Histories of the Future (Book Review) By Extrapolation

Histories of the Future (Book Review)

By Extrapolation

  • Release Date: 2006-12-22
  • Genre: Language Arts & Disciplines

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Daniel Rosenberg and Susan Harding, editors. Histories of the Future. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. 360 pp. $24.95.paper. In their 1989 paper "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: A Robot Invasion of the Solar System," published in the Journal of The British Interplanetary Society, Rodney A. Brooks and Anita M. Flynn of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab proposed that space exploration might be better undertaken by a host of cheap and only somewhat intelligent robots than by fewer but more intelligent ones. They concluded with an image of millions of simple, autonomous, gnat robots, operating free from the control of any unwieldy mission organisation, spreading out across planetary surfaces, "invad[ing] the whole solar system" (484). Subsequently, NASA made much of switching to a "fast and cheap" model, and the same principle underpins Amazon and Google. I was reminded of Brooks and Flynn's argument when the introduction to Histories of the Future described a proliferation of possible futures with short shelf-lives, a nostalgia for all the possible futures that never materialised, and the ways in which these non-emergent futures--such as Y2K--propagate backwards (and forwards) in time, haunting the present and generating material consequences. In a secular age, they suggest, there are profound paradoxes: we are encouraged to believe in a future unfixed by prophecy, but the present moment is constantly becoming the past of all the contingent futures we imagine; we are encouraged to see the future as empty, but our present is "saturated by future-consciousness as rich and as full as our consciousness of the past" (9). Histories of the Future bathes in this saturated now. While only two of its contributions might be narrowly considered as specifically addressing sf (Pamela Jackson's "Sing Out Ubik" and Jonathan Lethem's "Access Fantasy: A Story"), there is much of value here to those interested in stepping beyond the parochialism which even now continues to constrain our conceptions of the genre and isolate it from broader textual and material cultures simultaneously obsessed with, and fearful of, the future(s).