[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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The Age of Miracle and Wonder

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1999 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

Part of the "Canadian Authors on 2000" Series
commissioned for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Web Site

As a science-fiction writer, I'm used to thinking in realistic terms about the future, extrapolating from what we know to what might be. But the new millennium is going to put me and my colleagues out of our jobs.

Forty years ago, Arthur C. Clarke, the author of the quintessential millennial work 2001: A Space Odyssey, coined "Clarke's Law," which says: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

When Clarke said that, by "sufficiently advanced technology," he had in mind the fruits of cultures thousands of years beyond our own.

But scientific progress increases exponentially. Ninety percent of all the advances made in the millennium we're now leaving happened in its final ten percent — the final century. Antibiotics and organ transplants, space travel and radio telescopes, computers and lasers, television and motion pictures, civil rights and feminism — all of them are the product of the 20th century.

Within the next two decades, we'll see as much additional progress as we did in all of the last century: the world of A.D. 2020 will be as incomprehensible to us as our world of today would have been to Queen Victoria during the last year of her reign.

We can guess at some of what the next couple of decades will bring, but it very quickly transcends beyond the realm of what we know as science into Arthur C. Clarke's magic.

Consider nanotechnology, which is probably just around the corner. It will allow us to build things up atom by atom. You want a five-course dinner? A brick of platinum? A new kidney? Claudia Schiffer? No problem. We can build it for you.

At the most advanced levels, nanotechnology will tear down and build up atoms from constituent parts: the differences between a pile of old newspapers and gold-and-diamond jewelry are only in how the protons, neutrons, and electrons are arranged. Sophisticated nanotech gives you the alchemist's dream of transmutation; it gives everyone the Midas touch — and it means there is no longer any such thing as a scarce resource. Food, fuel, drinking water, clean air — whatever you want, in whatever quantity you want it, all free for the asking.

More: since nanotechnological machines will be able to make anything — including unlimited copies of themselves — the devices that perform this magic become essentially free of cost. Material needs disappear. Bill Gates won't be the richest person in the world two decades from now; rather, everyone will have unlimited wealth.

But having all your material needs taken care of does you no good if you're dead. No problem: if you manage to hold on until A.D. 2020 — another twenty years — it's likely that you will never die.

We already know what causes cells to age and cease to function; reversing the process will be one of the countless benefits of the Human Genome Project, currently nearing completion. Almost everyone born on this planet after 1950 will live to see not just the twenty-first century, but the twenty-second, and perhaps the twenty-third as well.

Of course, even with aging halted, there's still a risk of accident — of having your body destroyed. But that's only a concern if we continue to have bodies. Certainly by the end of the next century, we will be able to dispense with these fallible sacks of flesh. We will have the technology to scan our brains and upload our consciousnesses into computers, living entirely in a virtual realm. At that point, we will be truly immortal.

We also will be quite different from what we were; we will have entered the transhuman era.

Granted, these notions — nanotechnology, life prolongation, uploaded consciousness — are the easy ones, the ones we can foresee, because they grow out of work already underway at our universities. But even science-fiction writers like myself failed to predict the World Wide Web, which has already transformed the planet. Life in the 21st century will be utterly unlike anything we can predict. It will be alien and strange, and during it, we will completely redefine what it means to be human. But it also will be wonderful and luxurious.

It will, in fact, be magic.

Robert J. Sawyer is a Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer living in Toronto. His latest novel is FlashForward, published by Tor.

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