John Clute dances with Bruce Sterling's twisted sisters in The Caryatids

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Critic and scholar John Clute dissects the latest science fiction and fantasy books in Excessive Candour, which will be appearing as regular feature on SCI FI Wire.

I think this novel is a farce about the end of civilization as seen through the eyes of a squabbling Dallas of clones; or it may simply be a mess of a book about the mess of the world. The fact that its author cannot be detected cracking a smile anywhere in pages does not bode well for an understanding of The Caryatids (Bruce Sterling, Del Rey, $25) as a conscious assemblage of boffo riffs on the St. Vitus' Dance of the species as we near terminus; on the other hand, there are frequent hints of genuine deliberation: moments of real hilarity that focus the noise of things again and again throughout its shaggy length.

Clones—most of the point-of-view characters, too many of them for any one of them to be taken seriously, are indeed clones—never joke, as is well known. The Turing test for clones is whether they get the punch line: and they always fail. If Sterling had stuck to one of them to tell his book through, the jury would have to be out on the register of the thing; but Sterling undermines his po-faced clones by multiplying them. The tale (or three tales, or four, none of them resolved) is broken into three parts, each named after one of three identical world-ravishing siblings who almost literally ignite with clonal horror and hatred whenever they catch sight of each other, all of which does seem inherently risible. But there is more to come. Not too far into the book, Sterling dumps a fourth, even more enraged clone sibling into the mix, whom he names Biserka; at about the same time, he name-checks three further identicals, all of whom are now dead (and who seem to remain so); a little later, we learn that the mother/sister of the seven (they hate her more than they hate each other) is still alive in a splendid space station above the scene (the count is now eight, but wait).

The action of The Caryatids all seems to take place in and around the year 2065, which does not give Sterling much wiggle room to supply verisimilitude to the birth in the 2030s and breeding of his nest of scorpions, a problem he solves by not addressing it except through asides. So medias res is the book—in this and other respects—that I did think at points I must be reading a sequel, but my Advance Uncorrected Proof copy gives no hint that this might be the case. So if there is a previous narrative that portrays the clones' mother/sister, whose name is Yelisaveta Mihajlovic, and that treats in detail her brewing out of some superscience vat eight identicals who (one) cannot stand the sight of each other and who (two) are illegal (if there is a backstory paragraph that explains why, it slipped past me)—I apologize for missing some connective tissue that a final copy of the book might have pointed to. But farce—deep black farce alembicated out of profound despair, I guess—tends to spurn backstory. In any case, Yelisaveta is an absence in The Caryatids until her corpse lands back on Earth at the end of the novel, at which point clone number nine (a male who does not burst into uncontrollable hissy fits whenever he meets one of his sisters) brings the novel to a close by persuading his clones to attend the Catholic funeral on Cyrus he has arranged for her. At this point the caryatids begin to dance. We will return to this moment.

Right now, we need to continue the clone count. In Book Three of The Caryatids, clone three, whose name is Sonja, or Red Sonja, encounters two additional clones in the heart of the Inner Asian Frontier of China (the only national state to survive until 2065). They are part of a cohort of clones, 35 in number, who are replicants of the secret cohort of men of power who, 30 or so years previously, had kept China together at the cost of murdering half its population, while simultaneously (I think) setting off a large number of hydrogen bombs under the Himalayas to release the water stored deep within the stone. The 35 ronin, whose loyalty is to themselves alone, have been sleeping deep in the earth, awaiting a call to arms, enough Once and Future Kings to overflow any Cauldron of Story I can conceive of. They certainly seem to have overflowed Sterling's own capacity to imagine what he (or anyone) could possibly do with 35 clones of the greatest mass murderers in human history; and as soon as Sonja is persuaded by the venture capitalist who loves her and all her siblings and sleeps with every one of them to go to Cyprus for the funeral (I'm simplifying here), we never hear another word about the 35 mass murderers at the heart of the Inner Asian Frontier of China.

It is to laugh, or else.... What I think is going on here is that Sterling, without focusing any too precisely on his target, has been spoofing the Hard SF synecdoche in which one single genetically enhanced rats-nest of a family takes over governance of the entire future. It is a useful device, though clearly pernicious when taken seriously. There are many authors who do this, including, almost at random, Robert A Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Orson Scott Card, Richard Condon, Nancy Kress, Dan Simmons, Robert Charles Wilson, Adam Roberts. Not all of these authors, luckily, go the whole hog.

Photo credit: Robert Scoble from Half Moon Bay, USA, Creative Commons

But to start at the beginning: Part one, which is by far the most engaging section of The Caryatids, is set in the poisoned island of Cyprus, here called Mljet. A vast ecological reclamation project is under way, fueled and controlled by one of the two private-enterprise colossi that dominate a world on the verge of extinction. This world-spanning organization, known as the Acquis, applies immensely sophisticated tools to the reclamation of the world. Cyprus has been (in a sense) transformed into a "sensorweb," a network of information and applications so intense that its modeling of reality seems at times denser than reality itself. Clone Vera is an operative here; the descriptions of her immersal in boneware (exoskeletons which interpenetrate her corpus and enable superhuman feats of ecological rescue work) and the neural helmets which all Acquis wear on Mljet, transforming them into a kind of group entity, a cohort of like-minded folk whose emotional states are mapped with an intensity denser than naked minds, it may be. Acquis comprise something short of a hive mind, but a long way past any normal Strength Through Joy.

Acquis are despised by the members of the other private enterprise octopus that runs the world, the Dispensation, which is made up of venture planet developers convinced that the only way to save Earth is to transform it for profit: health will follow. Sterling's depiction of this lot is utterly deadpan, though it is hard to think that we are meant to take his version of disaster capitalism as uncritical. Whatever, Clone Vera on Cyprus is a very important person, because one of her sisters is the actual wife of John Montgomery Montalban, more or less head of the Montalban Family-Firm, which seems coterminous with the Dispensation, which means it rules almost half the planet. Montalban is making a kind of state visit to Cyprus, and Vera is forced to parlay with him. This leads to conflict and stuff, and she jumps into the sea from a boat, leaving her true love Herbert, who is never mentioned again, in the lurch.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, as part two tells us, great opportunities for the Family-Firm have been opened up by a series of disasters—earthquakes which have given the Firm a chance to redevelop much of the city, a supervolcano which is threatening to bring nuclear winter to the world (but doesn't get mentioned again), and a vast sun flare, which takes over from the supervolcano under Yosemite—and the pressure of these opportunities, paired with the death of the famed actress whose contortions on the public stage have entranced hoi polloi throughout Los Angeles (and, I think, the world), give Clone Radmila the chance to take over fronting for the Family Firm while the world continues to end.

Meanwhile—but no, we have already dealt with Clone Sonja and the 35 mass murderers, though we have not mentioned her latest husband, a kind of idiot scion of Genghis Khan without the laughs, who screws her lots and beats her until she leaves with John Montgomery Montalban to go to her mother's funeral (as we explained), leaving him in the lurch; like Herbert, he is never mentioned again. In any case, the summons to their mother's funeral means that all the surviving clones (Biserka has also been seconded) are together at last.

But first.

Something does need to be said, over and above this somewhat paratactic summarizing of a narrative so higgledy-piggledy that we have hardly reached a quorum of first bases in our attempts to get it down on paper. The first thing to note is that none of the first bases stays still to be told: that the various parts of The Caryatids do not make an entablature that the clones—who are of course the caryatids referred to—can sustain. I think this is deliberate. I cannot think Sterling conceives that the raree-show convolutions of The Caryatids amount to a portrait of a world being saved; I think Sterling in this novel is telling us that the world, like his novel, is a shambles; and that we are kidding ourselves if we think an entablature of dancing clones could possibly model anything but chaos to come. I think he has created The Caryatids as a sandbox for his readers to play in, because he no longer has the heart to glory in another round of pulpit talk about winning the game of the future.

There is, of course, something more here. I am writing these words the day before the inauguration of President Obama; which is to say I am writing a review of a book in which the nations of the world have disintegrated at exactly the moment when the world—a world greater than America—has been galvanized by the thought that something can be done by the governments of the West, now that the Ponzi dreams of Alan Greenspan and the Gang have collapsed. Profoundly alien to anything Sterling seems to have argued in the Caryatids, there has been a sudden, and perhaps not evanescent, reassertion of belief in the hard state (I use Gunnar Myrdal's term for a government whose literal governance is so thoroughly wired into the world under its ostensible sway that decisions have a chance of being implemented). Sterling's assumption—despairing or defiant—is that the hard state no longer works. He may be right. But it is, all the same, odd to see a book published in 2009 that treats that assumption as inarguable.

At the climax of The Caryatids the four female clones exchange roles, at least symbolically, and perform a dance. They are very beautiful. They are "holding up the autumn sky." Their unison is uncanny, more than the sum of its parts; but it is a scam (as Sterling makes clear in an epilogue), a performance in the ruins.

Because it is only in a hard state that caryatids have anything to sustain.

John Clute is a writer, editor and critic. His first novel in 25 years, Appleseed, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2002. He co-edited The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and wrote Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, all Hugo Award winners. His criticism and reviews have appeared in various journals in the UK and America. Much of this material has been collected in Strokes: Reviews and Essays 1966-1986, Look at the Evidence: Reviews and Essays and Scores: Reviews 1993-2003, which includes most of the first 75 "Excessive Candour" columns, and other pieces. Canary Fever: Reviews, which is due later this year, will contain most of the next 70 or so "Excessive Candour" columns, plus other work. The Darkening Garden: a Short Lexicon of Horror appeared in 2006; he is working on a much enlarged third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, due to go online in late 2009 or so.