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.)

William Gibson’s Burning Chrome

The narrator of William Gibson’s story “The Gernsback Continuum” is a photographer who, commissioned to snap examples of the sort of futuristic architecture America produced in the thirties and forties, finds himself slipping into a reality where that future actually happened, as he sees an enormous propeller-driven, boomerang-shaped aircraft gliding impossibly against a cityscape of “zeppelin docks and mad neon spires” (something similar to the one brought to life in 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, perhaps).


It’s fitting Gibson should touch on that thirties/forties dream, because it was the only even vaguely optimistic future the 20th Century produced — till Gibson’s came along in the eighties, that is. By that time we’d long since ceased to believe in the sort of technological utopia promised by those hover-cars and jetpacks of the early SF pulps, but Gibson’s future had the advantage of not being limited by the possibilities of the real world. His idea, cyberspace (which he also referred to as the Matrix), was another reality altogether, a world we could jack ourselves directly into, a landscape of computer data turned into geometric shapes in “Bright primaries, impossibly bright in that transparent void”. A world curiously reminiscent of Disney’s wonderful 1982 film Tron, in fact.

It’s now more than twenty years since Gibson’s cyberspace made its first appearance (in “Burning Chrome”, 1982), and we don’t look much closer to achieving it. Excel might be able to produce nice looking pie-charts of your expense accounts, but it comes nowhere near the “electronic consensus hallucination” of Gibson’s computer reality where we’d exist as bodiless intelligences in a world of pure data.

Gibson’s fiction still feels relevant, though. Not because cyberspace is a possible future (I’m sure jacking your brain directly into a computer is as far off today as it was when Neuromancer first came out). Cyberspace wasn’t really a re-imagining of the future, it was a re-imagining of the imagination itself. It is once-upon-a-time land updated in neon colours, with data instead of gold and computer programs instead of magic spells. It’s just as full of angels, demons, ghosts, animal helpers and monsters as the world of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales.


One image that has really stuck in my head from my (very) early reading was a double-page spread in The Usborne Book of the Future. It had two views presenting two possible futures. One was all dark skies and people in gas-masks, the other was bright sunshine and people with wristwatch TVs. I remember staring at those two images for hours, hoping with all my might that the future I’d live in would be, if not the wristwatch TV one, at least not the dark skies and gas-masks one. Outside of cyberspace, Gibson’s rundown, citified future is much more reminiscent of the darker of those two alternatives, though in this he’s generally acknowledged to have borrowed from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, another powerful exploration of how the future might be, partly inspired by Philip K Dick, but more derived from Scott’s encounters with massive industrial processing plants in contemporary England.

I know this seems to be reducing Gibson’s future to the influence of two films — Blade Runner and Tron — but I love his work too much to leave it at that. His real strength lies not in prediction, but in writing about how people deal with a changing technological culture. In a potentially de-personalising world of mega-corporations (a dystopian nightmare prevalent in late seventies and early-eighties SF films like Rollerball, Alien and Blade Runner), Gibson’s characters use technology to emphasise, not erode, their individuality. He’s often at his best when writing about people whose (usually artistic) talents are only really released by technology, as in, from his story “The Winter Market”: “…you wonder how many thousands, maybe millions, of phenomenal artists have died mute, down the centuries, people who could never have been poets or painters or saxophone players, but who had this stuff inside, these psychic waveforms waiting for the circuitry required to tap in…” His future is a digital bohemia our iPod-equipped world is coming more and more to resemble, even if we don’t get to actually jack into it via cyberspace. (Do white earplugs count?)