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Bruce Sterling's The Caryatids: A Review
Alex Steffen, 20 May 09

caryatids.jpgPity those science fiction writers who adapt too slowly: many labor with tools invented for a 1950s version of the genre that no longer makes sense; they're still dreaming heroic rocketcar dreams when the future is scrambling towards carbon-free distributed car-sharing for Indian slums. Nothing decays faster than an old future, and most writers are lucky to find one unique vision of how things might be, much less find a new one when their first wears out.

Bruce Sterling, though, is not most writers. He seems to take joy in churning through not just new scenarios for his ideas, but whole new futures about which to think. It's a pretty wild thing to be on top of your game for 30 years, especially when your game is staying tapped into the zeitgeist. (He is also a good friend of this site, Ally #1 as we call him, having run the Viridian list which was one of the inspirations for our founding, and having written the introduction to our first book.)

Of course, Bruce's secret is that, like all good science fiction writers, futurists and strategy gurus, he isn't predicting the future, he's predicting the present. He's using dramatic extrapolations of hidden forces at work today to build a future that magnifies those forces into ideas we can wrestle with. So it should perhaps come as no surprise that Bruce's latest novel The Caryatids pumps some very powerful forces up into cinematic size -- forces that most of us are just still beginning to understand.

The basic plot of The Caryatids doesn't twist too much: seven test-tube siblings, born to a renegade Serbian scientist, are scattered to the winds and struggle to find meaning and purpose in a world that, in 2060, has plunged deep into crisis. That crisis is barely kept from becoming an apocalypse by three competing global power blocs -- the networked, emergent Acquis, the wired, best-practicing Dispensation, and the last nation-state, China -- and the sisters line up on opposite sides. Mayhem arrives as expected, including pop-stardom empire-building, Antarctic terraforming, archaeological microbiology, Chinese bubble ecospheres and desert firefights.

That's all well and good. But where Bruce shines here is in tapping directly into two of the largest emerging trends on our planet, which remain nonetheless obscure to most people: what we might call the atmospheric singularity and the social singularity. The future here, takes place on a planet that has erupted into ecological chaos (of a sort that might be ripped fresh from the pages of the latest panicked scientific papers on climate, oceans and biodiversity -- the Earth, seen from space, reveals "its tainted skies, its spreading deserts, and its long romantic plumes of burning forests."), among people who have swallowed a whole new generation of social technologies, and grown new cultures to match.

As such, one of the most riveting aspects of this terrific story is, oddly enough, the competition between completely different sets of social responses to a global ecological crisis. This is disaster-recovery fiction, and it rocks:

"The Acquis were global revolutionaries. They got results in the world. They did some strange things, yes -- but they never stopped trying. ...The wounded island was healing before their eyes. Innovation was coming thick and fast, amazing insights, new services, new techniques. Transformations were bursting from her little island that were fit to transform the world."

or

"Order, unlike war, required unglamorous skills such as political savvy, business sense, and rugged logistics. Restoring order required a crisp, succinct articulation of the big picture and why one's efforts mattered in that regard. It required a tremendous knowledge of details. It needed the patience to build a long-lasting, big-scale enterprise that would not collpase instantly from guerilla attacks. And it needed a cold-blooded ability to make firm choices among disgusting alternatives."

Much of the book is about how people in the worst of situations can connect to something hopeful, something worth striving for, some sort of legacy to give themselves over to. It's a Mother Courage sort of future, but one with technological lightning in its fists and a black sense of humor ("What's small, dark and knocking at the door? ...The future of humanity.").

The Caryatids is my favorite of Bruce's novels since Holy Fire, and frankly one of the best science fiction books I've read in years. It's a book redolent with not only the future, but the concerns of a particular kind of future that is very much of interest to those of us engaged with worldchanging work.

"Los Angeles was a crowded, polyglot mess of a place, trapped between a killer desert and a rising ocean. The city of Los Angeles had blown more climate-wrecking fumes out of its tailpipes than most nations. If there were any justice in the global mayhem of Extinction 6.0, Los Angeles should have been the first place to die: the first city in the world to drown, convulse, starve, riot, black out, and burn right to the ground. Yet there was no justice in the climate crisis. Not one bit of justice. The climate crisis was not concerned with justice: it was about poverty, stench, hunger, floods, fires, thirst, plague and riots. So, although Los Angeles did burn in many places -- Los Angeles had always burned, in many places -- Los Angeles grew much faster than it burned. If this tormented world had a world capital, this was it."

Catastrophe is not the end. Unless you are a monster, the future we've inherited will break your heart. But broken hearts can be mended; life goes on, and when it does, a fierce beauty is sometimes born. The world, when all is said, is always remade by broken people who refuse hopelessness, who refuse to be overcome with sorrow, who refuse to pass on that which broke them.

As we come to grips with the awful fact that we are already committing ourselves to centuries of crisis, loss and burning, we can hew close to the knowledge that while disaster is our inheritance, transcendence can yet still be our legacy. We are all Caryatids now, and we can all dare to hope for the best.

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Comments

It sounds like a book I'd like to read.
I dealt with many old people from the war days and found them to be very hard and strong minded people. They didn't cry much, complain much and they had a different meaning attached to love. It meant something, even if they never spoke it as did friendship, which you needed to survive and came from unexpected places.
Actions spoke louder than words.It's like many authors and poets in the past said, you need to know what suffering before you can connect to the person in you.:)Most would laugh at what our population complains about. It just never mattered to them.
The issue was about survival.


Posted by: a ladys life on 20 May 09

It sounds like a book I'd like to read.
I dealt with many old people from the war days and found them to be very hard and strong minded people. They didn't cry much, complain much and they had a different meaning attached to love. It meant something, even if they never spoke it as did friendship, which you needed to survive and came from unexpected places.
Actions spoke louder than words.It's like many authors and poets in the past said, you need to know what suffering before you can connect to the person in you.:)Most would laugh at what our population complains about. It just never mattered to them.
The issue was about survival.


Posted by: a ladys life on 20 May 09

I read this right when it came out and it is the only Bruce Sterling novel that I've ever read that left me disappointed. I found that the whole thing just really didn't hold together as a novel.


Posted by: Al Billings on 28 May 09

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