Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Schismatrix, the novel

A bit later than planned on this, but...

The story of the book is really the story of Abelard Lindsay's life. It doesn't have a standard plot progression or arc but is almost more a picaresque, tagging along as Lindsay sundogs around the solar system. Smaller segments of his life have their own arcs, of course, such that it has a vaguely episodic feel to the book. While that's neither complaint nor recommendation, it does contribute to a sense of "Where is this leading?" as his life segues from one role to another, which might be a bit off-putting for some. Even when characters are prominent over more than one segment of his life (his childhood rival, his wife, etc.), their piece of his story is only fragmentary, ending abruptly or veering away without it forming a part of a typical climax or denouement.

On the other hand, it's quite possible that this is an intentional break from expectations--the lack of an overarching narrative ties in with what seemed to me to be the strength of the setting and stories: life changes. Life in space will only change more. Metanarratives are useful for a few decades, but what would have once been an entire generation is now only a brief time in these long lives.

Lindsay is a self-made success, repeatedly...and a runner, fleeing (or sundogging it, which is a great expression in the book) when situations change. Numerous times he comes into a location with little, but he's up for the challenge of establishing himself, and he's especially gifted (and lucky) in insuating himself into the power structure. But once established, he doesn't fight for that power when it gets threatened, but merely flees. This allows the story to move around vastly different parts of the solar system, as well as contributing to the episodic nature of the story.

One thing about that keeps niggling at me, and I think it's the way he's so often a part of the local powers. This adds to my sense that it doesn't fit what I think of as cyberpunk. Again the label itself isn't the issue--I'm not trying to define or limit the subgenre--but the image I have in my head for all the various -punk incarnations and what gets me excited about them is their focus on those outside of power. Is that a requirement? No, probably not. But it's what draws me to them. I mention this less as a complaint about Schismatrix itself and more as an encouragement to writers, whatever they're writing, to turn the focus at least in part on those powerless ones...as well as for readers to seek such works out (and perhaps recommend me places to find them). I guess it's somewhat related to my comments on steampunk a month or so ago.

Returning from that tangent, as the book progresses, by necessity a key theme is aging and generations. Technology allows the characters to rejuvenate their bodies, and the methods of both the Shapers and Mechanists extend lives even without that. But Sterling manages to balance this amazing advance with a recognition that long life and rejuvenation might make a person look young and even act young for years at a time, but there's still a difference between older generations and new. Early in the book Lindsay is part of the younger generation, rebelling against his home's mechanically preserved old ones. Later he's the old one, despite everything done to him to keep him physically young--experiences still age him. It's in the playing out of this theme (as well as the themes of constant change that I mentioned about the stories) that the book rises above being simply an exciting futuristic tale, though it remains that as well.

All in all an enjoyable book. It makes me curious to seek out other cyberpunk works--I read the manifesto several years ago, but I've not read Neuromancer or Snow Crash or probably most other works considered central to the movement. Other books it reminded me of at different times, both of which I enjoyed but neither that I've heard referred to as cyberpunk, are Justina Robson's Natural History (absolutely loved) and Iain M. Banks's The Algebraist.

Other participants:

OF Blog of the Fallen
Adventures in Reading
Post-Weird Thoughts

2 comments:

Joe Sherry said...

Ooh! Good point about the expectation of being "outside" the powers that be in cyberpunk. I didn't think of that when I was reading it (I still need to write my review).

One thing about that, though, is Lindsay was always a central player, but he was never at the forefront of having the power of the Shapers as he seemed to be hiding with the Mechanists. Assuming i have that right.

My main quibble, other than being confused much of the time, is the ending. What the hell was that?

Daniel Ausema said...

He sundogged it once more. I thought it was fitting, balancing how drastically everything else changes, all the externals, with a final action that shows how little Lindsay has changed internally.

Or is it the alien presence/being/whatever that you didn't like? I can see that coming off as a bit, ummm, gimmicky? Another Deus ex machina. But if I were to complain about it, my complaint would be earlier when it first makes its appearance.