The Artificial Kid: Early cyberpunk

The Artificial Kid by Bruce Sterling science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Artificial Kid by Bruce Sterling

The Artificial Kid by Bruce Sterling science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsBruce 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.The Artificial Kid by Bruce Sterling science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

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.

Originally published in 1980. Brilliance Audio edition published in November 2020. In a future world of rampant inequality, a martial-arts video star finds himself in a real fight for survival, in this novel by the author of Schismatrix. Founded centuries ago by the enigmatic genius Moses Moses, the planet Reverie can either be heaven or hell, depending on whether you live on or above it. The superrich orbit the world in luxury abodes, keeping their sometimes-lethal ennui at bay by watching homemade sex and violence videos created by the peons dwelling on the coral continents miles beneath them. The most popular entertainer of all is the Artificial Kid, an unbeatable combat artist whose bloody, self-produced martial arts videos have made him beloved both above and below. But the Kid is about to stumble onto something no one was ever meant to discover—a mind-boggling conspiracy of science and antiquity that forces him to run for his life into the strange and dangerous wilderness known as the Mass. And when Moses returns to Reverie after seven hundred years of cryogenic sleep, things are about to get much worse. Written long before the era of YouTube, Ultimate Fighting, and reality TV, Bruce Sterling’s prescient, thoughtful, and wildly satiric novel previews the nascent cyberpunk sensibilities of the acclaimed author’s later works.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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One comment

  1. 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.

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