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