Given his interest in the future scientific and political consequences of eugenics, perhaps it is no surprise that Peter Bowler, a noted historian of biology, has now turned his attention to the topic of futurology more generally. A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov examines a specific future-oriented discourse: popular science writing and science fiction by Anglo-American futurists from 1900 to the Cold War.

Artist Harry Grant Dart’s depiction of the future of flying, circa 1900.

Artist Harry Grant Dart’s depiction of the future of flying, circa 1900.

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Although he surveys a large number of “prophetic” writers both famous and obscure, Bowler tends to focus on prominent scientist-writers such as H. G. Wells, J. B. S. Haldane, Julian Huxley, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke and on scientifically trained boosters of speculative fiction such as inventor A. M. Low and publisher Hugo Gernsback. Bowler pays less attention to primarily literary figures, although he references works by Aldous Huxley, Yevgeni Zamyatin, George Orwell, and Robert Heinlein.

Bowler’s analysis focuses on articles and short stories from glossy magazines such as Popular Mechanics, Meccano Magazine, and Harmsworth Popular Science that speculate about technological developments in the near future. Bowler purposefully does not draw a sharp line separating popular science predictions from science fiction, but he does exclude elements that aren’t technological; that is, he’s not interested in aliens or colliding comets. Surprisingly, Bowler’s analysis rarely ventures into the inexpensive pulp magazines devoted to fiction, although publications like Weird Tales and Galaxy Science Fiction helped launch the careers of writers such as Asimov.

After an introduction on the difficulty of predicting the future, Bowler begins a series of subject-specific chapters that build from the mundane and domestic to the global and grandiose. He starts with “How We’ll Live” and “Where We’ll Live” and moves to “Communicating and Computing” and “Getting Around.” The later chapters delve into technovisions more directly inspired by the two world wars and the Cold War: “Taking to the Air,” “Journey into Space,” “War,” “Energy and Environment,” and “Human Nature.”

In each chapter, Bowler demonstrates that with each new real-world technological advance, more people than we might think imagined plausible futures—sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes utopian—and held on to those visions. After the seemingly miraculous advent of radio, for example, many writers envisioned something like the television, but that technology took decades to materialize. And although radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi argued circa 1912 that radio would bring different people together and make war inconceivable, radio technology was in fact immediately applied to warfare.

Bowler’s thematic approach, however, can feel uneven. The chapters on dwelling and urban life, for example, examine a huge range of visions for future cities and household gadgets but largely ignore visionary architecture (except for Buckminster Fuller’s work) and other material that a reader might expect.

Bowler’s chapters on air and space are more focused. His discussion of imagined futures built on different systems of air transport is particularly compelling. Until the development of the jet engine during World War II, real-world airplanes competed commercially with airships such as the Germans’ rigid zeppelin. In the pages of popular science magazines, airplanes competed with personal flying vehicles—realized much later as helicopters. Some stories were even staunchly pro-Navy and antiaviation and put humanity’s transportation future on the sea, not in the air.

Finally, Bowler’s chapter on human and social engineering shines with vivid detail and nuanced argument. Would advances in medicine lead to a destabilization of the family structure, per Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)? Would brain sizes radically increase, per crystallographer J. D. Bernal’s The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (1929)? Bowler effectively analyzes visions of, for example, hormone-enabled advances in vitality alongside worries about an uncontrollable explosion in population.

Overall, Bowler engagingly documents the birth of many tropes about future technology. Even when he doesn’t go back far enough—some of the tropes he discusses can be traced to the 19th century—Bowler concisely but vividly details the lives of those tropes in Anglo-American popular scientific discourse during the first half of the 20th century.

However, Bowler’s narrow selection of material limits the book’s analytical scope. He omits futurists outside the mainstream of science fiction, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and H. P. Lovecraft, who would have complicated Bowler’s analysis in profitable ways by offering not only diverse perspectives but also different varieties of technoapocalypse and utopia. Gilman, for example, posited a utopia based not on novel technologies but on a society where women rule. For Lovecraft, no technoscientific development could protect humanity from the statistically likely existence of malicious advanced intelligent beings somewhere else in the universe. Bowler also omits later mainstream futurists, such as the African American science fiction writer and critic Sam Delany, who expanded the authorship of influential futures beyond white writers.

In a short epilog, Bowler notes that in his personal experience, younger thinkers are more likely to embrace novelty and older ones to resist it. He also reminds us that literary figures are more likely to proffer cynical visions of technologies run amok, whereas scientists and engineers often sell the public on technologically enabled utopias. Of course, neither genre has done a good job of predicting the future. But both, as Bowler’s excellent if narrowly bounded study makes clear, have shaped public debate in English about novel technologies.

Wythe Marschall is a PhD candidate specializing in the anthropology of technology in the department of the history of science at Harvard University. His dissertation examines the emerging vertical farming sector in New York City.