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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: The Caryatids
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 Rich Horton

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Bruce Sterling's abiding novelistic fascination is with the near future, and with the collision of technology, politics, and human character in that future. Which nicely defines a pretty significant subset of Science Fiction. The Caryatids is a perfect example. It's set in 2060, after the world has collapsed, more or less, both ecologically and politically. There are three major players in this new world: the one remaining influential nation state, China; and a couple of extra-national organizations: the Dispensation, a fairly Capitalist grouping; and Acquis, a sort of techno-Socialist entity. The latter two groups are explicitly (in their minds) engaged in "saving the world," while China is being China -- that is, engaged in furthering their national interest. Which may or may not help "save the world."

At one level the focus of this book is simply to show us this future. To show us the political strains, the technological innovations, and the overall state of play in 2060. Which implies, as with so many SF books, a travelogue. Sterling tries to avoid giving the book the shape of a travelogue by telling his story from three viewpoints, three illegal clones of the same woman. These women grew up on a Mediterranean island, Mljet, with four fellow clones and their brother, Djordje. When war came, three sisters were killed, and the other four (as with the brother) were scattered. Now, many years later, one sister, Vera, is part of an Acquis project to environmentally restore Mljet. Another sister, Radmila, has married into an influential Dispensation family, based in Los Angeles, and faces a crisis as her grandmother-in-law is seriously injured in an earthquake. And a third, Sonja, along with her latest lover, a nouveau Islamic tribesman from the Central Asian steppes, ends up chased by assassins in the middle of pretty much nowhere. The fourth surviving sister, Biserka, is a mad criminal with a minor role. And Djordje, or as he prefers, George, is a ordinary, if slightly criminal himself, businessman. In three separate sections we are shown the sisters' situations, and hence the world's situation, part by part ... and of course eventually all the threads coalesce, despite the rather unconvincing hatred each sister displays for the others.

Taken purely as, dare I say it, travelogue, the book works nicely enough. Sterling is as ever fiercely intelligent, and very interesting, about the near future, about politics (quite different to today's), and about technology. But one of the eternal problems for the SF writer trying to display a future in a novel is to wrap it in a plot, and to decorate it with characters. Here The Caryatids fails. There is, really, little or not plot. There are events, which turn out to be connected, which lead to something of an ending. But there's no truly involving plot to grab the interest from the first and carry the reader through the book. (In particular, the first part, about Vera, is all but abandoned, and never was terribly interesting at all.) And the characters fall short as well, at least the sisters, the main characters. All they seem to do is yell, to declaim. After awhile, I amused myself by counting exclamation points, but that grew quickly tiring. We are told, told, told how much they hate each other, and we are told, told, told how variously talented and charismatic they are, and nothing convinces. Some of the minor characters work a little better -- Radmila's brother-in-law Lionel, for instance. But the main characters annoyed me, and bored me.

So what to say about the book as a whole? Sterling remains an essential contemporary SF writer. This book is well worth reading just for his take on his future. But it's far from his best novel (that would be Holy Fire), and it's not as interesting as his most recent novels either (Zeitgeist and The Zenith Angle.) Is it minor work? I don't know -- maybe it's major in its way, but a failure.

Copyright © 2009 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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