The Ophiuchi Hotline
Today’s post is about two books that I picked up from the library expecting cyberpunk and space opera, but which both turned out to be about clones. I am not sure how it is I often end up unintentionally reading multiple books about the same thing, I guess one could call it destiny. In this case, Clone Destiny. Fortunately I am not watching the newest Star Wars series, or I would probably bring that in as well. I digress. These books are 30+ years apart and have nothing else in common, but it’s not every day that I read two books in succession about a hot-button topic, especially when I was completely primed for something different.
In Sterling’s case, the dust jacket is much more upfront about everything. I knew going in that the main characters were clones of each other. This being Sterling, I could probably have assumed that they were also bizarre and grotesque, but I was off-base in my expectation of a cyberpunky experience. Sterling is recognized as one of the fathers of cyberpunk, but none of his novels that I have read (this, Schismatrix, and The Difference Engine) is at all cyberpunk. Only The Caryatids is even near future. This is probably a reflection of my ignorance more his bibliography, however. Ramblings aside, Caryatids is a near-future, post-ecological disaster story about messed up clones. The summary claims that they are trying to save the world, but mostly they’re trying not to blow themselves up.
Sterling spends a fair bit of time dissecting the primary clone set’s dysfunction, a little bit of time on some crazy secondary and tertiary clones, and slightly more time telling a story. The Caryatids is more of a character study than a tightly plotted narrative, but even more of a world-building exercise. (This seems about par for the course with Sterling, judging from my limited reading.) The reader is taken on a whirlwind tour of the post-ecological collapse world, as seen through the eyes of three deeply disturbed people. There are a few interludes with one or another sane viewpoint in control of the narrative, but for the most part, it’s a mad world explained by mad people. Again, I would expect no less from Bruce Sterling.
The highlights are the three main power brokers in the new world: China, Los Angeles, and the Aquis. Each is an extrapolation of a current culture taken to its logical extreme, then pushed a little bit further. The Chinese are the only functioning State left standing; they dropped hydrogen bombs in the Himalayas to ensure adequate water supplies. LA is modern SoCal run amuck. The characters are wheeling and dealing capitalists, everyone has a plan, and life moves to a Hollywood beat. People assign themselves theme music and speak in declamatory monologues, complete with appropriate camera angles and punch lines. This is my favorite part. Finally, Aquis is kind of what might happen if Pacific NW hippie activism got a hold of battle armor and group-mind neural helmets. They are identified as being from Europe, and N. Europe probably has a lot of similarities with my damp neck of the woods, but I felt totally at home with Aquis. Not somewhere I’d want to live, but give them coffee mugs and grunge CD’s, and they’re basically Seattle supermen.
I have one final comment. I flicked through a couple of reviews of Caryatids, looking for some info that had slipped my mind. This appears to be a polarizing book, no surprise there, and people can’t seem to agree on whether or not Sterling was serious with it all, let alone whether or not it’s a good book. John Clute’s review is interesting for two reasons: first, the comments section where people obviously don’t get it. Second, Clute wrote this just as Obama was entering the White House in what Clute called a reaffirmation of the power of the State. He thinks that Sterling’s book is a repudiation of the State’s relevance, which may be true, and wonders how the book will go over when people seemed to be validating their belief in the State via Obama. I wonder what he would say now, as Ron Paul rages across the landscape.
On to John Varley. The Ophiuchi Hotline is on lists of seminal SF books, so I knew I’d better check it out. I previously read Titan, but that’s the extent of my Varley knowledge. Ophiuchi pretty much confirmed my initial impressions: interesting Big Idea, great set up, lots of delving into the minds of people I’m not really interested in, and a lot of random lesbian shenanigans. (More of the last in Titan.) What killed me with Ophiuchi is the brilliant setting. Aliens previously invaded Earth, wiped out much of humanity basically by planting trees, and then retreated to Jupiter, leaving the remnants of us to scratch out an existence under pressurized domes scattered across the Solar System. Sometime later, radio signals started arriving from the Ophiuchi Cluster, jam packed with technology and science, but little information as to the identity or motivations of the senders.
This is all back story – none of it happens on-screen, so to speak, but I couldn’t wait to dig into such a potentially fascinating world. Who is sending the signals? Will Second Contact be any better than the first? Do the beleaguered forces of humanity challenge the invaders? Are we again saved through our pluck and quick thinking? Actually, very little of this matters. We are instead going to read about clones! Not in the psychological way that Sterling looks at them, but as a functional bit of the story. Characters do the old backup trick, periodically getting new bodies when the original one dies, or wants a copy made, or is subjected to the nefarious purposes of one Boss Tweed. By the end, there are three or four copies of a couple of vaguely unpleasant people roaming through the story, performing important plot-related functions.
The plot is fine, taking the reader on a tour of the Solar System and the societies that inhabit it. Some of the questions are partially resolved. This is not, however, an epic space opera or the type of story that opens up into the galaxy in a soul stirring fashion. It is much more claustrophobic, personal, and, if not dark, then certainly dim. It is not at all what I was expecting.
In terms of recommendations, the reader’s reaction to Caryatids likely depends almost entirely on the reader’s feelings for Bruce Sterling. He is a mad visionary, not a purveyor of light summer reading. Ophiuchi is fine, maybe not Hall of Fame worthy, but equal to the demands it makes on the reader. (ie, readily available in the library and not too long) Had I paid more attention going into the book, I probably would have enjoyed it more. With my unrealistic expectations chopped off at the knees, however, I was left with a persistent feeling that, while the book is alright, it’s not the story I wanted to hear.
Rating: Kolo and Yaya Toure. I obviously don’t know of any clones that play football, nor could I come up with identical twins. Jose pointed out that this pair of brothers both play for Manchester City, so that will have to suffice.