To boldly conceive

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Mark Brake, Neil Hook FutureWorld
Boxtree/Science Museum 2008

FutureWorld is a popular account of the interaction between science fiction and pure science, published in association with the Science Museum in London and aimed at a general audience. Structured by division into four broad themes — space, time, machine and monster — the book’s main thesis is that bold imaginative concepts have to precede insights into real science, and that science fiction, of whatever period and whatever label, both stimulates scientific investigation and the developments of technologies while itself being stimulated in its turn by science and technology.

This being a Science Museum publication, it is primarily designed to communicate science to the public in an entertaining way without literally blinding them with science, and what better way to hook that public than with themes from popular culture. To that end there is no end of references to popular SF books, films, TV shows and games, with one hundred short entries broken up by wittily-captioned photos and illustrations.

The whole builds on the increasing realisation that we are living in an world where no sooner is a notion which feels SF expressed than the fiction becomes fact, and that within the span of a very few decades most of us are living in what we would have described not so long ago as a science fiction world. What Futureworld tries to do is maintain that sense of wonder before it becomes blunted by the fantastic becoming mundane and everyday. And in amongst the text’s 120-odd pages is the reminder that the best science fiction, while thinking the unthinkable, also gives us warnings of the implications that untrammelled innovation could have on our present and future lives without serious consideration, discussion and regulation.

This is an attractive book, easy to read and well-illustrated, though it does fizzle out without a real conclusion. The authors are enthusiasts in their field and that comes through in the writing. Neil Hook is in the Science Communication Research Unit of the University of Glamorgan where he lectures on the MSc programme in Communicating Science; perhaps unexpectedly he is a also a practising Anglican priest researching the relationship between science fiction and theology. His co-author, Mark Brake, formerly professor of science communication at the same university though now working as a freelance author and broadcaster, gained fame for helping initiate at the University of Glamorgan the first undergraduate course on the relationship between science fiction and science. Unfortunately, after this book was published he gained notoriety when it emerged he had made a false PhD claim when applying for a grant, which rather takes the shine off the merits of this book.

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8 thoughts on “To boldly conceive

    1. You’d think that people at that level of intelligence would not be so stupid as that, but power and status are such strong motivators that often common sense goes out the window.

      It’s a little ironic though, isn’t it, that a book dedicated to showing that science fiction can become science fact was co-written by someone who was caught out by claiming a fiction — his supposed PhD — as fact.

    1. I’m sure you’d be too honest to claim anything like that, TB, over and above the shame if you were caught! In these days of easy information retrieval — almost everything seems to be on the internet somewhere — any bogus claim can be verified and exposed without difficulty. As any science writer worth their salt would know.

  1. A book should surely stand on its own merits, be the author a hero or fraudster – as long as the book itself contains no fraud.
    This is something I have speculated about – whether writers of science fiction or fantasy actually do inspire some of the research which goes into making their fancies a reality.

    1. Yes, of course one blatant instance of dishonesty — and being caught out — doesn’t necessarily invalidate any thesis or work you’ve achieved (and I’m the last person to throw stones, not being without fault), but such an obvious misrepresentation inevitably makes one wonder, even if it doesn’t seem to affect the arguments in this co-authored work.

      Does SF or fantasy inspire research? Yes, I think it does: for example, Arthur C Clarke’s proposal for a ‘space elevator’ attached to a satellite in geocentric orbit in his novel The Fountains of Paradise is the focus of some serious research, indeed competition; and of course Clarke is credited with originating the concept of artificial satellites, a commonplace today.

      1. Credibility certainly comes under question.
        Even in my own lighthearted field, I put in a lot of time into ensuring that things like historical or mythological references are correct.

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