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Days of Futures past

It's a time of change for Nature's venture into speculative fiction.

This week features the last in the series of 'Futures', Nature's occasional excursion into speculative fiction (as science fiction, or SF, is sometimes known). Since 1999, Nature has published no fewer than 156 such journeys into things to come, ranging from the serious to the whimsical, all of which (hopefully) provided some entertainment.

And that's the key — SF is meant to amuse in the present. The most memorable SF works do this by projecting our present concerns onto the greater canvas of uncertainty that is the preserve of that part of history that hasn't happened yet. Or, to put it more succinctly, “it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”, a sentiment usually attributed to baseball star Yogi Berra. That it might sometimes be found attached to Sam Goldwyn, Woody Allen or even Niels Bohr demonstrates its fundamental soundness — and also, perhaps, that the past is as unreliable as the future.

“An anthology of the best of Futures is planned, and the column itself will continue, for a while, in Nature Physics.”

Addressing this very issue, one visionary bucked the trend in the grandest fashion, writing in 1902 that “the time is drawing near when it will be possible to suggest a systematic exploration of the future”. This is a bold statement indeed, but one that makes more sense if it is recognized that science is a necessarily predictive endeavour. As if to prove his point, the writer went on to outline a startling version of statistical mechanics in which the behaviour of large numbers of humans could be predicted, presaging Isaac Asimov's future science of psychohistory (in his 'Foundation' novels) by half a century.

Later still, the writer notes that “the question what is to come after man is the most persistently fascinating and the most insoluble question in the whole world”, touching, even if coincidentally, on the theme of post-humanity that animates much current SF, itself a reaction to cloning and genetic manipulation.

Who was this visionary? It was none other than H. G. Wells, writing in these very pages (Nature 65, 326–331; 1902). From this we can derive some comfort that 'Futures' in Nature has indeed a venerable past.

And even now, we haven't quite come to the end of eternity. An anthology of the best of Futures is planned, and the column itself will continue, for a while, in our sister publication Nature Physics. So for a little longer, at least, we can share the emotions of Wells' Time Traveller (in his 1895 novel The Time Machine), who “merged at last into a kind of hysterical exhilaration... with a kind of madness growing upon me, I flung myself into futurity”.

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Days of Futures past. Nature 444, 972 (2006).

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