[p2p-research] Bruce Sterling: The Caryatids

Kevin Carson free.market.anticapitalist at gmail.com
Thu Aug 20 22:39:40 CEST 2009

By way of caveat, let me get out front with the admission that this
review involves mainly aspects of the "future history" scenario I find
most intriguing, rather than with the story line or characters.  While
I can get into a good story, I generally read near-future sci fi with
a view primarily to the usable ideas for organizing society or for
explaining the direction things are going in.

The Caryatids is set in the world of 2065, a world wrecked by global
warming, in which most states have been pushed to overload and
collapse by the ecological catastrophes of the early 21st century.

The world is dominated by two networked global civil societies, the
Dispensation and the Acquis.  Both are engaged in the reclamation of
devastated areas and oversee networks of refugee camps housing
millions of displaced persons.

The Acquis is largely green and open-source in ideological
orientation, and the Dispensation is commercial and proprietary.

The Dispensation does not adhere as closely as the Acquis to a pure
networked form; it has a primary geographical base, in southern
California and the Greater LA area (there's mention of a surviving
state legislature in Sacramento).

Like the Acquis, the Dispensation relies heavily on sustainable
technology, but with a much more proprietary and less egalitarian
sensibility.  The economic and cultural  core of the Dispensation
looks like a fusion of Hollywood and Microsoft.  Cory Doctorow calls
them "Al Gore green capitalists,"
http://www.boingboing.net/2009/02/24/bruce-sterlings-the.html but the
"cognitive capitalism" and "vectoralism" theses are also relevant.
The Dispensation's approach to sustainability, in particular, looks
like something we'd associate with Richard Florida
http://www.thestar.com/article/656837 and William McDonough
 The underclass majority of the southern California core area, the
residents of the coastal slums displaced by the rising seas and
depression, are clients of Dispensation low-impact housing technology
resembling Marshall Brain's terrafoam welfare dorms in "Manna."

The underclass is also managed with Hollywood bread and circuses.

The leading Dispensation family in the novel, the
Montgomery-Montalbans, illustrate the nature of the Dispensation's
ruling elite.  The family matriarch started out as a starlet in the
early 21st century, and founded a media and entertainment empire that
lies at the core of the Dispensation's elite in 2060.  I vaguely
recall a National Lampoon piece on regional economic elites, with this
comment about a typical family in the New South plutocracy:
Great-granddaddy started a five-and-dime store, Granddaddy sold the
store and bought a traveling circus, and Daddy turned the circus into
a religion and became a billionaire.  As misleading as it is in the
particulars, that conveys something of the flavor.

It's hard to figure out just how much "intellectual property" survives
as the basis of a viable business model in Sterling's scenario.  He
mentions in passing that the movie industry is dead because
file-sharing killed it decades ago.  The M-M family's celebrity,
therefore, involves transforming their entire lives into a sort of
reality show.  Every appearance outside the home is a performance of
sort; the M-Ms function as glorified emcees in the events of daily
life, moving along from one supermarket opening or product placement
to the next.  Even their lifestyle inside the family compound, in its
unabashed vulgarity (every family member has a personal musical theme
that's automatically cued when they make an "entrance" into a room),
is reminiscent of that episode of Seinfeld where Kramer replicated the
"Merv Griffin" set in his apartment.

At the same time, the Dispensation's commercial ventures clearly
presuppose IP.  John M-M, a member of the family who prefers venture
capitalism to entertainment, is developing a sort of virtual tourism
on historical sites, using VR goggles to create living reconstructions
of ancient communties as reconstructed by archaeology.  The VR
techology is proprietary.  How patents are enforced by the
Dispensation, Sterling does not make clear.

One Acquis project, the reclamation of the Aegean island of Mljet (aka
Cyprus), is the backdrop for the first vignette of the book.  The
Acquis team there is experimenting with "boneware" (enormously
powerful mechanical exoskeletons that interface with the brain and are
controlled like extensions of the body) as an alternative to
conventional heavy moving machinery.  The team itself is linked by the
"sensorweb," a neural network, with brain-computer interfaces.  They
can maintain constant realtime communications with the rest of the
team, surf the Net by cerebral cortex.  Especially intriguing:  the
neural net enables the team to "tag" realworld objects with
information.  The whole visual world is like a graffitoed wall, with
its individual parts labeled for significance and indexed to each

China is virtually the only large nation-state to survive as a
unified, coherent entity.  The United States and Europe, for the most
part, are checkered by the city-states and regional governments that
emerged from the period of collapse; most of these entities are
aligned with either the Dispensation or the Acquis.

China managed to preserve its central government, largely through
sheer will and brutality, even as over half its population perished in
the great die-off.  The state of 2065 is obsessed with blockbuster
mega-projects, with so many Manhattan Projects and Tennessee Valley
Authorities puttering away in the bowels of its immense bureaucracy
that no one person is even aware of them all.  One such project is
aimed at restoring the flow of the Yangtse and Yellow rivers by using
H-bombs to melt underground ice remaining in the Himalayas.  New
ecocities in otherwise unsurvivable desert areas, covered with
inflatable domes, preserve urban populations in something like more
sophisticated versions of the old Biosphere project.

Most interesting of all these megaprojects is a breakaway project that
has defected from the Chinese government.  Its leadership is a
genetically engineered duplicate of the old Chinese leadership,
intended to survive the time of troubles and conquer the world in the
aftermath.  These cloned politicians, overcome by delusions of
grandeur, have gone rogue and adopted an agenda of their own:  to
reengineer the human race to survive in a world where a combination of
solar superflare and the Yellowstone supervolcano have reduced Earth's
carrying capacity by 95%.  The human digestive system and its flora
have been engineered to operate with near-100% efficiency.  Livestock
have been similarly redesigned.  Human and animal excrement resembles
crumbly ash, with no usable nutrients or surviving caloric value.  A
sort of portable fermenting pouch, using genetically engineered
bacteria, can transform undigestible matter like grass into something
like yogurt.  Another artifact, somewhat like the stillsuits of Dune,
can condense drinking water from atmospheric humidity.  The idea is to
create a new human race of nomads with a sustainable, if limited
high-technology adopted to nomadic survival.

One of John M-M's unofficial activities on behalf of the Dispensation,
in the course of his work as global venture capitalist, is to examine
the superprojects of the Acquis and Chinese and evaluate their
potential--and to shut them down if they threaten to get out of
control.  John's brother, Lionel Montgomery-Montalban, stated the
problem the myriad of secret superprojects being run by the Chinese:
"Radical projects need *widespread distributed oversight*, with peer
review and a loyal opposition to test them.  They have to be open and

Kevin Carson
Center for a Stateless Society http://c4ss.org
Mutualist Blog:  Free Market Anti-Capitalism
Studies in Mutualist Political Economy
Organization Theory:  A Libertarian Perspective

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