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The Third Millenium A HISTORY OF THE WORLD: AD 2000-3000 by Brian Stableford and David Langford (Knopf: $20; 224 pp., illustrated)

November 24, 1985|Ernest Callenbach | Callenbach is the author of " Ecotopia Emerging " and recently, with Michael Phillips, " A Citizen Legislature " (Banyan Tree). and

To write a history of the world before it happens is a bold idea, and the British science writers who produced this book are certainly bold. Features of the centuries immediately ahead, as they see them: a powerful United Nations, initially financed by rents on farming use of the high seas; a worldwide power grid based on fusion, producing electricity too cheap to meter, as enthusiasts once predicted for nuclear fission; houses without windows--"Internal bioluminescence was generally preferred to sunlight."

These cheerful fantasies will appeal to zillions of engineers, who forget how much of human life does not compute. In a more realistic context, they are 20th-Century technofreak delusions, presuming the steady triumph of left-brain rationality over the obstacles posed by politics, economics and human biology.

Stableford and Langford's history is basically a series of technological developments, tricked out with an accompanying political history that sounds like a parody of traditional encyclopedia style. They run through familiar near-future items like electric cars, helium airships, holographic video, buildings constructed by bioengineered cooperative bacteria, etc. About 160 of the book's 224 pages deal with the coming 400 years; the remaining 600 years, featuring genetically engineered new races of merpeople, "fabers," "emortals," "starpeople," and so on, are considerably more vague. Considering the vast popular interest in UFOs, the authors make surprisingly little of a late space encounter with alien beings; they turn out to resemble the Earth-derived starpeople, since "form follows function." Ho-hum?

Stableford studied biology and Langford is a military physicist, so it's not surprising that they would write this kind of history. Scientists get their best kicks out of doing things that are "technically sweet," in the phrase of A-bomb builder J. Robert Oppenheimer. The technofreak mind cannot grasp that in the world outside the laboratory human motivations and standards are social phenomena and hence more connected with moral, religious, economic and political ideas than with technological ones.

Stableford and Langford are well-informed technologically. They are even willing to admit that traditional engineering has its limits--after all, ours is an epoch that has produced a book called "Great Planning Disasters." But in its place they put a new panacea: bioengineering. If a problem vexes us, we can just create a new organism to take care of it--never mind that most human interventions in the natural order have resulted in ecological instability and impoverishment at best and catastrophe at worst.

Not that "The Third Millenium" is all good news. In the nearer future the Earth is hit by human-caused plagues, minor nuclear wars, famines, a rise in sea level, incredibly severe earthquakes. A billion peasants are also eliminated through the systematic enforcement of monoculture farming; this is treated as a purely technical choice, the authors seeming unaware of the actual problems of monoculture systems.

The book's main virtue, if you can plow through it, is giving a sense of what it means to think in a time scale appropriate to human survival. It shows how we might yet become marginally wise enough to avoid blowing ourselves into extinction and even to regulate our numbers without the aid of famine and disease.

And the book has, in both text and its trick-photograph illustrations, a certain understated (and sometimes undergraduate) humor. Thus in 2100, people are subjected to "Jack Spratt Grass Chops"--bioengineered out of grass. (The chops, photomontaged from a shot of ordinary lawn, lie in a contemporary frying pan with traditional paper booties around the "bone" ends.) A bioengineered super-fish is called "Moby Cod," and so on.

Stableford and Langford also earn reasonably good marks for ingenuity in extrapolating scientific ideas. Even their invention of a future "chaos physics," while simply not in the same league with Ursula Le Guin's new physics in "The Dispossessed," has a rudimentary plausibility.

The trouble is that almost everything in the book has only rudimentary probability, and hence it's monumentally tedious to read. The authors don't realize they lack a tellable story--one with a beginning, middle and end. Instead, they give us an unending procession of details connected only by chronology. It's a relief, of course, that they didn't try to invent some mythic dynastic gibberish a la "Dune," much less the stick-figure "drama" of too many sci-fi novels.

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