Bruce Sterling's The Caryatids, my pick for best book of 2009, a novel of clear-eyed hope for the future

Bruce Sterling's The Caryatids comes out today and it's a book I've been waiting six months to tell you about, ever since I finished the galleys in August. This is it, my book of the year for 2009, and I know that it's only February (and I'm actually writing this last August, but holy cow, it's pretty much inconceivable that anything in 2009 will top it.

In The Caryatids, global warming has melted practically every government in the world (except China) -- leaving behind a slurry of refugees, rising seas, and inconceivable misery. But there are two stable monoliths sticking out of the chaos, a pair of "civil society groups" that embody the two major schools of smart green thought today: the Dispensation are Al Gore green capitalists based out of California who understand that glamor and profits, properly aimed, achieve more than any amount of stern determination and chaste conservation; their rivals are the Aquis, mostly European anarcho-techno-geeks who have abandoned money in favor of technologically mediated communal life where giant, powerful, barely controlled machines are deployed to save the refugees and heal the Earth.

The titular Caryatids are the seven clone-sisters of a Balkan war criminal (who is hiding out in orbit in a junk satellite), raised as part of a terrible fin-de-siecle plan to create a cadre of superwoman generals who would lead a militarized guerrilla force after the environmental catastrophe reached scale. Now they are scattered to the winds and divided among the world's superpowers, and the only thing they hate more than their "mother" is each other.

And the story unfolds, taking us on a tour of a 2060 Earth where the worst imaginable things have happened and yet humanity has survived. Is thriving. Not a perfect utopia, but not a tormented post-apocalyptic chaos either. Sterling's future is one in which the human race's best and most important and most deadly machine -- civilization -- survives its own meltdown.

More importantly, the future of The Caryatids is one in which human beings confront the terrible reality that technology favors attackers -- favors those who would disrupt the status quo because it gives them force-multiplier power, and undermines defenders because the complexity of a technological society always creates potential fault-lines that attackers can exploit. And in that society, Sterling's civil society types -- who care about saving the planet, even though they disagree about the best way to do this -- do their damnedest to build stable technological societies. Because in Earth's future -- and in Sterling's -- there's no going back to the land for us. Not because the land is too poisoned, but because billions of charcoal-burning hunter-gatherers are far more hazardous to the planet than a neatly ordered world of cities in which technology is used to minimize our footprints by giving us smarter handprints.

Most importantly, the future of The Caryatids is one in which there is hope. Not naive, wishful thinking hope. Hard-nosed, utterly plausible hope, for a future in which the human race outthinks its worse impulses and survives despite all the odds.

Bruce Sterling has been one of the most important and challenging writers in science fiction since 1977 -- and 32 years later, his books are progressively better, smarter and more important. Run, don't walk.

The Caryatids


  1. You make it sound much cooler than John Clute did. Mostly because I couldn’t make heads or tails of the plot from his review. Or the setting.

  2. Just put it on hold at the library (I’ve noticed that my reading of late is about 1/3 stuff recommended by Cory…and I haven’t yet had any gripes about books he’s suggested. Well…OK, City at the End of Time had a pretty silly ending…)

    Also, in B4 first “global warming IS science fiction” comment.

  3. Just saw this highlighted on Warren Ellis’s blog today and it does sound like a stormer. I’m not exactly rich though so will have to wait till the paperback unless someone does an amazing offer on it.

  4. Seconded, with brass knobs on: this is probably the most important near-future predictive SF novel of 2009, if not the whole damn decade of the noughties.

    — Charlie Stross (and you can quote me on that)

  5. Thanks for the review. Just put it on hold at my local library. (So far only 1 hold request ahead of me & 2 copies in the system. Glad to get advance warning on it; I bet it’s going to be popular.)

  6. Gah…cannot WAIT. I cancelled my pre-order last week when I decided to pull the trigger on a Kindle…I’ll have this novel in my hot little hands 60 seconds after I get that puppy up and running, and a day earlier than my meatbook would have arrived. (My obsessive UPS Kindletracking shows it on schedule for tomorrow, though why I can’t go down to the depot now and get it, I don’t understand. It’s been in Atlanta for 3 HOURS now! *grin*)

  7. Definitely top of my list. I have been waiting for Bruce Sterling to deliver another stormer for quite a while. I’m afraid I have been a little disappointed by most of his books (fiction and non) since Holy Fire – though I did like his recent essay that was linked from here – and this one looks like it is heading back to the kind of terrain he helped map out in Islands in the Net. Hurrah, hurrah and hurrah.

  8. Two competing philosophical movements? Reminds me of the Shapers and Mechanists from early Sterling. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that structure.)

  9. I was always waiting for this to happen. Eventually, for all we warn them, people will realize that the world will not end, technically, if everything we envision comes to pass.

    If the Apocalypse came tomorrow, the stock market would adjust and share prices would rise for refrigerant and blister cream manufacturers. A lot of people would make a fortune.

    It’s the anthropocentric bias of the human race. As soon as we realize that at least some of us will survive, cars and burblaves intactus, a huge sigh of relief will resound and then the future envisioned by Sterling will come. With a lot of dead people, certainly, but no one really cares about them anyway. They won’t be on the news.

    But the polar bears and grizzlies and dolphins and trees and amphibians will be mostly gone; shorelines will change, weather will warp into extremes, and all the nightmares that perceptive people like Wiley and Kornbluth wrote about will come to pass. But we will all be Mitchell Courtenays, get-along guys who visit the dogs in zoos and get a big kick about their mastery of the world. Well, not me, but I’ll probably be dead and no one much will remember the grizzlies and dolphins and amphibians and all the rest.

    This is why monkeys are not allowed the keys to the banana plantation.

  10. Central to all of Bruce Sterling’s best stories is the idea of Technology As Agent Of Change. The real fun comes from seeing how deeply and imaginatively he plumbs those depths. It sounds like this book will not disappoint either.

    Amazon, here I come!

  11. Of all the thousands of dystopian or doomsaying science-fiction novels that have been published, can anyone name a single one that has been really successfully predictive? I can’t think if any, but am quite willing to believe I may be missing one. Or two, at the most.

    I doubt that Bruce Sterling’s new one will fare better than the rest in this respect, even though apparently it offers “hope” after setting up its probably exaggerated vision of ecodoom. (I say “probably exaggerated” because a) that’s how fiction usually handles this kind of theme and b) it is in Bruce’s nature, and indeed is part of his charm, to use hyperbole.)

    “all the nightmares that perceptive people like Wiley and Kornbluth wrote about will come to pass.” I don’t know about Wiley but Kornbluth wrote no novels, novellas, or stories about eco-catastrophe that I am aware of, and his dystopian view of corporations exploiting people, people exploiting people, and the human race being not-quite-as-smart as he would have liked, were drawn from observations of his own time.

  12. @Charles Platt

    I don’t know if it was a successful novel, but Sterling’s Islands in Net nailed offshore finance, data piracy, and terrorist insurgencies.

  13. Stand on Zanzibar is definitely high up on the “successfully predictive” list, but I don’t find it especially dystopian. I don’t see it as a disaster scenario.

    My point is that since we haven’t actually lived through a global catastrophe in the 110 years or so since H. G. Wells pretty much invented the form in its modern mode, evidently every catastrophe novel has been wrong. And to be fair, most of them were written as entertainment rather than as prediction.

    I do become skeptical when people start taking the entertainment seriously, or fiction writers take themselves seriously as futurists.

  14. @22, hmmm, Wells’s The War in the Air would certainly qualify: ask anyone who lived through the Allied bombing of Germany, for example.

    I’ll keep my own counsel about taking imminent, global-wide societal death seriously or not, thanks.

  15. I don’t find it especially dystopian. I don’t see it as a disaster scenario.

    My point is that since we haven’t actually lived through a global catastrophe in the 110 years or so since H. G. Wells pretty much invented the form in its modern mode, evidently every catastrophe novel has been wrong.

    So, you don’t consider world war (1914-1945) a global catastrophe?

    (Niall Ferguson, among others, has compared H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) to precisely those wars of nationalism / empire.)

  16. Wells’ “Things to Come” fairly predicted World War II (off by a year or so on the start date though), predicted that it would be waged between democracies and fascists, and predicted the role of strategic bombing throughout its course.

    (Of course, most important events that lie in our future will have already been predicted by some SF writer at sometime or another, making the whole bunch of ’em seem prescient.)

  17. Tdawwg, or maybe it takes a lot more sincerity to question anthropogenic global warming in the face of insults and derision?

  18. Tdawwg,

    Way to ad hominem and marginalize.

    I consider Charles Platt’s contrarian arguments thoughtful enough to be worth engaging.

    I asked my earlier question without snark or ulterior motive.

  19. Is it ad hominem to assume that, say, Michael Crichton’s comments on global warming were suspect because of Crichton’s numerous duplicities on the subject? Of course not. Ad hominem to assume that a similarly expressed opinion on a related subject comes from the same self-willed ignorance and trollery. Of course not. Thanks for the concern, though!

    1. On-topic, please. Anyone wanting to check the credentials and proclivities of a commenter can click on their name to see their comment history, or in Mr. Platt’s case, use the search box to read his posts.

  20. Lucifer’s Hammer (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) (plot in a nutshell: a comet strikes earth. Chaos ensues) while the scenario thankfully hasn’t come to pass, is based on pretty solid science and history of what happens to civilization when vast amounts of energy are released all at once as a result of metors/volcanoes/earthquakes/nukes etc…

    How quickly it would take to rebuild civilization after such catastrophe is still (thankfully) an unanswered question.

  21. I’m assuming that nobody’s mentioning the reference to John Wyndham because it’s so incredibly blatant?

  22. @17:

    Must admit, I’m always somewhat put off by the insistence of some that SciFi authors be precognitive. I can’t really think of any other art form that is deemed open to criticism because the author can’t accurately predict the future.

    Not to imply that it isn’t totally fascinating when an author nails it. Even better is when he inspires some geek towards a new invention. But, personally, I don’t give a shit if every single prediction is off base. Even if the artist calls himself a “futurist”.

    Science fiction, like all art, is simply a means of inspiring people, illuminating and giving some meaning to NOW. Why hobble it with unrealistic expectations?

  23. Whether the State can loose and bind
    In Heaven as well as on Earth
    If it be wiser to kill Mankind
    Before or after the birth-
    These are matters of high concern
    Where State-kept schoolmen are;
    But Holy State (we have lived to learn)
    Endeth in Holy War.

    Whether the People be led by the Lord.
    Or lured by the loudest throat:
    If it be quicker to die by the sword
    Or cheaper to die by the vote-
    These are things we have dealt with once,
    (And they will not rise from their grave)
    For Holy People, however it runs,
    Endeth in wholly Slave

    Whatsoever, for any cause,
    Seeketh to take or give,
    Power above or beyond the Laws,
    Suffer it not to live!
    Holy State or Holy King-
    Or Holy People’s Will-
    Have no truck with the senseless thing.
    Order the guns and kill!
    Saying, after me:

    Once there was The People- Terror gave it birth;
    Once there was The People and it made a Hell of Earth.
    Earth arose and crushed it. Listen, O ye slain!
    Once there was The People- it shall never be again!

    Kipling, MacDononough’s song, from “As easy as ABC”

  24. Great news. Sterling is one of the few writers whom I read everything by. (Ech, how’s that for sentence construction?)

    I’ve been waiting for this one. Thanks for the review.

  25. @17, I believe Orwell’s “1984” is becoming shockingly close to a facsimile of contemporary Britain.

    and lay off Charles. There’s no need for it.

  26. @22 Charles Platt – surely most sf isn’t really ‘predictive’? It may be cautionary or even hopeful, but those are not quite the same thing…

  27. “So, you don’t consider world war (1914-1945) a global catastrophe?”

    Yeah, a hundred million is pretty catastrophic. I saw Europe after WWII and it was almost indescribable. I guess Wells came closer than anybody with the future-gazing, huh?

    Without sliding into total misanthropy, however tempting, IMO those who call US the Great Catastrophe are probably right.

    I think it’s anthropocentric folly to think we control technology and not the other way around. “Things are in the saddle and riding mankind.”

    The sky is darkening like a stain
    Something is going to fall like rain
    And it won’t be flowers

  28. I may go off topic on this, but I hope not.
    I was going to jump down Cory’s throat for talking against ‘charcoal-burning hunter-gathers’ but then it sank in that he wasn’t talking against biochar,the idea of making charcoal & then burying it in the soil. As Mr. Doctorow has pointed out in a post, James Lovelock is pushing biochar as one way to counter AGW. And if ExxonMobil & Peabody Coal want to continue in their evil ways, one way to do that is to start paying farmers to biochar. If they start a program of getting third-world farmers to biochar, they could conceivably counter bad feelings caused by AGW.

  29. @Charles Platt (and those disagreeing with him)

    I’m no “artist” but shouldn’t works like these be viewed more as commentary on the human condition rather than a prediction of scientific eventuality?

    “I do become skeptical when people start taking the entertainment seriously,”

    I’m skeptical of those who address artistic endeavors pejoritively as “entertainment” when convenient.

    “or fiction writers take themselves seriously as futurists.”

    I can’t comment on the author’s intent but you seem to be just as guilty of focusing on the mechanism of the story (as opposed to the human truths elicited by the mechanism) as those readers who look to it as being predictive of our future. Whether you agree or disagree with the mechanism of the story you’re still seeing the mechanism as the kernel of the book’s message and you’re still wielding it as a political weapon.

    Maybe there is something to be learned about people in this book rather than it just reinforcing what you, and those that disagree with you, already believe.

  30. Not to imply that it isn’t totally fascinating when an author nails it. Even better is when he inspires some geek towards a new invention.

    “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”Alan Kay

  31. I read it last summer too, and I liked it.

    It is good but I don’t know that I’m willing to say it’s my book of the year. (I am currently ga-ga over Neil Gaiman’s own audio reading of The Graveyard Book, which is just stunningly wonderful and validates multiple genres all by itself.)

    Bruce has some great ideas, and the dispensation vs. acqui is one of the more offbeat and strange rivalries you are likely to come across. It’s pretty cool. His characters are strong and sexy and quirky and behave as I imagine real people behaving under similar circumstances.

    I didn’t find it to be really dystopian, either – no more dystopian than a factual depiction of what we’ve done to the planet to date would sound to someone both from the past and sophisticated enough to understand what we’ve really done.

    And yet here we are, chugging along…

    Back when Islands in the Net came out I remember one of my friends complaining that it was like reading a really cool business plan. I didn’t totally agree but I do think he was onto something around why I liked that then, and this now.

    There’s something about how Bruce approaches the whole world he creates that lets him surface secondary and tertiary effects that many writers just don’t care enough about to develop. JK Rowling created, as a center piece of her books, several systems that really don’t work at all (Quidditch has to be the dumbest and most unplayable sport ever, and magic in her world is a total mess). She didn’t set out to design working systems, she set out to write amusing books…

    Bruce, on the other hand, seems to be a systems guy, and as such we get complete systems in this book which hold together, down to the slang and dress in the dispensation and the effects of prolonged mind-melding in the acqui, who can no longer trust anyone if they can’t hear their thoughts directly.

    I think that Bruce is almost willing to let his art suffer to advance the science – he creates whole systems and then lets them run themselves, rather than tweaking them to be more engaging but impossible. That’s pretty cool. I certainly can say it’s worth a read.

  32. The Graveyard book came out in 2008 so it doesn’t qualify for best book of ’09 and I’m still in disbelief that it won the Newbery medal. It was good, but it wasn’t that good. It seems that people are convinced that if Gaiman took a crap in their hands then they must deem it literary gold. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy most of his work, but the man doesn’t get a free pass just because he’s prolific.

  33. Oh and I am looking forward to reading Caryatids. My vote for best of ’09 so far is Mieville’s The City and the City. It comes out in May and has his familiar brilliant way of making the setting one of the most important characters.

  34. Whining about science fiction not being accurately predictive is like whining about abstract art not making any sense. It is basically admitting ignorance of the medium and implying that it isn’t worth knowing because it isn’t useful.

  35. I wasn’t suggesting that science fiction “should” be predictive. I was responding to a post that made rather lyrical claims for the significance and importance of Bruce Sterling’s new book. The post seems to suggest that the book has something profound and predictive to say about the human future. I pointed out that the odds are against this, since the record of science-fiction writers in this area is (inevitably) poor, and every single prediction of global disaster in general and eco-catastrophe in particular has turned out to be wrong. (This would include some science-fiction that I have written myself.) Bruce is one of my favorite science-fiction writers, but I do consider his work fiction.

    As for “admitting ignorance of the medium,” I’m afraid the poster is admitting ignorance of my own history in it. While I don’t expect the world to know me (perhaps because I do not engage in relentless self-promotion) I would hope that anyone casting an aspersion should have at least something to base it on.

  36. “@17, I believe Orwell’s “1984” is becoming shockingly close to a facsimile of contemporary Britain.”

    Keep seeing this on BoingBoing, and while I realise it’s supposed to be kind of hyperbolic, it always strikes me as hysterical.

    I worry and get angry as much as anyone about the UK government’s rampant attack on civil liberties, but have you all READ 1984? We ain’t there yet.

    When Jack Straw has my head in a cage, and is threatening to release face-eating rats unless I repent, THEN I’ll concede that the UK has become “1984”.

  37. The book sounds interesting, but why would someone as design-savvy as Sterling allow for such a badly designed cover on his book?

    I know this is a tangent, but the mid-90s font and the conventional-dystopia-on-oil-derricks rendering make it feel extremely dated to me.

  38. what makes you think Room 101 doesn’t exist today in the UK? Because you haven’t been there yourself yet? Did you know that the British intelligence used actual thumbscrews from Gestapo issue on “communists” in the post-war years? That they killed them under torture, frequently on suspicion alone?

  39. @53 Charles – I hope you weren’t thinking that I was calling you ignorant. I was reading your columns back when I was a teenager so I am more than aware of your history in sf. I was just seeking clarification, which I now have, thanks.

    BTW – to various others, Mr Pedantic says that Orwell’s book is called Nineteen Eighty-Four. 1984 is the name of the film version with the chilly Eurythmics soundtrack… altogether now: “Ssssss…Sex Crime!” :)

  40. 13Strong 55: When Jack Straw has my head in a cage, and is threatening to release face-eating rats unless I repent, THEN I’ll concede that the UK has become “1984”.

    And then it will be too late.

    Besides, the line you quoted says “shockingly close,” not “identical.” It all depends on what it takes to shock you, doesn’t it? You’ve already got every public area filled with telescreens.

  41. @62 Xopher, not exactly. You are forgetting that telescreens are two-way. They are propaganda as well as monitoring devices. Whatever you think of CCTV, they aren’t that – although the ‘shouting cameras’ installed in a few places do come a bit closer.

    Oh, but I agree that the apathetic and cynical British public (and government) needs some shocking.

  42. The propaganda functions are centralized. Besides, the British public doesn’t need propagandizing, obviously, or they wouldn’t be tolerating the monitoring. They are all good Party members (in a NEF context).

  43. This sounds fantastic! To me, Mr. Sterling is spellbinding in his grasp of what’s going on and where we’re all going.

    It is with disappointed sadness, then, that I must complain that the only ebook editions I can find of _The Caryatids_ are sporting ridiculous DRM. I just flat-out will not buy media this way.

    I wish our brightest minds (I’m also thinking here of Charles Stross, William Gibson, Neil Stephenson) could ply their craft without the restrictive packaging.

  44. a bit late, and obviously no one gives a shit at this point, but nevertheless:

    i found this novel (the only reason to call it so is its length) to be a total dud. The story, such as it is, goes nowhere slowly. the writing is erratic at best, and totally amateur at its worst. i found myself editing whole paragraphs. i know writers are supposed to avoid adverbs these days, but why does sterling seem allergic to pronouns? he uses first names at every opportunity, even in the same paragraph, where it’s totally obvious who is being talked about. he does it again and again all the way through. add to this that the novel has no plot to speak of, no interesting characters, at least a half dozen narrative dead ends where something big seems to happen and then is never mentioned again and i don’t see why anyone would call this book “important” (stross) or a “book of the year.” (doctorow) it’s a (sort of) interesting collection of near future speculations, but it’s not a good novel.

    so there.

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