Alongside William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling stands at the forefront of a select group of writers whose pitch-perfect grasp of the cultural and scientific zeitgeist endows their works of speculative near-future fiction with uncanny verisimilitude.
Now, with The Caryatids, Sterling has written a stunning testament of faith in the power of human intellect, creativity, and spirit to overcome any obstacle - even the obstacles we carry inside ourselves.
The world of 2060 is divided into three spheres of influence, each fighting with the others over the resources of fallen nations and an environment degraded almost to the point of no return. There is the Dispensation, centered in Los Angeles, where entertainment and capitalism have fused with the highest of high-tech. There is the Acquis, a Green-centered collective that uses invasive neurological technology to create a networked utopia. And there is China, the sole surviving nation-state, a dinosaur that has prospered only by pitilessly pruning its own population.
Products of this monstrous world, the daughters of a monstrous mother, and - according to some - monsters themselves, are the Caryatids: the four surviving female clones of a mad Balkan genius and wanted war criminal.
Radmila is a Dispensation star determined to forget her past by building a glittering, impregnable future. Vera is an Acquis functionary dedicated to reclaiming their home, the Croatian island of Mljet, from catastrophic pollution. Sonja is a medical specialist renowned for selflessly risking herself to help others. And Biserka is a one-woman terrorist network.
The four "sisters" are united only by their hatred for their "mother" - and for one another. When evidence surfaces of a coming environmental cataclysm, the Dispensation sends its greatest statesman - or salesman - John Montgomery Montalban, husband of Radmila, and lover of Vera and Sonja, to gather the Caryatids together in an audacious plan to...
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About the Author
Bruce Sterling is the author of ten novels, three of which were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. The Difference Engine, co-written with William Gibson, was a national bestseller. He has also published four short-story collections and four nonfiction books. He has written for many magazines, including Time, Newsweek, Fortune, Technology Review, and Wired, where he has been a contributing editor since its inception. He has won two Hugo Awards for his short fiction. Sterling lives in Austin, Texas.
Read an Excerpt
Poisons, pumped down here at enormous pressure, had oozed deep into the water table. The seamy stone was warped and twisted. All around her, toxin miners scuttled like crabs.
The toxin miners pried the poisoned rock apart, slurped up toxins with busy hoses, then deftly reassembled the stifling walls in a jigsaw mess of glue. In their exoskeletons and filter suits, the miners looked like construction cranes wrapped in trash bags.
The miners were used to their work and superbly good at it. They measured their progress in meters per day. They were subterranean bricklayers. Cracking blocks and stacking blocks: that was their very being.
Vera thought longingly of glorious light and air at the island’s sunny surface, which, from the cramped and filthy depths of this mine, seemed as distant as the surface of Mars. Vera had made it a matter of personal principle to know every kind of labor on the island: forestry, reef restoration, the census of species . . .
These miners had the foulest, vilest redemption work she’d ever seen. The workers were a gang of grimy, knobby ghosts, recycling sewage inside a locked stone closet.
Her helmeted head rang with a sudden buzz of seismic sensors, as if her graceless filter suit were filled with bees. Tautly braced within their shrouds and boneware, the miners studied the tortured rock through their helmet faceplates. They muttered helpful advice at each other.
Vera loaded the mine’s graphic server. She tapped into the augment that the miners were sharing.
Instantly, the dark wet rock of the mine burst into planes of brilliant color-coding: cherry red, amber yellow, veins of emerald green . . . A dazzling graphic front end for this hellhole.
Using their gauntlets, the miners drilled thumb-sized pits into the dirty rock. They plucked color-coded blasting caps from damp-stained satchels at their waists. They tamped in charges. Within a minute came the blast. Vera, sealed within her suit and padded helmet, felt her teeth clack in her head.
With a groan and squeak of their boneware, the miners wrestled out a cracked slab the size of a coffin.
A stew of effluent gushed forth. The bowels of the Earth oozed false-color gushes of scarlet and maroon.
“You can help me now,” Karen beckoned.
Vera chased the software from her faceplate with a shake of her head. Vera’s sensorweb offered sturdy tech support to anyone who might redeem the island, but the mediation down this mine was in a terrible state. These miners were plumbing the island’s bowels with bombs and picks, but when it came to running their everyware, they never synchronized the applications, they never optimized the servers, they never once emptied the caches of the client engines. Why were people like that?
Badly encumbered by her filter shroud, Vera clambered to Karen’s side through a cobweb of safety supports. The carbon-fiber safety webs looked as useless as dirty gossamer. Strain monitors glowed all over them, a spectral host of underground glowworms.
Vera found her voice. “What do you need me to do?”
“Put both your hands up.
Here. And over there. Right. Hold all that up.” Vera stood obediently. Her exoskeleton locked her body tight against the ceiling.
Karen’s boneware creaked as she hefted her power drill. She studied the rock’s warping grain through the mediation of her faceplate, whistling a little through her teeth. Then she probed at a dripping seam. “This part’s nasty,” she warned.
Her drill spewed a tornado of noise. Vera’s guts, lungs, and muscles shook with the racket. It got much worse as Karen dug, jammed, and twisted. Within her boneware, Vera’s flesh turned to jelly.
Karen handled her massive drill with a dainty attention to detail, as if its long whirring bit were a chopstick.
Gouts of flying rock dust pattered off Vera’s helmet. She twisted her neck and felt the helmet’s cranial sensors dig into her scalp.
Two miners slogged past her as she stood there locked in place, hauling their hoses and power cables, as if they were trailing spilled guts. They never seemed to tire.
Stuck in her posture of cramped martyrdom to duty, Vera sourly enjoyed a long, dark spell of self-contemplation.
Like an utter idiot, she had allowed herself to be crammed into this black, evil place . . . No, in a bold gust of crusading passion, she had grabbed her sensor kit and charged headlong down into this mine to tackle the island’s worst depths. Why? To win some glow of deeper professional glory, or maybe one word of praise from her boss?
How could she have been that stupid, that naive? Herbert was never coming down here into a toxin mine. Herbert was a professional. Herbert had big plans to fulfill.
Herbert was a career Acquis environmental engineer, with twenty years of service to his credit. Vera also wore the Acquis uniform, but, as a career Acquis officer, Vera was her own worst enemy. When would she learn to stop poking in her beak like a magpie, trying to weave her sensor-webbing over the whole Earth? Any engineer who ran a sensorweb always thought she was the tech support for everything and everybody. “Ubiquitous, pervasive, and ambient”—all those fine words just meant that she would never be able to leave anything alone.
No amount of everyware and mediation could disguise the fact that this mine was a madhouse. The ugly darkness here, the grit, the banging, grinding, and blasting, the sullen heat, the seething damp: and the whole place was literally full of poison! She was breathing through micropored plastic, one filmy layer away from tainted suffocation.
Stuck in her rigid posture of support, Vera gazed angrily through the rounded corners of her helmet faceplate. Nobody else down in this mine seemed at all bothered by the deadly hazards surrounding them.
Was she living an entirely private nightmare, was she insane? Maybe she had been crazy since childhood. Anyone who learned about her childhood always thought as much.
Or maybe her perspectives were higher and broader and finer, maybe she simply understood life better than these dirty morons. Stinging sweat dripped over Vera’s eyebrows. Yes, this ugly mayhem was the stuff of life for the tunnel rats. They had followed their bliss down here. This hell was their homeland. Fresh air, fresh water, golden sunlight, these were alien concepts for them. These cavemen were going to settle down here permanently, burrowing into the poisonous wet and stink like bony salamanders. They would have children, born without eyes. . .
“Stay alert,” Karen warned her. Vera tried, without success, to shrug in her locked exoskeleton. “Work faster, then.”
“Don’t you hustle me,” said Karen merrily. “I’m an artist.” “Let’s get this over with.”
“This is not the kind of work you can hurry,” said Karen. “Besides, I love my drill, but they built it kinda girly and underpowered.”
“Then let me do the drilling. You can hold this roof up.”
“Vera, I know what I’m doing.” With a toss of her head, Karen lit up her bodyware. A halo of glory appeared around her, a mediated golden glow.
This won her the debate. Karen was the expert, for she was very glorious down here. Karen was glorious because she worked so hard and knew so much, and she was so beloved for that. The other miners in this pit, those five grumbling and inarticulate cavemen banging their rocks and trailing their long hoses—they adored Karen’s company. Karen’s presence down here gave their mine a warm emotional sunlight. Karen was their glorious, golden little star.
There was something deeply loathsome about Karen’s cheery affection for her labor and her coworkers. Sagging within her locked boneware, Vera blinked and gaze-tracked her way through a nest of menu options.
Look at that: Karen had abused the mine’s mediation. She had tagged the rocky cave walls with virtual wisecracks and graffiti, plus a tacky host of cute icons and stencils. Could anything be more hateful? ]
A shuddering moan came from the rock overhead. Black ooze cascaded out and splashed the shrouds around their legs.
Karen cut the drill. Vera’s stricken ribs and spine finally stopped shaking.
“That happens down here sometimes,” Karen told her, her voice giddy in the limpid trickling of poisoned water. “Don’t be scared.
” Vera was petrified. “Scared of what? What happens down here?”
“Just keep your hands braced on that big vein of dolomite,” Karen told her, the lucid voice of good sense and reason.
“We’ve got plenty of safety sensors. This whole mine is crawling with smart dust.”
“Are you telling me that this stupid rock is moving?”
“Yeah. It moves a little. Because we’re draining it. It has to subside.”
“What if it falls right on top of us?”
“You’re holding it up,” Karen pointed out. She wiped her helmet’s exterior faceplate with a dainty little sponge on a stick. “I just hit a good nasty wet spot! I can practically smell that!”
“But what if this whole mine falls in on us? That would smash us like bugs!”
Karen sneezed. All cross-eyed, she looked sadly at the spray across the bottom of her faceplate. “Well, that won’t happen.”
“How do you know that?”
“It won’t happen. It’s a judgment call.” This was not an answer Vera wanted to hear. The whole point of installing and running a sensorweb was to avoid human “judgment calls.” Only idiots used guesswork when a sensorweb was available.
For instance, pumping toxins down here in the first place: that was some idiot’s “judgment call.”
Some fool had judged that it was much easier to hide an environmental crime than it was to pay to be clean. Then the Acquis had arrived with their sensorweb and their mediation, so everybody knew everything about the woe and horror on this island. The hidden criminality was part of the public record, suddenly. They were mining the crime. There was crime all around them.
A nasty fit of nerves gathered steam within Vera. She hadn’t had one of these fits of nerves in months. She had thought she was well and truly over her fits of nerves. She’d been sure she would never have a fit of nerves while wearing an Acquis neural helmet.
“Let me use the drill,” Vera pleaded. “This drill needs a special touch.”
“Let me do it.”
“You volunteered for mine work,” said Karen. “That doesn’t make you good at it. Not yet.”
‘We learn by doing,’ ” Vera quoted stiffly, and that was a very correct, Acquis-style thing to say. So Karen shrugged and splashed out of the way. Karen braced herself against the stony roof.
Vera wrapped her arms around the rugged contours of the drill. Her boneware shifted at the hips and knees as she raised the drill’s tip overhead. She pressed the trigger.
The drill whirled wildly in her arms and jammed. All the lights in the mine went out.
Vera’s exoskeleton, instantly, locked tight around her flesh. She was stuck to the drill as if nailed to it.
“I’m stuck,” she announced. “And it’s dark.”
“Yeah, we’re all stuck here now,” said Karen, in the sullen blackness. Toxic water dripped musically.
“I can’t move! I can’t see my own hands. I can’t even see my mediation!”
“That’s because you just blew out the power, Vera. Freezing the system is a safety procedure.
” An angry, muffled shout came from another miner. “Okay, what idiot pulled that stunt?” Vera heard the miner sloshing toward them through the darkness.
“I did that!” Vera shouted. In the Acquis, it was always best to take responsibility at once. “That was my fault! I’ll do better.”
“Oh. So it was you? You, the newbie?”
Karen was indignant. “Gregor, don’t you dare call Vera a ‘newbie.’ This is Vera Mihajlovic! Compared to her, you’re the newbie.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I still have charge left in my capacitors.”
Karen sighed aloud in the wet darkness. “Just go and reboot us, Gregor. We’ve all got a schedule to meet.”
“Please help me,” Vera begged him. “I’m stuck here, I can’t move!”
“You’ll have to wait for a miracle, stupid,” said Gregor, and he left them there, rigid in the darkness.
“You made Gregor angry,” Karen assessed. “Gregor’s our very best rock man, but he’s not exactly a people person.”
Vera heaved uselessly against the silent pads and straps of her dead exoskeleton. Her boneware, which gave her such strength, grace, lightness, power, had become her intimate prison.
“Who designed all this?” she shrieked. “We should have power backups! We should have fuel cells!”
“Be glad that we can still hear each other talking.” Karen’s voice sounded flat and muffled though her helmet and shroud. “It’s too hot down here to run any fuel cells. Gregor will reboot us. He can do it, he’s good. You just wait and see.
” A long, evil moment passed. Panic rose and clutched the dry lining of Vera’s throat. “This is horrible!”
“Yes,” said Karen mournfully, “I guess it is, pretty much.”
“I can’t stand it!”
“Well, we just have to stand it, Vera. We can’t do anything but stand here.
” Claustrophobic terror washed through Vera’s beating heart.
“I can’t do it,” she said. “I can’t bear any more.”
“I’m not scared,” Karen told her. “I used to be very scared every time I came down here. But emotion is a neural state. A neural state can’t touch you. I’m never afraid like I used to be. Sometimes I have fear-thoughts, but my fear-thoughts are not me.”
Karen’s voice was full of limpid sympathy. “You can scream, then. Do it. I’m here for you.”
Seen from the airy hilltop, Mljet was a tattered flag, all bays, peninsulas, and scattered islets. The island’s scalloped shores held stains in their nooks and corners: the algae blooms.
The rising Adriatic, carrying salt, had killed a dry brown skirt-fringe of the island’s trees.
The island’s blanket of pines and oaks was torn by clear-cut logging, scarred black with forest fires.
And if the golden shore of this beautiful place had suffered, the island’s interior was worse. Mljet’s angry creeks had collapsed the island’s bridges as if they’d been kneecapped with pistols. Up in the rocky hills, small, abandoned villages silently flaked their paint.
Year by year, leaning walls and rust-red roofs were torn apart by towering houseplants gone feral. The island’s rotting vineyards were alive with buzzing flies and beetles, clouded with crows.
A host of flowers had always adorned this sunny place. There were far more flowers in these years of the climate crisis. Harsh, neck-high thickets of rotting flowers, feeding scary, billowing clouds of angry bees.
Such was her home. From the peak of the island, where she stood, throat raw, flesh trembling, mind in a whirl, she could see that the island was transforming. She could hear that, smell it, taste it in the wind. She was changing it.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Women hold up half the sky. But what if the sky is something to fear?Once, there were seven of them, seven identical sisters, all clones of their sinister mother, being raised to wield power in the mid twenty first century. One of the many, bloody conflicts stemming from the world climate crisis killed three, and scattered the remaining four across the globe, while their mother retreated to an orbital habitat. As we meet each, we see another view of the high-tech, devasted world of 2065, a decade after their parting.Vera has joined a project to reclaim, from environmental damage, the Adriatic Sea island where she and her sisters were raised. She works with intrusive neural technologies that enhance people's capabilities while leaving them no privacy. Radmila has married into a wealthy, civic-minded Los Angeles show-business dynasty, selling distraction to the global media. Sonja has lived in China, Earth's last true nation-state, working to rescue the survivors of terrible droughts and other disasters. Biserka - well, Biserka causes a great deal of trouble for the other three. All Sterling's usual interests are here: the strangeness of social and technological trends we take for granted, the contrast beween how things work and how we think about them, the possible forms posthumanity might take, the ferocious consequences of ignoring climate change, the love of a good one-liner:Radmila walked the artificial beach, vamped before the floating cameras, and gazed into the sun-glittering Pacific. Six lunatics were surfing out there. For the life of her, Radmila could not understand surfers in Los Angeles. Obviously riding on a wave was a nice stunt performance, but inside the ocean? There were whole chunks and shoals of broken China bobbing around out there, all glass, nails, slime, and toxic jellyfish.[...]Radmila was looking sexy today, as contractually required. Looking sexy was a basic theatrical craft. [...]Certain men direly wanted to have sexy sex with professionally beautiful women: sex with the stars. Those men were delusionary. Sex with a star was an awful idea, like having sex with a rosebush. You were not supposed to get in bed with a rosebush.Environmental terror and a witty observation in one short passage. For an observation on posthumanity, take this exchange between Radmila's husband and Vera, who, like everyone in her project, voluntarily wears a brain-scanning helmet for operating machinery and monitoring herself and others:Montalban looked at her soberly. "You really look a lot prettier without that canteen on your head.""Scanning helps me. It is a powerful tool.""That," said Montalban, "is why that tool has been restricted to a very small group of users in an otherwise hopeless situation."She could see that her tears were affecting him strongly. His face had grown much softer. He looked thoughtful and handsome, truly sympathetic. He looked at her as if he loved her more than anything in the world."If you never scan your own brain," said Vera, wiping at her cheeks, "how do you know what you feel about all this?"I'm not sure if Sterling means this as satire. We do misunderstand our own motivations, and maybe that'd be harder with a continuously updated display of what major brain centers show about our emotions. Here as always, Sterling is brilliant on envisioning the profound (or are they?) changes wrought by technology.But the focus of the novel remains on the women, who are all, really, unreliable narrators. Just behind them, a bit out of focus but present, is a world in which the population of China has dropped by half over twenty years, and all our technology still leaves the issue of human survival in doubt.If you've never read Sterling, I suggest Distraction for a first try, but this novel well displays his talents.
all the usual Sterling goodness, which I read as an ode to Southern Slav women
Lots of flowery writing. Too much flower, not enough soil... and the author got so busy making political commentary about environmental degradation, technological advancements gone awry, and capitalism as potential hero that the plot got lost.The technology is believably futuristic and if it wasn't for all the childish "touchy-feelyness" and the green politics versus capitalism politics, I might have rated the story as an average one.
This one is something of a mixed bag, in my opinion. First, what I liked: > The book's above-average literary quality, stemming from a good, engaging format, and some admirable descriptions and turns-of-phrase > Lots of imagination, paired with a broad, farsighted intelligence, as to formulate some truly intriguing possibilities > A wry humor that intersperses the text; I laughed several times > Some perceptive insights and social commentaries, along with nuggets of worldly wisdom here and there Now, what I didn't like: > A general lack of direction in the story and its various threads, which, even after reaching the end, I failed to really grasp as any sort of cohesive arc > An emptiness to the characters and their actions, rendering the characters one-dimensional, inhuman caricatures (which, even if that was the author's intent, still seemed to work against the book) > Several awkward, aimless transitions in events or tone, plus some parts that just came off, to me, as downright strange and irrelevant, or no made sense at all Consequently, I spent part of the time looking for the author's point, alternating with periods of enjoying the imaginative elements, with the gist of the time spent in detached frustration, trying to figure out how to read the book on a fundamental level. Was it supposed to be satire? a sci-fi absurdist piece? a sly political mockery, maybe? a metaphorical social analysis that I was just too dense to penetrate? Or, was the story a mere vehicle for the author's technological musings? As best as I can tell, it was most likely the latter scenario, with the fiction taking a backseat to the ventilation of some cool ideas. In any case, 'Caryatids' did have enjoyable parts, and though they failed to redeem the book entirely, these proved just substantial enough to keep me reading. If nothing else, I learned a thing or two, and glimpsed some possibilities I hadn't considered; ultimately, it felt worthwhile. My sincere thanks to this book's author and publisher. I am grateful for, and have benefited from, your work and service.
Set in an interesting post-crisi world, but disjointed and unfulfilling, especially compared to classics like Heavy Weather or Diatractions
In 2060 the world has changed from nations competing for resources into three major groups fighting one another for supremacy of an earth beyond the brink of pandemic collapse. Each wants control of the dwindling resources once coveted by countries. Headquartered in Los Angeles is the Dispensation based on the amalgamation of money, entertainment and high tech. The Green crowd Acquis still hopes to build a utopia on the dying planet. Finally the only nation still breathing, China survives by destroying its people as expendable pawns.
In addition to the geo-political-corporate rivals, there also exist three Caryatids female clones of a Balkan war criminal living on a space station and their brother. The Dispensation control Radmila tries everything to ignore her roots. The Acquis own Vera who wants to save her birthplace Mljet Island, Croatia. In China Sonja is a highly regarded medical expert who risks her life to help others. Finally there is also their brother Djordje the businessman. With the globe nearing its final death, Dispensation¿s John Montgomery Montalban, husband to Radmila and lover of Vera and Sonja, tries to unite the Caryatid women in a desperate Hail Mary plan. His problem is that the female clones hate one another almost as much as they loathe their orbiting mother.
This is a superb cautionary science fiction thriller that makes the case that even a super-person or three is not enough to clean up mankind¿s path of environmental destruction as long as world leaders and complacent people prefer to bushwhack with alibis any efforts to turn around the trends. The wannabe hero has a superego that has him believe only he can broker the deal to save the world. Fascinatingly the titled females share much in common as clones and with their hatred, but each is different in outlook bringing uniqueness to the mix. Although the story line in some ways feels like three novellas (each female¿s tale) tied together with a save the world in spite of humanity overarching theme, fans will relish this post-apocalyptic dying earth saga.