orbit, a cable or sky-hook; space elevators [ the theme of Clarke’s 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise ]. Ultimately, nuclear transmutation will create any elements we want. Starting with fusion; then using nuclear catalysts. With that capability, we should never run out of raw material.
Ch13, about manufacturing and the the struggle for food, shelter, and other materials. Some objects can be specified in a few words, but most can’t. still, we have techniques for analyzing objects in ways that would have amazed chemists of a generation ago. We can manufacture solid circuits, layer by layer. So consider how a three-d replicator would work. Mentions of books by Drexler and Broderick (The Spike). And why not food? Perhaps then we’d see the end of factories, farms, and transportation of raw materials. The first replicator would then create another of itself. What would remain valuable? Values would change; services might prevail. It’s a matter of being civilized.
Ch14, is invisibility possible? The notion in Wells’ Invisible Man wouldn’t work; the eye wouldn’t be able to see. Other notions involve cameras, mirrors and prisms, vibrations. But subjective invisibility is quite possible. Hypnosis. And what about matter penetration? Walking through walls. Polarization. Or the fourth dimension – as in direction. Flatland, and the analogy to the third dimensional world.
Ch15, the idea of exploring the very tiny; the invention of the microscope led to Gulliver’s Travels and the idea of levels of smaller sizes. A world in a drop of water. Alice used a drug. Cummings: the atom as miniature solar system. Incredible Shrinking Man. Are any of these possible? No, for reasons of scale. Ants. A tiny man’s bodily mechanisms would fail. In reality, humans may now be larger than they need to be. Smaller intelligent beings might exist along different lines. But all cells are about the same size. Thus very small animals are less complex; intelligent ones are larger. The downward limit for life is the size of a protein.
Ch16, Voices from the Sky – another 1962 essay here reprinted without change. The president’s Christmas message in 1958 heralded a new age—via an Atlas satellite. But great improvements are in store. The world is round… it was the ionosphere that made long-distance radio possible. That doesn’t work for TV. What’s needed instead is a single relay a few thousand miles up; three satellites to surround the world. This was Clarke’s idea in 1945. What will be the consequences of global TV? We will all become neighbors, able to see each other’s lives. There’s hope and also danger: consider a scenario of how to conquer the world without anyone noticing, p173t. Suppose Russian spread tiny receivers to undeveloped nations and quickly used propaganda for their ends. Also, we’ll see the end of hideous TV antennae. The variety of shows will increase. Shows without commercials. And relief from the “intellectual vacuum” of small towns, especially in the Deep South, p174. The end of small-town mentality. Affects on languages. What else? Perhaps personal transceivers. Be able to call anyone on earth. A positioning system. Need for transportation will decrease. Workers can live wherever they please. Wide-screen full-colour TVs, 176b. Correspondence making airmail obsolete… by writing something and having it scanned at the office. Orbital newspapers, printing out only the sections you want to read. Copies of any book anywhere. Or will the availability of all this TV destroy civilization? (Clarke’s 1999 postscript: all this happened more quickly than he imagined. But we still don’t have paperless offices.) [[ He still didn’t anticipate e-mail or the web; he imagined correspondence would be printed out. ]]
Ch17, Brain and Body. Can they be improved? The brain perhaps never completely forgets anything. But false memories can be implanted too, by fundamentalist preachers… Might we gain conscious control of our memories? A form of time travel, to bring up any recollection. Or how about the creation of new memories, i.e. education machines? Artificial memories would amount to dream factories. Our senses are easily tricked. We could manufacture new sensations. We could wire in the senses of other animals. We’re deaf and blind to a whole range that of our senses. [[ A favorite theme of E.O. Wilson. ]] Senses can be trained to make up for the absence of others. Perhaps we can control pain? Is sleep really necessary? Is dreaming? Sleep might be useful in some circumstances, leading to suspended animation. Is there a normal lifespan? But a world of immortals would stagnate. But perhaps we can improve the aging process. Might our minds move into machines? Or disembodied heads?
18, The Obsolescence of Man. Pre-humans first used tools, triggering the trend of human evolution. In a sense, tools invented modern men, who replaced the earlier ones who invented tools. This may be happening again. Biological evolution may give way to technology evolution: the machine is going to take over. This will be a turning point in history. But what is meant by a machine thinking? Turing’s device. Yet aren’t computers programmed? A fallacious argument; their sheer speed will enable them to escape our control. The argument is like the early chemists who felt something inorganic must animate life. Already machines are making progress to M. sapiens. They may be grown. Sizes shrink. Capacity grows. Comparisons with radios and hi-fi equipment. Recall the brain, life, cells, eyes. Eyes are poor compared to the cheapest camera. Some senses are unavailable to us. The greatest stimulus to the evolution of mechanical intelligence is the challenge of Space. Perhaps only in space will intelligence flourish; the dullards will stay home. Like the fish that stayed in the sea. So what happens to man? There may be an alliance for a while. Machines may take up menial tasks. Would they combine with us? Humans with machine parts. Cyborgs. The idea that intelligent machines would be hostile to man is absurd, 205b.
19, The Long Twilight. Acknowledges inconsistencies and omissions. The M87 jet. Quote from Bertrand Russell. The fate of the universe.
Finally, the book has a “Chart of the Future”, showing categories of achievement against a timeline of past and future, with significant accomplishments shown, or predicted. (Click for larger image.) Obviously Clarke updated this chart from with each revision of the book. Note that even in 1999 he thought fusion power and weather control were imminent, while other ideas, like colonizing planets, might have happened but have not, humanity’s taste for such pursuits having waned. Furthermore, despite Clarke’s optimism, there are good reasons to think that gravity control, ‘space drives,’ and matter transmission will never be possible. But of course the point of Clarke’s book is to never rule anything out, no matter how improbable.