Schismatrix Plus (Plus?)

A Cyberpunk masterpiece

Recently I had the great fortune to read Schismatrix Plus by Bruce Sterling and I was truly impressed. This is another of those gems like the Culture series by Ian M. Banks or the Xeelee sequence by Stephen Baxter, that for some reason never won the highest honors of written Sci-fi. I would like to think that if Schismatrix Plus was published for the first time today, it might get more accolades than it did during its original publication, because cyberpunk and space-operas are more well-understood and accepted serious genres today, than they were in general in the early 80s. Schismatrix Plus is essentially an omnibus edition that contains the original novel Schismatrix and the other short stories that take place within the Schismatrix universe.

Old Schismatrix Cover

The main novel has several layered themes and stories as it follows humanity through a couple centuries of constant change in the solar system. The story begins with the young aristocratic main character being exiled from his wealthy space station after a suicidal political stunt goes wrong. There is also an overarching cold war theme except instead of the conflict being between communism and capitalism, the conflict is between those who focus on biological modification, the Shapers, and their arch-rivals the Mechanists, who favor cybernetic and mechanical modification. On top of that there are many other themes in the novel, chief among them is the theme of rapid political and technological change and upheaval and how that change is constantly reshuffling the lives of those caught up in it. The changes to human existence introduced by longevity technologies and cloning are explored as the ever aging characters run into each other in different times and forms or raise clones to replace those who they've lost.

For at least the first half of the story the main character is pursued and dogged from station to station by his former childhood friend and arch-rival. Along the way the main character is branded as a "Sundog" which is a term for someone who drifts from station to station without any true allegiances. The narrative of the main character coming to terms with his repeated inability to settle down, is another over-arching theme of the novel and compliments the theme of constant change. Eventually a visitation by a low-key Fergangi-like Alien race, the Investors, upsets the cold war between Shapers and Mechanists as the human race tries to grapple with the fact that they aren't alone in the universe, which further plays into the theme of change. The capitalism conscious alien Investors provide a hilarious solution to the Fermi paradox, the problem of why we haven't met aliens yet, in that aliens never found a way to make money off of the human race until our technology was advanced enough, and so they never bothered to contact humanity.

The other short stories in the book, which take place in the same universe as the main novel, are all pretty interesting. Swarm is a more classic space opera alien encounter story about an insectoid hive species that develops intelligent drones whenever its threatened but is otherwise unintelligent. I see echos of this kind of emergent intelligence in Alastair Reynold's Inhibitors, I wonder if he was influenced by this story? Another story Cicada Queen paints a pretty humorous slice of future life on an economically doomed space station and which features one of the characters from the main novel. The work Twenty Evocation is written in a prose-like style, and the other two stories are also interesting.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the work both as a literary work and a work of science fiction. Even though this novel was written in the mid-80s most of the human-based technology featured in the stories could exist in a more recent hard sci-fi story. Bruce Sterling has become something of a technology writer since then with a blog host on wired. Schismatrix also reminds me of Ken Macleod's The Stone Canal, with its story of a rival set against the backdrop of different forms of immortality and transhumanism. If your looking for something new to read and you like Sci-fi or Cyberpunk, I highly recommend Schismatrix.


First posted on 8/29/2016 8:10:05 PM