BOOK REVIEW | The Caryatids by Bruce Sterling Image

The Caryatids is the latest novel by Bruce Sterling, one of the founders of cyberpunk. True to his style, every page explodes with new ideas on technology, and its social and political effects.

One of the central themes of the book is catastrophic climate change. This is surely controversial among libertarians, but what is interesting from a libertarian perspective is how this idea is handled. Traditional nation-states, with the lone exception of China, collapsed during the climate crisis. In their place, two “global civil societies” emerged: the Dispensation, a flashy entrepreneurial capitalist society, and the Acquis, a global collective that is focused on rebuilding Earth’s shattered ecosystems. The relationship between the two is very complex; war is generally held to be obsolete, replaced by constant economic competition and espionage. However, both groups also cooperate on a number of projects. The state of China remains, although at the expense of millions of its own citizens. All three groups fully embrace high technology to try to rebuild the world, each in their own way.

The story itself follows three sisters, illegally cloned from their mother just before the climate crisis hits. They were raised, along with their siblings, in isolation on Mljet, an island in the Adriatic. During the crisis, the compound they lived in was attacked, and all but five of the clones were killed: Vera, Radmila, Sonja, Biserka, and Djordje. After the attack, Vera becomes part of the Acquis, and takes part in a project to reclaim and rebuild Mljet that uses direct neural interfaces to allow people to feel the emotions of everyone around them. Radmila ends up in Los Angeles, the center of the Dispensation, and becomes an entertainment star. Sonja becomes a medical specialist in China, where “exfection”, the infection of the human body with artificial viruses that fight disease, has become widespread. Biserka becomes a lone-wolf terrorist, and Djordje ends up a businessman in Europe specializing in “interfacing” between the Acquis and the Dispensation.

The book is divided into 3 parts, told from the perspective of Vera, Radmila, and Sonja, respectively. The sections are linked together by John Montegomery Montalban, an influential Dispensation entrepreneur and Radmila’s husband, who is trying to get the sisters to set aside their differences and work together to stave off another worldwide catastrophe.

The focus of the book is definitely on the setting and characterization, rather than the plot. The ending is a thinly-veiled deus ex machina, although one that admittedly ties in with the theme of the book. What I found most interesting about this book is how the Dispensation and the Acquis rely on competition and consensus, rather than force, to achieve their goals, and how coopetition is a major part of their relationship. Anyone interested in seeing a portrayal of well-thought-out post-state societies should definitely read The Caryatids.

4 / 5 stars     

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About the Author

Matt Dawson

Matthew Dawson is a left-libertarian market anarchist. He is studying web design at Iowa Western Community College, and play drums for the band Software. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, listening to music, and playing video games.

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