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Here Before You Know It 

Cyberfiction pioneer checks the crystal ball

...the victorious futurist is not a prophet. He or she does not defeat the future but predicts the present. Futurism doesn't mean predicting an awesome wonder; rather it means recognizing and describing a small apparent oddity that is destined to become a great commonplace.

Taken from the 17th page of the introduction, this sentence is the key to Tomorrow Now, the latest nonfiction work from Bruce Sterling, the author/ journalist/ futurist behind the seminal early-90s computer-crime expose, The Hacker Crackdown. Also a writer of (science) fiction, Sterling helped create the cyberpunk literary movement of the early 80s and has authored an award-winning array of novels and short stories woven around visions of the near future so richly weird and convincing that fellow SF author Norman Spinrad has said that Sterling's works have "the familiarity of inevitability."An SF icon he may be, but Sterling is not a writer of space opera, laser battles and android sex. Rather, his complex output reflects his identity as a self-confessed industrial design junkie and the mastermind behind the Viridian Design Movement (http://www.viridiandesign.org), a nonactivist project that seeks to advance ecological consciousness through art and design. If you want space opera, go to Barnes & Noble and pick a paperback with a suitably garish cover. If you want real clues as to what your future will look, smell, taste and feel like, get Tomorrow Now, in which a leading American futurist spends a whole book trying to read the future from the entrails of today.

As eloquently stated in the book's introduction, Sterling isn't so much predicting the future as he is taking readers on a tour of right-now areas and disciplines where the future has interfaced with the present and is spreading like a stain. For example, Chapter 4 will tell you about Shamil Basaev, a Chechnyan warlord/tactician/arms dealer who used cell phones and Motorola walkie-talkies to coordinate an urban massacre in the Russian city of Grozny, his scrappy rebel forces taking out 5,000 Russian troops armed with missiles and anti-aircraft weaponry. Basaev, in Sterling's opinion, is just one of a new breed of postmodern warlords whose tactics will catch on. If the future is a test, Tomorrow Now is the cheat sheet.

War and terror are hardly the sole focus of the book. Blessedly, there is much more to the future than that. Using Shakespeare's "seven ages of man" speech given by the character of Jacques in As You Like It, Sterling attacks seven areas, attaching one facet of the future (and a corresponding chapter of his book) to each of the seven ages. The Infant becomes a chapter on genetics and reproduction; the Student is about information networks and "new paradigms for the scholar"; the Lover explores industrial design (that which wants our money -- furniture, cars, PCs, etc. -- must "love" us and form itself around our needs); the Soldier details the amazing life (and death) stories of several of the most fascinating warlords you've never heard of, including Basaev; the Justice is a take on trends in media and politics; the Pantaloon examines economic trends; and, finally, Mere Oblivion addresses the "technical assault on human limits," e.g., mortality.

The book covers heavy subjects yet it's written with a light, deft touch. For all the esoteric knowledge Sterling has gained from hard study, frequent international travel and insider friendships within cutting-edge disciplines and sciences, he's never lost touch with Middle America, with the ordinariness of people who don't hang out with Harvard economists and renewable-power wonks. Unlike most postmodern types, Sterling never slathers on the postdoc vocabulary like so much rancid mayo. This book is for academics, futurists, and scientists, sure, but it's also for the broader audience of people who care about the world, people who want to know what the future might hold for them and for their children. Sterling's worldview is startlingly huge, and though he doesn't hesitate to hand out hard truths, his touch is gentle: this "future," after all, is the future of Sterling's children, and yours.

For those who dare to look into the hidden crannies of the world from whence the future is flowing, the possibilities are as terrifying as they are beautiful and as beautiful as they are terrifying. If you want a jump on the news you'll be hearing years from now -- some of it marvelously good, some of it excruciatingly bad, and most of it just plain interesting -- take a few deep calming breaths, snuggle into your nice, warm bed, and crack open a copy of Bruce Sterling's latest. The history of the future, as they say, begins now.

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