It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling

The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling
(2009, Del Rey, $25.00, 297pp)

In 1930, Hugo Gernsback wrote, “Not only is science fiction an idea of tremendous import, but it is to be an important factor in making the world a better place to live in, through educating the public to the possibilities of science and the influence of science on life which, even today, are not appreciated by the man on the street.” And yet in the decades since then, the genre has ceased to be either didactic or predictive. A science fiction may have something to say – and most certainly do – but any such conversation will most likely be about the present.

Bruce Sterling, however, is not just a science fiction writer. He has also been a “Visionary in Residence”, at both the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam. He has eleven science fiction novels to his name, and five collections of short stories. He has also written non-fiction, such as Tomorrow Now and Shaping Things. His last three novels could be described as conversations with the future: in Zeitgeist, it was the commodification of entertainment product and the feral capitalism of the ex-Soviet client states; in The Zenith Angle, it was the War on Terror and ubiquitous surveillance; and now, in The Caryatids, it is the collapse of the earth’s climate, of the global economy, and of nation-states.

The Caryatids of the book’s title are the four surviving clone sisters of a group of seven created by a female Croatian warlord (what is the female equivalent of warlord? warlady? bellatrix?). Vera is a member of a recovery team on the Adriatic island of Mljet (known to the Ancient Greeks as Melita), which has suffered toxic pollution. Radmila has married into a powerful Hollywood family and is now a media star. Sonja is a medic, living and working for the Chinese in a space city in the Gobi Desert. And then there’s Biserka, who is insane.

I suspect it’s no accident there are seven clone sisters – that’s one for each continent. It’s equally telling that only four have survived. Vera is Europe – technological, non-authoritarian, looking for new ways to live. Radmila is the US – technology-backed spectacle, a self-imposed role as the guardian of the planet, and wielding capitalism as a weapon with the clinical precision of a scalpel. Sonja is Asia – undefeatable, strong, and finding a way to live that neither Europe nor the US would ever contemplate. And poor Biserka is Africa – the dark continent, forever at war with itself.

There is also an eighth clone, a man. His name is Djordje – AKA George – and he is a Viennese businessman. He has a nice Viennese hausfrau wife and dalring children. He is successful, and makes more than enough money to keep his family safe and secure. He’s not above bending laws, or ethics, when making deals. He has just started using the latest business tools and he thinks they’re wonderful. George is perhaps the world as it used to be.

And the “mother”? She is the climate disaster which created the world of The Caryatids. Once she’s done her bit, she’s hustled off to a space station in orbit, out of the way of story and history.

Each clone has her story – and The Caryatids is a story. And shown to be a story about a story in the afterword “interview” with Radmila’s daughter, Mary Montalban. There are three sections to the novel: Vera, Radmila and Sonja. An epilogue sees all four meet for the funeral of their mother. They are burying the world’s past as much as they burying their own.

The world as it is in The Caryatids is not the world we know. The climate has crashed, billions have died, and most nation-states have failed. The world is now dominated by two supra-national societies – the Dispensation and the Acquis. The Dispensation is Californian and supremely capitalist. Its members talk like the flakiest of Hollywood “business” people. The Acquis are European.

As a writer or a visionary, Sterling has never been short of ideas, and there are plenty in The Caryatids. Most of them seem extrapolated from his arguments in Tomorrow Now and Shaping Things – ubiquitous computing, and complex devices created from simple components using unsophisticated techniques. This is a “spime”-dominated future.

Conversations can change minds. They can alter opinions. When conversing about the future, wiggle-room for such changes is built-in. The Caryatids is not going to be “educating the public to the possibilities of science and the influence of science on life”, but it may well prove a catalyst for conversations which will do that. Gernsback might not recognise the 21st century version of his “scientification”, but for those of us living in the 21st Century and gazing into the abyss of the future, The Caryatids provides a thought-provoking, entertaining and perhaps important roadmap for the decades ahead.

This review originally appeared, with an interview with Bruce Sterling, in Interzone 221, March-April 2009.


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Words invade a home book by book

In the past six months, I’ve given away several hundred books, and yet the ones remaining seem to take up more and more space. Admittedly, some authors’ books I’ve been steadily replacing paperback copies with hardbacks… But that can’t be the only reason. However, some of the following may go some way to explaining it:

Some signed firsts: Gothic High-Tech and One Who Disappeared I pre-ordered ages ago, from Subterranean and PS respectively. Intrusion was the only book I bought at the SFX Weekender, and since Ken was there he signed it for me. Pacific Edge is for the KSR Collection, and the Spider Robinson Author’s Choice Monthly joins the others I own (currently twelve). I can’t say I’m a fan of all the writers they published, but there are several excellent ones.

I bought The Quiet War from a seller on abebooks.co.uk, who had it down as a hardback. When it proved to be the trade paperback, they gave me a refund. There’s a copy of Players on coldtonnage.com for £50; I got my copy for £5 on eBay. Windows – a US hardback, it was never published in the UK – is for the Compton Collection. And Arkfall and Machine are two recent books by women sf writers. I thought Gilman’s Isles of the Forsaken excellent (see here), and I’ve heard good things about Pelland’s fiction (shame about the cover-art, though).

Some new paperbacks. If Embassytown is shortlisted for the Clarke, I’m going feel a little silly. I guess I’d better read it then. Rogue Moon joins the rest of my SF Masterworks collection, though I reread the book only a couple of years ago. I do like the design on these 4th Estate Ballard books – The Crystal World makes it six I now own.

Charity shop finds. My Name is Red becomes March’s book for this year’s reading challenge (see here). I’m still determined to work my way through the 007 books, despite thinking they’re not very good – hence The Spy Who Loved Me. And I’ve quite fancied trying some of Gerard Woodward’s novels for a while, and last weekend I found three in a charity shop: August, I’ll Go To Bed At Noon and A Curious Earth.

This is the last lot from my Dad’s collection of Penguin paperbacks. A bunch of Raymond Chandlers: Playback, The High Window, The Lady in the Lake, Smart-Aleck Kill and Killer in the Rain. A couple by Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano and Ultramarine. One by David Karp (did you see what I did there?). Another Camus – The Outsider; one from the Dance to the Music of Time – The Kindly Ones (a popular book title, it seems) – and Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

This is the third time The Incal has been published in English – first by Titan Books, then by Humanoids Associates, and now by SelfMadeHero. But this new edition is much nicer than previous ones, so even though I have the Humanoids paperbacks I had to get this one.

2000 Fathoms Down is for the underwater collection (that’s a collection of books on underwater topics, rather than a collection of books located underwater, of course), and I’ve seen so many positive mentions of Delusions of Gender I thought it was about time I bought my own copy.


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The Ten Best Science Fiction Books… Ever

Everyone loves lists. Contentious lists are even better. So here’s one: the ten absolute best science fiction novels ever published – written by sf authors, published by sf publishers. These ten books show what the genre is capable of when it aims to be more than mindless escapism. They are fiercely intelligent, beautifully written, meaningful, inventive, rigorous, and sf from the first word to the last. They are, in chronological order:

The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe (1972). A collection of three novellas – but not a cheat, as the three are linked and form a novel together. This is the sort of science fiction that can be read and enjoyed, and then carefully puzzled through to determine what was really going on. Wolfe is a tricksy writer, and in The Fifth Head of Cerberus he’s at his tricksy-est.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974). Donald Wollheim once claimed that the benevolent dictatorship was the government of choice of sf fans. That’s clearly what comes of reading too many space operas with interstellar empires and the like. And yet sf also has a history of documenting the road to utopia. All that benevolent dictator stuff is nonsense, of course – it’s as much fantasy as the Competent Man as hero. Thankfully, not everyone subscribes to it. The Dispossessed is a political book – it’s even subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia” – and it’s political in a way that makes you think, that shows you what sf is really for.

Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975), is definitely science fiction – it’s in the relaunched SF Masterworks series, for a start – even though it’s proven extremely popular outside the genre. Sometimes it reads like a novel of its time, sometimes it seems almost timeless. But every time you read it, it’s different. It is also the most profoundly literary book in this list, and from an author who is steeped in genre.

Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990). Yes, so Iain M Banks’s Consider Phlebas arguably kicked off the whole New British Space Opera thing in 1987, but to my mind the movement didn’t really gel until the appearance of Take Back Plenty three years later. I remember the buzz the book caused – and I remember on reading it discovering that it was as good as everyone said it was. I reread it a couple of years ago, and it’s still bloody good. So why is it not in the SF Masterworks series, eh?

The Martian trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992 – 1996), is a bit of a cheat as it’s three books. While many are full of admiration for the first book, Red Mars, but not so keen on the sequels, Green Mars and Blue Mars, I maintain that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You need to read Green Mars and Blue Mars after you’ve finished Red Mars because the first book only poses a small handful of the questions the three books ask and attempt to answer.

Coelestis, Paul Park (1993), was once described by John Clute as “Third World sf”, but I prefer to think of it as “post-colonial sf”. But not “post-colonial” in the same way as Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. I was an expat until only a few years ago, so it’s no surprise I’m drawn to fiction which documents the British expat experience abroad – hence my admiration for Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. While Park is an American, Coelestis is infused with that same atmosphere. Plus Park is one of the best prose stylists in this list. Why has this book been allowed to go out of print? Someone publish a new edition, please.

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000). This is the biggest book on this list – it contains nearly a million words. It is, with Red Mars, one of the most rigorous too. Rigour is important in sf – you can’t just make shit up as you go along (but you can, of course, as Iain Banks is fond of putting it, “blow shit up”). The bulk of the story may be set in an alternate mediaeval Europe, but it is not fantasy. It is clever, it is visceral, it is also physically heavy.

Light, M John Harrison (2002). They say Harrison is a writer’s writer, and the prose in Light certainly suggests as much. Light is also one of those novels that’s often described as one which “redefines” science fiction. Which it does. Sort of. But not by coming up with something new, only by shedding new light on those genre tropes being over-exercised at the turn of the century. They say that sf is a genre in conversation with itself, which makes Harrison one of sf’s sharpest conversationalists.

Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004). I need only repeat David Soyka from his review of this book on sfsite.com: “You can stop reading right now and go out and buy the book. Otherwise, you’ll have to endure yet another one of these diatribes about how science fiction doesn’t get any respect from the literary mainstream. Because you can’t read this book and not reflect on the fact that had this been written by, say, Margaret Atwood, Life would be receiving more of the widespread attention it deserves.”

The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009). I’ve never believed sf should be predictive, but if any sf writer could be called an “architect of futures” then it would be Bruce Sterling. And in The Caryatids he has produced his most inventive and meaningful conversation with the future yet. It is the best book he has written. So why hasn’t it been published in the UK? Why is there only a US edition of this excellent book?

These are not “seminal” sf novels, they are not “classics”, they are not even especially popular. But they are “best” in the true meaning of the word – i.e., “of the highest quality”. If you haven’t read them, you should do so immediately.

Now tell me which books I’ve missed off my list. No mainstream authors slumming it in the genre, please. And I don’t care what impact a book had in, or outside, the genre. It has to be, in your eyes, one of the best-written science fiction novels ever published. And that doesn’t mean the “most entertaining”, or any other excuse used to justify flat writing, cardboard characters, or simplistic plotting. I’m not talking about fit for purpose; I’m talking about excellence in writing, in prose, in literature, in genre.