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Brillaintly imaginative (but slightly soulless) future history (4.5 stars)
on April 21, 2015
Remarkable in many ways, Schismatrix is a brilliantly imaginative future history. The multi-faceted story considers the political, cultural, and social impact of trans-human and post-human existence. It is a difficult novel -- Bruce Sterling gives no shortcuts to the lazy reader -- but that makes it all the more rewarding. I read and admired it years ago but reading it a second time, after its rerelease in digital form, I got more out of it. I suspect I would have an even better understanding of Sterling's insights if I were to read it a third and fourth time. The story is a bit disjointed and I can't say that I felt an emotional connection to it, but the novel provides ample food for the intellect even if it fails to nourish the soul.
The solar system has been colonized. Most colonists live on space stations or asteroids, each operating as an independent government, some consisting of a handful of people. The colonies collectively comprise the Schismatrix. Deeper space travel is possible only with the help of the Investors, a spacefaring alien race of a decidedly capitalist bent that has no intention of sharing the secret of interstellar travel (although they are happy to act as bus drivers for the right price). The Investors are the most accessible of the various alien races, most of which stay in the background during the course of the novel, apart from one that becomes significant near the novel's end.
The novel follows Abelard Lindsay through an eventful life, sometimes lived under other identities, often changing alliances as friends become enemies and (sometimes) friends again. Lindsay begins as a diplomat, having been trained and genetically modified by Shapers, giving him an exceptional talent for manipulating others. The counterpart to (and enemy of) the Shapers are the Mechanists, who rely on mechanical enhancements (rather than genetics) to transform the human body. Having been born to a Mechanist family but serving the Shapers, Abelard is in an ideal position to encourage détente, which would benefit the human race by presenting a united front against competing alien races.
Détente, like most everything in Abelard's life, falls by the wayside as events overtake ideals. It is all Abelard can do to keep up or, failing that, avoid death. He is at times a revolutionary, at times an entrepreneur, at times a leader, at times a criminal, but usually a combination of many different roles. He falls in and out of relationships with women. He experiences ups and downs on his way to his final stage of life. Abelard experiences and sees so many changes that this review would be as long as the book if I tried to mention them.
As I indicated, I love the story for its rich imagination and its insight into how genetic, mechanical, or digital changes in humans might affect both the human race and the political, social, and economic institutions they create. At the same time, the story is so episodic, cramming so much into a mid-length novel, that I felt little emotional connection to Abelard, even when he is forced to do some soul-searching about the kind of human, trans-human, or post-human he wants to be. Schizmatrix is more like a documentary than a novel that touches the inner core. For that reason, it loses a half star, but I would not discourage any sf fan who relishes a challenge from reading the novel.
Schizmatrix Plus includes the short stories that Sterling wrote within the same universe. They are quite strong and, in some ways, compensate for the novel's weaknesses.