Tor, 1999, 287 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86884-7
Frederik Pohl likes to say that “the future isn’t what it used to be,” but that’s only partially true. The imagined futures of Science-Fiction and Futurism have remained constant (if different) upon the years. We all expect a world more or less like our own, with a few extra-terrestrial outposts, better cars and happiness for all.
Radically different concepts sometime intrude in the collective imagination (like nanotechnology), but these are usually co-opted into the mainstream future. Reading futurology journals is a singularly boring experience, as there’s nothing radically new. Even SF’s wildest futures are usually constructed by the author to bring home a philosophical point, or simply to tell a good story.
Rudy Rucker’s Saucer Wisdom is many things, but it’s certainly not conventional. For one thing, it posits a future radically different from your usual run-of-the-mill projection. For another, it’s a non-fiction essay presented in fictional format. A “firmly controlled, intelligent hallucination” says Bruce Sterling in his introduction to the book.
Judge for yourself: The book purports to be the result of Rudy Rucker’s encounters with a man named Frank Shook. Shook has reportedly found a way to contract extraterrestrials, who take him away on trip to humanity’s future. Shook takes notes, makes drawings (included) and gives them to Rucker in order to flesh them out in a narrative.
The result is some far-out speculation wrapped in an entertaining UFO-nut wrapping, as Rucker has to deal with the temperamental Frank Shook and his acquaintances. Notes on the future of communication, bio-technology, femtotechnology and transhumanity make up the bones of the book, while the meat is Rucker’s rocky relations with his “witness.”
The result isn’t perfect, but it works more often that it doesn’t. Rucker’s envisioned future -full of genetically-engineered things, invasive biotechnology and discorporal humanity- is a great deal more edgy that futurism’s most usual predictions, and his approach here is pitch-perfect for the type of barely-serious extrapolation he’s doing. Similarly, a science-fiction novel loaded with these gadgets wouldn’t be credible, and by couching his speculations in simili-reality, Rucker knows how to present them.
This being said, the mock-confession narrative has its moments of annoyance. Your reviewer has never been a UFO-nut, and so exploiting this trend -even by saying that it’s complete nonsense- wasn’t as effective as Rucker intended. Most of the time, the obviously-amateurish drawings are also superfluous, though they bring to mind Stanislaw Lem’s Star Diaries… a perfect match to Saucer Wisdom in more than the illustrations.
Despite the unpleasant nature of the speculation (come on; how many of you could envision a future of wet, crawling, semi-intelligent animals scattered around your house without thinking at least a small “eeew”?), Rucker presents a radically different future, and that’s enough to keep up fascinated. He also understands the dynamics of innovation, and so his future is constantly changing: One individual makes an innovation, which is perfected by business rivals, distributed as shareware, popularised in derivative products which then spawn further innovations…
As far as predictive books go, this one isn’t the most pleasant or the easiest to digest, but it’s certainly one of the most original. Cheers to Rucker for wrapping up his ideas is such a package. The future isn’t what it used to be, but you can get an idea of what it might become with Saucer Wisdom.