One book, one idea: The Caryatids

The Caryatids coverBruce Sterling’s The Caryatids is one of the most delightful and educational near-future sci-fi novels to come out in the past few years, sharing company with Rainbows End, Makers, Little Brother, Daemon, and World Made by Hand. Set in 2065, it’s essentially the fictional version of Sterling’s earlier and excellent Tomorrow Now, where all the forecasts of that earlier book come to pass and hybridize. It’s dizzying and smart. And, although I often recommend it for its business relevance, it’s also a cracking good read.

One of my favorite details from the book: in the world of The Caryatids, the nation-state has collapsed except for China, and the world has divided itself into two mega-tribes: the hippie collectivist Acquis and the optimistic, capitalist Dispensation. The latter is epitomized by the ex-husband of one of the novel’s heroines, who arrives at an ecological recovery operation in Croatia and says without a trace of irony, “I’m from Hollywood, I’m here to help you!”

The Acquis/Dispensation polarity throughout the book delights me, in part because the future of the nation-state is one of my passion topics. (In addition to Sterling’s writing, check out Dmitry Orlov, Dani Rodrik, and Jacques Barzun.) But the uneasy conflict between the Acquis and Dispensation is also just absurd enough to help me see many real world, current dualisms in a new light: mainstream vs. fringe innovation, old buildings vs. new ideas, the Marina vs. the Mission, Power vs. Love. The truth is neither camp gets it all right or sees itself clearly—we never can. Despite their different value judgments, ideological convictions, and self-protective stories, ultimately they need each other.

An implicit and hopeful message of The Caryatids is that even though things might be going to hell in a hand basket, the world is a lot weirder and more fun once you really engage with it. That’s good advice.