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