Monday, July 5, 2010

“One long racking chronicle of change”* (in a good way): A Review of Schismatrix Plus

3742-1Title: Schismatrix Plus
Author: Bruce Sterling
Year: 1996, the collection published; 1982-1985, the novel and stories;
Rating: 3.5/5 levels of
prigoginic complexity
Cyberpunk, Sci-fi-losophy, New Space Opera
Back Cover:

In the last decade Bruce Sterling has emerged a pioneer of crucial, cutting-edge science fiction, his work lauded by critics and contemporaries alike.  Now for the first time in one volume comes every word Bruce Sterling has ever written on the world of the Schismatrix—where the Shaper revolutionaries struggle against the aristocratic Mechanists for ultimate control of mankind’s destiny.  Experience the classic full-length novel, Schismatrix, plus thousands of words of mindbending short fiction from a storytelling master in overdrive.  It’s tough.  It’s timeless.  It’s vintage Sterling.

Despite growing up as a fan of science fiction in the 1980’s and 90’s, I managed to avoid for the most part the science fiction of the 1980’s and 90’s.  My dad bought a lot of sci-fi in the decades before I was born, and my tendency was always to head out to the garage rather than the library when I needed something fun to read.

As a result, Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix is one of the only “cyberpunk” novels I’ve ever read.  (Film and television is a different story, of course.  I’ve seen loads of movies that you’d characterize as cyberpunk and/or that were based on cyberpunk novels.)  On the other hand, Schismatrix and the other stories included in this volume don’t necessarily strike me as ordinary cases of the genre. 

Certainly, Schismatrix is a novel that explores the way that technology might dissolve political and social institutions as well as the “natural” cohesion of the human species, which is (according to Wikipedia) a common trope of cyberpunk works, yet whereas most examples of the genre take place on some dystopic, near-future earth, Sterling’s novel is set almost entirely in outer-space habitats over the 200 years between 2186 and 2386 (the life-span of its main protagonist, Abelard Lindsay). 

Furthermore, while it may be typical for cyberpunk authors to borrow stylistic cues from the detective and noir archives, Schismatrix seems, especially in the first third of the novel, to borrow heaviest from the swashbuckling adventure tales that informed the space opera sub-genre of sci-fi’s golden age (or, what may be more likely, Sterling is borrowing directly from that sub-genre).

Indeed, the plot of the first part of the novel, in which the hero, a young and rebellious aristocrat, is betrayed by his best friend, subsequently exiled from his homeland and stripped of his high status, and must rely only on his wits and charm to survive all manner of dangers ranging from assassins to space-pirates, reads almost like something out of The Count of Monte Cristo or Kidnapped. 

What all that swashbuckling serves as a vehicle for, however, is Sterling’s fantastic speculations about the various forms that human life and society may adopt as those forms, with the help of gene manipulation, surgery, drugs, and cybernetic prosthetics, grow ever less constrained by accident and ever more into the deliberate manifestations of our ideals. 

The two main “factions” of post-humans, mentioned in the back-cover blurb, are the Shapers and the Mechanists.  The Mechs accept the accidents of birth but accoutre their bodies with all manner of prosthetics, monitors, optic implants, seratonin drips, etc. to make up for and exceed any imagined lack.  The Shapers, on the other hand, aren’t so much born as made, having opted to make intelligence and planning rather than mechanical advantage their forte.  Designed from the gene up to be not only free of defects and beautiful but also super-intelligent, Shapers typically undergo rigorous training programs to develop their mental skills and ingest complex drug cocktails to enhance their senses and focus their minds.

The technologies employed by each of these factions are not incompatible with each other, of course, and most of Sterling’s characters operate outside of pure Shaper or pure Mechanist designations.  On the contrary, what keeps the two groups distinct and at each others throat throughout much of the novel is no more or less than ideology.  The Shapers, for example, in addition to their skill-acquisition programs, also endure ideological conditioning that prejudices them against the Mechanists.  They are made to view with disgust the flawed, stinking bodies of the “unplanned.”

But if there is one ideology described within the text that seems to rule them all then it must be the Posthumanism that Abelard Lindsay ultimately advocates.  Borrowing terminology (if not the actual science) of Ilya Prigogine’s theories of complex systems, Sterling characterizes Posthumanism as a schema that organizes existence not in terms of species, race, or function but in terms of complexity.  Specifically, the text describes four levels of complexity and speculates on a fifth.  The first is the simplicity of the primordial, pre-causal, pre-continuum universe.  The second level of complexity is Space-time.  The third is Life and the fourth is Intelligence. 

The political agenda of those in the novel who espouse posthumanism is to engender leaps to ever higher levels of complexity, hence their advocacy for such large-scale projects as terraforming Mars (thereby “catalyzing” the Third Prigoginic Leap from inert matter to amoebic life).


While Schismatrix and the other stories collected in this book are far from literary masterpieces, they are nevertheless imaginative and engaging works that I highly recommend, particularly to the reader who may be interested in the limits of humanity and the constraints of ideology, which are often one in the same.


* from p. 214:

The history of the Schismatrix was one long racking chronicle of change. The population had reached nine billion. Within the Ring Council, power had slipped from the narcotized hands of the Zen Serotonists. After forty years of their reign, new Shaper ideologues embraced the aggressive schemes of visionary Galacticism.

The new creed had spread slowly. It was born in the interstellar embassies, where ambassadors broke human limits in their struggle to grasp alien ways of life. Now the Galacticist prophets stood ready to abandon humanity entirely, to achieve a Galactic consciousness where mere loyalty to species was obsolete.

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