BOOK CLUB

Alas­tair Reynolds wasn’t the only one in­spired by a Ster­ling ef­fort

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents - By Bruce Ster­ling, 1985

Alas­tair Reynolds on Schis­ma­trix by Bruce Ster­ling.

I’ll make a bold claim: any sig­nif­i­cant work of space opera writ­ten in the last 30 years owes a debt to Schis­ma­trix. Even if not di­rectly in­spired, it will have been shaped by the mo­tifs of other writ­ers who did read it – and whose minds were suit­ably blown. I know be­cause I was one of them. All of which is puz­zling be­cause Schis­ma­trix isn’t pre­cisely space opera, at least not by the usual pa­ram­e­ters. It’s set en­tirely in the so­lar sys­tem, and the tech­nolo­gies are ex­trap­o­lated from our cur­rent ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Cloning, ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing, cy­ber­net­ics, en­vi­ron­men­tal mod­i­fi­ca­tion, fu­sion power – noth­ing too out­landish. Where the book scores is in tak­ing each con­ceit and look­ing at it with a brac­ing fresh­ness – and thereby re­fus­ing to be in­flu­enced by the stale group­think of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of writ­ers.

This ruth­less process op­er­ates at every level of the book, from its as­tute con­sid­er­a­tions of in­ter­plan­e­tary pol­i­tics to its fas­tid­i­ous at­ten­tion to space­craft me­chan­ics, to a fetish-like de­vo­tion to in­te­rior decor and fash­ions. My over­whelm­ing im­pres­sion at the time I en­coun­tered this novel was that some­one had fi­nally found the colour switch for sci­ence fic­tion. It was like hav­ing an elec­trode jammed into my visual cor­tex.

The plot, such as it is, is more episodic than epic. A ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered diplo­mat, Abe­lard Lind­say, con­fronts a se­ries of eth­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal chal­lenges across 200 years of in­creas­ingly weird fu­ture his­tory. At the out­set, the so­lar sys­tem is in the mid­dle of a cold war, dom­i­nated by two power blocs, the Mech­a­nists and the Shapers. Lind­say moves be­tween fac­tions, a slip­pery fish with a gift for im­pro­vi­sa­tion. Later, aliens ar­rive in the so­lar sys­tem, ratch­et­ing up ten­sions as the two pow­ers try to curry in­flu­ence. Along the way, Lind­say’s machi­na­tions throw him into con­flict with a ri­val char­ac­ter, Con­stan­tine, and their feud pro­vides the novel’s nar­ra­tive back­bone.

More aliens ar­rive, fur­ther desta­bil­is­ing hu­man af­fairs. But there are also op­por­tu­ni­ties, as alien tech­nolo­gies open up new economies and mar­kets. As the decades roll on, the pace of change only has­tens. The fi­nal pas­sages see even the jaded Lind­say reel­ing from the on­slaught of progress. The clos­ing chap­ters of the book of­fer some of the dens­est imag­i­na­tive think­ing ever seen in sci­ence fic­tion, and the ef­fect is gid­dy­ing.

Pub­lished in 1985, Schis­ma­trix was Ster­ling’s third novel and the last to be set in space. Over the pre­vi­ous half decade he had staked out his ter­ri­tory with a se­ries of bril­liant short sto­ries ex­plor­ing facets of the Mech­a­nist-Shaper uni­verse. If you can, in­ci­den­tally, get hold of the 1995 ex­panded edi­tion, Schis­ma­trix Plus, which in­cludes these shorter works, as well as a time­line. Schis­ma­trix was the cap­stone to this se­ries and its in­flu­ence, sub­tly at first, be­gan to play out in the wave of “new hard SF” and “new space opera” works ap­pear­ing in the ’90s and be­yond. While it lacks many of the ob­vi­ous trap­pings of space opera, it nonethe­less feels space op­er­atic: the pace, the spec­ta­cle, the sweep of lo­cales, the den­sity of ideas, the imag­i­na­tive panache. It’s dated in some mostly mi­nor as­pects – there is no “in­ter­net”, as such – but there is a great deal of clever think­ing about cy­ber­net­ics and bio-en­gi­neer­ing, and much of the spec­u­la­tion re­mains as provoca­tive and dis­turb­ing as when it was writ­ten.

Oh, and Ster­ling was not even 30 when he com­pleted this novel. Read it and weep.

Alas­tair Reynolds’ new book, Re­venger, is pub­lished on 15 Septem­ber.

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