Built Environment Fiction Material/Digital Politics/Economics Speculations Technology Writing [key texts]
photo credit: nicolasnova
I’ve spent most of the past month wrestling with the meaning and significance of this book; trying to work out what manner of beast it might be. A challenging task, with cascading revelations. To kick off, three observations:
1. Bruce Sterling is the Chairman – when it comes to his writing, I get all twitchy and excitable, with little possibility of critical distance.
2. Despite that, as a novel, The Caryatids (2009) is a conspicuous failure.
3. And despite this, I rate it as one of the most bold and important books of the last decade.
Caryatids? In classical architecture, a caryatid is a load-bearing pillar carved into a figurative sculpture of a woman. Something like this, from Athens’ Erechtheum:
Sterling’s caryatids are a set of clones, born of and raised by the ubicomp-obsessed widow of a Balkan warlord as tech support for a looming environmental apocalypse:
‘They had been the great septet of caryatids: seven young women, superwomen, cherished and entirely special, designed and created for the single mighty purpose of averting the collapse of the world. They were meant to support and bear its every woe.’ (pp. 18-19)
Personally, this conceit read as nothing so much as an inversion of what-I-knew of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957), in which all the smart, productive people abscond, triggering societal collapse. In The Caryatids, collapse precedes the titular superwomen, who are created to hold up the world.
In this, Bruce sets up the conditions for a fascinating thought experiment, a microcosm of the whole structure/agency thing. When the girls’ ubicomp-mediated upbringing is interrupted in an attack by Balkan guerillas, the survivors scatter. Like light through a prism, the novel’s trio of genetically-identical protagonists allow Sterling to deploy a strange twist on the three-act narrative, with each chunk representing a single, stand-alone story, or point of inflection.
In embracing this structure, the novel reads like the bastard offspring of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Shell’s Signals & Signposts (2011) – some cumbersome and wholly unexpected mix of soap opera, satire, technical manual, and manifesto.
- The first clone-sister, Vera, remains in the Balkans, doing some heavy lifting on an environmental remediation project, under the banner of the Acquis: a post-geographic civil society group populated by anarcho-communist, exoskeleton-clad cyborgs.
- Mila, the second sister, marries into the ‘Family-Firm’, a South Californian mafia, taking in ‘real estate, politics, finance, everyware, retail, water interests … and of course entertainment.’ (p. 92)
- The final clone, Sonja, is a soldier-slash-field-medic in China, ‘the largest and most powerful state left on Earth.’ (p. 185)
Three takes on the apocalypse: cyborg environmentalism, Californian dynasticism, and Statism ‘with Chinese characteristics’. In The Spectre of Ideology (1995), Žižek notes how, from the inside, it often seems…
‘easier to imagine the ‘end of the world’ than the end of than a far more modest change in the mode of production, as if liberal capitalism is the ‘real’ that will somehow survive even under conditions of a global ecological catastrophe.’
In this, The Caryatids seems to have taken Žižek’s words as a direct challenge, with Bruce creating convincing, detailed visions of both. End of the world?
The Caryatids poses a scenario where, by 2060, climate change has resulted in a near-total collapse of state authority, leaving, as Doctorow puts it, ‘a slurry of refugees, rising seas, and inconceivable misery.’ The world as we know it is dead and buried.
Change in the means of production?
Well, none of the scenario-environments Bruce presents can realistically be seen as a continuation of the status quo. The Los Angeles chapter could, perhaps, be seen as a perverse iteration on start-up culture, but there seems to have been enough of a substantive change for it to represent something truly novel.
‘Brilliancy, speed, lightness, and glory‘ is a mantra we find repeated throughout the narrative, echoed by actors and agents from each of the political blocs. Within Acquis society, glory has been framed as the ultimate of virtues: ‘Glory was the source of communion. Glory was the spirit of the corps. Glory was a reason to be.’ (p. 47)
Seen against a background of environmental collapse, these Catholic values conjure some of Bruce’s earlier thoughts on something he dubbed ‘Gothic High-Tech‘:
‘In Gothic High-Tech, you’re Steve Jobs. You’ve built an iPhone which is a brilliant technical innovation, but you also had to sneak off to Tennessee to get a liver transplant because you’re dying of something secret and horrible.
And you’re a captain of American industry. You’re not some General Motors kinda guy. On the contrary, you’re a guy who’s got both hands on the steering wheel of a functional car.
But you’re still Gothic High-Tech because death is waiting. And not a kindly death either, but a sinister, creeping, tainted wells of Silicon Valley kind of Superfund thing that steals upon you month by month, and that you have to hide from the public and from the bloggers and from the shareholders.
And you just grit your teeth and pull out the next one. A heroic story, but very Gothic. Something that belongs in an eighteenth century horror novel. Kind of the “man in the castle” figure.’
This reassertion of a catholic-gothic sensibility is something I have explored elsewhere in relation to domestic and homeland (in)security. In Caryatids, Bruce links the catholic-gothic thing to science fiction’s origins in the romantic tales of Mary Shelly and her ilk. In the words of Vera’s confidant, aiming for something close to reassurance: “You can’t convince us that you’re the big secret monster from the big secret monster lab. Because we know you, and we know how you feel.” (p. 21)
We can see it in anxieties about the impact of new technologies on what it means to be human, with some kind of public broadcast of brain activity amongst the Acquis fundamentally changing the nature of sociality and group identity: ‘These were people made visible from the inside out, and that visibility was changing them. Vera knew that the sensorweb was melting them inside, just as it was melting the island’s soil, the seas, even the skies …’ (p. 26)
In this world, an individual’s relationship to technology is characterised by ambivalence, suspicion, and a wholly gothic dependence. ‘The Acquis and the Dispension hated China’s state secrecy, for they were obsessed with rogue technologies spinning out of control. Internal combustion: a rogue technology spun out of control. Electric light: a rogue technology spun out of control. Fossil fuel: the flesh of the necromantic dead, risen from its grave, had wrecked the planet.’ (p. 230)
This catholic-gothic tendency also manifests in the protagonists’ total and instinctive loathing for each other, a detail rooted in the uncanny self-annihilatory narratives of shapeshifters, body-snatchers and doppelgängers, and something Sterling leverages to great effect.
But this is, ultimately, a story of redemption; redemption and agency. It plays with some of the worst-case scenarios for the unfolding climate crisis, and then shows some ways in which, despite everything, humanity might be able to claw its way back from the brink. It’s one of several books I could cite that, post-2000, have begun to refresh our vocabulary of the future, with the potential to shift talk away from the simple-minded narratives of collapse and technological salvation – stories we use to absolve ourselves of agency and responsibility.
Working with a novum-packed narrative, Sterling focuses on the fallibility and inadequacy of the superstar, the wunderkind, and the auteur. Despite everything, this is a decidedly anti-heroic book. The clone-sisters are twisted fuck-ups. Deployed as ‘agents of redemption’, the weight on their shoulders leaves them febrile, erratic, and riddled with neuroses.
The real solutions are in the systems of participation; superstructures capable of supporting a raft of increasingly radical projects. In the words of Californian wunderkind Lionel, the answer is openness: such radical projects “need widespread distributed oversight, with peer review and loyal opposition to test them. They have to be open and testable.” (p. 252)
Chinese state secrecy isn’t the answer. Despite it’s pretensions, the can-do attitude of the Californian ‘military-entertainment complex’ falters, powerless, in the face of earthquakes and volcanoes. And the European techno-anarchists, however seductive their vision, are an ‘extremist group’ practicing ‘sensory totalitarianism’ to brainwash climate refugees.
Whatever the novel’s narrative flaws, the first chapter is worth the price of admission, as a near-perfect combination of worldbuilding, character and cognitive estrangement.
Overall? Compelling and transformative, shot through with veins of disarming sincerity, The Caryatids is part second-hand motorboat, part Viking funerary barge. Departing the harbour, it sputters and flames. Then it sinks.
But by that point, it’s already rewired your brain.