Human beings have such a weird relationship with predictions. At first, people can’t get enough of them; we love to be told what’s going to happen today, next week, next year, in a century. Our ape brains naturally fear the unknown, so predictions soothe and pacify us by convincing us that the future can be tamed. But when a prediction reaches its expiration date, it becomes less than worthless.
A wrong prediction becomes a bad joke — for ages, I ironically kept a paperback titled “Christ Returns in 1988” on my bookshelves just for the cheap yuks — and a correct prediction doesn’t get any credit. It just feels obvious, like a foregone conclusion. Consider the first volume of Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s excellent sci-fi comic “Transmetropolitan,” when gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem publishes his reports live on screens around the world. On the book’s publication, in 1997, the idea of instantaneous mass-media publication glittered with a hopeful futurism. But a teenage reader of the book now is likely to shrug, roll her eyes, and then see what’s happening on Twitter instead.
So any review of Steven Kotler’s new essay collection “Tomorrowland: Our Journey From Science Fiction to Science Fact” has to arrive with a glaring caveat pasted on top: Right now, this book is the best kind of futurist porn. But next year? In five years? Parts of it are going to seem downright hilarious, and parts of it are going to resemble the typically dull world outside your window. It’s to Kotler’s credit that a hell of a lot more of “Tomorrowland” is likely to feel familiar than outlandish a decade from now.
“Tomorrowland” — no relation, it must be said, to the George Clooney movie in theaters now — is a collection of Kotler’s journalism previously published in outlets like The New York Times, The Atlantic, Discover, and Make. The 16 pieces all have to do with invention or innovation of one sort of another, from flying motorcycles to the use of psychedelic drugs to cure or alleviate the pain of illnesses. He talks to people who believe we’ll soon be able to upload our consciousness into computers. In a slapstick accident, Kotler himself becomes the first object to be seen by a human being through artificial vision implants. Taken as a whole, it’s an adventurous collection, out at the fringes between science and quackery.
At a time when many people think “innovation” is a new iteration of a smartphone presented onstage in a carefully orchestrated press conference, it’s important to be reminded that the real first steps into creation are ugly. Kotler walks us through the history of terraforming, which originated in a 1910 sci-fi novel and is now being used in a desperate attempt to save the Everglades from environmental collapse. He warns of the coming gold rush that is asteroid mining. He tells us about the Secret Service’s real-life attempts to stop bioterrorists from hacking the president’s DNA.
Through it all, Kotler is a generous and wise tour guide. The best chapters of “Tomorrowland” take their time to examine the morality of science: He makes plenty of intriguing points about the ethics of sperm donation, for example, and the heartbreaking story of a young woman named Mara who experiments with illegal drugs to ease the pain of her terminal colon cancer is the best essay in the book. A few chapters, like the one about flying cars, end way too soon, without providing Kotler the opportunity to really examine an idea to its fullest.
But he’s a gifted journalist, and his enthusiasm for his subjects is infectious. Here he is leaving a diner in 1997 after being told about the idea that would eventually become the XPRIZE, which inspired private space travel:
“In less time than it took to drink a cup of coffee, a paradigm had shattered — science fiction had become science fact. On the way home, I started to wonder about other paradigms. After all, if private spaceships were possible, what about all the other sci-fi mainstays? What about bionics? Robotics? Flying cars? Artificial life? Life extension? Asteroid mining?”
Future readers of “Tomorrowland” may laugh or roll their eyes at the future as viewed by the past, but for right now, it’s a gift: the shiny possibilities of years to come, all wrapped up between two covers.
Paul Constant has written about books, politics, nerd culture and film for The Progressive, Newsweek, The Utne Reader and alternative weeklies all over North America. Formerly the book review editor at The Seattle Stranger, he now works at Civic Ventures, a political strategy firm. Reach him @paulconstant.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.