Monday, December 08, 2008

Schismatrix Plus

I wasn't able to get a hold of the book for the last Blogger Book Club (started at OF Blog of the Fallen), but I did manage to get this book in time, so I've decided to participate. I'm a bit torn what exact approach to take here--a formal review? an Amazon-style what-I-liked-and-what-sucked paragraph? drive-by, 5-word reviewing?--but I guess this will fall under reader response, more conversational (and unstructured) than I might for a formal review. Because of time and the fact that I'm not in the habit of reviewing novels here, that seems best.

The book contains a novel (Schismatrix) as well as a handful of stories that take place in the same future setting. I read the stories first, which matched how Sterling wrote them. So first a few words on the setting, since that's the one thing that connects them all. They take place primarily within our solar system, where humans have expanded to populate moons, asteroids, and constructed habitats. The main factions are split by how they want to advance the human race: Mechanists go for mechanical upgrades while Shapers prefer genetic manipulation and mental training. Earth itself is quarantined (which was the one thing about the backdrop that felt a bit contrived).

What Sterling does well with this is to create a believable sense of how fluid and transitory all these things are. Political alliances dominate, seem poised to control everything for a long time...and then crumble, often very quickly. Even the arrival of the aliens, which is undeniably a deus ex machina in the novel, doesn't change the underlying uncertainty and sudden reversals, though the characters seem to think it does for awhile. The nature of aging and rejuvenation is a big part of this milieu as well, but really as a theme of the novel itself, so I'll get to that in a bit.

The stories

(I ought to note that I had to return the book to the library already, so I don't have character names and such handy as I write)

"Swarm" brings a human Shaper to an alien world, basically a swarm of mindless aliens from many races that have each evolved to fulfill a particular role within the hive-like subterranean world (a large meteor, I believe). The Shapers had sent a field scientist earlier, and the new arrival joins her in this truly alien environment. That environment is a big strength of the story--complex, allusive, and truly strange. One complaint I'd have is that while the female is clearly the stronger character, better able to adapt and understand the situation, the way they interact felt decidedly old-fashioned (perhaps a factor of it being written in the early 80s?). Other than that, though, it's a fascinating story, especially in its final argument that intelligence and curiosity are an evolutionary blip, one that survival of the species will eventually remove from us as it has so many other species.

The other stories didn't affect me quite as deeply, though I didn't find any of them uninteresting. They form a diverse picture of a complex and interesting space future. "Cicada Queen," I suspect, is the one most likely to appeal to die-hard SF fans, full of momentous developments and frontloaded with lots of jargon. I did enjoy the grounded-in-character view of terraforming in "Sunken Gardens" as well. I remember wondering as I finished it, though, in what way are these stories cyberpunk? I don't really care too much about labels, but it does make me curious--I haven't read a lot of cyberpunk, so likely the image in my head of what defines the genre is inaccurate. Whatever they're called, though, I found them to be enjoyable stories. Taken as a whole, their greatest strength is evoking that sense of constant change, of social structures and political constructs constantly evolving. It's an excellent antitode to what I've complained about before in big fat fantasies where empires last thousands of years and both alliances and rivalries maintain unbelievable continuity for nearly as long.

I'm afraid this could get too long, and it's getting late, so I'll post this much tonight and return for the novel itself tomorrow. So far I haven't seen any other participants for this... (echo, echo) I'll add links when they go up. The organizing blog for this time around is Post-Weird Thoughts, so for now, keep an eye there.


Daniel Default said...

Hi Daniel!

Very nice review! Welcome to the fold! :-)

Fábio Fernandes

Larry said...

I think the way Sterling's stories are cyberpunk is in how he uses his prose - short, sharp, staccato bursts that pushes the bounds further. While there isn't much on the technological developments, at least not explicitly, there is the sense that the desires by both the Shapers and the Mechanists to advance their technologies to further their quest to gain the upper hand in the solar system is rooted in technology and the belief that technological advancement (whether it be mechanical or genetic) is vital for human development.

Good review. I've already posted my review now and I'll add a link to it shortly over there on the OF Blog.

Daniel Ausema said...

Huh, I'd never thought of cyberpunk as a stylistic approach really, more thematic. It's been years since I read the manifesto, and I really haven't read much that gets labeled as such, so I'm not even completely sure where the image in my head of cyberpunk-ness comes from. That makes sense though, that punchy, rapid-fire prose would be a part of it. I put a link to your review in my part 2 now.