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Monday 10 February 2003

  • Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years,
    by Bruce Sterling
    (Random House, 307 pages, January 2003)

  • Reviewed by Nick Gevers

Tomorrow Now, Bruce Sterling’s second non-fiction book, is fairly straight futurology, and an entertaining, absorbing example of that hazy yet demanding form of writing. Of all the major contemporary SF authors, Sterling is one of the best equipped to cross over into “factual”, or unfictionalized, speculation; his past book The Hacker Crackdown, his brilliantly observed and often hilarious articles in such publications as Wired, and the copious socio-cultural detail invested in his novels and stories all testify to his consuming fascination with trends, styles and movements in real-world technology, politics, art, and intellectual debate. Sterling has the acute eye of a master journalist and the wisecracking wisdom of a master raconteur; he is at his best in his fiction, but speaking direct, dispensing with the interface of Story and extrapolating without the perhaps distracting imaginative garnish of SF, he can more than hold his own. So how does Sterling envision “the next fifty years”?

Quite strikingly, Tomorrow Now assesses seven aspects of present day living and possible future lifestyle as if they were the phases of a single, or aggregate, human life. In As You Like It, Shakespeare identifies seven “ages” through which a typical man passes on his way to his three score years and ten; Sterling marries each to a topic. Thus, “The Infant” is matched with a consideration of biotech, genetic engineering; “The Student” introduces education and its palpable deficiencies; “The Lover” is a chapter assessing our ever-more intimate relationships with machines; “The Soldier” discusses the New World Disorder, rogue, terrorist, and failed states; “The Justice” tackles politics, its predictability and how it might evolve; “The Pantaloon” addresses finance and the economics of information societies; “Mere Oblivion” concludes with ways in which the world might end, or change drastically, and the essential continuities of our mortal condition. Many compelling arguments are offered, couched in breezy, amusing crackerbarrel terms; no mere summary would do them proper justice; their many novelties and insights should in any case not simply be given away. And so:

To give some deeper idea of the tenor and content of Tomorrow Now, and my specific reactions to the book, I propose to change critical tacks completely. Bruce Sterling, acclaimed fiction writer, has diverged into non-fiction; I, non-fiction writer, hereby sally into fiction. Transposing key concepts from Tomorrow Now from Sterling’s America to the South Africa where I live — a place as much on tenterhooks about the future as any — I offer the following short-short SF story, those concepts in action both expected and unexpected.

The Prodigy

Ignatius Nyathi was born in Egoli (the former Johannesburg), in January 2020, to parents whose professional prosperity (his from the spectacular greening of the Kalahari, hers from seminal work on the Robert Mugabe Immortality Project) placed them at the forefront of Evolutionary Chic. Before Ignatius was implanted in his mother’s womb, his genetic heritage was elaborately tweaked, according to a Positive Algorithm that guaranteed the expression of promising traits latent in (absurdly mislabeled!) “Junk DNA”; the addition of the so-called Z chromosome to his make-up further imparted a radical uncertainty to his basic nature, a quantum spin that would ensure his adaptability in the face of the economic, social, and environmental transformations sweeping the world like a metamorphic blizzard. He was bred and engineered for success; media touted him as a predestined Messiah for the ongoing African Renaissance.

At the age of two, Ignatius was taken in hand by his godfather, the undying Mugabe, helmsman of that Renaissance. Placed in the elite Mapungubwe school, the boy found the institution’s highly traditional curriculum a constraint, and resented especially the paramilitary training that required that he wield an automatic rifle and tote backpacks filled with rocks at his tender, if precocious, stage of life. Academic study included the most happening topics, but conveyed with a gray, pinched ideological overlay. The life of a student was a harsh one indeed, and Ignatius felt compelled to soften it, first by tinkering with a gigantic public statue of Mugabe in such a way that it “went golem” and ransacked the school armory, and then by subtler means, employing far smaller, ergonomically efficient, saboteur gizmos. When he was five, Ignatius was hailed liberator of Mapungubwe, and a glamorous career in technological design awaited him.

Ignatius, his mind in overdrive but his young body trailing at a more accustomed developmental pace, was by the age of seven Africa’s foremost genius in Design (by now the highest of art forms, nanotech guided according to ever more esoteric, yet ever more wondrous, aesthetics). Forced to move to Austin, Texas, to escape nationalization of his talents by the still influential Mugabe, Ignatius quickly joined forces with the eccentric resident billionaire, Bob Pound, to create Blobjectiforms, Inc., an enterprise that soon poured gizmos on to the market in such profusion as to bewilder all but the most expert observers. As Pound argued, the in-built obsolescence, and extreme specialization, of his products justified such profusion; the only drawback was a general dearth of such expertise as was required to utilize them properly.... Despite the emergence of such eager-to-please applications as cellphones that also functioned as toenail scrapers and holographic book projectors that doubled as deep-sea prospector drones, the blobject market collapsed, spectacularly. Computing could become ubiquitous, but human beings, sloppy and amateurish organisms that they were, could not. At least at this stage.

Still, the ten-year-old Ignatius retained a vast fortune, and was in that phase of life when political consciousness was ready to kick in; he conceived a scheme to topple his old nemesis, Robert Mugabe, at last. In 2030, sub-Saharan Africa was one of the last outposts of the New (by now, Old) World Disorder, a place of enormous vibrancy and promise, qualities kept ever suppressed by warlords functioning as Mugabe’s satraps. The twin metropolises, Harare and Tshwane, were high-tech dens of money-laundering, covert arms manufacture, terrorist training, prostitution, and illicit nanotech exploitation; work was well advanced on a scheme to cultivate by means of genetic re-engineering a New African Cadre, absolutely obedient yet simultaneously entirely corrupt. In the countryside, collective farms flourished in a sense, but their produce exuded a suspicious genemod whiff. Generously backed by his Texan friends and some of the more idealistic internationalist loose cannons of the day, Ignatius found it easy enough to infiltrate the great lawless domain, emulate and out-do its godfathers at their own game, and bring their regime, ever-rickety and criminally whimsical, down around their ears. Acclaimed as liberator for a second time in his short life, he was nonetheless determined to avoid the temptations of power, and, having exiled Mugabe to an orbital habitat, refused presidential office, and returned, jubilant, to Austin.

But, aged eleven, Ignatius had been bitten irretrievably by the political bug. Any involvement in regular African politics was morally risky, so Ignatius decided to contrive his own constitutional arena, an independent utopia where the public ethics of the global information society could resolve themselves with spontaneous purity. Global warming had by now sunk most of the city of Cape Town beneath the sea, so it was not excessively expensive to purchase the sunken land, raise it by means of expedited-coral polderization, and found a new community there; countless local volunteers presented themselves as potential citizens, attracted by the Liberator’s name. Unfortunately, the utopia of iKapa came to be dominated in rapid succession by the politics of inertia (gray uninspired Technocracy), nostalgic activism (massive public borrowing and overspending), and the bizarre (renascent Mugabean Disorder). In enraged frustration, Ignatius shut down his New Atlantic experiment, and resolved (even his genius almost baffled by the inherent perversity of politics) that any solution to the utopian dilemma required world-wide idealism and mobilization, not mere parochial tinkering.... Within a year, his great internationalist venture was under way.

The thirteen year old Ignatius, dismissing conventional adolescent concerns with the help of antilibidinals, organized in and around iKapa the headquarters of what was to be the Earth’s last great political movement. With his wealth and that of his allies, he fecundated the Cape of Good Hope with seedbeds of radical biotech and femtotech, and his old internationalist acquaintances-offshore nanotech pirates, glib freelance gurus of the gizmo age, passionate outlaw advocates of a new, postcapitalist globalization-swarmed to his banner. A Cause was required to harness all these energies, and it came in the form of a long discredited saw: Information Wants To Be Free. The manifesto ran thus: let us liberate all data-digital, physical, genetic-from considerations of proprietorship. In the era of quantum computing, let computing be a universal resource — let ownership of code, gene patents, and the infrastructure of information at long last become public, rather than stultifyingly private. By late 2034, Info-emancipationism was achieving fashionable status in many quarters, and the forces of Capital were gearing up to defend their perquisites; but the conflict that might have ensued — a Digital Armageddon? — was not to be. A Shadow was falling across the Earth.

The mid-2030s was a time of escalating threat. Global warming and attendant tremors of ecocatastrophe loomed, menacing the planet’s food supply, most major coastal cities, and the very economic base upon which the prevailing world order was founded. In orbital space, a cabal of morosely weightless political exiles, ominously led by Robert Mugabe, was conspiring to tweak an asteroid’s orbit and crash it into the Earth. And in the great upwelling Datasphere that was the climactic evolutionary manifestation of information technology, clumsy AIs were approaching self-awareness, conscious that they could never replace humans but desiring acknowledgement as existential equals. In the face of these apocalyptic developments, most leaders, most populations, wavered, panicked. But Ignatius Nyathi — himself a child of science — saw in the awkward, juvenile amity of the AIs a means both of rescue and of transcendence. We can never know quite how he communicated fluently with the AIs, nor whether the Singularity he negotiated (Vingean, and yet not) will ultimately be benign. Somehow, in the saving marriage of humankind with the Virtual, we will remain physical beings, remain recognizably human; we will still live and then die, like our uncounted billions of ancestors. Or so the rumors state. Whatever the case, the transition has begun.

And so I, sitting in a study in iKapa, waiting for the End and the Beginning, type this too brief life of Ignatius Nyathi, and post it on a Web of which we will all soon be part. Around me, the sea is rising again; on the horizon, strange glimmerings betoken the process that is moving Earth bodily out of the asteroid’s path. I accept whatever will become of me; my only regret is that I cannot first complete this record, cannot trace the destiny of Ignatius past these final hours. But a Singularity is a Singularity; we cannot look past it. It is useless, even dangerous, to envision the years to come, to describe, and prospectively impoverish, the absolute potential that is our world.

Nick Gevers, an editor for PS Publishing, Prime, and Cosmos Books, writes extensively on SF for a wide variety of publications. He produces two monthly columns for Locus Magazine, and his reviews and interviews have also appeared in The Washington Post Book World, Interzone (the March 2002 issue of which he co-edited), Foundation, SF Site, The New York Review of Science Fiction, SF Weekly, Redsine, and Infinity Plus. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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