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A New Perspective on the Past, and the Future

Stephanie Eve Boone reviews Follies of Science: 20th Century Visions of Our Fantastic Future, by Eric Dregni and Jonathan Dregni
  

Follies of Science: 20th Century Visions of Our Fantastic Future, by Eric Dregni and Jonathan Dregni.“The Future” is—in literature, film, and popular imagination—the ultimate blank slate, a place where our wildest dreams or worst nightmares can become reality. History can, and does, shape the future, but one of course cannot write a history of the future. So, in Follies of Science: 20th Century Visions of Our Fantastic Future the authors Eric and Jonathan Dregni have set out to accomplish the next best thing—compiling a brief history of humanity’s various, mostly incorrect, predictions about what the next ten, 50, or 100 years might bring.

As a history major in college, I learned that history is just as often incredibly interesting as dreadfully dull. For every story of a captivating battle or strategic mistake that cost millions of lives, there are pages of less titillating material to be read and understood. What were the causes of this or that action? Which cause was the most critical, if any? How did popular sentiment at the time enable some events and make others impossible?

In order to appreciate, for example, the implications of the revolutions of the late 18th century, one needed to know more than just facts, names, and dates. One needed to understand the state of the economy, the predominance of education, the balance of power between rich and poor, men and women, ethnic majorities and minorities. And of course, as in any science, each claim must be verified, and if it cannot be verified, the speculation must be explained.

A good history book, unlike a good novel, cannot skip ten or twenty years of the narrative. In history, nothing is irrelevant, and the challenge for good popular historians is to create a mix of the mundane and amazing that informs the reader without losing his or her interest.

Follies of Science is such an attempt. Arranged in almost coffee-table book style, the text is supplemented by images on every page, with some pages dedicated entirely to compilations of these illustrations and the blurbs explaining them: reproductions of comic-book covers, sketches of prototypes, images from futuristic novels, advertisements for high-tech devices from a century ago.

Instead of tracing the story from the beginning (which would be a difficult point in time to pin down, certainly), the book deals with some of the most popular types of predictions about the future, one at a time. The first is transportation, a logical starting place, since flying cars and jet packs are two of the things people think of most when picturing life in the next generation. Then come computers and robots, dreams of “inventing away war” (most of which involve computers and robots), plans for utopian cities, scientific miracles, and life in outer space.

Among the more disturbing ideas explored are the repeated attempts to apply atomic power to every kind of machine from airplanes to cars, disregarding the problem of radioactivity. Even more shiver-inducing is the section entitled “Human Guinea Pigs: Kill Them to Save Them,” which provides a brief overview of some of the worst tragedies inflicted on humans by other humans—Heinrich Himmler’s medical experiments in WWII, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the birth defects resulting from prescription of Thalidomide in expectant mothers—in pursuit of a pain-free future. In contrast to the more dismal pages, we are treated to stories of 19th-century sexual devices and 20th-century statesmen who tout the virtues of drinking one’s own urine.

In a way, Follies of Science is two separate books. The first, consisting of the main text, presents a mostly methodical, historically contextualized exploration of our predictions, and the reasons for them. In the chapter “Tomorrow’s Transportation,” for example, the authors write, “Visions of futuristic public transportation raged during the economic downturns of the 1870s, 1920s, 1970s, and the gas-rationed war years.” In the chapter “Cities of the Future,” we learn that the Eiffel Tower was built entirely, and the Empire State Building partially, to serve as an airport for dirigibles, in the years when travel by Zeppelin still seemed the most promising means of human flight.

Though more a list of facts than a self-contained narrative, the main text of Follies of Science is more historically mature than the splashy-fun, multi-colored, coffee-table book which supplements but also distracts from it.

Image from Follies of Science.The layout of the illustrations and their accompanying explanatory blurbs is often overwhelming, with so many pictures on each page, and so many blurbs, that it becomes difficult to tell which explanation accompanies which picture. More significantly, however, almost none of these illustrations contain dates; with the exception of the illustrations which are specifically alluded to in the text, the reader is left wondering what year a certain comic book was published, or prototype for an atomic house drawn and printed, or where. Sometimes there is no indication that an advertisement was published outside of the United States, other than a price listed in British currency in diminutive script. This is the “fun” part of the book, a good diversion, but frustrating to those readers who desire a sense of timeline in their history reading.

The authors have also included on many pages, for comic relief, non-prescient quotations about the future, such as, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home,” by Ken Olsen; Olsen is listed as the President of Digital Equipment Corporation. Unfortunately, we are not given dates for many of these excerpts. So while the above-mentioned line, for example, is good for a chuckle, the reader finds herself wondering whether Olsen said that in the years when computers still took up so much room that most families would not want to make space for the contraptions. The authors’ intention in using many of these quotations is unclear.

More problematic than missing dates or un-contextualized quotations, however, is the occurrence within the otherwise seemingly well-done text of questionable claims, if used mostly in analogy or introductory summation. Near the end of the book, in a section on rockets, the authors seem to claim that the fastest speeds humans are capable of, while sprinting, is twelve miles per hour; as a follower of track and field, I know that Olympic sprinters have achieved twice that speed. While what the authors seem to suggest is that the average person can achieve twelve miles an hour in a panic, this is not made clear. And good historians should know better than to present such claims without clarity.

In another passage, the authors state, “Gigantism is what happens when things are well. When bugs ruled Earth they measured ten to twelve feet long and weighed hundreds of pounds; now much of the world dines on their tiny relatives.” While the latter might be true, you only need have paid attention in 11th-grade biology to learn that 11-foot-long insects never existed, and are in fact physically impossible; the rigid chitin that makes up their exoskeletons would crush them if they were much larger than they already are. The careful reader cannot help but wonder: If this mistake went uncorrected, what else is exaggerated, or perhaps fabricated?

Although it claims to be a history book, Follies of Science is not historically sound. The inaccuracies and missing information mean that anyone who chose to cite it would have to do their own double-checking in other, more credible sources.

It is, however, an entertaining read, one that—if taken with a grain of salt—will prove quite informative to the reader, providing a new perspective on the past, and the future.

  

Stephanie Eve Boone, Terrain.org's reviews editor, has written for such publications as American Book Review, The Buffalo News, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Sonora Review, and The Journal of Popular Culture. She blogs about running at Examiner.com and covers national political news for Politics Unlocked. A native of West Virginia, she earned an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Arizona in 2007. A writing teacher, she currently lives in Buffalo, New York, with her fiance, Dan.
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Follies of Science: 20th Century Visions of Our Fantastic Future

By Eric Dregni and Jonathan Dregni

   Speck Press
   2006
   ISBN 1928589367
  

 
     
    
  
 
     
    
  
 
   

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