For several years Bruce Sterling has been one of my favorite science fiction writers. He’s smart, clever, and stays as close to the cutting edge of what’s coming in technology to make his books provocative and at least a little visionary. He also writes about characters and relationships with enough complexity that, at least in my younger days, his observations about humans and our interactions with technology seemed wise and occasionally even profound.
With The Caryatids (2009), Sterling speculates about cloning, world environmental disaster, and the future of the entertainment industry, which in his mind is capable of creating new family dynasties of mega-rich, super-powerful people who manage their lives in a hyper-image conscious style that is almost entirely public, thereby reducing the size of their private lives. This is celebrity-focused culture is a pretty natural extension of the tabloid environment we currently inhabit. He also makes observations about the future our geo-political future with characteristic chaotic logic. However, though he works to develop some characters, namely the cloned sisters—the titular caryatids—that form the structural core of the novel, there are essentially no likable people in the book and it’s hard to develop much empathy for the various trials and dangers they face.
In recent years, Sterling has been doing a lot of editing and lecturing. He’s become a kind of statesman for science fiction and for using science fiction to discuss ideas that are important in our society and its future. His attempt to do that in The Caryatids is laudable, if not entirely successful as a novel.