The Joys of Modern Life
Tuesday 28 December 1999
For the last 100 years the prospect of how we would be living in the 21st century has taxed the human mind and prompted scientific speculation and idle daydream. From HG Wells to Tomorrow's World, the planet has been obsessed with prediction. And how wide of the mark we have been.
George Orwell's 1984 came and went without Britain becoming Airstrip One, and Big Brother became a cliche. Space 1999 promised a shiny future on the Moon - but this year Nasa sent a satellite to Mars and lost it. And what of all those Fifties sci-fi B-movies - The Day the Earth Stood Still, for instance - with their dire warnings of invasion by aliens demanding to see our leader?
A rich vein of prediction this century was mined by the BBC science programme Tomorrow's World. Among the daft inventions it featured was the Advanced Passenger Train, which leant as it went round corners, threatening diners with a drenching as the soup went flying.
One of the greatest brains in the universe, Star Trek's Mr Spock (below) - or, more accurately, his alter ego, Leonard Nimoy - gazed forward in time in 1968. Although he predicted office "calculators" capable of doing sums to two decimal places, he also imagined that telephone numbers would be 46 digits long and that we would unlock our front doors by the power of thought. Back to the Vulcan laboratory, Spock.
HG Wells was one of the more successful practitioners of the art. Late- Victorian England was flustered by the novelist's tales of space travel, atomic bombs, motorways and robots. He predicted the path war would take when he wrote of aeroplanes "capable of starting from Calais... circling over London, dropping a hundredweight or so of explosive upon the printing machines of the Daily Mail, and returning securely to Calais for another similar parcel".
Looking further ahead, making predictions for the fourth millennium is a safe bet, because nobody alive now will be around to laugh when they fail to come true. So here is Arthur C Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey (another fantasy of the future that was rather wide of the mark), in visionary mode. He claims that the overflow from a crowded Earth will be living in huge space-stations connected to the planet by four immense space elevators.
No aspect of modern life is too trivial for the great man's brain: "Beards, too, will soon become a thing of the past," he declares. "They would not co-exist with space helmets."
That may well come to pass, Arthur, but chances are we'll still be driving Ford Fiestas and living in Barratt Homes in the year 3000.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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