Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The (non)story of the end of the world

You can't accuse Bruce Sterling of shying away from the consequences of his ideas. He hasn't really ever written what you'd call a happy ending into any of his novels (I've not read The Zenith Angle, so perhaps it ends with the main characters frolicking with puppies, but I doubt it.) Holy Fire ended with the main character finding some peace, I suppose, but also terribly estranged from humanity. Heavy Weather killed off the bad guys, but left the plains states devastated by the world's largest supertornado. Islands in the Net saw the protagonist kept hostage for years, her husband married off to her best friend. Distraction, in some ways my favourite of Sterling's novels, also left its main characters damaged by experimental neurological treatments and floundering after having waged months of cynical political battles.

Sterling seems to often write about the utter randomness of the universe. Justice, for him, is not something that occurs naturally to neatly wrap up a story.

The Caryatids, his latest novel, doesn't even wrap up at all, really. Not only does it not tie up any of its three major strands, it doesn't even let us know if the world is saved. Or if anyone can save it.

The titular caryatids are four clone-sisters, Vera, Radmilla, Sonja, and Biserka. The first three each take a turn narrating the novel, which concerns efforts to recover from a global environmental catastrophe. Global warming is the chief, but not the only, cause of the mess. The collapse has seen millions die, and wiped out most of the world's old nation states. (It's implied, but not stated, that they've been largely replaced by smaller local governments, so it's not exactly a libertarian or anarchist wet dream.) While China survives as the last and most totalitarian of the world's governments, the other two big powers are what we'd call non-governmental organizations. The Dispensation are glamour-obsessed capitalists, trying to charm and buy their way out of environmental apocalypse. The Acquis are earnest quasi-socialist greens - all about hard work, sacrifice, and mind-blowingly weird technological fixes. China, too, is trying to save the world, or at least it's corner. Each of the narrating clone sisters is affiliated with one of the three factions, giving us a tour of their respective world views.

That's about it for the novel, actually. It's a tour of the world, and a lightly sketched one with little backstory. We never find out how the Acquis or Dispensation were founded, or what happened to the old nation states, or even why, exactly, the four (formerly seven) clones were created. There was some grand plan about them saving or conquering the world using ubiquitous sensor systems, but it seems to have collapsed before they even grew to adulthood. Those sensor systems give us a Sterling neologism: everyware. Despite the lack of back story, the technology and world building, the evocation of a damaged world, are the book's strongest suits.

When it comes to characters, I wish I could say I liked anyone in this book. Vera, the Acquis cadre who narrates the first section, comes closest to being a likeable character. But like all the clones  she's deeply emotionally wounded, prone to crying and outbursts, and seemingly incapable of doing anything to save herself. Sterling's characters have been growing more and more depressing since Heavy Weather. Some sequences are like being stuck in an elevator with a depressed person. After a while, you just want to slap them and tell them to crack a smile, dammit. The clones don't have much of a sense of humour.

Yet they're surrounded by madness that should make you laugh. Radmila distracts the proles by dancing on top of a giant Martian tripod-style robot that smashes quake damaged L.A. buildings so the Dispensation can start rebuilding. The entire Dispensation seems to be run by half-witted celebrities, a clan of Ronald Reagans and Britney Spearses that has propagated itself, each one making the expected metamorphosis from actor to politician. Sonja marries a young Gobi-desert bandit who's name translates as Lucky. Vera even manages a bit of slapstick screwing up in the first chapter, although she's very serious about it, of course. As is everyone else. It's not just clones who don't laugh.

The novel also comes to a crashing halt in the early part of the China segment, as Sterling infodumps a lecture about what happened to China. He also goes on an extended rant about how heroes packing guns never save the world, how it's only saved by serious management, about getting people together and making them work towards a common, sane goal. Then Sonja and her husband strap on guns and go looking for trouble. 

So what does it all come to? I really wish I knew. There is deliberate craft in its non-ending – it isn't that Sterling simply ran out of steam. He wanted it to end this way. Loose ends lash about madly, just like in real life. In that sense, despite the exoskeletons and giant robots and attacks of the clones (and yes, there is an attack by clones, using robots) it's the most realistic SF novel to come along in a while. It suggests that we not only face catastrophe of our own making, but that the natural catastrophes of the universe aren't going to give us a break either.

When Anathem came out last year, a lot of reviews noted that it was the most Stephensonian of Neal Stephenson's books. The Caryatids is in the same boat. If you like Sterling – if you like people declaiming to one another, with italics, if you like wild yet eerily plausible near-future speculation, if you like clones and robots and weird politics and oblique satire – you'll enjoy it. 

No comments: