Most often referenced as the cyberpunk guy due to his initial association and promotion of the sub-genre, few remember Bruce Sterling is also the person who declared cyberpunk dead, and went on to write in different modes and with differing aims. Craftily becoming one of the contemporary generation of writers’ most subtle satirists, novels like Holy Fire and Distraction nevertheless do not receive the same amount of backwards genre gaze as The Artificial Kid, Schismatrix, or Islands in the Net. The subversiveness so delicate as to fly under the radar of most media, 2009’s The Caryatids is another novel to add to Sterling’s stellar portfolio of satire.
As deadpan flat as Sterling has ever written, it would be easy to mistake The Caryatids as a ‘boring’ novel. Naturally, this would be to miss the point. The story of four women, cloned sisters bred to rule the world in fact, Sterling draws a bead on a couple of significant topics through the offshoots of their lives. Vera is an idealist, specifically an environmental activist putting her money where her mouth is and working to clean up a toxic waste area in Croatia for a major global company called Acquis. Radmila is a Hollywood celebrity, or at least what counts for such in 2060, and is faced with some ‘serious’ decisions with regards to how her image is used, and to what degree her family’s interests play a part for the second major global player, the Dispensation. The third sister is something of a medical specialist, though political butterfly also suits her. Letting the winds of politics buffet her where they will—as long as she has time for love and adventure along the way—she finds herself caught up in the interests of the third major global player, the Chinese government. And the fourth sister, well, she’s best introduced in the story.
The political backdrop (a point on which Sterling usually shines, and this novel is no expection) is quite interesting. The major political divisions of the world having collapsed following global environmental disaster, The Caryatids addresses a post-state form of political existence wherein the three major entities, Acquis, the Dispensation, and the Chinese government, attempt to hash out power through diplomatic and commercial means, that is, rather than direct conflict (at least, usually). Acquis is a techno-anarchy-socialist agency which deals directly with environmental issues, whereas the Dispensation is an entity which attempts to deal with (profit from?) the environment using capitalist ideology that includes putting its weight behind major marketing, research and fund-raising campaigns as ways of advancing their cause. (The usage of Jack Vance’s Eyes of the Overworld in real-world tech is gloriously funny.)
But beyond politics, it is the humanity at the heart of The Caryatids which makes it so good. The book centered on the lives of three people, their personal stories help relate the idea that even an environmental collapse cannot shake humanity from the myriad courses of life it designs for itself. The dedication to causes, both ben- and malevolent, the balance of individual ego vs. society, long term versus short term views—these elements play key roles in outlaying the humanity inherent to the three sisters, and by default, as representative of a portion of mankind. We have a strong will to survive when the going gets tough, but Sterling would seem to say only because we keep putting ourselves in such tough situations.
In the end, The Caryatids is the most deadpan of satire served in a story that requires thought to piece together its intentions—a conniesseur perhaps, to fully appreciate the manner in which Sterling attempts to engage with environmental issues, cultural trends, the narrowness of perception, uncurbed idealism, the whimsy of rebellion, and the overall human condition. If orthogonal delivery of story is not engaging, don’t read it. If you’re expecting cyberpunk aesthetics, look elsewhere. If, however, environmental critique on a solid foundation of informed human observation is to your liking, by all means have a go.