Sunday, February 15, 2015
Is a pretty damn good book.
I had heard of Sterling's Shapers and Mechanists secondhand, and even borrowed the Shapers (necessarily inaccurately) for a Traveller came at one point, but hadn't realized the original source. I'm glad I stumbled across this, though somewhat sad at the number of years elapsed in the interim. The main Schismatrix story is something of a travellogue, with a main character (who reminds me a lot of one of my favorite old PCs) perpetually cooking up schemes to stay alive in a chaotic world. Some reviews complain at the lack of a single, coherent mainplot, but I think when you write at this near-dynastic scale, that makes a lot of sense; it is hard to devote all of one's energies to any single task over an unnaturally-extended lifetime (as is considered late in the story), be it world dominance or hunting down an enemy or rescuing a loved one. Time grinds down everyone's resolve, and everything changes eventually; there's always an economic bubble somewhere, but when it bursts it pays to have a contingency plan. I liked that about Schismatrix.
Sterling does a lot of evocative and imaginitive worldbuilding. The Shaper/Mechanist universe is overflowing with factions and organizations; the Preservationists, the Geisha Bank, the Nephrine Black Medicals, the Fortuna Miners' Democracy, the Blood Bathers, the Cataclysts, the Lobsters (I really liked the Lobsters), the Polycarbon Clique, the Lifesiders Clique, the various Shaper genelines, the big Mechanist cartels and zaibatsus, and probably a bunch more that I'm forgetting, each with an ideology that may or may not make any sense, and which might be clarified to the reader only long after that faction is destroyed or driven from power (or not at all). It's a beautiful mess of philosophies and I love it. It begs for use in an RPG; forget monster of the week, have a lunatic philosophical faction of the week. Maybe that's why Planescape was popular...
The rest of the worldbuilding, in terms of physical and social setting descriptions, was also very well-done. There was a lot of it, but I didn't get bored of it, because everything was strange and interesting. Contrast: I also read Old Man's War recently, and a conclusion I was forced to draw was that I have no interest in reading mundane worldbuilding, as embodied in the (long, dragging) description of the various standard earthling breakfast foods served to new trainees (waffles, donut, bacon, &c) and other normalcies during the first part of the book. Sterling avoids this trap; even when the mundane, like a housecat, does appear, it is seen through 'alien' eyes and described from that perspective in an amusing fashion, in juxtaposition with an oddity a page (cockroaches as pets?) described as completely ordinary from that same perspective.
I also liked the single-solar-system scope. It's a bit more to my tastes than romping across the stars these days, but not an easy niche to find in science fiction. No psi/magic/what-have-you; everything is kept fairly plausible to casual examination, except for that one thing which comes in a bit late and is not totally unreasonable. Some of the characters are genetically engineered to be badasses, but those characters operate on a fairly even playing field against clever and postnatally-augmented folks. The movers and shakers may be of high birth, but that's never why they're in charge; Brin's aristocratic concerns are strongly averted. Falling in with a philosophy and working cleverly to achieve a shared worldview seems more important than lucky birth, and no manner of predestination is present. Pre-singularity posthumanity is also a very workable premise; you get to do all sorts of body modification and philosophical diaspora without having to deal too much with the exponential growth and rapid obsolescence. Sort of a nice balance between cyberpunk pessimism and transhumanist optimism; posthumans and their factions can be as cruel as any cyberpunk corporation, but the reign of any single power never lasts.
Anyway, 5/5 will probably read again, would steal from this book for Traveller without hesitation.