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The Caryatids by Bruce Sterling

02/03/2009. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Caryatids in the USA - or Buy The Caryatids in the UK

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pub: Del Rey/Ballantine Books. 297 page hardback. Price: $25.00 (US), $28.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-46062-2.

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Do you know what 'caryatids' are? Me neither until now. According to the dictionary they are the Ancient Grecian columns that support buildings built in the shape of loosely clad females. Author Bruce Sterling sees the remaining four female clones of Yelisaveta Mihajlovic, a deceased wanted war criminal, as the title caryatids as they make their way in the world.

The story tends to be character studies of three of them. Vera works on the Croatian island of Mljet reclaiming it from pollution. Radmilia is in Los Angeles as part of the acting Montalban Family, whose rank increases after its matriarch dies. 'Red' Sonja is also married to a leader in China but forced to flee with him after a major catastrophe when the sun flares. Along the way is terrorist Biserka who doesn't like any of her sister clones.

Confused? Me, too, to some extent. If it wasn't for Radmilia's husband, John Montgomery Montalban, appearing and interweaving with the clone sisters, it would be easy to treat this as three separate novelettes showing their individual lives and think of them more as character studies than how they relate to the rest of the world. Sterling certainly takes cynical swipes at everything, especially the Hollywood machine although quite why he thinks it holds a significant place in the world I'll leave you to judge. More so, as he shows how plastic the place is.

Doing such things layers the story and you have to pay attention to what is going on. Picking favourite sections is difficult. Certainly Radmilia's life is the more colourful but as Hollywood is so much press aware, it should reach most people's cynicism, unless you live in L.A. and like the life-style. Sonja's loyality is certainly tested with her husband.

If anything, the introductory story about Vera tends to be the most mismatched to what else is going on and if you feel that way when reading the story, persevere to the later sections. Oddly, it's John Montalban himself who seems to be the most cypher-like. He appears at crucial moments to guide direct direction but you're never quite sure what he wants. As to Djorde...excuse me, George, a male clone from the same genome, he just wants an ordinary life.

Author Bruce Sterling succeeds in producing something that is atmospheric yet at the same time separates itself from the reality he conveys. You hear more about the major events that take place than as they occur.

Because the story is so character orientated, you have to think more about the implications of the material than expect to have it all on the printed page. Don't expect a light read here and let your mind wander from the page neither. I found it hard to read more than fifty pages at a day taking it all in. Readers familiar with Sterling's other books are likely to be familiar with this.

Certainly 'The Caryatids' is an engaging read and I suspect it will get read many times for its full implications to sink in.

GF Willmetts

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