Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Caryatids, by Bruce Sterling

New York: Del Rey Books, 2009, pp. 304.

"Caryatid" is a term from Greek architecture referring to supporting columns sculpted in the shape of women. Like those stone women, the principal characters of Sterling's novel are expected by Balkan war criminal and "mad scientist" Yelisaveta Mihajlovic--who has closed them from himself and raised them in a bunker on the Adriatic isle of Mljet--to bear up the weight of a world ridden with ecological crisis. There were seven sisters originally; four of these remain, namely Vera, Radmila, Sonja and Biserka.

The novel is structured around three roughly contemporaneous stories involving them, capped off by an epilogue, AND an afterword giving us still other views of them, all structured to give us strategic glimpses of key forces around the world in the 2060s. There is Vera among the Aquis, a sort of supersized, ultra-high tech ecological NGO (worldwide, but with its base in Europe), Radmila among the media-capitalists of the Dispensation (headquartered in Los Angeles), and Sonja on the fringes of the enduring nation-state of China, the last on Earth to really count for anything (and which has gone beyond totalitarian to "ubiquitous" in reasserting its power), while Biserka, a nihilistic terrorist, crops up here and there.

There isn't much in the way of plot. Of course, Sterling generally doesn't offer tightly plotted stories traveling along clear arcs. However, this time around the rather scattered storytelling results in a particular disjointedness that one of Sterling's characters actually comments on herself in the afterword. And at the end of it all, none of it seems to have mattered very much--less in the sense of the project that created the sisters being a failure (as it could only have been; how could the Caryatids have possibly done the job asked of them?) than in its becoming irrelevant as the world moves on. So there we are on page two hundred and ninety-five with a piece of future-oriented science fiction dismissing future-oriented science fiction except as a matter of "telling stories," in what can easily be taken for a cop-out at the end of the long, meandering journey--as well as a dismissal of the catastrophe he spent so much time describing since we just somehow got out of it.

Not that we haven't seen this before in Sterling's work. Like his short story "The Sword of Damocles" (perhaps the one I enjoyed least) The Caryatids plays the familiar po-mo game of telling a story by finding ever-more elaborate ways of telling us that it can't tell the story, not really. Admittedly this approach has its merits where the apocalyptic is concerned (as Kurt Vonnegut demonstrated in Slaughterhouse-Five over four decades ago). Nonetheless, po-mo is all too often a rationalization of evasion, and even an excuse for sloppiness, which we do see a surprising bit of here at the sentence-level. The stylistic excesses common to '80s cyberpunk--the sentences heavily freighted with flashy sciency-techie jargon and neologisms, the emphasis on description that is at once image-dense and oblique (which irritated me to no end when I first started reading it; early on I mentally compared it to reading Ezra Pound in neon lights)--can be exhilarating when done well. There are times when it works here, but the necessary editing has fallen short, a point particularly evident in the tendency to repeat a key detail within the space of a few pages.

As much of an issue as the manner of the telling are the intellectual tools that po-mo offers. Sterling has long drawn on a blend of two particular strains of postmodern thought--the corporate-globalizing, libertarian, "New Economy" outlook of Wired magazine and the Davos World Economic Forum, and the "linguistic turn"-shaped approach to cultural studies fashionable on university campuses in recent decades. It's a rare combination, but a natural one, given the underappreciated commonalities between them. Alas, neither has much to offer that's of real use in dealing with the book's central problem, with the result that there is more dancing around and dismissal of the problem of climate change than genuine grappling with it. Some interesting ideas do crop up here and there along the way, and the book is never dull, but as a statement "of faith in the power of human intellect, creativity and spirit to overcome any obstacle" promised in the blurb on the jacket, let alone a treatment of this particular subject, The Caryatids is underwhelming.

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