The Usborne Book of the Future

“Now read on… into the fantastic world of the future!” That’s how each of the three sections of The Usborne Book of the Future (on Robots, Future Cities, and Space Travel) begins, after a brief look at these subjects (tool-use, cities, and transport) in history. It was published in 1979. I don’t think I owned it, but must have got it out of the local library — certainly, I pored over it enough for some of its images and ideas to really stick in my mind. I mentioned the key one in a previous Mewsings a while back (writing about William Gibson, whose latest novel I am, by coincidence, reading at the moment), which showed two possible views of how the future might be, one good, one bad. It was titled “Two Trips to the 21st Century”, and I remember really worrying that I might end up living in the nasty, polluted, breathing-apparatus one. I recently gave in to a bout of curiosity/nostalgia and bought it, perhaps mainly so I could have a second look at that image. Here it is (click on it for the full double-page spread, including key to the numbers):

"Two Trips to the 21st Century" from The Usborne Book of the Future (1979)

And then, of course it struck me — here I am, living in the 21st century!

Usually, nothing dates as fast as people’s ideas about how their future is going to be, but having a browse through the Usborne Book from the privileged standpoint of living in the era it was talking about, I was pleased to see how well it stands up. This may be partly thanks to the fact that it wasn’t just based on someone’s speculations having read a few topical SF novels, or on what would look the most visually interesting to Star Wars-hungry kids, but because it was based on the research and speculation of scientists and groups like Bell Aerospace, Boeing, and NASA, which get mentioned in the acknowledgements (alongside Arthur C Clarke and Omni magazine). In fact, the most dated thing about it is, perhaps, a single reference to “housewives” — which also led to my noticing how few women are taking an active part in the jumpsuited future the book depicts.

But generally, the thing that works in The Usborne Book of the Future is that it isn’t talking down to its young audience. It’s not setting out to paint a picture of the sort of future the kids of the day would have wanted, but it really looks at how technical advances might affect day-to-day life, and how the problems of an ever more energy-hungry civilisation might be overcome (gathering solar energy in space and sending it down to Earth in a concentrated microwave beam, for instance — is this still a possibility?). There are far more bicycles (even if occasionally solar-powered) than jetpacks in the book, and the one technological advance that most excited me at the time, I now realise is decades old:

The "risto", or wristwatch radio-telephone.

Here is how the living room of the 1970s future was going to look:

The living room of a house of the future, from The Usborne Book of the Future (1979)

And, apart from the fashions (futuroid, for the man watching TV, retrograde for the footballer he’s watching), and the drinks-serving robot, it’s all come true. We have video cameras, we have home shopping, we have films on video discs, we have electronic mail, we even have video phones and — gods! — we have flat-screen TVs. I think we all deserve a pat on the back for now, officially, living in the future.

The one thing I wonder, looking at this picture, is why man number 2 is so keenly filming his neighbours. The politics of the future is not discussed in The Usborne Book, and this may prove to have been its one major blind spot. Most of its more optimistic ideas (and it generally takes the optimistic view, though doesn’t ignore the problems) have perhaps not come about because there just isn’t the level of political unity required to change the way we live.

Also, of course, there’s the annoying problem of the way the past doesn’t disappear the moment we hit the future — so much of it is left lying around, clogging up the pathways to futurological advancement. The real reason we don’t have superfast cool-looking monorails is because it’s far more cost-effective to adapt our existing dual rail systems to new advances (if we even bother to do that), and the same goes for all technological advances. They have to be bolted onto the present, upgraded step-by-step. But cost, and the sheer tonnage of existing hardware, are two things it’s easy to ignore when you’re reclining in your semi-spheroid easy chair in your sparkly new jumpsuit, speculating on what the future will bring.

Still, I’m so glad it wasn’t that “polluted city of a dying world”. Not yet, anyway.

(Some credits: The Usborne Book of the Future was written by Kenneth Gatland and David Jefferis, and the artwork was by Gordon Davies, Terry Hadler, Brian Lewis, Michael Roffe and George Thompson.)

The Influence by Ramsey Campbell

The Influence by Ramsey Campbell (Legend 1989)

Ramsey Campbell has three books in my personal selection of all-time favourite novels. There’s the (relatively) recent Grin of the Dark, which I reviewed in a previous Mewsings, though I’ve only read that one once (it’s on my long list of want-to-re-reads). The House on Nazareth Hill is another favourite, read several times. But The Influence, which may well have been the second Ramsey Campbell book I ever read (The Hungry Moon was first), is, I think, my absolute favourite (though Nazareth Hill really is so very close). I remember reading The Influence over a period of about three days, that first time, totally gripped by the closely intertwining narratives and subtly cliffhanging chapter endings. From reading other people’s comments about it, it doesn’t seem to be generally considered among Campbell’s best, but to me it sums up all the reasons I keep reading him, and it draws me back to itself, being one of those rare books that gets better, and gives more, on each reading.

The basic premise is simple. Two generations of the Faraday family have been quietly terrorised by the ageing Queenie, a supremely strong-willed, Victorian-minded spinster, who has, in the past, succeeded in convincing at least two of the younger Faraday generation that she has slightly witchy powers. Queenie dies (much to everyone’s secret relief), but not before developing something of a bond with the first of the new generation of Faradays, eight-year-old Rowan. Then Rowan makes a new friend whose influence starts making her act in ways that remind the more sensitive members of the family of the newly-departed Queenie.

The Influence by Ramsey Campbell (Centipede Press, 2008)

One of the best things about The Influence is how its supernatural horror elements combine with Campbell’s very honest, very intimate view of his characters to heighten the difficulties of their already complicated human situations. The Faraday family, though it doesn’t exactly have screaming relatives locked up in the attic, does have enough hints of mental disturbance (a pedophile cousin, a sister who’s had something of a breakdown) to tint their experience of the supernatural with enough self-doubt and emotional isolation to give it a very real edge.

This isn’t to say, though, that all the supernatural elements are of the subtle, ghostly variety. (Though they are all very skilfully handled.) One of the things that lingered from my first reading of the book was the long, nightmare journey young Rowan takes at one point in the narrative, which is pure, paranoid-hallucinogenic Campbell territory. (Though, again, it could also be read as a heightening of the realistic situation, as Rowan’s view of the world is, at the time, skewed enough by trauma and fear to make it seem that strange a place.)

But this isn’t a book that plays games with its reader; it has its feet firmly planted in the supernatural. It’s just that the supernatural is so intimately tied in with the psychological that it works seamlessly, and simultaneously, as both. The dual-image cover of the paperback copy I own (despite the fact it depicts a Rowan about twice the age she is in the story — see pic at top of this post) is a good metaphor for the book itself, in this sense. At any one point in The Influence, you know you’re reading a ghostly, supernatural horror novel, but a slight shift in perspective reveals it to be addressing just the sort of concerns that a non-supernatural family novel could be about — the fear of hereditary taints (madness, or simply meanness) emerging in a child, the fear a parent has of hurting their child, to the extent of feeling guilt about the hereditary, genetic, and historical baggage a parent lumbers their vulnerable child with simply by having brought them into the world through this particular family. So, at any one moment, you can see the ghostly, grinning skull, and the human face at the same time.

The Influence by Ramsey Campbell (US HB)

And this is what I think fantasy can do, when it’s used so skilfully alongside such very real characters: it can bring out the subtleties of the human situation in ways a realistic novel never can. Campbell’s best fiction is, for me, his most rooted in recognisable human beings, who already have enough to deal with in their own lives, even their own minds, without having to put up with the incursions of the supernatural that, ultimately, serve to confront them with those very same inner difficulties.

The result is a book that keeps its meaning well after you close the covers. It’s not just a selection of thrills, but a statement about what it means to be human. The Influence is all about the fine lines that exist between heredity and individuality, between emotional openness and emotional manipulation, between very human fears & self-doubts and the dangers of madness. It’s about the vulnerability of children, and the fears of parents (and vice versa). It really ought to be valued more in the Campbell canon, and was deservedly reprinted recently in a super-luxury edition by Centipede Press, complete with some wonderfully haunting J K Potter photos.

“A Night as a Scarecrow” in BFS Journal, Spring 2011

My story “A Night as a Scarecrow” has been published in the latest Dark Horizons, part of the recently-combined BFS Journal, Spring 2011 issue (sent out to all British Fantasy Society members).

That’s the second story I’ve had published this year, which I have to say is a record! (And with the upcoming essay in the Colin Wilson book, I’m fairly steaming ahead.) To celebrate, I’ve recently added a bibliography to my site.

“So you’re my replacements! A dandy and a clown!”

“So you’re my replacements! A dandy and a clown! Have you done anything?”

“Uh, well we’ve assessed the situation—”

“Just as I thought! Nothing.”