caryatids

BY NICO VREELAND

Author: Bruce Sterling

Del Rey, 2009

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The Caryatids is a novel of ideas, in that it doesn’t give too much weight to characters or plot. It concerns a dystopian future in which the environment has been destroyed, and the substance of the narrative largely focuses on the debate about what to do.

In the blue corner, there’s the Acquis (or future Democrats), well-meaning bleeding hearts with questionable methods; they’re trying to fix the planet and save humanity. In the red corner, there’s the Dispensation (future Republicans), profiteering corporate lugs with questionable morals; they’ve accepted their doom and are trying to live as well as they can in the meantime. It’s a thinly veiled political allegory, and doesn’t serve particularly well as the backbone of this fictional world.

The title refers to seven clones created by a rogue scientist. The novel is divided into three sections, each following one “sister,” tied together more by passing reference than any real connection or interaction. Ultimately each section is more a premise than a narrative, and The Caryatids is finally a fractured series of ideas and satires that never quite coalesces into a compelling story. 

Vera, the caryatid of the first section, works on the tiny island of Mljet, attempting to rescue its environment for the Acquis. Radmila, the second sister, works in L.A. as a famous actress, which in Sterling’s world means mostly appearing in stunt shows at car dealerships. Sonia, the last sister, has taken up with a jihadist in Asia.

The narrative spends about equal time with each of them, and equally little happens to each. Sterling seems to be content to have created this world (which isn’t particularly original or cool) and its unfunny satire: he doesn’t bother to give anybody much to do. At the end of these major sections, it doesn’t feel like the end of anything. It kind of feels like the novel is too short a form for this story, but that might just be because there’s simply not much plot.

Sterling also seems to be a big fan of George Saunders: most of his characters talk in Saunders’s trademark brainwashed-valley-girl patois. For instance:

“Djordje, you are one of my husband’s associates. I don’t enjoy seeing you. But I’ll see you for political reasons, because I know that global politics has to trump my merely personal concerns.”

“That is great news,” said Djordje. “Your cordial attitude is very cheering. You talk much more sense than the other girls do.”

In an attempt to make his characters sound futuristic, Sterling has made them all sound the same. There’s no sense of emotion or connection in this dialogue, and no sense of personality emerges from it. Saunders gets away with this kind of thing because he’s funny and he writes short stories. In long form and without humor, this style falls flat.

Frustratingly, when Sterling drops this act, he’s a very good writer. When one of the sisters meets an official from the other side, there’s this little gem:

Dr. Feininger had an overly perfect, German-accented English. She could hear him carefully machining his verb tenses. “So: Miss Montalban, at last we meet. In person, so much smaller you seem than in your simulations!”

But Sterling doesn’t seem happy with such earnest realism. He wants to make things weird, and so we get this barely a page later:

Radmila had met so many of them, at so many tiresome, life-draining political events, that she could literally smell Acquis thought leaders. Dr. Feininger smelled of cologne.

“What city is your own home base, Dr. Feininger?”

“My base is Cologne.”

Radmila laughed musically. “Such a beautiful city.”

I honestly don’t know what to make of that passage.

And ultimately, I don’t know what to make of this novel. It seems to be about halfway between a sci-fi novel and surrealist weirdo fiction, but there’s not enough forward movement for the former, and there’s not enough originality in the weirdness for the latter.

Diehard Sterling fans (he is, after all, the father of cyberpunk) might be interested The Caryatids for the world alone, but for anyone looking for more than premise, don’t look here.

UPDATE: Boing Boing has a video of Sterling giving a recent talk about what life will be like in the short-term future. I didn’t watch the whole thing, but I found this pull quote interesting:

It is neither progress nor conservatism because there’s nothing left to conserve and no direction in which to progress. So what you get is transition. Transition to nowhere.

That pretty much describes this novel.

Similar books: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow; Pastoralia, by George Saunders; Et Tu, Babe, by Mark Leyner

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