Books

The Caryatids by Bruce Sterling

Zachary Houle

Robots destroying LA for the sake of entertainment, a Chinese government willing to nuke blocked rivers to get water flowing again, and clones ... this Hugo award-winning author delivers up a far-fetched, disjointed vision of the future.


The Caryatids

Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 9780345460622
Author: Bruce Sterling
Price: $25.00
Length: 304
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2009-02
Amazon

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.

2

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Long eclipsed by the works of many country contemporaries, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge's first album, Full Moon, gets a new look.

Why is it that 1973 albums by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson have become classic country staples (see: Jennings' rough-hewed landmark Honky Tonk Heroes and Nelson's before-its-time Shotgun Willie), while Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge's duo debut from that same year has been relatively overlooked?

Keep reading... Show less
7
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image