The Caryatids

Bruce Sterling is such a brilliant dude that I was beginning to think the science-fiction faithful had lost him as a necessary sacrifice for the good of the world. But he’s taken a break from his busy, serious schedule to write an honest-to-Buddha sci-fi novel, and it’s one of his best.

A caryatid, for the architecturally uninclined, is one of those sculptures shaped like a lady that’s used to hold up a building; the heroines of THE CARYATIDS are superhuman clones spread across the world who might engender a way forward for an Earth wracked by environmental peril and an ever-changing kaleidoscope of threats.

But these sisters are terribly flawed, and as the story of each highlights a different viewpoint on the future of the planet: None is complete without the other. THE CARYATIDS puts tight focus on three of the sisters:

• Vera has joined a global faction called the Acquis that thinks ubiquitous computing, awesome powered exoskeletons and subtle brainwashing is the best way to heal a scarred and poisoned planet, and the book starts with her working to renew her childhood home, the island of Mljet in Croatia;

• Radmila is a superstar among a family of superstars in California; she has put in with another global faction called the Dispensation. This group represents the “military entertainment complex” (a term that Sterling fans will surely recognize) that seems to have its roots in the author’s future California, and Radmila must navigate family politics just as she tries to find a midpoint between the encroaching Pacific and an inevitable supervolcano; and

• Sonja is a soldier/super-nurse/politician who’s made herself a legend in China. Awash in secretive research labs and crazily explosive technological development, she hooks up with a young warlord in the Gobi desert and tries to keep him alive in the midst of constant threat and find a way forward for herself, away from the terror of her history.

Scarred by the fact of their creation and upbringing, these sisters hate each other to the point that even speaking the others’ names is enraging. So there’s obviously no reconciliation in the offing here — each of their stories has a point about the world and the failures of humanity in protecting it; the opening chapter especially seems to have fairly sharp things to say about certain factions in the current global-development scene.

But this isn’t a preachy, position-paper-thinly-disguised-as-fiction polemic. THE CARYATIDS succeeds on a much shallower guns/sex/cool-exoskeletons/intrigue level as well … much to my relief. So far, it’s the best science-fiction book of 2009, and honestly, I don’t see much on the horizon that can compete. Sterling’s prose, characters and speculation have gotten stronger and stronger in the 30-plus years since INVOLUTION OCEAN was published, and he’ll always be welcome in the sci-fi section. —Ryun Patterson

Buy it at Amazon.

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