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The Caryatids by Bruce Sterling3.5 stars
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Buy from IndieBoundAfter close to a five year gap, cyberpunk godfather Bruce Sterling emerges from his cryotube with another near-future fiction offering. It’s an ecodisaster satire, if you can imagine such a thing, with a ruthless and jaundiced sense of humor that burns like acid rain. Reminiscent of the work of Ballard in his heyday, as well as such classic exercises in trenchant social surrealism as John Brunner’s The Jagged OrbitThe Caryatids is one of those books that doesn’t so much tickle your funnybone as take a dentist’s drill to it. Which means half of you are likely to love it while the other half will find it impossibly off-putting. I’m guessing Bruce wouldn't have it any other way. 

In Greek architecture, caryatids are statues of women that serve as columns holding up buildings. Sterling’s caryatids are, likewise, a group of women whose heads are burdened with the weight of propping up not a collapsing building, but a collapsing world. The Mihajlovic sisters are the four surviving clones of an illegal biopiracy lab, their “mother” a war criminal. Now, in 2065, they’re spread around the globe, but far from apart. Vera, the altruist, works among the toxin miners restoring the Mediterranean island of Mljet to some semblance of its natural state. She’s on the side of the Acquis, one of the two ideological superpowers that run (so to speak) most of the shattered post-national Earth. 

The other superpower is the Dispensation, which isn’t interested in anything that can’t be commodified and monetized and which, not surprisingly, is based in Los Angeles. It’s not exactly a satirical stretch to lampoon the shallowness and mendacity of late-stage capitalism as filtered through Hollywood culture. But Sterling manages to mine some laughs out of a world that revels in its own superficiality and need to stage-manage literally everything, including the looming end of the world. Vera’s sister Radmila is one of LA’s most powerful celebrities, married into the Montgomery-Montalban clan, whose name alone Sterling must have truly enjoyed creating. In the world of the Montgomery-Montalbans — the Family, as they call themselves — everything comes down to performance. While the Acquis strive to restore Mljet through hard labor, Vera’s brother-in-law John Montgomery turns up one day with a set of glasses that just project a fully restored island over the ruins of the old, and a plan to market the place as a tourist destination.

Sonja is the third sister, working deep in the Gobi Desert. Contrarian as ever, China is one of the very last remaining nation-states around, and its focus is on the development of Mars. If the Earth is falling apart, then why not just move? Sonja has her hands full keeping terrorists away from the experimental Martian biosphere project in the desert, and it’s here she’ll learn something about herself and her sisters, and the extent of the cloning projects that created her. The fourth sister, Biserka, is the one Sterling does not use as a viewpoint character, because she’s virtually mad, and defined not by her own points of view but by how her sisters and others respond to her.

Sterling’s caryatids personify the bickering, often petty natures of people at large, particularly our tendency to indulge in the worst of our pettiness precisely when we need to pull together to solve a problem. Sterling’s a writer who’s always been fascinated by the way people make factions. Today, environmental concerns have led to precisely this sort of divisiveness, with climate change deniers on one side, off-the-grid doomsayers on the other, and the vast fence-sitting middle who have figured out how to turn the word “green” into a hip marketing slogan.

The Mihajlovic sisters are ultimately faced with the same moment of truth that we’ll be confronted by: do we set our squabbles aside and do what we must to survive as a species, or do we just keep slouching towards armageddon? In Sterling’s novel, there’s no time left. Massive solar storms are shredding the skies and much of the world has been reduced to dust. But we have a little more time. Will we use it well and wisely? It’s an effective message primarily because Sterling is no message-monger. He lets his stories and characters do the talking, and when the result is a book like this one — the prickly, funny, mordant and inspired work of a writer whose edge is still fine more than 25 years into his career — it’s worth your time to listen. As cautionary tales go, The Caryatids isn’t so much a wake-up call as a whoopee cushion.