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A History of the Future
Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov


  • Date Published: November 2017
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781316602621

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About the Authors
  • In this wide-ranging survey, Peter J. Bowler explores the phenomenon of futurology: predictions about the future development and impact of science and technology on society and culture in the twentieth century. Utilising science fiction, popular science literature and the novels of the literary elite, Bowler highlights contested responses to the potential for revolutionary social change brought about by real and imagined scientific innovations. Charting the effect of social and military developments on attitudes towards innovation in Europe and America, Bowler shows how conflict between the enthusiasm of technocrats and the pessimism of their critics was presented to the public in books, magazines and exhibitions, and on the radio and television. A series of case studies reveals the impact of technologies such as radio, aviation, space exploration and genetics, exploring rivalries between innovators and the often unexpected outcome of their efforts to produce mechanisms and machines that could change the world.

    • A lively and accessible overview of contrasting attitudes towards science and technology in the twentieth century
    • Offers a balanced perspective based on a wide range of evidence, literary genres and popular media from both sides of the Atlantic
    • Shows how differing backgrounds influenced attitudes to scientific and technical progress
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'This is fascinating, wide-ranging and important work, an ambitious attempt to do something it's amazing to think nobody has tried before: to map all the varieties of 'the future' that writers and thinkers have extrapolated over the last dozen decades or so. Professor Bowler expertly sets the terms of the discussion about what the future used to be, and what it might be again.' Adam Roberts, Royal Holloway, University of London

    'This wide-ranging survey of the ways in which technological and scientific futures were envisaged in the first half of the last century astutely challenges easy stereotypes, whether of a widespread cultural pessimism about the threats of technical change or of simplistic optimism about the limitless capacities of scientists to achieve utopia. The result is a fascinating and often surprising book, drawing on an impressive range of popular and specialist materials, offering a new account of how the future once looked.' Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge

    'This is a wide-ranging book with an engaging combination of fascinating topics. Bowler leads us through twentieth-century literature, science fiction and futurology to discover the imagined futures that never were.' Sean Johnston, University of Glasgow

    '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. … His discussion of imagined futures built on different systems of air transport is particularly compelling. … Bowler's chapter on human and social engineering shines with vivid detail and nuanced argument. … Overall, Bowler engagingly documents the birth of many tropes about future technology.' Wythe Marschall, Physics Today

    '… Bowler's work serves as an intriguing starting point for anyone interested in studying predictions for the future made in the first half of the twentieth century. … A History of the Future is clearly an exceedingly well-researched work that would serve as a wonderful index for study …' The British Society for Literature and Science

    '… the subject of this book is futurology in all its forms, with brief mentions of literary futures introduced as needed. Even more than literary texts, … Bowler relies on popular science writing, both in books and in magazines.' Patrick A. McCarthy, Science Fiction Studies

    '… Bowler's study is an impressively wide-ranging piece of work - with, I should add, many excellent illustrations in black-and-white and colour - which succeeds both as a stimulating overview and as a work of reference.' Michael Sherborne, The Wellsian

    'Methodologically careful in its use of varied sources and conflicting interpretations to avoid false generalizations, A History of the Future provides a historically changing image of futurology based on the links between science fiction literature, popular science magazines, pulp novels, movies, architectural projects and world fairs. Both the connoisseur and the reader unfamiliar with science fiction will find themselves busy (re)reading the novels and watching the movies Bowler brings up in the text.' Marcos de Brum Lopes, Society for U.S. Intellectual History (

    'In A History of the Future, Peter Bowler paints a rich and engaging portrait of the interplay between speculative literature and technological innovation in the public sphere and in doing so sheds light on the processes by which innovations were conceived, created and became part of modern life. The result is a mixture of popular and academic intellectual history that makes a number of important contributions to the history of the origins of science fiction, the role of science in public discourse, and the technologies that competed in an open-ended quest for scientific 'progress'.' Liam Stowell, European Review of History: revue européenne d'histoire

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    Product details

    • Date Published: November 2017
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781316602621
    • length: 298 pages
    • dimensions: 234 x 163 x 15 mm
    • weight: 0.5kg
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. Introduction: progress or threat?
    2. The prophets: their backgrounds and ambitions
    3. How we'll live
    4. Where we'll live
    5. Communicating and computing
    6. Getting around
    7. Taking to the air
    8. Journey into space
    9. War
    10. Energy and environment
    11. Human nature
    12. Epilogue: Plus ça change?

  • Author

    Peter J. Bowler, Queen's University Belfast
    Peter J. Bowler is Emeritus Professor of the History of Science at Queen's University Belfast. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, a Member of the Royal Irish Academy, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has published a number of books on the history of biology and several general surveys.

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