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The Caryatids
Bruce Sterling
Del Rey, 297 pages

The Caryatids
Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling was born in 1954 in Brownsville, Texas. He attended University of Texas at Austin and worked for the Texas Legislative Council in Austin as a proofreader back in the late 70s-early 80s. He edited Mirrorshades, felt by many to be the definitive document of the cyberpunk movement. He writes a popular-science column for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and a literary-critical column for Science Fiction Eye. He has appeared on ABC's Nightline, BBC's The Late Show, CBC's Morningside, on MTV, and in Newsday, Omni, Whole Earth Review, Details, and Wired. He lives in Austin with his wife and daughter.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Visionary in Residence
SF Site Review: Visionary in Residence
SF Site Review: A Good Old Fashioned Future
SF Site Review: Zeitgeist
SF Site Review: Zeitgeist
SF Site Review: A Good Old-Fashioned Future
SF Site Review: Distraction
SF Site Interview: Bruce Sterling

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Derek Johnson

In architecture, a caryatids is a sculpted female figure supporting an entablature on her head. It comes from the Greek karyatides and means "maidens of Karyae," the Peloponnesian town which is home to a famous temple of Artemis, goddess of forests and hills as well as childbirth and fertility. It's a striking image, and Bruce Sterling makes good, though not always controlled, use of it in his newest novel The Caryatids. Sterling has never shied away from challenges, and wrapping his tale of environmental collapse, smart environments and social networks into the guises of both classical architecture and myth would appear to be daunting. Usually he's up to the challenge; sometimes he's not.

Told in three sections with a different clone sister as viewpoint character in each, The Caryatids opens in the 2060s, thirty years after idealistic revolutionary Yelisaveta Mihajlovic has cloned seven daughters and one son -- the caryatids of the title -- to save the world from ecological collapse. Dispersed by political turmoil which results in the death of three, the surviving siblings are scattered throughout the globe, while their mother escapes to Earth orbit. One sister, Vera, joins the Acquis, a post-disaster group intent on saving the world through the use of innovative technologies: ubiquitous computing, robotic enhancements, even brain scans. While on Mljet (formerly Cyprus), the Acquis asks her to meet with John Montgomery Montalban, a Dispensation figurehead (and Vera's brother-in-law) who sees the Acquis's work on Mljet, and Vera in particular, as a prime marketing opportunity. Across the world in Los Angeles, in the book's second section, Montalban's wife Radmila (and one of Vera's clone-sisters) must deal with the fallout of a major earthquake through a Dispensation urban renewal plan involving smart materials building design. During the recovery, she learns not only of the impending eruption of a super-volcano in the United States but also that she is the target of identity theft, and the thief is none other than her clone-sister Biserka (a too obvious name), who has spent her life culturing grudges against not only Radmila but everything for which she and the Dispensation stand. And in the Gobi Desert, Sonja, the third clone sister, nurse and husband to the warlord Lucky Badaulet, treks from a sealed environment resembling the surface of Mars across the desert to find those responsible for an attempt on her husband's life.

Sterling remains one of our greatest cartographers of the future. His world of 2065 feels fleshed out and natural, especially as one reads it concurrently with today's headlines. The aftermath of the Los Angeles earthquake obviously has its roots in recent disasters, notably post-Katrina New Orleans. And it's hard not to think about Afghanistan when reading of Sonja and Lucky in the post-disaster Gobi Desert.

All of Sterling's current key obsessions to date are on display: ecological and social collapse and their aftermaths, ubiquitous computing, design, twenty-first century warlords, and posthumanity. Often the book reads like his nonfiction works Tomorrow Now and Shaping Things, recast into fiction. That is part of what makes the book interesting; the ideas Sterling addressed in those works are given dramatic weight, the concerns made more human and less abstract.

Unfortunately, as a novel, the book feels erratic and disjointed.

By telling three stories, Sterling allows himself to parallel Artemis's aspects, but in doing so he lacks the control and focus of some of his earlier work, such as Distraction or Holy Fire. This would have been okay had Sterling granted the viewpoint characters more life, or at least made them more interesting. And there is plenty to make the caryatids interesting: after all, they were created to take on the weight of the world, to provide not just innovative solutions to disastrous problems, but, in a way, to offer salvation. Such, it seems, was Yelisaveta Mihajlovic's dream, which itself is the dream of the twentieth century. Sterling knows and understands this; he also know that, dramatically, if your savior is perfect, then he or she is uninteresting. So it makes sense that the caryatids would be imperfect; their mother has created them to take on the weight of the world, and they have rebelled and even become resentful of their mother and each other. But their behavior becomes quite silly, as if Sterling found his caryatids on a high-tech episode of Dr. Phil. Caryatids though they were designed to be, they behave instead like Furies, their anger making them come off as caricatures instead of real people.

Stronger characters would have made the novel's episodic structure more tenable. Sterling's fellow Clarion alum James Patrick Kelly used a similar structure in his fixup novel Wildlife, but that novel's focus was on characters; his novel was about an entire family changed through technology. Sterling's book, while structured like a family drama (after all, the caryatids are a family, as genetically close as they or anybody else can get), is in fact a political novel, with the characters representing different political arguments. As a result, the joining of the two genres is not smooth.

None of which is to say that the novel is uninteresting. Sterling's extrapolations are convincing, even riveting. His theme is one we need to hear: that trying to solve twenty-first century problems with twentieth century solutions is not only futile but insane. It's a book whose every page promises, and delivers, great chunks of geeky goodness. And it's a welcome gift to read another true science fiction novel from his visionary pen (or, in contemporary terms, word processor), even if it isn't up to masterworks like Holy Fire or great political sf like Islands in the Net or Distraction. Hopefully, next time, he will write a better novel.

Copyright © 2009 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson lives, works and writes in Central Texas. He believes that, one day, he'll make a dent in his ever-growing "to-read" pile. That hasn't happened thus far.

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