Painted aircraft flew through the core of the world. Lindsay stood in knee-high grass, staring upward to follow their flight.The scene above from the prologue to Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix embodies much of the style of this SF novel and its related short stories. Short, sharp staccato sentence bursts, containing brief but visceral images, serve to create vivid settings for the action that follows. Sterling, along with William Gibson, often is cited as being one of the founding fathers of the 1980s cyberpunk movement, and while I am unfortunately largely ignorant of their works, if Sterling's omnibus Schismatrix Plus is representative of the quality of the work being produced during this time, then perhaps I ought to reconsider my avoidance of cyberpunk fiction.
Flimsy as kites, the pedal-driven ultralights dipped and soared through the free-fall zone, far overhead. Beyond them, across the diameter of the cylindrical world, the curving landscape glowed with the yellow of wheat and the speckled green of cotton fields. (p. 3)
Schismatrix Plus contains the novel Schismatrix (1985) along with the earlier related short stories "Swarm" (1982), "Spider Rose" (1982), "Cicada Queen" (1983), "Sunken Gardens" (1984), and "Twenty Evocations" (1984). These stories revolve around a humanity that has split into two rival posthuman groups, the Shapers (who favor genetic and neural manipulation) and the Mechanists (who prefer mechanical alterations to the human body). Fleeing from a degraded Earth, over a span of several centuries, these groups have competed to control interplanetary trade, often with deadly results. Complicating matters is the arrival just before the setting of these tales of a reptilian alien race called the Investors, enigmatic and unwilling to depart with their interstellar secrets without a ransom's worth of energy and rare metals.
In these stories, Sterling explores issues such as human greed, our desire to explore and to dominate our surroundings, hatreds that emerge out of ignorance and confusion, among others. In the main novel, the apparently renegade Shaper Abelard Lindsay (doubtless a fitting, allusion-filled name, considering his namesake's history) lives many lives over a span of several hundred years. Through his character, Sterling comments upon many of the issues noted above. While often fascinating, especially considering that the novel takes up barely 230 pages (with another 85 or so devoted for the short stories), I often found myself struggling to make it through the early chapters, perhaps because of the above-mentioned staccato-like pattern to Sterling's writing. Lindsay's life intrigued me, but it took getting over halfway through the novel before enough information had been revealed; at first it was a bit too machine gun-like with the prose, with events and their consequences being set up and developed over just a few paragraphs, rather than the pages or even chapters to which I am more accustomed.
But the novel concluded satisfactorily for me. However, the short stories, especially "Swarm," caused much fewer problems in regards to comprehending Sterling's message embedded within the prose. It appeared to me that Sterling's prose is more suited for a short fiction style, as his tendency to write short, snappy passages that lead to a build up and concluding plot twist remind me more of the classic short stories I have read in the past than of most novels, whose longer structures lend themselves to a more leisurely pace. Regardless of my own conflicted feelings concerning the prose style, ultimately I came to appreciate and like what Sterling had accomplished with this Shaper/Mechanist universe. His explorations of basic human motivations, extrapolating these into a posthuman setting, manages to keep his fiction feeling "fresh" and not dated like many older fictions become once the generational concerns of that time have faded into historical obscurity. Schismatrix Plus certainly is worthy of its fame and I suspect that many readers who were children or unborn in 1985 will find new things to discover when reading it.
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