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Book #11: The Verb For What Visionaries Do

I finished this text a week ago, but I’ve been too busy and also too stunned by it to find anything to say about it until today. Here it is… book #11 of my Lunar New Year readings:

Tomorrow Now: Envisioning The Next 50 Years by Bruce Sterling.

This is a work of futurism. Any resemblance to the future, real or imagined, is not wholly accidental, but of course any and all correspondences will come as surprise. Futurism, after all, is a strange and dicey game.

Envisioning it is even harder than talking about it, but envisioning it is what Sterling does. Vision, the elevated Latinate verb for seeing something, is the root we built the word “visionary” onto, in English, and it’s the appropriate verb for what Sterling does in this book. He looks at the world in a different way, a unique and singular way. None of the observations he makes are individually all that weird, or strange, but he puts them together in a fascinating composite vision.

Sterling’s far from a newbie at it: he’s been doing this professionally, in the form of writing SF, for years now. He’s been putting together notions of how the future may look for as long as he’s been writing. However, he’s also been reporting on the present for a long time, too. As I’ve read his articles in Wired one by one over the years, I’ve always been struck by how his ability to fish in strange, unlikely ponds has repeatedly served him well in writing his imagined futures—or, more recently, his imagined immediate pasts in novels like Zeitgeist and The Zenith Angle.

Unlikely ponds indeed. Hanging around at Davos, traveling in Turkish Cyprus, digging into Bollywood and into the most notorious spook/terrorists of the late twentieth century, Sterling draws his lessons from the notion he’s often said and repeated, that, “The future is already here, it’s just not well-distributed yet.” This is why the title is so apt: Tomorrow, the future, but seen through the lens of Now, seen with all its seeds lain out on the table today. This method can, of course, falter, because of all the unpredictable elements that can enter into the game; nobody would have expected feuding Italian politicos of funding a revolution that would scientifically, culturally, literarily, and philosophically transform Europe and the world. At the apex of World War II, who would have guessed that the Japanese would hypertechnologize and become an ally of America? And, after all, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

However, Sterling himself is aware of the pitfalls of the method. He knows that talking about the future is really, often, a way of mobilizing am empowered attitude towards it through mobilizing an empowered attitude towards the Now. The Orwellian dictum about the control of the past leading to the control of the present and the future is out, way out. Now, nobody needs control of the past; the past just is there, and most people aren’t looking at it anyway. What people are looking at it a hazy, unclear future, and those who seize upon the present, they’re the ones who are going to inherit the future. Not the meek, not the prescient; the bold, the slightly reckless, but also the intelligent, those willing to learn lessons from the immediate past.

There’s an illuminating moment when Sterling describes the how meaningful revolutionary change cannot occur within a modern Western state, like America. He pretty much devastatingly explains why a technocracy is stiflingly stable, too comfortable for most of us to be willing to give up; and yet, how some kind of positive growth beyond that model is therefore stifled and held back. I won’t spoil the punch of his explanation, but I will say that it’s shocking which group it turns out mirrors his understanding of the structure of a group that could, in fact, create positive political/social change in our world.

The book explores the future—via the present and the recent past—through examining seven stages of life, from infancy to oblivion, as laid out in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. This is a neat organizational tool, of course, and it allows Sterling to focus his energies on seven different areas of development—from military concerns, to business, to biotech. He deals with the subject of each chapter in a pretty fast-and-loose way, though; some sections deliver full-on futurism, while others dwell more on the present and recent past. For example, he plays with some fascinating possible future scenes in the biotech section, but when discussing the military, he prefers to provide his reader with the story of three major—and very real, albeit sometimes futuristic, fictional-sounding—terrorists who have cropped up out there in the New World Disorder since the end of the Cold War.

The division of the world into New World Order and New World Disorder is not really new, and could be traced back to the Jihad vs. McWorld ideas that floated about in the 90s; however, what’s interesting is what Sterling does with this ideas. Jihad vs. McWorld ended off showing a city in ruins, teenaged ethnic warriors in sneakers munching on burgers amid the chaos. This, I sense, is where Sterling picks up the story and moves on… what comes next in such a world? What can come next in such a world? What would be immensely cool to see next in such a world? And what is just so cool it’s unfeasible?

The last thing I want to say about this book is that it’s wonderfully written. Reading it, I realized that Sterling writes the way I endeavour to speak to people; smartly, cooly, never above one’s head, with a little irony but never the poisoned dismissal of all things bright, hopeful, and cool. He gets it about the future, the way that it eventually involves the obliteration of everything you care about. He gets it that his own speculations will probably look corny and silly to his descendants. He even apologizes to them. But he also gets it about human history, that everything we’ve recorded is a brief, weird, surprising flash of rapid change that came after a long, slow period of hunching in tall grass with a dozen or so your relatives, looking at tasty animals. (It’s a paraphrase, but he says as much himself.) The ending he comes up with is so very poignant, and very beautiful, because he invokes the obliteration that will, finally, come and sweep him away, leaving only the text as a kind of hokey simulacrum, but an honest one—like Alvin Toffler’s classic Future Shock, which makes me snicked but which I adore all the same, and which turned out to be right on the money in interesting, unexpected ways. I’m not going to spoil the ending for you, but I will confess it was deeply satisfying, a little moving, and beautiful on the scale of his novel Holy Fire. The idea of solidarity and feeling honest loving-kindness with one’s ancestors and one’s unknown descendants is a beautiful one, and well worth taking to heart.

Finally, I am going to recommend that you try to make sure to get a copy of the trade paperback edition, since it includes a new Afterword not included in the hardcover. It includes some fascinating points for futurists, including two very good bits of advice about how not to get messed up in one’s speculations: not aligning oneself too closely with people who are actually making the future—they’re a dangerous lot, really—and not sticking your hand in The Monkey Puzzle. I’ll let you read the book and find out about it on your own, though. It’s an easy, quick read, and well worth your time.

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