The current generation of sci-fi fans will undoubtedly be familiar with Alastair Reynolds’ Conjoiners and Ultras. Two groups of post-humans inhabiting his universe, the former have augmented consciousness toward intra-communities, while the latter have undergone major biomechanical reconstructive work to enhance capabilities. Original ideas, yes? Unfortunately, no. Acknowledging the debt in his outro to Galactic North, Reynolds admits if it weren’t for Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix Shaper/Mechanist universe, Revelation Space’s trans-humanism may have never taken shape. A work of truly unique imagination, Sterling deserves far more exposure than acknowledged homage or footnotes to cyberpunk he has been given in the three decades since this novel’s publishing.
Schismatrix opens with one of the most bizarrely sublime assassination attempts ever depicted in literature—the possibilities of sci-fi used to full effect. The main character, Abelard Lindsay, escapes but is subsequently exiled to a lunar colony where he must rebuild the social and political network cut off by his would-be assassins. Though born a Mechanist (people who alter their bodies with software and biomechanics), he trains as a Shaper (genetically modified people with special mental capabilities), and is thus an asset to both, a fact he attempts to spin for his own benefit in exile. As the decades and centuries pass, the political situation evolves, and reverts back on itself time and again, bringing Lindsay to face a final decision that transcends the cracked, post-human world he is immersed in.
Schismatrix more a pastiche of novellas than linear storytelling, tension builds in the setting rather than over the course of the narrative. The events and circumstances of Lindsay’s life find him in a handful of locales and situations, each more imaginative and peculiar than the next. Arthur C. Clarke nowhere to be seen, Sterling never paints these scenes in beautiful colors. The colony Lindsay is exiled to suffers from severe atmosphere problems, while a pirate ship he later finds himself on clanks and clutters its way across the universe, the crew never quite predictable in their twitchy addictions and edgy compulsions.
Given the extreme lack of similarity between Shapers/Mechanists and humanity today, Sterling’s narrative appropriately keeps the reader at a distance from the characters. Lindsay is not a hero to exalt or cheer for, but is a man whose life is for observation in comparison to our own, for better and worse. After all, how can one properly empathize with a person who has been alive for centuries and no longer exists in the body they were born with? Soldiers returning from war often alienating themselves due to their experience of being so far removed from normal life, Sterling is correct to detach readers from Lindsay. What results is both an interesting read and social statement.
More politically overt than Gibson’s brand of cyberpunk, Schismatrix focuses on the interaction of various factions throughout his created universe. Shapers and Mechanists have their agendas, as do a variety of other groups, including aliens calling themselves the Investors. Groups within each of these associations likewise have goals that don’t always agree with their peers’. This makes for some occasionally confusing shifts in plot, but shifts that well reflect background realpolitik. Attentive readers will not have a problem with these transitions, while those accustomed to Lois McMaster-Bujold, John Scalzi, or Vernor Vinge’s brand of sci-fi may feel lost upon occasion.
In the end, Schismatrix is an underrated work deserving of wider acclaim. More than the realist tone of its politics, the book is filled with original ideas, from setting to technology. Not a novel in the standard sense, the book is more a collection of vignettes welded together by Sterling’s fertile imagination. A great examination of post-humanism, readers of William Gibson, Ian McDonald, John Brunner and cyberpunk in general will want to check it out. If interested, buyers may want to seek out Schismatrix Plus, a book containing not only the novel but also all the short stories from the Shaper/Mechanist universe. Sterling a better writer of short fiction, these stories cap what is a great book in itself.