What a great read this was. I’ve never been much of a fan of cyberpunk and I’m not particularly a fan of the authors generally noted to be founders of the genre (William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, etc.), but I really loved Schismatrix Plus and it has put Bruce Sterling near the top of my list for sci-fi writers. Sterling does an excellent job of melding his cyberpunk ethos with a space opera-ish background that is combined with the ‘Grand Tour’ of the solar system structure (cp. The Ophiuchi Hotline by John Varley or Vacuum Flowers by Michael Swanwick) to create a really delectable science fiction romp. (Though perhaps “romp” isn’t quite the right word.)
Schismatrix Plus is composed of the novel Schismatrix along with all of the published short stories in the same Shaper/Mechanist universe (I wish there were more). The Shapers and Mechanists are the two major offshoots of humanity who have colonised the solar system in a slower-than-light-speed cosmos. The Shapers are a faction devoted to the improvement of the human form and mind through genetic engineering and are known for their somewhat aristocratic and elitist bearing, while the Mechanists are those who instead chose the path of merging the human form with machine technology in the quest for immortality and transcendence. The Earth kicked both factions out at some point in the past and is now considered interdicted by both.
In Schismatrix itself we follow Abelard Lindsay, an aristocrat from one of the earliest space habitats orbiting the moon who was sent to be trained as a Shaper ‘diplomat’ in his youth and who is ultimately betrayed by his childhood friend and colleague Philip Constantine as they try to overthrow the gerontocracy of their republic (not really a spoiler as this happens early in the book and is the main impetus for the plot). Lindsay is sent into exile and thus begins his great tour of the solar system where he comes across many of the human factions and organizations vying for power.
The solar system that Sterling creates is a colourful one and is filled with interesting characters and groups, some aligned with one or the other of the Shapers and Mechanists, and some looking out only for themselves. These include a prostitute/banker who becomes an ecosystem in herself, a playwright-Mechanist, a group of space pirates who are also their own nation-state, and a clan of Shaper terraformers. Throughout his adventures Lindsay is both shaped by, and shapes, the human ecumene around him, at first simply trying to survive and later working towards fulfilling his great dreams for a post-human future for humanity. Added into this heady mix is a first contact with aliens that throws off the détente of the Shaper-Mechanist war. The story really is a tour de force as we follow Lindsay’s rising and falling fortunes and get a glimpse of wide swathes of the fascinating human solar system created by Sterling.
Sterling’s world is further fleshed out by the short stories included here: “Swarm” — a chilling tale of Shaper meddling in things best left alone; “Spider Rose” — the tale of a Mechanist loner who gets more than she bargains for when she trades with aliens; “Cicada Queen” — the story of an innovative Shaper that ties in with some of the events of Schismatrix; “Sunken Gardens” — a tale of competition and terraforming to achieve a new post-human dream; and “Twenty Evocations” — a somewhat experimental story detailing snapshots of the life of the Shaper Nikolai Leng.
Alastair Reynolds has acknowledged his debt to Sterling in the creation of his own “Revelation Space” universe and I’m a little surprised that there aren’t more science fiction writers mining the myriad of ideas that Sterling throws off with seeming effortlessness in these stories. Schismatrix Plus really is a great ride and is highly recommended for lovers of science fiction.