Friday, January 8, 2010

The Caryatids

The Caryatids, by Bruce Sterling, 2009, also doesn't merit Hugo nominee,

A pretty good book, though. Suffers in relative quality in reminding me of The Windup Girl (multiple morally ambiguous viewpoints set among an environmentally devastated planet) while not being anywhere near as good. Still, there's a lot of interesting stuff here, pulled together in an effective story. It's over infatuated with the device of cloning as a perspective device and the beginning is very slow, but it was quite engaging by the end. Solidly in the category of a good and worthwhile SF book, it's short of great I believe mostly in that 1) it goes with a type of shallow satire for a long section, rather than committing to a future dystopian or doomsday premise and 2) having one major character who just bugged, especially her implausible motivation (blow everything up!).

This is the fourth genre novel from 2009 I've read that deals with the theme of environmental devastation impacting catastrophically on human civilization. I'd conclude that this book wasn't as strong as the others (The Windup Girl, Julian Comstock, Year of the Flood) although it's only narrowly behind Atwood's. While Sterling's narrative is over attached to the device of different viewpoint characters being clones of each other, and the structure isn't as novel as he thinks it is, he does offer an interesting setting to place this world. Opening well after the main devastation, the book doesn't spend much time tracing the changes that have doomed old norms, instead it engages with the different new organizations that have adapted to thrive. The Acquis, the Dispensation and China form the main powerblocks, with one viewpoint character assigned to each.

The first two are each interesting, primarily for the contrast. The Acquis are a type of mildly transhuman adaptation in the direction of Green collectivism. Easily the most benign, yet with enough creepy, coercive and austere elements to not feel too idealized. The main interest I found in this angle was the negotiations they were forced into, having to balance their intentions with their relatively weak power. A community that had succeeded at immense odds in reclaiming a bit of the globe against collapse--and now finds that they still have issues to deal with, that their success attracts attention, that in order to work with a broader humanity they have to cut deals with a group that doesn't share their principles, and finally that their very success might have been gained through a heavy ethical cost precisely because of their form of principles. It's a very nice scenario, and while the negotiation scene early in the novel is rather drawn out, it has enough ambiguity to be compelling.

The Dispensation is interesting for contrast, but is less compelling in its own right. A type of disaster-capitalism that now strikes me as having parallels with the portrayal in Market Forces, they focus on hype, entertainment, ultra-adaptation. What's most interesting about the Dispensation is that they don't appear as center stage of their own setting--a lot of authors using this would have made them the center of a dystopia that needed to be challenge. Instead, while there's a lot to obviously condemn about the way they operate, it's shown as an understandable and eminently human structure. Still, this plot strand tens the most to shallow satire over more substantive world-building, and despite some nice character growth is the weakest part of the book.

Finally there's China, the only nation that's maintained it's identity and power, albeit at a pretty staggering cost. The best part of the book is here, partly from the setting, but as well in the protagonist's involvement with this society. The whole atmosphere of navigating through 'the last nation-state', and the confident reasons given in-universe for why of course it was China that did this, are quite intriguing. The very ending makes for a neat connection and plot movement amongst the arcs, but also spoils some of the ambiguity in the China section, making me a bit ambivalent on it. Nevertheless, I'd recommend this work.

Similar to and better than: Stephen Baxter's Titan
Similar to and worse than: Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl

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