BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a future world split between humans who have chosen to enhance themselves genetically (the Shapers) and those who choose to enhance themselves mechanically (the Mechanists), Abelard Lindsay makes his way through 200 years of history.
PROS: Amazing collection of sci-fi ideas including genetics, cyborgs, politics, religion, sex, and more. The characters are all deep and engaging.
CONS: The main novel reads like a collection short stories and lacks a driving plot.
BOTTOM LINE: Must read for any sci-fi fan, you’ll really regret not knowing about this universe otherwise. Unless you just can’t stand any cyberpunk-style efforts, I’d recommend this to anybody.
Schismatrix Plus is a collection of all the writings that Sterling has done in this universe – including the novel Schismatrix and six short stories. If you haven’t read this book you should. It contains ideas that will be copied many times into the future. Think of having read Earth Abides when it first came out, and you’ll understand what I mean. The short stories are mostly solid – with Swarm as a standout classic.
Sterling’s efforts here are both dark and full of hope. The main character (Abelard Lindsay) attempts suicide early on, for example. But after that he represents the hope of humanity. Humans are pushing and clawing and driving themselves forward despite the disruption caused by various forms of technology. Sometimes they clash in war or in politics and sometimes take a bizarre view of what has value (at one point he describes ‘sex time’ – that is time with a prostitute – as the coin of the realm.) But always humankind is advancing – and trying to find what brings us together rather and separates us.
I won’t go through all the various ideas that he presents because it would be better to simply read the book. I’m also not going to go through a plot synopsis – there are plenty of other places for that. But at the risk of alienated the books many fans, I do have some problems with it. The story jumps around a lot – with decades passing between chapters with nary a mention as to what happened. In that way, the novel reads like a collection of short stories rather than a cohesive whole. When those decades pass the local universe has often changed dramatically and so you get the same main character but with totally new circumstances and supporting characters. When this happens I feel Lindsay is portrayed as meandering through life – and I don’t think that’s how Sterling wanted his genius to appear. Most of the time Lindsay is driven forward by his determination and strong sense of purpose and the character really shines. He grows and changes throughout the book and appears more real and human than any other time. The supporting characters are also deep and real – with complicated objectives and approaches to problems. There isn’t a cardboard character in the book and Sterling gets my serious appreciation for that.
There’s no question that this book is firmly in the Cyberpunk genre. However, please note that this is in no way a rehash of The Difference Engine or any of that hack Gibson’s writing. Sterling’s effort is genuine and real and I believe advances the overall genre in a way that few books honestly have.