by Bruce Sterling
Published by Random House
224 pages, 2002
The Pure Chaos of Existence is Enamoring
Reviewed by gabe chouinard
Bruce Sterling is one of those guys who has been everywhere, done everything. From writing stints for Wired magazine to editing The Whole Earth Catalog, his name has popped up in dozens of places... and his name is usually a harbinger of quality, erudition and innovation.
Me? I'm pretty much just a regular guy. Not exactly a techie, not exactly a jet-setting world traveler, not exactly a consultant to multi-billion-dollar corporations. But for me and Bruce Sterling, the pure chaos of existence is enamoring.
I am continually fascinated by the interplay of reality and the fantastic; the wild chaotic nature of creative and creation -- the duality of fiction and life. Sterling, author of a cool nine books, exemplifies this duality superbly in his latest non-fiction manifestation, Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years.
This is me as a full-blown pundit, a brow-wrinkled journalist who attends the Davos Forum, networks with Californian corporate forecasters and mourns the tragic loss of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Most of the time I don't really care to work that hard. Because I'm a science fiction author.
So says Sterling in his introduction, but it is a lie, a glossing-over of the blatantly science fictional underpinning of this work of pop futurism. No matter how hard he may try to divorce himself here from his SF leanings, this genetic makeup seeps deep into every aspect of Tomorrow Now -- which is about the only thing that gives this book its strength.
As a guide, Sterling takes his cue from the melancholy Jaques from Shakespeare's As You Like It, famous for his lecture that begins "All the world's a stage...," dividing Tomorrow Now into the seven Stages of Man: The Infant, The Student, The Lover, The Soldier, The Justice, The Pantaloon and finally (as it must be), Mere Oblivion. In this way, Sterling examines everything from biotechnology to industrial design; from the future of warfare to information economics, all of which grow naturally from the present.
I found myself torn in my reaction to Tomorrow Now. On the one hand, Sterling offers several unique insights into what the future may bring. These insights naturally came in the most science fictional concerns; Sterling's chapter on the messy, drippy future of biotech reads like a biopunk story, a direct descendant of cyberpunk. In the chapter that deals with the future of media and politics, Sterling displays the trademark biting, satirical edge that has colored most of his recent novels, deconstructing the New World Order with both verve and intelligence:
The New World Order is a highly materialistic regime in which nothing but cargo is allowed to be serious business. Many people find this situation politically stultifying, intellectually barren, commercially exploitative, and morally scarifying. But analyzing that situation is not the same as solving it.
He goes on to describe an alternative form of government, a style of city-state that isn't beholden to any one nation, a wildly different (and wildly improbable) "Grand Diaspora Alliance" formed and cared for by the fabulously wealthy.
On the other hand, his chapter on design, which centers upon products as "blobjects," is fairly disappointing, coming from the man that is responsible for the Viridian Manifesto. Likewise, Sterling fails to do more than touch upon modern artistic culture, and fails to even mention the trends that are currently shaking up societies, like smart mobs or the rise of the creative class and its resultant shaping of the economy. And in "The Soldier," Sterling attempts to define the parameters of future warfare by studying the lives of three bandit/warlords from places like the former Yugoslavia. While an interesting view, Sterling here presents little that a generally well-informed person couldn't have already extrapolated.
In fact, this is where I have the biggest gripe with Sterling's book. It holds very little that is new, and there are very few truly startling or innovative views here. Most of Sterling's futurisms are so straightforward, so blasé, that any generally well-informed reader will have foreseen the same developments. Tomorrow Now reads like an extended blog entry, or a series of essays for Wired. There's nothing special here, nothing serious or substantial.
But then, this isn't Silent Spring. This isn't meant to be Toffler's Future Shock. Sterling writes directly to the Wired crowd, directly to the readers of rageboy.com, directly to those businessmen that clutch copies of The Innovator's Dilemma to their chests as they scramble to buy the last copy of The Motley Fool's Investment Guide. These are pop socio-futuristic mumblings, and they're pitched at the frequency of the middle managers that want to show how edgy they are.
For all of this, Tomorrow Now is still a worthwhile read, with plenty of good bits peppering the entirety of the book, making it a good purchase for anyone with the slightest curiosity of what the future holds. Most importantly, though, is that this is a pop-ish, entertaining book that presents its case in a clear, direct, compulsively readable fashion, allowing any average Joe off the street to pick it up and enjoy it. For that, for enticing any person to stop and think for a bit, Sterling gets my highest praise. | January 2003