January 30, 2011


by Arthur C Clarke
256 pages, Phoenix

The Art of Time Travel by Pat Black

Ah, the future. Fire up my rocket jet-pack, and shake me a couple of protein pills for breakfast. It’s fun thinking about where we’ll end up as a species, and just as much fun looking back on where the soothsayers got it wrong.

Where would we be without predictions? Sir Arthur C Clarke, the very top man of science fiction, predicts that the future will be just smashing. Assuming Mayan Armageddon isn’t on the way next year. Is it too early to tie all of that business in with Sarah Palin’s presidential campaign? What’s that? Too soon?

Thankfully, Profiles of the Future opens with the caveat that you aren’t meant to take things too seriously.

Sir Arthur (revising his 1961 original 20 years later), acknowledges that some of his predictions will be completely debunked as the frontiers of science are pushed back. But we should also bear in mind that history is littered with scientific naysayers and buck-toothed sceptics who’ve made fools of themselves in perpetuity.

Clarke, barely containing his glee, begins by taking a pop at a few of these wet blankets and their various contentions. These include those well-loved classics, “heavier-than-air flight is impossible”, “aeroplanes will never be adapted for commercial use” and “space travel is complete poppycock”.

One-nil to the happy time travellers.

Sir Arthur’s first tussle comes with means of improving travel. First, he name-drops that widespread means of getting around, the hovercraft. This felt like one of those “jet-packs and protein pills” predictions to me, but Clarke’s logic in highlighting a cleaner, more fuel-efficient and less bumpy way of getting around is sound. His championing of commercial airships against fuel-guzzling planes is another – we can detect a contemporary attitude to the environment here.

But it’s the bonkers ideas that entertain me the most. His infamous “space elevator”, a platform for people to use to get into space from the sky, is aired in this book. Sound in theory, but it just wouldn’t happen, mate! (Though in the past year I was tickled to read the space elevator being referenced, affectionately, in Philip Palmer’s nutty space epic, Red Claw.)

Similarly, his “multiple conveyor belts” public transport idea is the kind of notion that would only come to me after a full bottle of Faustino VII and a kick in the teeth. He envisages giant sized belts, sub-divided into sections travelling at different speeds. It would be possible to travel on these safely, Clarke argues – even at break-neck speeds, changing from one belt strip to another by simply stepping off and on wouldn’t make much difference to us if the speed is increasing or decreasing only very slightly from belt-to-belt.

Could you imagine that shit in rush hour in London or New York? An arrowhead of people streaking through the centre of the road, with the plodders hopping on or off on the extreme slow lanes on the outside? Insane, and impossible... or is it? After all, Sir Arthur points out the massive steps we’ve taken in a relatively short space of time. Two hundred years ago, the quickest a human could hope to move at any one time was about 25 miles an hour at a good clip on horseback. Now, we can get up to 500 miles an hour, thousands of feet in the air, in a metal cylinder. If you’d suggested this to someone in 1811 they’d have pissed themselves laughing at you. The key thing, Sir Arthur reminds us, is not to suffer from a failure of the imagination.

Conquering gravity is next on the agenda, and Sir Arthur C laments the idea that there’s no real way of flicking a switch and beating it on the horizon. He brings up a fascinating idea of the freedom that conquering gravity could bring us, from travel to transport to simply being able to rise and fall and propel ourselves with total insouciance – and no sense of acceleration at all. It sounds mental to me – I’m not quite sure how much I’d like to have the local youth gangs having mid-air battles on Thunderbird Fridays outside my manor. Still, he does raise an interesting conundrum; as communications get better and better (and this was written when there were no home computers and mobile phones were the stuff of, er, science fiction), will people actually need to travel so much? One of Clarke’s predictions is that with instant communication, there would be no need for commuter belt living, physical places of work, and ultimately, large cities.

And this is one of the places where Sir Arthur gets it wrong – not through any misapplication of facts or flawed theorising, but because he misjudges how vacuous the humans of the 21st century and beyond could be. People with means will travel with one eye on communications, now – specifically, in terms of boasting about their experiences, Tweeting about it while they’re still happening, or posting endless digital photograph albums on the internet. It used to be that listening to someone else’s holiday stories and flicking through their photographs was a chore only be endured if you went to visit them; nowadays, it’s seemingly in your face any time you care to log on to Facebook or Flickr.

One of Sir Arthur C Clarke’s idle predictions in this book turns out to be one of the best; he even gives it its proper Sunday name, “electronic mail”. I’ve noted before that it’s entirely possible that Arthur C Clarke invented Windows before Windows did, in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He could even have foreseen the iPad, in Heywood Floyd’s tablet-sized information and communication source; Sir Arthur C was in no doubt that the computer would revolutionise everything.

But, to speed – and don’t stop me now, as Freddie Mercury said. But could Mr Fahrenheit ever really travel at the speed of light? Regretfully, Sir Arthur says, probably not. Despite Clarke’s first law – roughly, that any future technology will be indistinguishable from magic – he says that the time light takes to travel does seem to be one of those pesky immutable laws of the universe. The idea of travelling at those speeds were deemed impossible by Einstein, so Sir Arthur’s content to leave it there. He does talk about wormholes in time and space, though, and also raises the interesting idea of what will happen to our experience of time if we travel at such unimaginable speeds through the universe. All things are, indeed, possible, and perhaps the most dangerous statement to make about the future is that something can never be achieved.

Our fearless author doesn’t take the idea of time travel very seriously... But I have to say, it’s one of the scientific paradoxes that seems as if, logically, it could be achieved. That’s all down to the theory of relativity, and the idea that time, as we once understood it, a fixed, regular, ticking thing, is nothing of the sort. This has already been proven many times. So if time and space itself can be bent – or curved, or flattened out – then who’s to say at some distant point we won’t master it?

To answer the old question of why we haven’t already seen time travellers from the future: they would presumably have perfected invisibility – which Sir Arthur outlines in a later chapter. Here, he takes his cue from the natural world, and points to octopuses and cuttlefish which can change their colouring to match whatever background they are placed upon; and then there are the gases and liquids which are invisible to our eyes in certain conditions. Invisibility already exists.

And then there are the canyons of the mind to negotiate. Sir Arthur references hypnotherapy here, in which subjects are told that they cannot see a person or an object, even though it is right in front of their face. This was another zinger which reminded me of the YouTube video where we’re asked to concentrate on a video and to remember certain details; only in the replay are we pointed out the person in the 7ft bear suit who strolls through the middle of the scene in full view, almost totally unnoticed by viewers.

Clarke’s writing is terrific, clear and accessible, using all his skills as an author of fiction to illustrate the hardest science. In one classic metaphor, he shows us how far we’ve come as a species in terms of technological achievement, and how far we’ve still got to go. He takes one of the foremost geniuses of the renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci – who, he playfully suggests, might well have been a time traveller given some of his centuries ahead-of-his-time designs. Leonardo could, Sir Arthur says, have made an early television system. Having knowledge of how light was projected in a camera obscura, Leonardo could have used a vast grid, with thousands of assistants, using a series of pulleys to allow light of different colours to escape at certain pre-disposed points, to be projected onto a large canvas. It would have taken a lot of time in the planning and practise, but Leonardo could have done it, Sir Arthur C says. What Leonardo would have scoffed at, once the task was complete and the image was projected, is the idea that the same process could be carried out across thousands of miles, and processed several times a second, on a box that people could watch in their houses.

Clarke’s always got an eye on our energy needs. It’s a topic that couldn’t be more contemporaneous; as I’ve already said, Clarke’s environmental concerns were ahead of their time and completely admirable. His warnings about what we’re doing to coral reefs are sobering, considering he was making them in the early 1980s and things are so much worse now. He’s also very neat and tidy in his summary of how much energy we already waste, and how easily and cleanly we could produce energy if we could perfect hydrogen fission – hydrogen being, after stupidity, the most plentiful thing in the universe. He also looks at ways of transferring solar energy from the one power source that isn’t going to run out any time soon. Even the seas, Clarke says, have an abundance of untapped, clean possibilities, if only we could find the energy required to release them.

In his deep-future predictions, Clarke asserts that immortality is possible. We will transcend our two eternal enemies, time and death, by having an incorporeal life, freed from the shackles of the flesh. As I’ve already written in my 2001 review, I don’t want to be free of those shackles, thanks very much, but the attractions of immortality are obvious.

Perhaps, within cyberspace, we’re already travelling along that road. Seeing something inane going viral on the internet, or gasping at how someone posting six lines on Mumsnet can propel them to the head of the national news, makes me think that we’re already imprinting ourselves on the future in little ways – perhaps more than we are aware of - thanks to the clicks of our keyboards. Will we have hive minds, collective consciousness – damn it, even true harmony – in some bizarre future as a result of what we do on the internet? Is there a light side to this sharing of information, this surrendering of personal privacy and freedom?

Is there a limit to the amount of rhetorical questions I can ask myself in one article?

To space, then. Sir Arthur C blows his own trumpet a little, here, proudly pointing out that he predicted man would land on the moon as far back as 1961, well before President Kennedy put the idea in our minds. And it’s to the stars that Sir Arthur looks for the ultimate future of humanity. Some of his predictions are a little pessimistic; man, he argues, won’t take to the stars in great numbers owing to the expense involved. It may well be a project for the rich, the great and the good, with the less privileged left to scrap it out here on earth.

Imagine that: the inbred aristocracy and the hawks of the stock exchange as the vanguard of humanity out in the cosmos. Sweet Jesus.

And it’ll be lonely out there once we go; quick communications in space simply won’t be possible between the travellers and those stuck at home, Sir Arthur says - another sober appraisal of time and space’s intractables and immutables. Like the frontiersman stepping onto a ship for the new world hundreds of years ago, there’ll be no going back. Once we’re gone, we’re gone.

But Clarke, in easily the best chapter of the book, argues that even though we should be sad to leave familiar shores, never to see them again, it’ll be a great thing for humans to push the boundaries. He argues that space travel and actually reaching other worlds will mark the ultimate renaissance for humanity; human history has always been defined by meeting other cultures and pushing back the frontiers of our known lands. Assuming they don’t want to laser us into ashes, the influence of an encounter with sophisticated space aliens could similarly boost human beings; the precedent is there in human life, Clarke says. Let’s not mention colonialism or the Aborigines and native Americans, though, eh?

He argues that our appreciation of beauty will be pushed to the forefront as we see other places, open up new horizons. The randy old bugger even suggests how moving in zero gravity could prove a revelation for our erotic lives, too (though he neglects to outline how we would clean the decks afterwards).

Clarke seems fairly convinced that there’s life out there for us to discover. These days, scepticism seems to be creeping back into the public arena regarding little green men. I read a depressing article recently in which a physicist outlined that we’d have seen signs of intelligent alien travellers in hi-tech spaceships before now, even with all the immensity of space. This is an inversion of the old probability argument; taking an almost infinite number of stars, and an even greater number of planets orbiting them, simple mathematics tells us that we cannot be alone in the universe. Clarke has a different trump card to play; he argues that we might already have seen evidence of aliens. He references an incident in which a massive, suspiciously streamlined release of energy was reported in deep space, which could have been an industrial accident affecting an advanced culture. It’s all out there for us to find, Clarke says, and he seems certain that we will.

Which brings me to a rather sad note. One thing that struck me about this book was the author’s optimism for the future. Having seen us up and running in space, and walking on the moon, and being able to see further and further away from our own little home, Clarke foresaw no limits for human ingenuity and bravery. What he neglects to address is the fact that we just can’t get on with each other well enough to co-operate and follow our destiny out in the firmament.

It would have depressed the old man, writing in 1982, to know that the space shuttle programme is closing down. That Nasa’s funding has gone, and that the Soviet Union, whom he falsely predicted would continue the Space Race, would have the blockers put on its stellar ambitions just 10 years later.

I imagine Sir Arthur C’s ideal future involves the Star Trek fantasy of a rainbow society, having eliminated poverty and insane prejudices, working together in the common goal of furthering the human race, away from Mother Earth. So how sad he must have been, as his life ended, to see the same ancient prejudices, superstitions and terrors blighting the globe. To see that human life is cheaper than ever, that we’ve learned almost no lessons about population control and keeping the place clean and tidy despite all the warning signs. To see that our voyages into the stars have been put on the back burner while we kill ourselves with commerce.

Last night, I watched Barack Obama speak eloquently about President Kennedy, on the 50th anniversary of his Democrat predecessor’s inauguration. Mr Obama outlined the hope – that word again – and optimism that Kennedy’s presidency engendered in people, ideas of youth, vitality and innovation. It was a sentiment that ultimately put humans on the moon. Any way you slice it, that’s something Big.

We have better things to spend money on than a trip to Mars. In a world where people starve to death, where natural disasters strip the poorest people of everything they have, and where our own supposedly civilised cities still suffer homelessness to continue, I can see how it would seem like an obscenity to pour billions into a space mission. It’s an argument that I’ve made before.

But the older I get, I start to take the long view. Inspiration, hope and daring won’t feed any of us, but we still need it. Maybe that’s why we should go to Mars.

When those pictures – pixel-perfect, full-colour, no room for manoeuvre for conspiracy theorists – finally beam back to the earth of the first man or woman to set foot on the red planet, it will be an extraordinary moment for all of humanity. It will dwarf the achievement of reaching the moon; it will be something we’ll talk about for all our lives, something our grandchildren will talk about. And after it, we will look even further afield.

And you know what? To look at the other side of the economic coin, if we can pour unimaginable sums of money into corrosive, fruitless, pointless wars, we can probably afford to do this. And I don’t mean Nasa or China working alone; I mean collectively, as one species. An international crew, pooled resources, joint credit, a whole new flag. And that’s not to mention the side-benefits in research and new technology the mission would bring.

Who’s brave enough, or foolish enough, to suggest it? Will Mr Obama take the giant leap, risk the ridicule and the doubters, the flat-earthers who say it can’t be done, or the well-intentioned who feel that we shouldn’t? And if it does happen, could we please hire Arnold Schwarzenegger and get him to make the announcement, with the immortal line: “Get your ass to Mars”?

I say, let’s go for it. It’s an investment in the future. What price, after all, is a dream?

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