Tomorrow Now, Bruce Sterling

Random House, 2002, 320 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-679-46322-4

Anyone who’s been following Science Fiction over the last decade knows that Bruce Sterling is The Man. Since 1992, he has produced an impressive series of solid, cosmopolitan, cutting-edge stories. He writes with a degree of originality and complexity that is seldom seen amongst his contemporaries. At a time when SF is massively retreating back on its past glories, Sterling dares to look in our current future and write delightfully energetic Science-Fiction. He’s one of the best, if not the best SF writer today.

His latest non-fiction book, Tomorrow Now is a reflection of the abilities that have propelled him to the top. Sterling has grown up, and this book demonstrates it. Billed as “envisioning the next fifty years”, this book is more akin to a wide-ranging lecture on a variety of subject.

It’s loosely structured around Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” (as outlined in As You Like It) First on the list is “The Infant”, along with a discussion of the possibilities of biotechnology. Standard futurist stuff, though with an emphasis on the disturbingly sceptic feel these innovations will take. The rest of the book is as much about now as it is about tomorrow. “The Student” looks at today’s innovation in education through the Internet while “The Lover” examines technology made “lovable” through personalization. In both cases, Sterling isn’t predictive as much as he studies what is happening today.

This impression strengthens in Chapter 4, “The Soldier”, as it reads like a Wired article describing the careers of three unorthodox military leaders. The portrait is fascinating; chances are that even though all three have lived and fought during the 1990s, you’ve never heard their names. And yet, taken together, these three show the way towards a future type of warfare. “The Soldier” may be the book’s most interesting chapter. It clearly shows where Sterling got his ideas for his previous novel Zeitgeist, uncovers a facet of recent history few of us even know about and manages to spin it in a blueprint for the next few decades.

But Sterling also stretches his scope outside simple prediction. In “The Justice”, he discusses the growing complacency of government and becomes a political theorist. In “The Pantaloon”, he tackles economic matters and mentions his invitation to the Davos World Economic Forum with a proper degree of humility. (“If I were to cut and paste my latest 1040 tax form onto the page here, it would be far worse and more shocking that posting nude pics of myself on the Internet.” [P.216]) Finally, in “Mere Oblivion”, he muses on the environment and the dangers of global warming.

All in all, it’s fantastic reading even if he doesn’t always deliver on what we may expect from a “book of predictions.” Tomorrow Now may meander and end up being too short, but there’s no denying that it’s a new-thought-a-minute, two-quotes-a-page peek in the mind of a genius.

The only thing that really annoyed me about Tomorrow Now is the physical object itself. Published as a stunted hardcover scarcely bigger than a regular paperback, Tomorrow Now‘s presentation feels a lot like an attempt to camouflage a short book as something worth 40$. Granted, the calibre of the ideas contained therein is certainly a cut above the usual hardcover, but it still doesn’t make up for the perceived loss in value. I’m still glad I sent some money in Sterling’s pocket, but readers without my generous book-buying budget may want to borrow this one at the library… or wait for the paperback edition. I also hated the translucent cover and the title-less design of the dust jacket… but that’s just me.

Despite the above caveat, I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest that this is a book that deserves to be read. Despite the often-frustrating rambling and dodgy structure, there is a lot of material here for Sterling fans, think-tanks, techno-geeks, SF writers and anyone else interested in what a fun guy like Sterling may have in mind. As he points out, “you don’t want a free author in your house” [P.230] but Tomorrow Now is the next best thing. Fans of the authors are free to ponder one thing: much as his previous non-fiction book The Hacker Crackdown marked a significant shift in his fiction, what will happen after Tomorrow Now?

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