The interplay between science fiction and reality is a constant one. Fiction pushes the boundaries of possibility. It opens the minds of many thinkers who go on to turn some fraction of that dream into reality, through science, policy, or activism. But science also inspires the writer to take a glimpse of the future and flesh it out into a full-blown virtual reality.
Adrian Hon’s New History of the Future in 100 Objects plays back and forth constantly along that line between fantasy and reality. The book is exactly as the title describes. 100, sometimes interconnected vignettes of the future, centred around particular objects, memes or movements. Written from the perspective of a museum curator in 2082, it never stretches the bounds of scientific or societal change beyond the plausible. Though in some ways that makes it all the more terrifying.
Projecting our trajectory
The book was originally published in 2013, but this new edition from MIT Press brings it bang up to date, with 20 new or heavily-updated objects and edits to connect the stories to our current times.
Unlike a science fiction novel, the stories in this book are not pegged to a single period. Rather they have been gathered by the fictional future curator from our next sixty years. This starts in the current period – brave for any futurist – and unfolds in time order towards the curator’s present day.
The topics addressed are broad: food and faith, earth and space, love and crime. But all are anchored in an understanding of both humanity and technology that gives them that scary believability.
The stories are anchored too, in the prevailing technologist obsessions of our times. Transhumanism, universal basic income, and planetary terraforming feature strongly. It is presented as ultimately optimistic but not everyone would have a positive interpretation of such ideas. There are strong feminist critiques of the ‘brain in a jar’ basis of much transhumanism. UBI can be argued to be extended life support for consumerist culture. And many would argue our right to begin transforming the solar system having wrecked our corner of it.
But as I frequently have to explain, the role of a futurist is not necessarily to describe the world we want to see, but the world that we do see. This book is an exploration of our current trajectory, more than an attempt to define an alternative.
Sketching the boundaries
As someone who spends their professional life engaged with futuristic ideas, both in fiction and in fact, many of the ideas described here are familiar. But most will find this a book packed with novelty. As a vehicle for expanding your thinking, pulling off the blinkers and opening your mind to the possible, it has incredible power. It should be required reading for anyone struggling to imagine a social, technological, and political landscape beyond these times. And for anyone who wants to understand the potential consequences of our current path.