Heavens above!

One just does not know where to start. This is a book so badly conceived, written and edited that it should never have made it out of pulp. All the distinguished persons whose applause rings through the promotional blurb – some favourably name-checked in the text – should consider their position as celebrities and opinion-leaders. On the Future rises not very far above vanity-publishing. All copies should be bundled and shot back to the Big Bang.


Shame on the people at PUP for letting pass into hardback a work with so many disembodied sentences, devoid of self-awareness, as dull as dark matter. Here is a sample (drawn from the dozens available) – coming not from someone passing through a writing-course novitiate but a Cambridge don and the UK’s Astronomer Royal:

“Science should transcend all barriers of nationality”.
“We can expect further dramatic advances in the sciences during this century”.
“Our knowledge of space and time is incomplete”.

You may be thinking that, well, you know, the patient reader can absorb small dollops of banality for as long as the verbal jungle is otherwise full of insight-diamonds. But this is not the case here. Assuming that it will amuse a respectful audience and get him down with the sci-fi kids everywhere, Dr. Rees spends an aeon musing about the possibility of quasi-human life elsewhere in the universe but in a language that would make the script of the early Star Trek episodes sound like Stephen Hawking.

One expects a whole lot more from a pure scientist talking about “prospects for humanity”. Yes, he witters, there are lots of planets in the sky but “is there life even intelligent life out there?” Page upon page is filled with this sort of stuff, the stuff of a stuffy fourth-form science class from a teacher aiming to engage the pupils by diluting his knowledge into a set of teasing Who Knows?.

Viz : “Maybe we can rule out visits by human-scale aliens…”. Quite.

Of course – and this is the heart of the matter – Dr. Rees stands ready to slide his personal preferences in through the populist banter. He has politics to sell.

We learn, for example, that he is in favour of a new generation of nuclear power, genetically modified foods, legalised euthanasia, drones and driverless cars (maybe), robotics, a shorter working week, commercially entrepreneurial (as opposed to publicly funded) person-bearing space flight…. Now, the passing reader may, pari passu perhaps, agree with such positions. But they are offered with such a platitudinous, throwaway weakness of argument that it does seem that the author is relying exclusively on his own rank to carry the day.
Take the question of the shorter week, to be even shorter in the author’s view than “France’s current (sic) thirty-five hours”. The reason? Well, all of us would like more time to have fun, no? And for participating “in collective rituals – whether religious (sic), cultural or sporting”. Now, this may be all good and right to some. But the benevolence of such a development only sounds obvious. How do we know for a truth that less formal work equals happier, more grounded individuals? Marx rather thought so. But is it sociologically/psychologically likely? Could there be negative correlatives to a sudden surfeit of free time within our collective future? And is there somewhere a scholarship on this very theme maybe, evidence of what the application of the scientific method actually reveals for this subject? Well, you will get no exegesis here : just nude assertion.

Ex cathedra : it’s not meant to mean – This, ie what I declare here, should be OK.

And why be so gullible about clapped-out and frequently un-examined social science experiments of a kind no further up the evolutionary tree than your average urban myth? Mischel’s Marshmallow Test, doltishly ubiquitous across even contemporary non-fiction, is – silly as it has always been – favourably re-visited here. And why praise the climate change policies of the government of Cuba – they have apparently a “carefully worked out plan stretching for a century (sic)”? It sounds fab but the author proves that the plan exists and is praiseworthy merely by referring you to a footnote which leads to a reference to a two-page article in a science magazine (author not named)? Cuttings!!! I ask you! Finally here, to describe the current Chinese Government, run as it is under the principals of democratic (sic) centralism, as somehow merely “dirigiste” is to abuse the dictionary. There is just so much here that is similarly under-cooked. Street food at High Table.

But the killer app in all this is Dr. Rees’s determination to prove that science and faith can indeed co-exist as overlapping magisteria. This is an argument that it is clearly very important to him to win, the originating purpose, one suspects, of the entire book. After all, the world’s religions are “transnational communities that think long-term and care about the global community, especially the world’s poor”.
What, all of them? No tribalism, sectarianism, bigotry…. anywhere in Islam, Catholicism, Buddhism, the evangelical Christianity of the Deep South? The Rapture – now there is a long-term concept if ever there was one – is, after all, only for the Chosen. The anti-gay community is pretty well exclusively faith-based and faith-driven. Some religions are little more than money-siphoning rackets. Type “child abuse scandals” into Google and your will learn once more of the scale of cruelty and deception that hides behind the vestments, the hymns, the prayers. This is not to say that millions of decent people who are regular practitioners / parishioners do not mean well to their earth-bound companions everywhere. But please – Perspective! Honesty!

Too much of On the Future is about pleasing the author’s chums and collaborators rather than coldly parading where physics and astronomy take an appreciation of our human and planetary destiny. As a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Dr. Rees praises the Catholic Church since it “transcends political divides”. (Really?). There is, moreover, to be “no gainsaying its global reach, its durability and long-term vision or its focus on the world’s poor”. Indeed the Church “eased the path” (really?) to the Paris Accord on Climate Change, a telling contribution that so many seem to have overlooked or, through doubtlessly their own fault, completely missed. Again, this is a long way off analysis; this is just special pleading. Mickey Finn propaganda.

With grim predictability, Dr. Rees condemns atheists who attack mainstream religion on the grounds that in so doing they “weaken the alliance against fundamentalism and fanaticism”. They also in this process – but for reasons that are not totally clear – “weaken science”. Moderate faith, it seems, allows all believers to keep a space for the celestial while allowing space for things like the theory of evolution. But to object to faith too emphatically is to weaken human solidarity and be offensive to nice, well-meaning people. Science needs the presence of belief in non-science – that seems to be the gist.

So, let’s not offend anyone. Let’s not try to convince people that homo sapiens has been around for 250,000 years. That there was no flood involving a bloke called Noah. That a miracle cannot happen. That exorcism is an affront to the human rights of its victims and a denial of their true needs. That it is foul to take a sharp object to a child’s genitals. That gay people deserve – as we all do – dignity, respect and the right to love as they choose. That suicide exists and is not be denied by any old books. That any adult should have the unimpeded and imperishable right to marry whomsoever he or she chooses – for as long as love is in the air. That a perpetrator of abuse should be arrested by secular authority – not hidden and protected because he is one of heaven’s professional spokesmen.

Sadly, one is here to say that On the Future stands as a betrayal of the scientist’s craft. It is shockingly partisan while being monstrously lazy and almost hypnotisingly banal.

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