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12/04/00: No Future!
by Pieter van Hiel

The 21st century is just a few short weeks away. Iím sure I speak for most of the IMC crowd when I say Iím darn disappointed with the distinct lack of moon bases, AI computers, and space ships to Jupiter. It seems that Arthur C. Clarke, one of the worldís most respected futurists, was well off the mark. He wasnít the only one.

Heck, according to my third grade teacher there were going to be robot butlers and water-powered zeppelins carrying cargo across the globe about now. Sure, this whole Internet thing is nice, but is it as cool as a robot butler? I donít bloody well think so! Man, when I was a kid, I envisioned the year 2001 as a time when I'd be living in a geodesic dome, with one of those bubble-windshield cars in the driveway, being washed by smiling robot servant. Internet? Phooey!

Anyway, with the end of the century bearing down on us at 60 seconds a minute, I thought it might be interesting to talk to a self-professed futurist, to see what they thought of it all. As Arthur C. Clarke lives in Ceylon and will only talk to CNN, I had to settle for a lesser futurist - Mr. Bruce Sterling. Sterling, the author of the recently released book Zeitgeist, and of the cyberpunk classic Islands in the Net, kindly agreed to grant a short interview to The Guide to the NonExistent Universe. And here it is.

Guide: What did you think life in 2001 was going to be like when you were 10 years old?

Sterling: When I was ten years old, I couldn't see my way past surviving the fourth grade.

Guide: Oh. Um... okay. (Cough, shuffle notes.) Still, what part of the present do you think would have impressed you most as a 10 year old?

Sterling: Well, I'm kind of pleased that I'm now famous enough to impress and even intimidate elementary school teachers.

Guide: (Laugh) Gotcha. Well, SF authors have always regarded themselves as accurate prophets, but very few of them have had much success in the last 25 years of the century. Will modern SF writers be any closer to the mark predicting future developments than writers of the first half of the 20th century?

Sterling: That's an interesting question. I'm inclined to think that it works out about even. It's easier to get good information and there are more people working on trend assessment, but there is also a glut of radical technological possibilities and some severely disruptive environmental trends. These are crazy times, but the society itself is rather self-satisfied, censorious and dull, increasingly top-heavy with old people. Maybe it's wisest to say that writers will always get the future wrong but they may get it wrong in different and more inventive ways.

Guide: (Thoughtful pause) Do you see your near-future books as prophetic in any way?

Sterling: Yes, I do, actually. I think prophecy is an occupational hazard for science fiction writers. It usually means that the writer has succumbed to some kind of pathetic dementia. But if I'm to be of any use as a futurist, I can't merely play empty games. I have to offer people some sense of genuine engagement with the future. A good historian doesn't just relate colorful anecdotes of the past, he has to bring it to life and relate it to us in a coherent way. The future is history that hasn't happened yet. Genuine choices will always have genuine consequence.

At the moment I am loudly and direly prophesying to anyone who will listen that the Greenhouse Effect will kick us from hell to breakfast. Pretty soon, however, it will obvious to any sane person that the Greenhouse problem is very real. Once that "prophecy" becomes a mainstream truism obvious to everyone, I plan to retire from prophesy and go back to making up cool wacky stuff about Martians.

Editor Pieter van Hiel looks forward to the wacky Martian books. All this corporate culture SF angst stuff brings him down.