REVIEW: Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder
REVIEW SUMMARY: Creates a complex array of technological wonders that force the reader to push the limits of his imagination.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The peaceful ringworld known as Tevan Coronal, whose inhabitants live in isolated virtual communities, falls under attack by the mysterious entity called 3340.
PROS: Great sense of wonder; pushes the limits of imagination; excellent world-building; fast paced.
CONS: Too many factions to keep straight.
BOTTOM LINE: Any book that pushes the limits of imagination is worth the effort.
If you were one of the inhabitants of the ringworld known as Tevan Coronal, chances are that you would be mostly clueless to what reality is really like.
All of the coronal’s inhabitants have nanotech implants that allow them control over “inscape”, a personal virtual reality that forms the world that people live in. That’s not to say that everyone has their private world to live in (although they could); instead, groups of like-minded individuals live in world-lets known as “manifolds”, often physically overlapping one another, but separated by horizons that make people from other manifolds invisible. Within each manifold, tech locks prohibit the advancement of technology above the level required by the associated beliefs. While it is possible for people to cross the horizon into other manifolds, it is not done often. Why would it be? Each manifold is the virtual manifestation of your own private paradise. The peers of each manifold all hold the same beliefs; the same worldview and values that give them something in common.
While the people of Tevan Coronal go about there happy isolationist existence, oblivious to the rest of the human species, the manifolds fall under attack by a mysterious entity known as 3340. (Readers of Schroeder’s book, Ventus, set in the same universe, will recognize this as the name given to a rogue artificial intelligence.) 3340′s aim is to break down the horizons between manifolds and destroy the tech locks while disguised as one of the coronal’s ancestors. Diplomat Livia Kodaly is pushed into the role of hero as she tries to figure out the true identity of the attacker, come to grips with the real world and answer some tough philosophical questions about the nature of (post)human existence – the answers to which will decide the fate of the human race.
Before you sit down to read Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes, be ready to push the limits of your imagination. (Translation: Bring your brain with you.) There are some sophisticated and complex concepts in here. The story combines nanotech, AI, virtual reality and posthumanism into a socio-political mystery spanning multiple (ring)worlds. I must admit that I was expecting a lighter read so that the first 50 pages or so left me confused as to the nature of inscape as well as the number and motives of all the different factions that populate the story. Simply put: I underestimated the depth of the technological ideas in this story. Once I realized that this was not a quick yarn, the book was way more enjoyable.
The things that impressed the most with this story were the sense of wonder and the world-building. Inscape is just plain cool. You could spawn multiple copies (animas) of yourself to do simultaneous tasks like exploring the countryside (fun) or talking with boring visitor (not so fun). Later, your animas would download the information into your head to bring you up to speed. You also had the power to create your own Society, hand-picking the people with whom you wish to be surrounded. Inscape allowed you to change your environment to suit your needs and I was loving that concept.
Now take this cool technology and apply it to the world-building idea of the manifolds, individual worldlets co-existing over one another yet each one oblivious to the others. What made it even more interesting was that the people in each manifold, who held the same set of values, preferred not to intermingle with people of other manifolds. On Tevan, worldviews don’t mix. This isolationism was a great addition to the story that added depth and provided a handful of fertile, philosophical discussions, mostly centered on interesting socio-political issues. For example, what happens when the virtual walls come tumbling down and we are forced to recognize people who do not share our own beliefs? Schroeder’s intended message, that technology will force a change in how humans relate, comes across loud and clear.
An interesting aspect of the invasion is that the tech locks prevent any cliched space attack seen in much military science fiction. Instead, the faction of 3340 manages to infiltrate the manifolds through social engineering, preying on the fears and hidden desires of each manifold’s individual inhabitants – fears and desires fed by their own particular worldview.
The characters in the book were sometimes hard to get a handle on, if only because, as I mentioned, there were so many factions to keep straight. While this provided part of the mystery (Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Whose side is he on?), it also led to some confusion (Is this a new faction or another point of view of an existing one?). Given the number of factions, the book could have done a better job at hand-holding the reader through it all. For example, it was hard to get a handle on the characters of Aaron Varese, Livia’s friend who lives in self-imposed exile from inscape, and founder Maren Ellis, who existed before Tevan was even created. What were they hoping for, exactly? On the other hand, I found the question of “Who are the Anecliptics?” to be a satisfying thread of the mystery. And the primitive view of Skaalith resident Qiingi, in the midst of advanced posthumanism concepts that would make Charlie Stross’ head spin, was kind of refreshing.
The fast, evenly-paced plot is more than sufficient to hold a reader’s interest. Livia’s escape from Tevan Coronal takes her through a series of interesting remote virtual worlds, including a humorous stop in the cartoon-like Blockworld. From there she escapes the confines of the Fallow Lands and learns the true nature of humanity’s existence in the Archipelago, the collection of colonized human worlds; even if they, too, use inscape to create their own realities.
Schroeder’s writing cannot be labeled as the quick-read variety if only because the material he is dealing with requires an extra erg of concentration to understand. But any book that pushes the limits of imagination is worth the effort. And if nothing else, Lady of Mazes creates a complex array of technological wonders that force the reader to push the limits of his imagination.
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