One of the mailing lists I subscribe to is the Brighton Speculative Fiction group. If I rightly recall, I signed up whilst drunk at a party I had gatecrashed in Kemptown.
What? Like it’s never happened to you. I suppose you’ve never woken up the morning after the night before, clutching your aching head and moaning “Oh man, I hope I didn’t edit any wikis last night!”
The Brighton Speculative Fiction group meets regularly in the excellent Basketmaker’s Arms to talk sci-fi and swap books. My copy of The Demolished Man is making the rounds while I’ve snagged a copy of one of Arthur C. Clarke’s earliest works, Prelude To Space. It reads like an alternative history novel, imagining what it would have been like if the space race had been led from the UK rather than the US.
Early on the book, a character explains that peculiarly British word “boffin”:
Good lord, don’t you know that word? It goes back to the War, and means any long-haired scientific type with a slide-rule in his vest pocket.
That reminded me of the thoroughly enjoyable book Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford, filled with stories of post-war British innovation: everything from “spitfires in space” rocketry ambitions through to the creation of Elite and Vodaphone.
But when Clarke published Prelude To Space in 1953, the idea of Britain leading the charge into space wasn’t a far-fetched flight of fancy. If anything, it was a straightforward linear extrapolation. Before the PR battle of the superpowers kicked off with Sputnik, America had shown no interest in spaceflight, much less putting men on the moon.
I know this, not just because Arthur C. Clarke mentions it in the foreword, but also because of the first episode of the Space Dog podcast which features an interview with Arthur C. Clarke gleaned from The Science Fiction Oral History Association, wherein he talks about Prelude To Space.
In fact, I’ve been huffduffing a host of Arthur C. Clarke-related material lately. The motherlode is this three-way discussion with Clarke, Margaret Mead and Alvin Toffler on 2001: A Space Odyssey, technology, and the future of mankind. They discuss the idea of the singularity without explicitly calling it that—this was recorded long before Vernor Vinge coined the term.
Listening to this on my iPod on my walk into work, I had a pleasant tingle of recognition when Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, was introduced as a consultant to the Institute For The Future …the organisation that provided the location for a latter-day gathering of web-enabled boffins: Science Hack Day San Francisco.