This book includes not just Schismatrix, but also a handful of short stories set in the same universe.
Schismatrix itself I'm going to review separateThis book includes not just Schismatrix, but also a handful of short stories set in the same universe.
Schismatrix itself I'm going to review separately, because there's so much to talk about, so in this review I will focus on the short stories and what they add to the experience of reading Schismatrix.
There are five stories: "Swarm," "Spider Rose," "Cicada Queen," "Sunken Gardens" and "Twenty Evocations."
Swarm - a suspenseful tale in the classic tradition of "hunter becomes prey" stories; it follows two Shaper scientists, Simon Afriel and Galina Mirny, as they engage in some very dangerous field research. They are studying one of the nineteen other space-faring races besides humankind and its new trading partners, the Investors. The beings they are studying -- by means no less drastic than going to live in one of their colonies for two years -- are essentially gigantic social insects called the Swarm. Like ants or termites, the Swarm lives in a vast complex of underground tunnels that they have dug for themselves. Also like ants, they have many different castes, with body types specialized for each caste's function. There are large, imposing warriors with huge mandibles; there's a vast Queen who lays eggs endlessly and is the mother of every individual in the colony; there are legions of small, bustling workers; there are a few "sensors" whose function is to monitor air quality in the colony to make sure it stays livable -- they are little more than eyes, brain, antennae and lungs, and have to be carried by workers; and there are tunnelers, huge living bulldozers with spadelike legs and jaws adapted for crunching rocks. There are also an astonishing array of "symbiotes" -- creatures that are not of the Swarm, that had clearly once been something else, but which, through long cohabitation, have been absorbed into it.
None of these critters possesses anything like human intelligence or sentience; in an exchange that effectively sets the mood for the whole story, Simon Afriel tells an ensign on the Investor ship that carries him to the Swarm colony that this alone makes them worth studying. How does a species without higher consciousness take to the stars?
The Investor, characteristically of his species, cannot understand why Afriel is so anxious to know this. He tells Afriel that humans place too much value on mere information, information that cannot possibly profit them. Afriel tells the Investor that humans are a young species, only children to the ancient and long-lived Investors, so the Investor should not be surprised to see a childlike curiosity from them.
I don't want to reveal too much about what happens in this story, because it's such an incredible twist, but let's just say that this Investor ensign -- and also Mirny, who has been with the colony longer than Afriel has and who shows him the ropes when he arrives -- serve very poignantly as voices of reason, trying in vain to sway Afriel from his hubris. The ensign's words, especially, give you insight into how the Investors have lasted for so long as a species, and hints that perhaps their laziness and incuriosity are survival traits rather than vices.
Spider Rose - This is a very sad story. It's also the only one told from the perspective of a Mechanist rather than a Shaper (although there is one character who is both, but he begins as a Shaper so I'm not sure he counts). The protagonist, Lydia Martinez, has been widowed for thirty years (her husband, a wealthy businessman who traded with the Investors, had been murdered by Shaper assassins) and has taken to calling herself Spider Rose. Where the "Rose" comes from I don't know, but the "Spider" serves as a neat symbol of her approach to ensuring her own survival; she's a Mechanist, and an old one, so her body has been extensively modified with cybernetics. The surveillance system of her spaceship feeds seamlessly into her brain; its cameras are her eyes just as much as the ones in her head; and the vast nets she uses to fish for salvageable materials in the rings of Uranus feel like a web in whose center she waits. A spider can sense prey approaching by feeling the vibrations in its web; so for Spider Rose, nothing enters the perimeter of her tiny enclave without her knowledge.
This sounds nice and cozy, but it's not the whole story. Inside her spaceship, the only thing Spider Rose has for company -- besides some pet cockroaches -- is her grief, with which she is locked in an eternal stalemate. She can keep it at bay with mood-suppressing drugs, but it's always there, waiting. So in a sense Spider Rose has an internal version of the web she's built in space ... a fragile wall around herself consisting mainly of her own vigilance.
The plot of the story concerns a huge jewel she's found in the Ring. Its immense size and the unique circumstances of its formation ensure that no Investor will be able to resist it, so she haggles shamelessly with one, trying, it seems, to buy herself a way out of her emotional hell. The Investor starts out by making her generous offers of money, technology, information ... but she refuses them all. Eventually the Investor realizes what she's looking for, and offers her a cute animal that he calls his ship's mascot. She is taken with the animal and accepts the offer, for a trial period of a little under two years.
The animal does make her happy, but the story ends tragically. (view spoiler)[Her Shaper enemies find her, and destroy her web, leaving her blind and helpless in space. (hide spoiler)] I'm not sure if it happened because she let down her guard a little, because she finally has a little joy in her life -- something to take her mind off the grim, monotonous business of survival -- or if it would have happened regardless, but just the possibility that it might have been this fleeting happiness that doomed her makes this story almost unbearable.
(It's not a bad story -- it's a very, very good one -- but if your emotional landscape is anything like mine it will make you cry.)
Cicada Queen - One of the more interesting stories in terms of worldbuilding, and also the one that overlaps the most with the events of Schismatrix. Both texts benefit hugely from being in the same volume, so that the reader can page back and forth for additional context.
This story takes place in Czarina-Kluster, the floating city-state built around the engineless hulk of an Investor ship that imprisons the disgraced Investor Queen whom Lindsay blackmails in Schismatrix, and picks up pretty much where the novel leaves off; Wellspring, the enigmatic terraforming advocate whom Lindsay coached in the art of cultivating a personal mystique, has successfully risen to prominence in Czarina-Kluster's government, and is busily directing the terraforming of Mars.
The plot concerns a new arrival to Czarina-Kluster, a Shaper named Hans Landau (which is bizarrely the name of the Nazi character in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" -- a fact that, lacking the gift of prophecy, Bruce Sterling could not have known when he wrote the story but which is nonetheless very distracting to the modern reader! Even though I succeeded in stripping the name of its sinister connotations, I continued to imagine the character looking and sounding exactly like Christoph Waltz) who is a gifted genetic engineer and scholar of lichens. He has invented a lichen that can grow inside stone, which he has used to create a unique gem as a gift for Czarina-Kluster's Queen. (Lavish gifts are the rent she extracts from people who want to settle in Czarina-Kluster -- they call it "the Queen's Percentage"). Landau has the singular bad luck to make his debut just as the political structure of Czarina-Kluster is imploding, with the Queen growing increasingly bored and frustrated with her exile and wishing to leave, venting her rage by ordering whichever of her advisers is currently annoying her to kill himself.
The plot also concerns a space voyage intended to tow a vast ball of ice from the rings of Saturn to Mars, where it will be steered onto a collision course with the planet in hopes of creating a sea. Landau seizes upon this as an opportunity to leave the fraught environment of Czarina-Kluster, to pursue his research on Mars as part of the terraforming project.
The voyage to Mars is ... eventful, to say the least.
Sunken Gardens - A follow-up to "Cicada Queen," taking place on Mars two hundred years after the fall of Czarina-Kluster and Hans Landau's migration to Mars. Landau, having undergone extensive cybernetic alteration to enable himself to survive in space, is still alive (err, for certain values of "alive), ruling Mars as its "Lobster King".
He does not directly appear in this story, though; the plot of this story concerns people living on Mars as the unwilling hostages of Terraform-Kluster, a satellite orbiting Mars where Landau and his clique live and direct the ongoing terraforming project happening on the surface of Mars.
We only meet one member of Terraform-Kluster in the story; Arkadya Sorienti, who appeared briefly in "Cicada Queen" and now serves as the Lobster King's envoy to the surface. Her job is to judge the competition that takes up the bulk of this story: a sort of ecological Hunger Games in which five participants battle for control of one of the Sunken Gardens -- craters on Mars where a rich atmosphere has pooled and water has settled, enabling the growth of vegetation. The contestants each come from a different faction that has been subjugated by Terraform-Kluster and marooned on Mars, forced to give their labor to the terraforming project started by Wellspring and Landau. Each contestant is given their own sector of the Garden to seed with whatever life forms they want -- they use robot drones to do this, and also to make whatever modifications to the environment they see fit, like cutting down trees, spraying herbicides, setting fires etc. The only rule limits their interference with the Garden ecosystem to a period of twelve hours. After that, they can only watch and wait, to see whose life forms survive and whose do not. The winner will ascend to Terraform-Kluster with Arkadya Sorienti, and take his or her place among the ruling faction.
The protagonist of this story is a young woman named Mirasol ("look at the sun" -- appropriate advice for a terraformer), who is a member of a splinter group of Superbright Shapers called Patternists, after the nature of their neurological ReShaping. They all have hypertrophied right brain hemispheres, which enable them to see patterns everywhere.
Mirasol's competitors are just as outre and remote from recognizable humanity as she is -- the weirdest one is a nameless woman whose legs terminate in a second set of hands, and whose knees bend like elbows. Two of them are Mechanists -- one so unaccustomed to planetary gravity that he requires a cybernetic exoskeleton to walk, and another who is heavily armed and armored, and clearly does not trust his fellow human-offshoots. There is also a sixth competitor who never appears, and whose sector is divided among the rest. It is to be inferred that he died, and possibly that Arkadya killed him for violating some rule of the contest.
This story serves as kind of a counterweight to the ecstatic hopefulness of the terraforming ideology presented in Schismatrix and "Cicada Queen." The people doing the actual work of terraforming are slaves, and the Sunken Gardens are more like arenas than gardens, where each nascent life form that appears is dwarfed by piles and piles of dead ones, and the horizon of that life form's future may only last until the next competition is held in that particular Sunken Garden.
Twenty Evocations - Paradoxically the most and the least accessible story in this collection. It's very, very short; more a prose poem than a story, with twenty very cryptic passages a paragraph or two in length that tell the story of Nikolai Leng, a Shaper whose life path echoes those of the two main characters of Schismatrix in a lot of ways. Like Lindsay, he defects from the Shaper Ring Council, marries advantageously (but also really loves his wife), carves out a sphere of influence outside the Ring Council, meets the Investors, founds a satellite Kluster and crosses paths with an assassin. Like Constantine, he loses the woman he loves early in their relationship and tries to fill the hole in his heart by having her cloned. Unlike either of them, though, he gives the impression of being buffeted along by events, just trying to keep his head above water, rather than trying to seize the reins of history like Lindsay and Constantine do.
Probably my favorite thing about this story is its judicious employment of word salad. Every so often, the final paragraph of one of the numbered sections will just be a string of phrases echoed from previous paragraphs, but placed in a new, surreal order that gives them new meaning. It can be very hard to see what this meaning is supposed to be, though. It gives us glimpses into Leng's state of mind at various important moments in his life, but his mind is chaotic. The reader has to do a lot of work to piece together a coherent story, a consistent characterization for Leng, and a sense of his emotional journey through the twenty vignettes. The reader has to do a lot of work to piece it all together, but Sterling has made sure there is enough raw material there to work with.
Sometimes it feels like it's only just barely enough, though. Even when I did put all the pieces into place, I never felt as much for Nikolai Leng, or got as deeply absorbed in his story, as I did for Abelard Lindsay, Simon Afriel, Spider Rose, Hans Landau and Mirasol. There wasn't as much to grapple with, thematically and in terms of worldbuilding, as there was in "Swarm," "Cicada Queen" and "Sunken Gardens," and there was nowhere near the emotional depth of "Spider Rose." Especially when you've already read the whole of Schismatrix, "Twenty Evocation" feels a lot like a dry run at telling that story.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
**spoiler alert** This short story grew out of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's own experience with the "rest cure" for hysteria --- the doctor who treated**spoiler alert** This short story grew out of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's own experience with the "rest cure" for hysteria --- the doctor who treated her, Silas Weir Mitchell, told her to stay in bed and avoid intellectual stimulation, and following his advice nearly drove her insane.
The woman in the story, also a writer, is confined to a room in a country house with her sister, her maid and her doctor-husband all hovering over her. Slowly, she begins to lose her mind, seeing a woman trapped behind the pattern on the wallpaper in her room. She rips all the wallpaper to pieces, trying to let the woman out, and ends up somehow merging with her, believing herself to be trapped inside the wallpaper.