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Arthur C. Clarke's July 20, 2019: Life in…

Arthur C. Clarke's July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century (Omni Book) (1986)

by Arthur C. Clarke (Editor)

Other authors: Arthur C. Clarke (Selection, Introduction & Epilogue), Dick Teresi (Contributor), Douglas Colligan (Contributor), Erik Larson (Contributor), G. Harry Stine (Contributor)9 more, Judith Hooper (Contributor), Kathleen Stein (Contributor), Mark Teich (Contributor), Pamela Weintraub (Contributor), Patrice Adcroft (Contributor), Richard Wolkomir (Contributor), Robert Weil (Contributor), T. A. Heppenheimer (Contributor), Tim Onosko (Contributor)

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Clarke wrote this book in 1986 so at that time he was projecting over 30 years into the future. Of course, he got a lot of things wrong. Who living now has ever heard of the Phosphotron, a device that uses goggles with electrodes that stimulate abstract light patterns on your retinas even with your eyes closed? Even googling the word only produced a page and a half of hits. However in the same chapter (The Movies) Clarke predicts HDTV and flat screen TVs. Clarke talks about the Internet although he doesn't refer to it as that and predicts people will have computer friends that they never meet.

A lot of his predictions seem just as distant now as they were in 1986. I'm pretty sure we won't have a lunar base by 2019 and maglev trains seem even farther away. Clarke thought we would be much further ahead in terms of energy conservation than we are and computers certainly haven't created the paperless office as Clarke predicts on page 194. However, as Clarke's second law says: "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible." and so we should keep pushing past the possible as much as we can. ( )
  gypsysmom | Aug 9, 2017 |
Arthur C. Clarke's July 20, 2019:
Life in the 21st Century

Macmillan, Hardback, 1986.

4to. vi+281 pp.

First published, 1986



1. Introduction: Letter from a Lunar Astronaut [Arthur C. Clarke]
2. July 20, 1969: A 2019 Interpretation of the Apollo Moon Landing [Robert Weil]
3. A Day in the Hospital [Patrice Adcroft]
4. A Day in the Life of a Robot [Douglas Colligan]
5. School Days: No Recess [Richard Wolkomir]
6. On the Road: Transportation in 2019 [T. A. Heppenheimer]
7. A Day in the Life of a Space Station [T. A. Heppenheimer]
8. A Night at the Movies [Tim Onosko]
9. A Day at the Ballpark: Sports in 2019 [Mark Teich and Pamela Weintraub]
10. House Arrest [Erik Larson]
11. A Day at the Office [G. Harry Stine]
12. An Afternoon on the Couch: Psychiatry in 2019 [Judith Hooper]
13. A Night in the Bedroom [Dick Teresi]
14. Life Meets Death and Twists its Tail [Kathleen Stein]
15. War [T. A. Heppenheimer]
Epilogue: United Nations, 2019 [Arthur C. Clarke]


* In square brackets: the authors of the separate chapters. See the concluding paragraph and the postscript below.


What a baffling book this one is! I don't like mincing words so I will say it flatly: the volume reads like a vastly inferior version of Arthur's magisterial Profiles of the Future (1962, 1st ed.; 1999, Millennium edition) and, on the whole, it is more disappointing than fascinating. There are a number of reasons for that. Let me state the major ones as clearly as I could.

First of all, it is not easy to say what one reads: fiction or non-fiction. The line between these two very different categories has never been especially sharp in Arthur's case, and that's certainly part of his charm. But here it is completely abolished. As a general rule, one may accept that all references up to 1986 (the "Challenger" disaster in January and the launching of Mir a little later being the last ones) are genuine historical facts, whatever their interpretation; likewise, the numerous "discoveries", "revolutions", etc. between 1986 and 2019 are pure fictional speculations, fulfilled or not. The problem is that years are not always given, so I am often left at sea how much of what I read did happen, how much may possibly happen in the future, how much is firmly based on solid scientific ground, and how much is rather fanciful. The confusion is far from pleasant.

In a somewhat stark contrast with Profiles of the Future, and indeed with pretty much all of Arthur's non-fiction writings, the amount of minor details is enormous but, as a most unfortunate side effect, the big picture is sometimes lost. This is a fundamental mistake, as Arthur himself well knew; many times did he say that prediction of the future is a logical nonsense and to attempt it in some detail is preposterous; yet that's exactly what is done here, if not all the time, at all events often. I have no doubt that Arthur did his homework very well, checking the background of these speculations, but he is sometimes led astray in the realms of pure fantasy. Certainly, stuff like "discovering the virus of schizophrenia", or all those medications which deal so specifically with our brain receptors that have no side effects, should never have passed the approval of Sir Arhur. The former is frankly ridiculous, and the latter, though theoretically quite possible, will take centuries to be achieved, if ever.

Equally naive, to say the least, are "speculations" about the putative "death hormone", blocking of which makes you all but immortal (just like that!), or how in the future we would be able to recreate electronically great artists from the past. As a music lover, the latter point rankles with me pretty strongly. Things like "robotic Rachmaninoff" or hologram of Gerswhin - "you wouldn't be able to tell the difference" - simply stupefy me. Not to mention, to put it mildly, very superficial ideas about artistic expression. We are told that there would in few decades be no problem to generate on a computer "Itzhak Perlman's Stradivarius [sic], Horowitz's Steinway, or Eddie van Halen's Gibson electric guitar". That may well be so, especially considering the enormous amount of recordings left by these men. But to recreate the sound of an instrument is one thing. To recreate an artistic personality: that is a very different matter. Fortunately recording companies have proven wiser and have concentrated their digital technologies on remastering and improving the sound of old recordings (not always with admirable results, alas). Such wild flights of the fancy are hardly suitable even for a flippant collection of "sci-fi tall tales" such as Arthur's delightful "Tales from the White Hart". They certainly have no place in a book that boasts on its copyright page words like "historical speculation" and "forecasts".

Also regrettably, the writing style - not always but pretty often - is untypically dry for Arthur Clarke; his deliciously mischievous wit is much missed. Indeed there are chapters - those about hospitals, schools and robots, for example - which consist almost entirely of describing the status quo as it was in 1986 and in the USA. Now, such parts not only miss almost completely the point of the book - which is a glance to the future - but today they have most probably been superseded completely by subsequent developments. As bits of history they are not without some interest, but they fall rather short from the rest of the book - which, as already mentioned, falls short of what one might expect anyway. Other chapters, like the ones about the movies and especially the one about sports, concentrate on minor details and conspicuously neglect the impact of space travel, and why not of planet colonization as well, that must be a far more fruitful subject.

Last and least, the presentation of the book should have been done a lot better. The only thing that may justify a massive quarto volume is a great amount of illustrations. Well, the book is lavishly illustrated, certainly, but neither the quality nor the choice of illustrations is beyond reproach. In fact, both are open to serious criticism. There are many computer-generated images which, even when beautiful, are often too abstract to add anything essential to the text. Photographs are, but with a few exceptions, indifferent and sometimes very awkwardly placed. Why should we have three full pages of hideous robots in the middle of the discussion about Apollo 11? Finally, the captions are very short and not even on high-school level, merely repeating the basic message of the main text.

Having said all that, I must stress that the book is on the whole neither useless nor unreadable - although some chapters certainly are. It is definitely not on par with Arthur's stirring visions in Profiles of the Future, or for that matter any of his collections with essays. Although it does contain a good deal of fascinating material which is worth-reading, only several parts will bear a re-reading with any appreciable degree of pleasure and profit. Needless to say, only passionate Clarke fans need have it on their shelves. As a possible introduction to Arthur's non-fiction, this is just about the worst possible choice. It will give you a very distorted idea both of his writing style and of his mind.

As a general rule - apart from the Introduction and the Epilogue which are the only parts that may be said to have been written entirely by Clarke - the most interesting chapters are those that most boldly, if not always convincingly, delve into the future. Some of these are bizarre mixtures of science fiction and fantasy, or rather from Utopian and Dystopian vistas. Chapter 14 is a particular favourite of mine in this respect. Like each other part, this one starts with some fictional document dated "July 20, 2019", in this case the obituary in the New York Times of one Halley Archer, a legendary real estate tycoon and health fanatic who had died in a car crash accident. He was 109 but his body, thanks to hormone therapies and regular transplantation, was still in his fifties; his brain could not be retrieved, otherwise he might have been able to live forever, merely changing bodies now and then. The picture of our society painted in between is as amusing as it is chilling. Transplantation and medications crazes, manias for spectacular forms of euthanasia and then glorious funerals, NDE (Near Death Experience) as an illegal drug (it had to be banned because too many people carried it a little too far): stuff like that. It makes a rather engrossing read.

Similarly exciting, but less convincing, are chapters 12 and 15. The discussion of psychiatry is pure fantasy of the craziest kind, looking into a completely impossible future in which we'll have a simple pill for every possible phobia or mental disease. It's a fun read - taking some Orpheum before going to concert to enhance your music appreciation indeed! - but, again, this is more suitable for a collection of short stories by, say, Terry Pratchet. The chapter on war is indeed a short story, consisting of few vague historical references and a lot of fiction. It's funny to read about a Third World War which, contrary to the expectations, turned out to be electronic, rather than nuclear one, although the existence of East and West Germany in 2019 is rather hilarious: the Berlin Wall, ironically, fell down but five years after the publication of this book. "House Arrest" is another piece of short fiction, a kind of crime story, which attempts to integrate an exasperating robot as a house servant whose name, significantly, is Arthur. None of these pieces, however, stands comparison with the best stories Arthur Clarke has written; or, for that matter, with his worst ones either.

Since "July 20, 2019" is, of course, the fiftieth anniversary of the first Moon landing, the second chapter is one of the longest and most fascinating essays. It presents the Apollo 11 mission from the point of view of a historian of the next century. Now this is a fine piece of futuristic speculation: the borders between fact and fiction are clear, the parallels between Apollo and Woodstock rather astute, and the alternative post-1986 history plausible yet exciting, albeit pretty wide of the mark as it turned out. The piece actually starts with a terrific inaugural speech of the US President from January 1993 which, needless to say, has the same dramatic effect as the legendary speech of the President Kennedy in 1961. We may well be sorry that today, only seven years from 2019, the chances for even a small permanent base on the Moon are not quite realistic.

"A Day in the Life of a Space Station" is another well-written, if a little tedious, chapter. Here, unfortunately, it is very difficult, at least for me, to tell the difference between fact and fiction. I presume most of the details, of which there are too many mundane ones, are based on real scientific developments, if not from Mir at any rate from Skylab. Despite the curiously un-Clarkian way in which it's written, the piece at least gives a compelling idea how it feels to live in a space station, doing in a weightless environment (not "zero gravity" as often mistakenly described) ordinary things like eating, washing, sleeping, working.

All in all, granted some fascinating glimpses here and there, this is a disappointing volume, one of those books I'd be glad to read but I'd think twice before I keep on my shelves. Just about 90% of the book gives the impression of something "compiled by Clarke", rather than written by him. This is indeed very much the case. In the short "Acknowledgements" Arthur expresses his thanks to many authors, field by field from Apollo 11 to war, for their contributions; these I have listed in square brackets above. Apparently these pieces first appeared in the Omni magazine, but how much of the final material was newly written for this book, or how much was merely compiled by Arthur, remains elusive. I would venture a guess that apart from the Introduction and the Epilogue Arthur wrote nothing else; even the finest chapters certainly don't bear the stamp of his highly personal style. At any rate, the book remains of some slender value only for die-hard Clarke aficionados. I can't quite understand what his name is doing on the cover at all - unless it's there to enhance the commercial potential of the volume.

P. S. Quite unexpectedly, while reading Astounding Days: A Science Fictional Autobiography (1989, now this is definitely written by Arthur Clarke), I have come to a curious reference which confirms the obvious: Arthur C. Clarke's July 20, 2019 was not written by Arthur at all. Here is the full passage:

[As regards to a short essay called "On Weaponry".]
This was originally intended as my commentary on T. A. Heppenheimer's essay "War" in Arthur C. Clarke's July 20, 2019 (Grafton, 1987) but some Higher Power decided otherwise. (This was not the only time when my editorial role in this book was negated, and as I was never sent the final proofs it contains some stupid captioning errors. But it's a handsome volume and well worth getting.)

Well, it is neither handsome nor worth getting. And the "stupid captioning errors" is the least of its drawbacks. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Feb 21, 2012 |
On July 20th, 1969, millions of people watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take man's first step on the moon. Arthur Clarke takes us fifty years into the future from that date, and gives us a guided tour of some pretty amazing future accomplishments. He also gives his idea of how a historian from 2019 might interpret the 1969 Apollo landing. Like all good science fiction writers, he based his predictions on the cutting edge of the technology of the time. At this point, the world is closer to 2019 than it is to 1986 when the book was written. It's really interesting to see which of his social and technological predictions are still on target, and to wonder how on earth he came up with some of the others! I know I will want to go through this book again in a few years. ( )
1 vote anneofia | Jul 21, 2008 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Clarke, Arthur C.Editorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Clarke, Arthur C.Selection, Introduction & Epiloguesecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dick TeresiContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Douglas ColliganContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Erik LarsonContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
G. Harry StineContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Judith HooperContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kathleen SteinContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mark TeichContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pamela WeintraubContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Patrice AdcroftContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Richard WolkomirContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Robert WeilContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
T. A. HeppenheimerContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Tim OnoskoContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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The best book ever written about the future opens with these words: "There are two futures, the future of desire and the future of fate, and man's reason has never learnt to separate them."
--J. D. Bernal, "The World, the Flesh, and the Devil," 1929
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