The Sunday Salon: Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids

This past week I started reading Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids, tipping my hat to a proposal to celebrate June 23 as Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Day

I haven’t read much in the cyberpunk genre (I vaguely remember William Gibson’s Neuromancer), but Sterling is a founding father and supposed to be of the highest order in the genre.

Set about sixty years in the future, the novel sets up a post climate-crisis world divided into three spheres of influence: the Dispensation, a hypercapitalist, entertainment-obsessed culture centered in Los Angeles; the Aquis, a global environmentalist culture that uses Big Brotherish-techniques to influence its followers; and China, the only remaining nation-state. Living in this world are four sisters—clones of a mad Balkans war criminal, part of a set of seven—the caryatids, who supposedly have some way to save the world from impending doom, if they don’t kill each other in the process.

So far so good. A post-apocalyptic world with Orwellian touches. And the novel gets a good start, introducing one of the clones Vera, who has fled to a Balkan island, Mljet, an Aquis stronghold. The Acquis use neural technology to retrain those who live in their sphere of influence. And there’s a lot of potential Orwellian dysfunction projected. 

There are a lot of interesting ideas projected in the novel, a lot of potential, especially for satire (the thickest section of the novel on the Dispensation could provide a potentially interesting satire of business and pop culture, if there were a stronger narrative drive.)

Which is the chief problem with this novel, as I’ve read it so far. The narrative is sketchy, the plot thin and comic bookish. There’s a hint of a cataclysmic supervolcano or some other natural threat. There’s a hint that the caryatids somehow can fix this cataclysm. But I haven’t quite really figured out how all of this is connected.

Stylistically, Sterling also throws around a lot of talking heads with little action in between. Which may be one reason the plot is difficult to follow, if there is an actual plot in the book.


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