Arthur C. Clarke
Profiles of the Future
Indigo, Paperback, 2000.
8vo. ix+211 pp. Millennium Edition. New Foreword by the author, April 1999 [pp. 1-3]. Introduction by the author, 1999 [pp. 5-8].
First published, 1962.
Second Revised Edition, 1973.
Third Revised Edition, 1982.
Millennium Edition, 1999.
Foreword to Millennial Edition
1. Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Nerve*
2. Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination*
3. The Future of Transport
4. Riding on Air
5. Beyond Gravity
6. The Quest For Speed
7. World Without Distance
8. Rocket to the Renaissance*
9. You Can't Get There From Here
10. Space, the Unconquerable*
11. About Time
12. Ages of Plenty
13. Aladdin's Lamp
14. Invisible Men, and Other Prodigies
15. The Road to Lilliput
16. Brain and Body
17. The Obsolescence of Man*
18. The Long Twilight
Chart of the Future
* Reprinted in Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! (1999), but mostly in their 1962 versions which are sometimes distinctly different.
It is not for nothing that Arthur Clarke once described Profiles of the Future as "what might be my most important work of non-fiction". The publication history certainly justifies such formidable description. The book started, innocently enough, as a series of essays for Playboy in 1961. The next year they were collected in book form, and so successful the volume became that it was later thrice revised for new editions: 1972, 1983 and, finally, 1999. The last of these revisions produced what may be regarded as the definitive version, many of the essays containing prefatory notes or postscripts as well as a number of internal revisions and additions. For this "Millennium Edition" Clarke also wrote a special and significant preface. His rueful remarks on the very unusual course that space exploration took during the years are worth quoting:
Though I had no doubt that all these events [the landings on the Moon, the reconnaissance of the other planets in the Solar System] would occur, I never expected to see them in my lifetime. Still less did I imagine that, after reaching the Moon, we would abandon it for - how long? Your guess is as good as mine, for the answer depends on politics and economics as much as on technology.
It might have been one of the not-exactly-negligible tragedies of Arthur Clarke's long life that he lived to see the twenty-first century, too. It must have been painful for him to watch the woeful condition of our society, so far away from his bold speculations made several decades ago. If anything, orbital hotels and hospitals, permanent lunar residents, massive exploration of the whole Solar System and, above all, much broader, space-influenced outlook are much less real today then they were in the 1960s. The last sentence of the above quote Clarke has repeated often before, pointing out that the strong role that economics and politics play in our lives is proof only of our immaturity. I wonder if by 1999 Arthur had not come to think that he really had overestimated human nature. There is one powerful passage in the Introduction that suggests otherwise. Unlike the "Foreword to Millennial Edition", it is not dated, but I should like to believe that it was written especially for this new edition, or least it was deliberately left unchanged:
I also believe - and hope - that politics and economics will cease to be as important in the future as they have been in the past; the time will come when most of our present controversies on these matters will seem as trivial, or as meaningless, as the theological debates in which the keenest minds of the Middle Ages dissipated their energies. Politics and economics are concerned with power and wealth, neither of which should be the primary, still less the exclusive, concern of adult human beings.
I am truly baffled that some people apparently regard Arthur Clarke as decidedly pessimistic author. If he had any notable fault, this is just the opposite: he was far too optimistic. As I have said before, this should not be used against him. Indeed, it can't be used. Very few of Clarke's dazzling speculations were proven false, still fewer are now deemed impossible; in fact, some do seem today even more possible than they were at the time of writing. To me Clarke's reflections still seem exciting and inspiring, though occasionally, when I reflect on the present, such visions may also be very depressing indeed. Clarke makes it clear immediately that this book is neither collection of predictions nor mere wishful thinking. Nobody can predict the future even with mild degree of certainty, let alone in some detail; and Clarke is certainly much too smart, with much too extensive scientific background, to fall in the usual this-can't-be-done trap. In the first two chapters, he makes a great fun of those eminent scientists who roundly declared space flight or atomic energy, or even commercial electricity and aviation, as either impossible or impractical. In a short prefatory note to Chapter 8, incidentally one of the finest in a book of uncommon consistency, Clarke makes it clear that he is perfectly aware of his notorious status as optimist. His answer can hardly be bettered:
I am not ashamed of what some may consider my naïve optimism: surely it is preferable to the all-too-common alternative, naïve pessimism.
The goal of Profiles of Future has nothing to do with prediction of the future. All it tries to do is to define the boundaries of several different, not necessarily compatible, futures. The accent is firmly on science and technology, the society and the individual are discussed only when strictly necessary (which is quite often actually). This is a severe yet inevitable limitation. I believe one of the landmarks of the great artists is that they fully recognise their limitations and purposefully aim at the greatest possible perfection within these limitations. So does Arthur Clarke. He was much too perspicacious not to realise that speculating about the future on purely technological level, completely avoiding the momentous impact on the individual or the society, is pure nonsense. And in Profiles of the Future he has produced a masterpiece of speculative non-fiction that goes deep inside science, society and human nature, very often with considerable insight in all directions, and should be read by every thinking human being. If that means the majority of mankind, perhaps we have a chance to ''survive our adolescence''.
Of course sometimes Clarke is naïve and superficial, and sometimes he is certainly far-fetched and fantastic. Yet the former occurs but seldom, personally I have sensed it only in Chapter 15 which is a somewhat perfunctory discussion on the limits of size - in both directions - of organisms that can be called alive, and perhaps intelligent. As for fantasy, this is of course something necessary. Clarke's Second Law is worth keeping in mind: the only way to discover the limits of the possible is to venture slightly beyond, in the realms of the impossible (slight paraphrase of the original). At fanciful notions such as invisibility or time travel, Clarke draws the line and openly declares his firm scepticism - though not before discussing them thoroughly from purely scientific point of view. Many others of Clarke's speculations may well seem much too esoteric or unattainable for many people, but to dismiss them outright would mean to dismiss any lesson history might have tried to teach us. Witness the technological progress in the last century or so: who would have believed then, a hundred years ago, in Moon landings, H-bombs and Internet? As Clarke is fond of repeating, the only certain thing about the future is that it would be utterly fantastic. That said, he is by no means unconscious of our own limitations as species or his own failures as a ''prophet'' - see Chapters 10 and 18 for the former and Chapter 4 for the latter. ''Riding on Air'' has an amusing note that the re-reading of the chapter after many years was ''a chastening, even embarrassing'' experience - alas, 30 years later the GEMs (Ground Effect Machines) did not live to the high expectations they apparently had in the 1960s. On the other hand, sometimes Clarke's speculations turn out to be extraordinarily prescient:
Virtually everything in the above chapter has happened, far sooner than I imagined, though sometimes in slightly different form.
But one promised benefit of electronic data storage has still failed to materialise.
Have you seen any 'paperless office' yet? We are chopping down the world's forests faster than ever...
This refers to Chapter 16, ''Voices from the Sky'', which in turn refers, not to radio communications with extraterrestrials, but to the complete revolution of the personal communications brought by orbital satellites. Now this is truly amazing chapter, uncannily accurate to our Internet-obsessed present - pretty spectacular achievement for 1962! (The chapter was largely left untouched in this edition.) Clarke's remark about the lack of ''paperless offices'' is a fine proof that, far from being dated, he is still ahead of our time, and I make no apology for repeating this again and again. Indeed, if I am allowed a little speculation myself, I should say that one of the reasons of our apparent progress, which is actually regress, is exactly the fact that many condescending people easily dismiss Clarke as ''outdated''. Well, here is the main problem: it is we, for all our dazzling technological toys, who are becoming outdated, slowly but surely. The ''paperless'' issue is a beautiful example indeed. Personally, I very much dislike e-books and cannot imagine myself reading them at all. But I would fully support the complete abolishing of paper books for the sake of the world's forests; magazines and newspapers, of course, must vanish without a trace too: drink your coffee with your laptop instead. After all, there are quite enough books already printed to fill many times over the lives of the old-fashioned paper-lovers (myself included). Yet what do I see every day? Not only thousands of books, many of them of dubious if any value, but a shameful amount of junk magazines continue to waste paper on a truly cosmic scale. So what exactly is the use of the Information Technology revolution in the long term? Nil. How right Clarke was when he remarked that in this ''inconceivably enormous universe, we can never run out of energy or matter. But we can all too easily run out of brains.''
Clearly, Profiles of the Future defies mundane things like reviews. The scope of the book is truly stupendous and incredibly mind-stretching. The all too real gravity and the fabled antigravity; the speed revolution and its applications to space; the nature of time and the nature of the Universe; alternative sources of energy and matter; the limitations of mind and matter; teleportation, invisibility, time travel, even highly hypothetical flights and landings to dwarf stars with gravitational fields millions of times greater than ours - it's all here, and there's a great deal more besides. Suffice it to say here that everything is written in Arthur Clarke's unique style, that matchless combination of perfect clarity and agreeable simplicity accessible to every layman of at least average intelligence as well as lots of highly amusing Clarkian quips and witticisms. Even when he doesn't make me laughing my head off, Clarke is consistently entertaining. To give but one example, his discussion of the notorious Fourth dimension - just another semi-fable Clarke takes rather seriously, and with good reason - is perfectly charming as viewed through the eyes of the inhabitants of Flatland: the poor fellows don't even have a third dimension, or so it seems at first glance. I daresay the matching triangles in this case, or the equally enlightening Möbius strip on another occasion, are not Clarke's original creations. But the astonishing lucidity of his exposition certainly is. So be prepared with some waste paper beside you while reading, even though a slight amount of imagination will do just as well. (If you want a compelling application of the Möbius strip in fiction, see Clarke's chilling short story ''The Wall of Darkness''.)
Only once did I fail to understand a Clarke's explanation, but this I readily admit was my fault. Of course I am talking about the utterly mind-boggling ''time stretching'' or ''dilation of time'', or call it what you like, which is supposed to be one of the major consequences of the Theory of Relativity. Clarke offers a fine analogy, as usual, but I cannot at all comprehend how on earth time can be slowed down at speeds close to those of light. I just don't get it and that's that. I guess it is beyond me. Perhaps the problem is that I can't quite convince myself that time really does exist. What is time, really? It's just a theoretical conception we have devised for our own convenience. Whether you measure it with the movement of the Sun, or with the vibrations of certain atoms, or with the good old friend on your wrist, is entirely irrelevant. The question is this: how can you be sure that the infinitesimal change you observe really does affect time itself, and not just your method of measurement? Let me give a trivial example from everyday's life that happened to me just yesterday. At one time (pun intended) I noticed with slight horror that my watch was more than one hour behind. Needless to say, the problem was in my watch, not in time itself. Or was it really? Or did I just assume so because several other clocks did show different things than mine? Tough stuff that.
For my part, however, I would believe the ''time stretching'' postulated by the Theory of Relativity when we do build a space ship that travels with a speed close to that of light. When it safely comes back from the stars together with its crew, the latter having aged five years in space for fifty on Earth, or similar nonsense to that effect. By the way, Arthur Clarke has nothing to be ashamed of: Bertrand Russell, no intellectual slouch himself, has failed completely to make me understand this appallingly abstruse matter.
Never mind. The book's faults are perfectly insignificant in comparison with its merits. Inconsistencies and omissions are freely admitted by the author (see the Introduction and the last chapter) and are certainly inevitable. And it is certainly better to be fantastic but exciting, rather than realistic and dull. The former is by no means incompatible with solid scientific discussion. For my money, Clarke delivers some of the finest popular science on paper: informative, imaginative, inspiring, inordinately well written and infinitely entertaining. Reading it is dangerously addictive - don't start if you have any work today! - but it is an experience so exhilarating and so enriching, that I can only wish it to everybody.
To recommend Arthur Clarke's Profiles of the Future seems simply superficial. It's an essential reading for everybody even remotely interested in science, space, society and everything else under the sun. And under many other suns.