Author takes a peek at the future in 'Tomorrow Now'
By Renay San Miguel
(CNN) -- Bruce Sterling may be a writer of science fiction, but his novels and short stories always seem to take place about 10 minutes, not 10 years or 10 decades, into the future.
Sterling is one of the godfathers of "cyberpunk," the science-fiction sub-genre that mines the possibilities involving computers, networks and hackers/crackers. His 1988 classic, "Islands In The Net," about information warfare and thievery, sounds an awful lot like science fact now.
"Distraction," a novel featuring a political aide who masters the technology of opposition research, is probably required reading for any real-world public servants. "Heavy Weather" is set in a near-future where global warming and nature ravage the American Southwest with tornadoes. And his short story "We See Things Differently" came uncomfortably close to predicting al Qaeda: its protagonist, an Islamic terrorist, takes down an American cultural hero/political figure in a particularly insidious way.
So when Sterling decides to take a nonfiction look at the future, interested parties had better pay attention. After all, his only other foray into nonfiction, 1990's "The Hacker Crackdown," was one of the first even-handed attempts to explore the hacker subculture in this country.
Now Sterling has written "Tomorrow Now: Envisioning The Next Fifty Years" (Random House, 320 pages, $24.95). He's not interested in predicting which gadgets and services we'll be using in the future; rather, "Tomorrow Now" is more concerned with how technological advancements and so-called progress will affect our everyday lives, the social fabric.
Yet because Sterling has made his own impact as a writer of fiction, he uses as his theme the famous "all the world's a stage" soliloquy describing the seven stages of life from Shakespeare's "As You Like It." "Tomorrow Now" looks at how science and technology will affect birth, education, love, war, politics, business, old age and death.
So when Sterling takes on cloning, he is not concerned with what diseases or defects a cloned baby will carry. Instead he writes about how the first generation of clones, the "beta-release superhumans" will be very angry because they will be guinea pigs, prototypes that aren't even best-of-breed, and they will be likely to call lawyers so they can sue their creators.
Instead of cloning humans, Sterling makes the case that science should focus more on germs and microbes, which have been engaging in genetic research a lot longer than humans.
"Tomorrow Now" also projects consumer products that are "blobjects," devices and other things that carry computer chips and have some organic qualities but are also cheap and easily thrown away. True, his discourse on how intellectual property will dominate the next 50 years of business has been done before by sociologists, but at least Sterling makes it much more entertaining and accessible for Main Street America.
The best part of "Tomorrow Now," and by far the most chilling and timely section of the book, involves the future of warfare, what Sterling calls the "New World Disorder." He focuses on three real-life terrorists as his representatives of this disorder: Shamil Basaev, a Chechen rebel who used cell phones to coordinate rocket attacks on Russian soldiers; Zeljko Raznatovic, aka Arkan, a Serbian militiaman whose rock-star lifestyle made him one of his people's most feared and best-loved leaders; and Abdullah Catli, a Turkish policeman who worked both sides of the law with brutal facility.
Obviously what makes this section so scary is that the three "soldiers" whose stories Sterling tells are the kind of enemies America will be focusing on in its current war on terror. They are not even soldiers of an enemy country's army, like Iraq's. They are barely a couple of levels above a police force, and yet they used corruption, the media, simple technology and a certain charisma to sow havoc among their own people.
Yet it is this very power to wreak havoc that may end up being the New World Disorder soldier's Achilles heel. As Sterling writes in "Tomorrow Now":
"He can light bonfires inside the New World Order and perhaps devastate wide areas, but he cannot build anything. He cannot even defend the patch of ground that he himself is standing on. Terror can destabilize, it can drive order away, but terror can't govern."
"Tomorrow Now" should be read by those who govern civilized, techno-centric countries, so that they can know the low-tech enemy that is hiding around the corner.