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Schismatrix Plus (Science Fiction Book Club 50th Anniversary Collection, Volume 31) Hardcover – 2006
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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.
One bit of advice would be to read the short story's at the end of this book 1st; and then dig in to the long novel. They seem to present the future in more bite-size chunks which may have been helpful to me before the longer story. That context might have made a difference in my enjoyment.
That being said I really liked the ending!
The world of the Schismatrix is amazingly well-realized. There are endless political and philosophical factions within Sterling's inhabited solar system. I understand how some reviews felt that the complexity of the world and its politics could be overwhelming and hard to keep track of. This is true at times, and one gets the feeling that Sterling had the entire world worked out in his head, but only chose to show us parts of it. This actually makes the story more enticing and kept me turning each page with excitement and hunger for more.
The protagonist, Abelard Lindsay, is actually very likable and funny. There seems to be a new idea on each page, some disturbing, some beautiful, and all of them brilliant. Sterling takes a gritty in-depth look at what it means to augment humanity with machinery. He focuses on the minute details of what a posthuman has to deal with in daily life, and captures it in a believable way.
On top there's a message that humanity will become something so bizarre due to technology that it would be very uncomfortable for us to comprehend, and that science will cause us to drastically rethink what it means to be human. But underneath this message is the beautiful and uplifting idea that life is always exciting, always worth exploring, and that this fascination with life itself serves as a foil to nihilism.
The short stories are fantastic too. They only served to further enmesh me in a universe I had already fallen in love with, and each has its own new idea and angle to explore.
This book is an absolute must-buy for any fan of strange science fiction and cyberpunk, although as I said it transcends genre. I don't know why I don't see it on more classic and must-read scifi lists. Now that Asimov and Heinlen are trite and stale, this is the literature of the future.