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
I've started to review this book a couple times, and just could not get a grip on it. It's a hard book to review, because it's so piecemeal. Instead oI've started to review this book a couple times, and just could not get a grip on it. It's a hard book to review, because it's so piecemeal. Instead of a single argument or thesis given a book-length treatment, Feminism Unmodified is a series of transcribed speeches grouped by theme. Each one can stand alone, but they overlap a lot with one another in terms of subject matter and the argument they are making. You can read through them all, cover to cover, or you can flip through the book and read them as they pique your interest.
I knew of Catharine MacKinnon before I got this book --- indeed, having heard of her was the reason I got it; the book itself isn't terribly inviting. (Neither is the other book I have of hers, Toward A Feminist Theory of the State. I probably wouldn't have bought either one if I hadn't been introduced to MacKinnon first, through a philosophy class.) I knew that her primary goal in her legal and theoretical writing is to point out that the abstract "person" is a man, and that there are gaps in law and philosophy where the laws and theories that fit around this theorized man don't work as well for women. (There are tons of other kinds of people who don't fit the mold either, and thus are also ill served by existing laws and social theories, but this book only deals with women. Indeed, probably the book's biggest failing is its supposition that women are all failed in the same way by male-dominated, male-defined laws and social structures --- that's where it is most apparent just how old this book is! There's a big difference between, say, a white, middle-class married woman and how the law fails to protect her interests and, say, an undocumented immigrant woman or a transsexual woman or a lesbian or a woman with disabilities whose caregivers live with her or are a party to her major life decisions. The law fails all of these people, and more, some more than others and all in different ways. The study of those differences is called intersectionality*, and it's a pretty big deal in feminism.)
Anyway, on to a more specific discussion of what this book is about. The essays are grouped in three categories --- Approaches, Applications and Pornography --- but it seems to me that there's a lot of cross-pollination across categories, especially the first two. I don't know that MacKinnon ever talks about her approach to achieving equality between the sexes without bringing in specific examples, or discusses a particular application of her ideas without rehashing the general theory. The third section of the book stands out a little more from the others, since it has a much more specific aim: making the case that pornography isn't speech, but actual violence against women. (This is another thing that most feminists today seem to consider dated and wrong, but I find it persuasive.)
In the first part, Approaches, there are five essays. The first one is a defense of the Equal Rights Amendment (which still hasn't passed, a generation later) given as part of a debate with Phyllis Schlafly. The second talks about how MacKinnon sees the relationship between the sexes: to her, "gender" is not the social roles built on top of naturally occurring sex differences, but is instead a violently imposed hierarchy of male over female. The third piece covers similar ground, but it does so differently, in more philosophical terms. It was derived from a talk she gave at a Marxist conference, so there's a lot of reference to the Marxist doctrine of class struggle, which she uses to describe her understanding of the relation between the sexes. Man is capital, woman is labor, and they are in conflict over the means of (re)production. The last two essays are a bit random; one of them could fit just as easily in the second part, as it is an analysis of one particular court case, and the other deals with what it's like being a woman in the male-dominated legal profession, and how the success of a few women in male-dominated fields doesn't change anything for women as a whole.
The essays in the second part, Applications, are less theoretical and more concrete and specific. They also deal more with specific points of law than they do with any broad philosophical framework. The first one talks about rape, and why so few women report their rapes; the second one (which is actually pretty philosophical; it could fit in just as easily in the first section) about areas of overlap between sex and violence (MacKinnon, unlike some, sees rape, sexual harassment and sexual assault as both violent and sexual acts); the third is a long dissertation on Roe v. Wade and why MacKinnon thinks it was a bad idea to base Roe on the right to privacy rather than on the right to equal protection under the law; the fourth is about sexual harassment, and looking back on how sexual harassment has been prosecuted since it was first defined as a crime; and the last one is about Title IX and the importance of sports in helping women understand that their bodies are their own.
The third part, Pornography, is about ... you know what it's about. More specifically, it's about Deep Throat, and what it means that Linda Lovelace has said she was forced to perform in it. (MacKinnon says it means that Deep Throat is not mere speech, but the record of a crime, and itself an act of violence against its unwilling star). It's also about Playboy, and why MacKinnon thinks feminist organizations need to stop taking money from the Playboy Foundation. Another essay, "Not a Moral Issue," revisits in broader, more philosophical terms the same points made in the brief discussion of Deep Throat: pornography is not just speech, and obscenity law is irrelevant to what MacKinnon sees as the central harms of pornography, which are 1) direct harms done to the performers themselves, who may, like Linda Lovelace, have been forced to perform; and 2) indirect harms to all other women who have to deal with men who watch pornography and think of all women in pornographic terms. She explores this latter idea more in another long essay, "Francis Biddle's Sister," in which she riffs on Virginia Woolf's conception of Shakespeare's sister, talking about all the ways that rape culture hems women in and makes them divert energy that could be used to do great things into simple survival, and into trying to avoid being victimized. Another essay deals with the ordinance MacKinnon wrote with Andrea Dworkin, which would enable women to sue for damages if they thought they'd been victimized by pornography, and the last one addresses the Supreme Court decision that found that ordinance unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment. MacKinnon is not a First Amendment absolutist, and she thinks it's wrong that one person's freedom to make pornography should supercede another person's right to be compensated for wrongs that she can attribute to the first person's exercise of said freedom. For the longest time I thought I was a First Amendment absolutist, that words were only words and they ought to be protected because they can't really hurt you and they are the one thing the least powerful people can use as effectively as the most powerful, so they deserve to be as unrestricted as possible, but lately I've been reconsidering the part about how they can't really hurt anyone. MacKinnon's writing is one of the first things that made me start to question that.
*There is one essay where she deals with this: "Whose Culture?", where she talks about a 1978 court case involving a Native American woman who was trying to get her children recognized as members of her tribe --- a right that, at the time (I don't know how it stands now), only applied to men who married outside the tribe....more
I wasn't certain when I started this book that it was the third in a trilogy, of which I'd read the first but not the second part, so that contributedI wasn't certain when I started this book that it was the third in a trilogy, of which I'd read the first but not the second part, so that contributed to my being a bit confused. I also think the book's structure does it no favors in terms of accessibility, since there are a ton of characters, all in different parts of the world doing very different things, seeming to inhabit entirely different social and technological universes, so switching POVs every chapter among these very disparate characters can be jarring. I also found some characters and story lines a *LOT* more interesting than others. The title character, Mona, for example, did not interest me at all. She spends most of her chapters out of her mind on drugs and being dragged around various places by a revolving cast of more or less shady characters who want her for obscure reasons. She, as well as the virtual-reality movie star Angela Mitchell, with whom Mona is meant to be swapped, seem more like MacGuffins than characters. Kumiko Yanaka, the first character we meet, would seem to be a similarly uninteresting, weak character, since she is also a relatively powerless young woman who has been taken someplace far from her home by people she has no choice but to trust, but I found her emotional life more interesting than either Mona's or Angela's (she's just lost her mother to suicide, and is coming to terms with the fact that her father is a yakuza), and she has an interactive pocket computer that enables her to do some amateur sleuthing about her situation and the people around her. The characters I found most interesting were a group of young men living in an abandoned building: Gentry, Slick and Little Bird. Gentry is a hacker, a "cowboy" in Neuromancer parlance, who is obsessed with determining the overall "shape" of cyberspace. Slick and Little Bird live with him, helping him keep up the building in exchange for the right to stay there. Gentry is an absentminded-professor type, and thus having henchmen to deal with the annoying day-to-day details of survival suits him, though he prefers they keep out of sight and don't call his attention to their existence. Slick and Little Bird are both refugees from various crummy towns in the Rust Belt, and Slick has been in jail, which in Gibson's world means he's also been tampered with, neurologically. He has short-term memory loss, and is always worried about what he might be missing. He creates "kinetic sculptures" out of old engines and machine parts to help him remember what happened to him in prison; his sculptures are always wicked-looking, warlike things he names The Judge, Corpsegrinder, The Witch etc. These young men end up taking in a strange pair of additional roommates: a young woman, Cherry, who is a medical technician, and an unconscious man living inside a huge virtual-reality universe.
Conceptually, there didn't seem to be much new ground broken in this book; much of it is a lot like Neuromancer. The one intriguing exception is the change in cyberspace --- the Shape Gentry is obsessed with discovering. Cyberspace isn't just a neutral virtual landscape anymore; it's given rise to autonomous, uncreated intelligences which, for some reason, choose to represent themselves as entities from voodoo mythology. (This development reminded me a lot of the last book in Orson Scott Card's "Ender" saga, Children of the Mind, in which a virtual entity named Jane arises from the interstellar communications system). Considering what feats of independent thinking and volition an artificial intelligence proved itself capable of in Neuromancer, I didn't find the emergence of "wild" AI all that surprising. These wild AIs might even be actually descended from Wintermute and the other Tessier-Ashpool AIs; parts of the book seemed to hint at that, though I couldn't quite figure out what exactly it was saying....more
This is Atwood's most famous book, and even though I don't think it's her best, I think it deserves its fame for the power of its ideas and the claritThis is Atwood's most famous book, and even though I don't think it's her best, I think it deserves its fame for the power of its ideas and the clarity of her vision. It details a nightmarish future America in which women are chattel of men, seen through the eyes of Offred ("Of-Fred"), a Handmaid (read: concubine) in the house of a high-ranking military officer. While she eventually escapes, for most of the book the plot takes a back seat to a detailed, evocative description of the setting. Offred regales us, is many flashbacks, with glimpses into her past, in which she was married and had a daughter, and in which she lived through the transition from contemporary eighties (the book was written in '85) America to the theocratic Republic of Gilead.
The story moves slowly, but the society Atwood envisions is so riveting the pace seems just right. She achieves just the right balance of the bizarre and the believable.
This book is also notable for its depiction of women's cruelty to other women. Though this is a common theme in Atwood's writing, it is expressed most vividly here, through the characters of Aunt Lydia (a trainer of Handmaids) and Serena Joy (the Commander's wife, who in her former life was a televangelist who urged women to stay at home and serve their husbands).