The Artificial Kid by Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling’s 1980 novel The Artificial Kid wasn’t on my TBR list until Brilliance Audio published an audiobook edition a couple of months ago. I’m so happy to see these older science fiction novels being revived and made even more accessible to a new generation of speculative fiction readers. Last month I reviewed the new audio edition of Sterling’s first novel, Involution Ocean, also by Brilliance Audio. I hope we’ll be seeing more of his novels coming out in audio soon.
The Artificial Kid is Sterling’s second novel and, like Involution Ocean, it’s set on an imaginative world with fabulous scenery, has an unusual plot, contains ecological and evolutionary themes, and features bizarre characters that are hard to like. And drugs. Lots of drugs.
The titular Artificial Kid (“Arti”) is a small and young-appearing man who lives on the planet Reverie. The long-living, decadent, and bored elites who live in orbit above Reverie spend their time watching the shenanigans (mostly sex and violence) of the hoi polloi who live below. Arti is a popular entertainer — a combat artist. He’s not really a kid, he takes hormones that suppress his growth because appearing young is part of his schtick. He has spiky plastic hair, carries nunchuks, picks fights, and, using drones, records everything he does so it can be edited and sold to entertain his fans. Basically, he’s a reality TV star who’s obsessed with his own brand.
When Arti teams up with a young woman who’s a saint and Moses Moses, the founder of Reverie who’s been in cryosleep for centuries, he’s suddenly on the run from the corrupt secretive cabal that runs Reverie. His flight takes him on a journey through dangerous parts of Reverie that he’s never seen before and he and his companions make some surprising scientific discoveries.
The Artificial Kid is an early example of cyberpunk — it’s stylish and edgy with some cool and even prescient ideas and tech. What’s missing in this early Sterling work is a disciplined plot with a satisfactory ending. The pacing is uneven, too much of the story is related through dialogue, and the conflict resolution, which could have been exciting, happens off screen.
As I mentioned before, I still haven’t met a Sterling character that I really like, though I admit that I’ve so far read only three of his novels and a few short stories. I’m certainly up for more, though. I admire Sterling’s vivid imagination.
Brilliance Audio’s new edition of The Artificial Kid is almost ten hours long. Fajer Al-Kaisi gives a nice performance.
I agree with all this. My metaphor for the novel was like a dog turning randomly in a few circles before settling in for a sleep. The novel is directionless for most of its length, and once it does decide where its going, doesn ‘t have enough momentum to keep the pages turning with urgency… Anyway, the one thing I did appreciate was that Sterling envisaged reality tv/Instagram decades before they became a thing. Despite the 40 years that have passed, the novel doesn’t really feel too dated, which is not something you can say about everything coming out of 1980.