Review of Schismatrix Plus by Bruce Sterling

by Anders Sandberg
There's a universe of potential, Lindsay, think of that. No rules, no limits.
When I read a book, I usually judge it for the quality and interest of the ideas it presents rather than literary style, plot or characterization, which are just added bonuses. If I find myself thinking about the book even years after reading it, then I regard it as an important book. Schismatrix is a very important book. As Bruce Sterling himself put it: "Schismatrix is a creeping sea-urchin of a book -- spikey and odd. It isn't very elegant, and lack bilateral symmetry, but pieces break off inside people and stick with them for years".

Schismatrix Plus is a new edition of Bruce Sterling's classic, containing the novel plus all other short stories set in the same universe.

The setting of Schismatrix is transhuman. The people colonizing the solar system are divided into two main ideologies: the Shapers, who use biotechnology, genetic engineering and subtle psychology to enhance human potential, and the Mechs, who employ artificial intelligence, bionics and other technology to become more than human. There are plenty of similarities with the Cold War (the book was after all written in 1985, another era) as the Shaper-Mech struggle spills over into "neutral" orbital habitats.

Life moves in clades. A clade is a daughter species, a related descendant. It's happened to other successful animals, and now it's humanity's turn. The factions still struggle, but the categories are breaking up. No faction can claim the one true destiny for mankind. Mankind no longer exists.
The book follows the life of Abelard Lindsay, born in the Mare Serenitatis Circumlunar Corporate Republic in 2186. He has been given Shaper diplomatic training making him a social chameleon and a brilliant liar, something he uses throughout the book as his life and career repeatedly changes direction in unexpected ways. Before the end of the novel his careers have included being a revolutionary, a theatre producer, a space pirate, a xenodiplomat, a scholar and a prophet.

As a character put it: "Politics pulls us together, technology pulls us apart". Throughout the book changes in technology, economics and politics force ideologies, habitats, marriages and people to adapt, change or become obsolete. Some people seek to escape all this change by turning to Zen Serotonin, a quasi-religion whose adherents remain in a perpetual state of pleasant serenity thanks to neurochemical implants, others embrace it like the Cataclysts, who think radical change is a good way of opening the eyes of people whether they want it or not.

If there is one repeating theme in the book, it is that nothing ever goes as expected. Although a plan might be wildly successful in the short term, in the long run its consequences will be unpredictable. This is not necessarily bad, but to survive one has to constantly surf the edge -- otherwise one is swept away by the wave.

In the short story "Ten Evocations", which describes the life of a Shaper defector industrialist, the character's last words are "Futilitity is freedom!", which can perhaps be seen as the overarching mood of the entire Schismatrix world. It is impossible to plan for the future, since it is constantly changing. But this chaos is also affected by all our actions regardless of how slight and in the end the world is shaped by human wills and visions in an organic fashion.

He mourned mankind, and the blindness of men, who thought that the Kosmos had rules and limits that would shelter them from their own freedom. There were no shelters. There were no final purposes. Futility, and freedom, were Absolute.
Opposed to these visions of flexibility and transcendence stands the option of stasis. If technology and diversity can be controlled, then change can be averted and society hold together in a stagnant but secure form. This is the choice of the humans still living on Earth, isolated from their transhuman relatives by a mutual no-contact pact. An even more radical possibility of remaining stable is suggested in the short story "Swarm": a symbiotic group of non-sentinent species living in a hive society inside the asteroid belts of Betelgeuse demonstrates that intelligence may not be necessary for long-term survival, and might even be undesirable.

Sterling manages to point out many interesting and worrying things that we as transhumanists may need to be aware of. Transhumanism itself is just a value-set, but when it is combined with politics (and power) it can become ideology -- almost all of the trans- and posthuman groups in Schismatrix seek growth and transcendence, but it is a political, economic and military struggle, not a cheerful storming of the cosmos for its own sake. Many of the smaller clades who try to jumpstart their evolution fail in painful ways, sometimes due to the machinations of others but often due to inherent flaws in their ideas. This may be the price that must be paid for continued evolution.

Overall, the Schismatrix universe is rich and thought-provoking. It shows a not too unlikely transhuman future with piles of ideas that ought to be investigated further. It has aged well (unlike Gibson's Neuromancer) and still feels very actual. Unlike Walter John Williams' Aristoi it suggests that there wont be one posthumanity, but many and tremendously diverse posthumanities. Our greatest enemy might be our inability to handle infinite possibilities.