A review of two recent novels
I recently purchased and read two new books by well known science fiction authors. These were The Caryatids by Bruce Sterling and Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald.
The second of these is a collection of short stories and a novella set in the India of 2047 that was the location for McDonald’s novel, River of Gods. They expand upon the story of that novel in places and also provide more of a view of this vision of the subcontinent. (In fact, the collection will spoil the novel in many ways if you read them before reading the novel…) River of Gods was one of my favorite novels of the last few years so I’ve been waiting to read this for quite some time. I found the stories literally beautiful and very moving in their portrayal of seemingly real people trying to survive. McDonald is one of my favorite authors and his skills just grow over time. The only other author writing short stories in science fiction dealing with similar issues and tone is Paolo Bacigalupi in his collection, Pump Six and Other Stories (which is also one of the finest short story collections that I’ve read recently). Cyberabad Days lived up to my expectations in every way and I recommend it to everyone (but you should read River of Gods first). This is a “run, don’t walk” collection in my opinion.
I was prepared to be just as pleased by the new Bruce Sterling novel, his first in four years (I believe). Early readers who had advanced reader copies had been recommending it and Bruce Sterling is, hands down, in my top five when it comes to authors. “St. Bruce,” I have called him. Unfortunately, while The Caryatids is a very interesting book and has many cool ideas, I found that I really didn’t like it. I liked the cool ideas, the tech, some of the scenes, etc. but the novel as a whole really just didn’t pull together. I found the main character(s) (the cloned sisters) basically insane (in many different ways) and unsympathetic in the extreme. The world as portrayed was as complex and strange as I would expect but when I compare it to Sterling classics like Distraction, it just didn’t hold together. When I got done with it, unlike McDonald’s collection, my reaction wasn’t “Wow, I’ve got to get my friends to read this!” but “Wow, what the fuck did I just read?! Is that it?” I’m not sure what kind of message Sterling was trying to give in the book, though I have the edges of it, but it just didn’t evoke emotion and a sense of place in me in the same way as McDonald’s vision of India.
So, at the end, I must say that I feel that St. Bruce/Chairman Bruce wrote an interesting book but a not terribly great novel. After years of waiting, that leaves me a bit disappointed as I’ve been enjoying his non-fiction and news commentary during the last few years. McDonald continues to wow me and I can only hope that his next stories or novels continue the growth that I’ve seen in him as an author since his first novels.