Review: Schismatrix Plus

And now, as a repost, the one that got me interested in this blog thing all over again with a little bit of commentary at the end.

Having just finished Bruce Sterling‘s Schismatrix Plus, I have to admit right now that most if not all of my preconceptions going into the book were shattered and then re-shattered like some parody of humanity’s factional fracturing that occurs over the book’s time line.

To begin with, let me just dispense with my judgment: read this book! Read it and then read it again! Like any great work of art, you will find yourself changed when you come out the other end. Following Sterling’s main character, Abelard Lindasy, over the course of his incredible lifespan is a whirlwind ride through the solar system and by the end, just like him, you will find yourself thinking differently about what you’ve come to take for granted.

So can space opera be cyberpunk? I hate to brand it by a subgenre but, the novel has a cyberpunk “feel.” Compact is the proper adjective. I was stunned at the richness of the ideas produced by so few words. That is not to say the book is devoid of long metaphysical ruminations but, think of “long” as relative here. This book packs a plethora of ideas (similar to Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space) into a little over two-hundred pages. Clipped, powerful pace is the name of the game.

And this is ultimately where the book will fail or succeed fabulously based on your willingness to submit to riding shotgun in Sterling’s sprint through his own world. Those looking for long passages articulating the physics of an asteroid’s impact in sublime prose will be disappointed. Grandeur is suppressed. Expect no moral conundrums or intrigues that rack character’s minds for pages on end. Sterling keeps his narrative to a narrow wavelength and the distance from peak to peak can be deceptive.

Jumps between thirty years and three months happen throughout. Each leap occurs with little more than a timestamp at the start of the passage. Whereas I would normally ignore these and dismiss this kind of formatting as a stylistic flourish for other authors, I actually found myself needing to return to a passage’s start to understand how the world had gotten so radically different in the span of a few pages. Then I would discover we had jumped a decade ahead. One can think of this as a weakness on the part of the book or my reading but it was certainly a recurring complaint I noticed in other reviews.

If you have come to relish William Gibson‘s emotional suppression in his narrative and how it brings the clarity and humanity of his characters through in stunning admissions, Sterling’s own nonchalance with the setting and timing will do much the same. In a superb effort of show-don’t-tell discipline, Sterling refuses to let his narrative be awed by its own world or epic span. Instead that is left up to you, the reader, and while this is by no means a familiar tactic to the space opera genre, it is effective.

Unexpectedness is at is the center of this work’s beauty. Sterling paints a humanity coping with its own evolution and displacement in life outside the gravity well. What happens to human beings who grow used to space? This book offers a startling answer.

Competing philosophies are at the heart of the conflict, and don’t be fooled by the blurb into thinking that this is a simple polar matter between Shapers and Mechanists. Both sides have a variety of subfactions that emerge, then die or evolve into stranger things. The line between the two is continuously blurred to show that this is no monochrome war – gray is everywhere, including our protagonist: Lindsay maintains modifications from both sides (along with a slew of identities and alliances back and forth.) Post-humanity (a term I use loosely here as Sterling has his own definition in the book) is very enjoyable to watch and everything from sex to warfare to social nuance becomes a fascinating interplay of intelligence, technical progress, and adaptability to the ever-present future shock.

Future shock is something the front cover quote highlights and I can see why it was chosen for the prominent location. Life in Sterling’s world seems always on the verge of the harshly alien and, one may grow frustrated when ideas introduced in certain eras are not adequately explained until much later when they have already been replaced or gone extinct. This is very much a book that rewards a second reading (one I have neglected to do for this review, so bear with me here.) In fact, my only real frustration with Schismatrix was the glancing nature given to some of Sterling’s factions. While clearly well-developed as thought experiments, their idiosyncrasies are often not given enough room in the narrative to satisfy my appetite. But this is Lindsay’s story, not just the story of an emerging humanity, so I can see why certain creations were sacrificed as being tangential to the main thrust of the plot.

In addition to Schismatrix, you also get a collection of short stories at the end. These are what Sterling first used to flesh out his ideas before writing Schismatrix, and while I found myself less enamored of them, they work as effective complements to leftover mysteries in the novel. I would recommend reading these after reading the novel as they will otherwise spoil the unexpected directions humanity turns in Lindsay’s narrative.

As far as the individual stories go, in “Swarm” I found the ending too typical of the scifi-ironic-twist for my liking. “Spider Rose” had an extremely difficult narrator which made the story less than likable. On the flipside, “Cicada Queen” was a great second romp through the Czarina-Kluster and actually added some unexpected depth to a mystery in the novel. “Sunken Gardens” is set after the end of Schismatrix and is a little too brief in its resolution to do the idea justice. I found “Twenty Evocations” to be more of an outline and fragments of narrative than a full story. Others may enjoy its experiment, but it was a bit too convoluted for my taste.

Schismatrix Plus will leave one spinning in orbit around the ideas Sterling has put forth, coming back to ponder them again and again. While some will be frustrated at its depth (or seeming lack thereof) its breadth cannot be criticized.

At the end of the book’s introduction, Sterling flatly refuses to return to the Mechanist/Shaper world. After reading it I can see why fans would clamor for a sequel – the stories are full to bursting with a wealth of ideas and a future that asks interesting questions about human nature, humanity itself, and the power of ideas. Lindsay’s ideas drive the book forward and outward. As a reader I felt lucky to be along for the ride.

I assumed this review would age much worse than it has. I didn’t know a whole lot about criticism back when I wrote this. I had not yet ventured into Strange Horizon’s wonderful archives and learned a thing or two. In my opinion, there is no finer repository of SF criticism available on the web and even though I find myself occasionally in disagreement with an individual’s interpretation, overall, I think they really engage with the work at a level worthy of respect.

I’d like to point out that I didn’t know much about what makes for good criticism versus mediocre criticism. I thought “good critics” used puns to make their points because it was clever repurposing of the content of the book and good critics are about making themselves look clever instead of the material at hand. Yes, shameful as it may be, this was my thinking even as an author. That’s why I cringe at that orbit line in the second to last paragraph every time I read it.

However, I do think I correctly identified the strengths of this book, and gave its weaknesses a fair once over too. I think the point I made about Gibson’s technique as relates to Sterling’s own voice, while a bit imprecise and bold of me, is actually pretty close to what’s going on. It’s funny because I really worried over including that line originally, thinking I was far too much of a little shit to understand the narrative technique well enough to try and classify it as I did. I’m happy to say I can stand by that original assertion.

If I were to do it all over again I’d probably spend a little bit more time on the book’s potential weaknesses. I think in works such as these, it’s only fair to note that while certain techniques may work for you as an individual reader, they are rarely well-regarded by everyone (and the most creative ones never are!) You’ll notice that I said “potential weaknesses” and it’s really not because I’m hedging my bets here. Technically speaking, I think there is very little to fault in Schismatrix. That said, the amount of time covered by the narrative and its condensed style could be considered a lack of detail and overambitious plotting.

And this really is the tricky part of good criticism. Ultimately, it is subjective. An author can do their best to ensure that a particular effect resonates with his or her readership but it’s no guarantee of that outcome. No two people read something identically. We each take to a work our own experiences, including previous works read, our own sense of beauty, and our own preconceptions about the novel at hand. This is not to say that you cannot have some objectivity in this process – I have read things that I haven’t enjoyed but that I have appreciated for their craftsmanship. Instead, I would argue that objectivity is something of a distant shore to be paddled towards but never landed upon.

Preference. Mood. Taste. These are all culprits at various times and they are inevitable, responsible for sabotaging even the most sober of inspections. In order to criticize well, you must remember that these reign over your judgment, tirelessly skewing your sense of direction. Most importantly, I think you can never pretend that you understand a work completely – there must always be the admission that you are only witness to what you were able to discern and that, like all art, this does not define what is actually there.

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