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The Caryatids, by Bruce Sterling

I’ve had The Caryatids on my shelf for a while now, and have been trying to set aside time to read it. After all, Bruce Sterling was a formative influence on my own idea of SF, whether you can see it in my own writing.

In a conversation the other night, somehow I kept ending up talking about his work with our guest, a futurist. The funny thing is, when I talked about Sterling’s work, it was his ideas I kept mentioning, and my references to The Caryatids was no exception: I talked about the three big loci of power in his post-climate-collapse world, the technologies they use, the politics of each group, and yet I had nothing to say of the characters, unlike when I talked about other authors.

That’s not to say that Sterling doesn’t write wonderful characters: I still get a kick out of Leggy Starlitz, and I found the story of Mia/Maya in Holy Fire incredibly moving — and the moment at the end, when she visits an ex-husband we’ve never met before, doubly so; likewise, the romance between Oscar Valparaiso and Greta Penninger in Distraction was amusingly human, but also engagingly so. But, funnily enough, when I think back on it, the Sterling book I often think of returning to is Schismatrix, with all its hard edges and bristling characters and their factionalism.

In some ways, I think The Caryatids is, for Sterling, a kind of return to Schismatrix too: here, we’re returned to a world sundered in two — well, okay, three if you count China, the only nation-state that managed to hold itself together through the climate collapse — and we get a sort of guided tour of the heads of people who have, essentially, bought into the ideology of each faction.

The fact that the heads we visit in each of these societies are all clones of the same woman, and are all rather similar in some ways, suggests that, really, any of us could go any which way; or maybe it suggests that a mad female Balkan warlord could go any which way when faced with climate crisis. I’m not quite sure, in part because the characters often seem to serve as vehicles for the ideologies of their chosen factions. In a sense, this is a book with a whole host of flat characters, and only one “rounded” character who is simultaneously also flat.

Indeed, at one point, another character (who is married to one of the clones, has gotten romantically involved with another, and meets a third in a supposedly diplomatic context) accuses one clone of being the same as the others, in frustration, as she says something that the other two have said to him time and again. This is early on, and one begins wondering then whether Sterling intended this as some kind of conscious disclaimer — I rather think he’s up to something like that in the book, though I am still not sure what to think about it. For the various iterations of viewpoint character — three clones of the same woman — seem to be rather similar for all of their ideological differences… and they are, similarly, somewhat flat characters in nature.

Which of course signals that what we’re looking at is a satire of some kind, and isn’t necessarily something we ought to criticize. Good stories often tell us how they ought to be read, after all. At the beginning of semester, I showed my Creative Writing students a story by H.P. Lovecraft, and their reaction was mostly, “This is supposed to be, I don’t know, weird and scary. But it’s not.” Which is fine: HPL isn’t for everyone. But as we discussed the story a bit more, I discovered that their expectations of scary stories simply were different that HPL’s, and that they were not really trying to meet the story halfway.

That is to say, even when it doesn’t do things you want it to, you need to look within a story to see the author’s, uh, “serving suggestions” built right into the narrative. Given three genetically-identical clones embedded in three different social orders — the three main ones on Earth in the world of the story — they do seem to end up being essentially vehicles for the reader’s exploration of different “terrains” — both different places, but also different political and sociological post-climate-collapse terrains.

For the record, those terrains are all somewhat hard to take seriously on their own grounds: The Acquis — think hard-edged green movement fanatics, armed with high-tech gear and out there doing the dirty work of post-climate-collapse ecological refurbishment, viewed from the now-Croatian island of Mljet (here’s the island’s self-promotion page); the Dispensation — think Hollywood plus Facebook plus Washington, based in LA (of course); and China — think microbe-hacking, space-exploring, “ubiquitarian” government (rather than authoritarian, a state of top-down power executed by bottom-up microbial brute force and, uh, brute benevolence) bent on swapping a broken Earth for an unclaimed Mars as the Gobi expands to engulf their landbase. One cannot help but see Bruce Sterling hunched behind the curtain, frowning wryly at his creations as they fail, fail, fail to make much difference, as hope crumbles before them. Supervolcano? Solar instability? Oh, no problem: we have space launch capability, at least for our family.

Now, cyberpunk is dead, as everyone involved seems to have politely agreed. But Bruce Sterling is not dead, and the Bruce Sterling who was writing cyberpunk back in the day has not gone through nearly as many changes as the Earth has in this novel. Nonetheless, there are recognizable characteristics in his writing, and they stick out. Like in so much written by our beloved progenitors of cyberpunk, the book is written in a kind of latter-day picaresque form. (Think Candide.) Both cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk writing seems to thrive on these kinds of jaunts that characters go on — both offline, and online — and both seem to relish in this kind of episodic form, having elevated it to a narrative expectation, though it may have originally found its way into the genre for other reasons.

But it’s also a strategy of satire, of course — that’s one of the reasons that it was used in the old picaresque novels; your ruffian had to wander about, to eke out his living in a corrupt world. The world of The Caryatids is most certainly corrupt — just as corrupted as our own, if not more so, both politically and ideologically but also ecologically. It may even have managed to be somewhat more hopeless than our own: the Chinese are all but ready to ditch the Earth (or have it reconquered by brainwashed clones of now-dead elder statesmen, who eerily embody a kind of Lenin’s Tomb With Chinese Characteristics); the Acquis are, as one character from another faction notes (hopefully after the reader has begun to reach the same conclusion) hopelessly extreme, hopelessly inhuman, and pretty much dedicated to using the most desperate people on Earth to do the dirty work of environmental reconstruction: in other words, fiendishly clever, but not an approach to dealing with our situation that most people would feel comfortable with. And the Dispensation, well… even Sterling doesn’t seem able to really take them seriously.

For a satire, the book isn’t very funny at all. It’s somewhat depressing, actually, and, well, what did you think a post-climate-collapse book was going to be like? In an interview from around the time the book was released, Sterling himself said that he was trying to write something in SF that “was literally inconceivable in the 20th century” and suggested the following: “Caryatids is probably like a lot of my books, better appreciated after ten years.” He also waxes familiarly — but also rightly — philosophical on the question of positives and negatives in futurism:

History is what it is. Major change-drivers, true historical forces, they have little to do with people’s innate need for pep-talk. If you want to help people deal with futurity, you need to think talk and act in a way that clarifies the situation — not within mental frameworks that are dystopian, utopian, miserabilist, hunky-dory, apocaphiliac, Singularitarian, millennialist… wishful thinking just isn’t serious thinking. We’re wishful about the future because it hasn’t happened yet, but the future is history. Tomorrow is quite similar to all the other days in history, with the quite small difference that it’s personally happening to us.

In some sense, I got the feeling that the clones in the novel are a mirror of all the people who actually care about the nested mess of ecological problems we face today: they are very similar in some respects, but also cannot stand to be in one anothers’ presence. Another author might have drawn these differences as elements of each faction, but Sterling adds the insight that much of what drives a wedge between those factions is their utter similarity at a deep level.

But this leaves one thinking about whether the method of storytelling is doomed from the start. John Clute seemed to think so, though that doesn’t mean he’s right. I found myself somewhat baffled at moments, because I found myself often slipping into a mode of reading that didn’t quite fit the narrative, so when some of that sturm and drang Sterling mentions in the text came up, I was jolted out of the novel until I could resituate myself. One gets to reading it as a realist-SF novel, that is, a mainstream SF novel, and then suddenly one realizes, “Ah yes, this was satire and the character wasn’t intended to be considered in such a way as I was doing.” It’s a curious thing, that.

I’m not sure what to chalk all of this up to: a failing on my part as a reader; a case of a text that is, suddenly, truly challenging on a literary (and not just on a technical) level; or some inadequacy on the part of the text. The uncertainty has me rethinking my reaction to Visionary in Residence, Sterling’s most recent new short-story collection of a few years ago, and which I (and many of my friends) received with somewhat less enthusiasm than we had his earlier, and genre-changing, collections Crystal Express, Globalhead, and A Good Old-Fashioned Future. (Mirrorshades, well, it’s a different can of worms altogether, as well as being an anthology of mostly other people’s work.) I was reticent to admit it, but I hinted that Sterling’s older collections had grabbed me more than Visionary managed to do. I was, in fact, puzzled at some of the stories, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on why exactly I felt as let down as I did.

I am wondering now, was Sterling doing something more subtle in some of those pieces, something I missed because of my readerly expectations of how his work ought to be read? Certainly that was how I felt about his novel Zeitgeist, after a little time had passed following my reading it; by my dislike of The Zenith Angle, on the other hand, I’m willing to stand by quite firmly as something other than misreading. But in The Caryatids, I got these flashes, these moments where I suspected Sterling was up to something rather unlike what was familiar from other books, and the endings (there are a couple in quick sequence in the last few pages) suggest that, yes, he was up to something not seen in most of his previous fiction works.

Does it work for me? Are those leaps into new territories he’s made ones that I can consider successful? And why or why not? Unfortunately, at the moment I don’t know, and I probably won’t know exactly what I think until I’ve read it again. I’m not really ready for that at this moment, and plenty of other duties press.

But all of this has me wondering about reading, about reception, and about the challenges of building and then maintaining an audience. Which is good preparation for the reading I’m doing right now, in preparation for a book review: I’m working my way through the translated short story collection Speculative Japan, so that I can review the second short-story collection with a little more knowledge and competence in the area of Japanese SF. What is apparent to me in this (and my memories of looking at examples of SF from other cultures) is that sometimes, reader expectations and writers’ approaches need to mesh in a certain way that cultural difference can make more difficult. Hell, I suspect that’s why I have such trouble reading a number of older pulp SF works.

But it leaves me wondering whether the culture difference between myself and Bruce Sterling goes beyon generation, beyond national boundaries, and time itself… maybe it’s the paradigm the man now inhabits that has me scratching my head. I’m not sure.

Those of you who have thoughts, I’m all ears.

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