Isaac Asimov: Visions of the Future

If you’re at all into science fiction, I don’t have to convince you that Isaac Asimov was an amazing guy. He wrote about a zillion books and imagined worlds and technology that laid the foundation for science fiction as we know it. He coined the term “robotics,” for frak’s sake. But did you know he was working on a television show when he died? He shot a pilot episode, and the footage has been collected into a four-part video called Visions of the Future.

I admit when I first heard this news, I was hoping the imagined show was a drama — something along the lines of I, Robot meets The X-Files. This is not that.

Asimov was prolific as both a purveyor of gripping narrative and a scientist in his own right. The purpose of his show was “exploring the faint and ever-shifting boundary separating science from science fiction.” You see, he not only lent credibility to science fiction, often dismissed as escapism, but he inspired us to think about the future of science. “How do you differentiate between science and science fiction”? he asks. The icing on the cake is that, since we’re seeing this footage 21 years on, much of what lay in his future is now our reality.

Unfortunately, as cool as the premise is, the execution is dry as Tatooine. He may be a genius, but for entertainment value he’s no John Noble.

The video opens with a long voice-over narrative, recorded after Asimov’s death, mostly relating biographical information. Visually, it’s painfully boring, consisting mainly of still photos and shots of book covers. When Asimov himself at last appears on screen, he goes through a long, academic introduction before we finally arrive at the first of the episode’s three topics, Space Travel. It’s followed by Artificial Intelligence, Genetic Engineering, Superconductivity and, simply, Matter (which is a super simple primer on particle physics). Each new segment is introduced by a title card and some zippy little music.

I wonder whether each of these segments was recorded as the introduction to its own episode, or if the pilot was to be a sort of an overview, the first lecture on the syllabus. Each discussion is very general so, ostensibly, he would have dug more deeply into each one as the show progressed.

Lest you get bored of looking at his bolo tie and wild mutton chops, there are video clips and animations to illustrate what he is saying. Much of what he says, while uninspiring in its delivery, really is pretty moving. He speculates on traveling to Mars, racing from New York to San Francisco via maglev train, and genetically engineering human beings.

“The purpose of this program is to advance ideas and suggestions as to what is liable to happen, what is on the frontiers of science now, and how, possibly, we ought to react to it.”

Cognizant of the sociological implications of futurism, our professor advises to be prepared for negative outcomes of technological progress, what he calls the “possible unpleasantness.” Like a sentient computer replicating itself and nuking the Earth into oblivion? Yeah, I guess he means stock up on number 2 million sunblock.

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