Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling

December 18, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Schismatrix is described by Sterling as the most “cyberpunk” work he has ever written and will ever write. It’s funny that he associates it so strongly with a modern literary movement (I’m not saying he’s wrong, I don’t know enough about what makes something cyberpunk to evaluate it) given its structure is of the sort of novel that is rarely written these days: the episodic biography. There used to be a lot of these back when short fiction dominated the field and novels tended to be either padded out shorts or several shorts strung together. The book follows its main character throughout his life (a very long life, thanks to medical advances) and in so doing charts the evolution of the human society throughout the solar system.

It is this society that gives the book its title, as it is deeply fragmented and full of small units and factions. Sterling has crafted what must be over a dozen ideologies and social structures to populate his solar system, some more understandable than others. His inventiveness is remarkable and I didn’t find myself complaining that a branch of future technology had been overlooked. Either Sterling was complete or I share his biases.

Unfortunately, when you get past the world building the story, plot, and characters leave a little bit to be desired. The episodic format moves us from one startling world to another in a manner that dazzles the reader with Sterling’s creativity but prevents any true attachment to the characters. It doesn’t help that most of them, especially early on, are deeply unlikable.

I’m giving this four stars because I think it succeeds in what it set out to do, which is form an engaging chronicle of future history. If you prefer character-driven fiction you probably ought to give it a pass.

One final note, I read this in an edition called Schismatrix Plus which tacks on some short stories Sterling wrote in the universe. They are decent, but only one, “Swarm”, is of real quality. Their placement after the novel is logical because, even though they were published first, they surely are easier to understand if you come in armed with the basics of Sterling’s complicated universe.

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