Tomorrow Now

By Bruce Sterling

A criticism that is sometimes leveled at writers of science fiction is that they rarely get it right. Their visions of the future have rarely turned out to be accurate predictions of the shape of things to come. You have to look pretty hard, for example, to find references to personal computers in the science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s. And yet the PC was not an unforeseeable development at that time.

The short response to this is that predicting the future is not a science fiction writer’s job. They use the genre to describe present anxieties and contemporary social issues. They offer the flip-side of the historical novel, which never really tells us as much about the past as it does about the way we imagine that past today. The future of SF, in other words, is now.

Bruce Sterling is an SF writer probably best known for his championing of the “cyberpunk” movement in the 1980s. But he is also a professional futurist/corporate forecaster, and in Tomorrow Now he turns pundit and “assaults the future head-on.”

Sterling’s way of organizing the book is to divide the future into seven thematic stages very loosely corresponding to the seven ages of man speech in As You Like It. After the first chapter, “The Infant,” that deals a bit with developments in reproductive science, this structure doesn’t mean anything at all, and in any event Sterling’s writing is simply too wandering and conversational to proceed by any kind of regular method. But as prophecy it does have a certain coherence.

The first thing to understand about Sterling’s future is that it’s all about the money. History is over, capitalism is triumphant, and there is no longer any place in the world for ideology, culture, education, science, or art (the substitute for art is the “blobject”, education will be replaced by information retrieval skills). All the future holds is a frantic scramble for loot. Science will no longer be “about knowledge.” Nor will it be about military security or the “public good.” It will be “about intellectual property. Not about command and control but mind share and market share.” The corporate heads at Davos (Sterling’s main audience) are nodding their heads.

Government will be by technocrats. These are leaders “willing to abandon the moral certainties of previous centuries and expose their populations to radical levels of postindustrial instability.” They will risk the downsides (poisonous food, tainted blood, environmental and business disasters) because, you guessed it, “there’s a whole lot of money in the upsides.” The nation state itself may wither as elite groups realize that “since they already have the brains and the money” (in Sterling’s future the one leads naturally to the other), “they might as well invent a new power structure to suit their joint interests.”

War is hard to imagine because there is such a dominant superpower among us. Still, that hasn’t stopped people from trying. “September 2001,” Sterling tells us, “saw a determined effort to instigate another world war.” One can only assume from this that he’s talking about the determined effort of the United States. Which brings us to the subject of terrorism.

Sterling spends a lot of time considering terrorists. Unfortunately, terrorism doesn’t fit easily into his way of thinking. He ponders biological and chemical attacks but asks how the perpetrators are to “profit” from such behaviour. After all, terrorists are just looking to make a buck, same as everyone else. “Real life terrorists,” we are told, “are almost always drug-dealing mafia.” This didn’t strike me as an accurate description of Osama bin-Laden (who is personally wealthy from other sources). Or Timothy McVeigh. Or the Unabomber. Or Israeli or Palestinian terrorists in the twentieth-century. Were all these people just in it for the cash?

Basically Sterling is playing Thomas Friedman – the great apologist for American global hegemony – as projector. But there are quirks that make what he has to say interesting. For example, he doesn’t think cloning or the genetic engineering of superbabies will catch on, not because of any moral quibbles, but because the products will bitterly resent being the fruits of an experimental (and rapidly out-of-date) technology and their parents’ vanity and ambition. This doesn’t explain, however, why it isn’t going to happen. Selfishness and irresponsible risk are, in his view, what’s going to drive the future anyway.

In fact, these genetic Supermen and Superwomen are Sterling’s great inheritors, civilization’s ultimate “endusers.” This becomes clear in his final chapter. Here we learn of the technological sublime, and the single word that “sums up the sweaty, fervent desires” of our time. The word is “posthuman.” Humankind, as Nietzsche said, is something to be surpassed. No moral or legal taboos can stop this transformation. This is because “the destruction of the human condition is not the fault of some sinister cadre of mad-scientist masterminds. . . The human condition is changing because this is what our culture genuinely wants.” It’s all about consumer choice. But the choice isn’t driven by what we want so much as it is by what we hate, which is us. The images of modern culture – pro wrestlers, supermodels, and famous actors – lead us to despise ourselves. And so the call goes out for new images and new selves: the posthuman.

Sterling’s future is a paradise of selfishness, fear and greed – a world made in the image of the market. And it may be an accurate prophecy. Certainly it will be if we don’t stop to question those images, and criticize some of the assumptions behind books like these.

Review first published January 4, 2003.