by Bruce Sterling
Review by Tom Easton
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345460622
Date: 24 February 2009 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Caryatids are marble statues of women deployed as columns or pillars by the ancient Greeks to hold up the roofs of their temples. They are beautiful and (of course) sturdy. It should therefore be no surprise that when Bruce Sterling calls his latest novel The Caryatids the chief characters should warrant the same adjectives. They aren't statues, though when we first meet Vera she is clad in a robotic exoskeleton that lets her quite literally hold up the roof of an underground excavation. She is one of a corps of workers laboring to clean up the environmental disaster that is the Adriatic island of Mljet. They belong to Acquis, one (with the more business oriented Dispensation) of the two great polities that have survived the death of all nation-states but China as the climate warmed, the seas rose, and millions, even billions, died of famine, disease, and environmental toxins.
Vera is also one of a group of illicit clones produced—on Mljet itself—by a rogue scientist who apparently dreamed of saving the world. But mobs destroyed the lab and killed several clones. Vera, three sisters, and a brother survived as refugees. The rogue scientist now lives in orbit, beyond the reach of the law.
Vera left the refugee camps by joining Acquis. Brother Djordje became a European business tycoon. Mila made it to California and became a Star. Sonja became a medic in China. Biserka, the frightened one, found China's cloned backup leaders and set out to rule the world, or its ruins.
Sterling focuses on the sisters one by one, telling their stories, showing the reader their portions of the world, warped in turn by runaway technology, rampant media, and central planning. Can the ladies do their caryatidic jobs and keep the global catastrophe from collapsing on everyone's heads? They try but, says Sterling, there is only so much that anyone, even one of great gifts, can do. Human folly is too great a force, and it is by no means the only one to be reckoned with. There is the threat of catastrophic volcanism, the reality of an unstable sun, and finally the transformative effect of technology that renders the cutting-edge systems that created the caryatids and their world "gone like sandcastles. A rising tide of major transformation threw them up on the shore, and then the whole sea rose and they are beyond retrieval." The best Mila's daughter, the darling tot Mary Montalban during the tale, can later do is tell the story, papering over the gaps of inaccessible history "with sheer imagination."
Sterling's always been good at that himself. Sometimes, however, the gaps remain visible. The Caryatids has that problem, for it feels less like an integrated novel than like a handful of set-pieces designed to make the author's point. It is therefore less than fully convincing.