Book: The Caryatids. Bruce Sterling. Del Rey, 2009
Review by Kevin Carson:
“By way of caveat, let me get out front with the admission that this review involves mainly aspects of the “future history” scenario I find most intriguing, rather than with the story line or characters. While I can get into a good story, I generally read near-future sci fi with a view primarily to the usable ideas for organizing society or for explaining the direction things are going in.
The Caryatids is set in the world of 2065, a world wrecked by global warming, in which most states have been pushed to overload and collapse by the ecological catastrophes of the early 21st century.
The world is dominated by two networked global civil societies, the Dispensation and the Acquis. Both are engaged in the reclamation of devastated areas and oversee networks of refugee camps housing millions of displaced persons.
The Acquis is largely green and open-source in ideological orientation, and the Dispensation is commercial and proprietary.
The Dispensation does not adhere as closely as the Acquis to a pure networked form; it has a primary geographical base, in southern California and the Greater LA area (there’s mention of a surviving state legislature in Sacramento).
Like the Acquis, the Dispensation relies heavily on sustainable technology, but with a much more proprietary and less egalitarian sensibility. The economic and cultural core of the Dispensation looks like a fusion of Hollywood and Microsoft. Cory Doctorow calls them “Al Gore green capitalists,” http://www.boingboing.net/2009/02/24/bruce-sterlings-the.html but the “cognitive capitalism” and “vectoralism” theses are also relevant. The Dispensation’s approach to sustainability, in particular, looks like something we’d associate with Richard Florida http://www.thestar.com/article/656837 and William McDonough http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/130/the-mortal-messiah.html?page=0%2C0.
The underclass majority of the southern California core area, the
residents of the coastal slums displaced by the rising seas and depression, are clients of Dispensation low-impact housing technology resembling Marshall Brain’s terrafoam welfare dorms in “Manna.” http://www.marshallbrain.com/manna4.htm
The underclass is also managed with Hollywood bread and circuses.
The leading Dispensation family in the novel, the Montgomery-Montalbans, illustrate the nature of the Dispensation’s ruling elite. The family matriarch started out as a starlet in the early 21st century, and founded a media and entertainment empire that lies at the core of the Dispensation’s elite in 2060. I vaguely recall a National Lampoon piece on regional economic elites, with this comment about a typical family in the New South plutocracy: Great-granddaddy started a five-and-dime store, Granddaddy sold the store and bought a traveling circus, and Daddy turned the circus into a religion and became a billionaire. As misleading as it is in the particulars, that conveys something of the flavor.
It’s hard to figure out just how much “intellectual property” survives as the basis of a viable business model in Sterling’s scenario. He mentions in passing that the movie industry is dead because file-sharing killed it decades ago. The M-M family’s celebrity, therefore, involves transforming their entire lives into a sort of reality show. Every appearance outside the home is a performance of sort; the M-Ms function as glorified emcees in the events of daily life, moving along from one supermarket opening or product placement to the next. Even their lifestyle inside the family compound, in its unabashed vulgarity (every family member has a personal musical theme that’s automatically cued when they make an “entrance” into a room), is reminiscent of that episode of Seinfeld where Kramer replicated the “Merv Griffin” set in his apartment.
At the same time, the Dispensation’s commercial ventures clearly presuppose IP. John M-M, a member of the family who prefers venture capitalism to entertainment, is developing a sort of virtual tourism on historical sites, using VR goggles to create living reconstructions of ancient communties as reconstructed by archaeology. The VR techology is proprietary. How patents are enforced by the Dispensation, Sterling does not make clear.
One Acquis project, the reclamation of the Aegean island of Mljet (aka Cyprus), is the backdrop for the first vignette of the book. The Acquis team there is experimenting with “boneware” (enormously powerful mechanical exoskeletons that interface with the brain and are controlled like extensions of the body) as an alternative to conventional heavy moving machinery. The team itself is linked by the “sensorweb,” a neural network, with brain-computer interfaces. They can maintain constant realtime communications with the rest of the team, surf the Net by cerebral cortex. Especially intriguing: the neural net enables the team to “tag” realworld objects with information. The whole visual world is like a graffitoed wall, with its individual parts labeled for significance and indexed to each other.
China is virtually the only large nation-state to survive as a unified, coherent entity. The United States and Europe, for the most part, are checkered by the city-states and regional governments that emerged from the period of collapse; most of these entities are aligned with either the Dispensation or the Acquis.
China managed to preserve its central government, largely through sheer will and brutality, even as over half its population perished in the great die-off. The state of 2065 is obsessed with blockbuster mega-projects, with so many Manhattan Projects and Tennessee Valley Authorities puttering away in the bowels of its immense bureaucracy that no one person is even aware of them all. One such project is aimed at restoring the flow of the Yangtse and Yellow rivers by using H-bombs to melt underground ice remaining in the Himalayas. New ecocities in otherwise unsurvivable desert areas, covered with inflatable domes, preserve urban populations in something like more sophisticated versions of the old Biosphere project.
Most interesting of all these megaprojects is a breakaway project that has defected from the Chinese government. Its leadership is a genetically engineered duplicate of the old Chinese leadership, intended to survive the time of troubles and conquer the world in the aftermath. These cloned politicians, overcome by delusions of grandeur, have gone rogue and adopted an agenda of their own: to reengineer the human race to survive in a world where a combination of solar superflare and the Yellowstone supervolcano have reduced Earth’s carrying capacity by 95%. The human digestive system and its flora have been engineered to operate with near-100% efficiency. Livestock have been similarly redesigned. Human and animal excrement resembles crumbly ash, with no usable nutrients or surviving caloric value. A sort of portable fermenting pouch, using genetically engineered bacteria, can transform undigestible matter like grass into something like yogurt. Another artifact, somewhat like the stillsuits of Dune, can condense drinking water from atmospheric humidity. The idea is to create a new human race of nomads with a sustainable, if limited high-technology adopted to nomadic survival.
One of John M-M’s unofficial activities on behalf of the Dispensation, in the course of his work as global venture capitalist, is to examine the superprojects of the Acquis and Chinese and evaluate their potential–and to shut them down if they threaten to get out of control. John’s brother, Lionel Montgomery-Montalban, stated the problem the myriad of secret superprojects being run by the Chinese: “Radical projects need *widespread distributed oversight*, with peer review and a loyal opposition to test them. They have to be open and testable.”