The Caryatids by Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling is a bit of a pro when it comes to the world of science-fiction. His most famous claim to fame might be that he co-wrote The Difference Engine, a bestseller, with William Gibson some 20 years ago. He has authored ten novels, and has won two Hugo Awards for his short science-fiction. With that kind of experience under his belt, you’d think that Sterling knows how to tell a compelling yarn. Unfortunately, his most recent novel The Caryatids sadly proves otherwise.

Set more than 50 years into the future, The Caryatids imagines a world that has ecologically collapsed and fallen into three sort of “nation states”. There’s the Acquis, a utopian-like Green collective, centred in the Adriatic Sea, where its followers wear networked technology to monitor their emotions. There’s the Dispensation, centred in Los Angeles, whose members are profit and business-oriented, and thirsty for any entertainment they can get their hands on. And then there’s China, a nation state that has survived the world’s collapse by retreating into its own walled existence and capitalizing on rogue science.

The story itself centers around four surviving ‘caryatids’ — or clones — that come from the same woman. All four women have ties to John Montgomery Montalban, who is the husband of one of the women, and who promises to offer the world salvation. But what kind of salvation is questionable at best. He shows up in the Adriatic to offer an eco-tourism project to one of the sisters, and near the end to offer to reclaim some Chinese clones of important historical leaders. He serves in the plot as little more than a literary MacGuffin.

As to the caryatids themselves, we’re told by the book’s jacket that all that the four women really have in common is their mutual hatred for each other, and for their mother, who is floating high above the earth in a type of space station. We’re never told exactly why they hate each other so much, or what gripe they have against their mother. This is one of the book’s major failings, the lack of much of a back-story to go on. But there are far worse sins that this novel commits.

For one, Sterling has some far-fetched ideas about the future of the world, but many of them come off as cloying and silly. There’s the idea that China, in order to get its rivers running again, will use nuclear bombs to clear the blockages. (Wouldn’t it defeat the purpose of getting the streams running again if they’re so polluted with toxic nuclear waste to make them unusable?)

There’s also the very inane idea that movies will become passé, and, instead, “stars” will take to the streets to make performance art while large robots destroy old buildings around them as entertainment. And there’s a pointless (to the plot, at least) ten page diatribe about the existence of super-volcanoes that will threaten to blow a hole in the middle of Los Angeles and cause much doom and gloom to society. (Wait a minute. Didn’t they already make a movie about that?)

In fact, the novel is less about having any sort of plot or story and more about stringing some of these fantastical ideas together. Salient plot threads are picked up and are dropped without much in the way of thought. For instance, in the last third of the book, one of the sisters, Sonja, is asked by her brother George to obtain some microbes for him.

The plot then shifts to the Gobi Desert, where Sonja is suddenly spurned on by some revenge quest to find out who tried to kill her with a small toy plane studded with bombs. All mention of the microbe hunting is then dropped from the text itself, as though its author almost thought it were meaningless. So what was the point of bringing it up? To pad the page count?

The worst sin the novel makes is engaging in the type of technobabble that would make Robert Heinlein spin in his grave. At one point, one character actually talks in bullet point form, and I’m not making this up. This bit of text comes up in the novel’s first third, and it’s enough to make one’s eyes glaze over:

”The replacement of national sovereignty and class consciousness by technically sophisticated yet ethically savage private cartels which dissolve social protections and the rule of law while encouraging the ruthless black-marketization of higher technologies…”

The novel has one bright note, in that all of its major female characters are tough, independent and brazen — even though Sterling has basically cloned the same personality on all four of the major players. Still, it’s pretty hard to recommend the book on that aspect alone, as the novel is so disjointed and plot-less that by the time it’s nearly over, the end of the pages don’t come fast enough.

Sterling may be a master of the science-fiction novel, that much is evident from his track-record, but, with The Caryatids, he proves that he hasn’t yet mastered the most important element of all: writing a compelling, and entertaining story…with reasonable ideas that would hold water in an idealized future state.

RATING 2 / 10