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REVIEW: Schismatrix Plus by Bruce Sterling

REVIEW SUMMARY: Critically important book in the genre, this book contains more ideas that most authors have in a career.


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.

10 Comments on REVIEW: Schismatrix Plus by Bruce Sterling

  1. Gibson a hack? Wow. I’m glad no Gibson fanboys have appeared.


  2. Well, I wouldn’t describe myself as a Gibson fan-boy, but I think calling him a hack is a little strong. Sure, his prose may not be the most literary, but there are far more hackish genre writers who sell far more books through writing safe unoriginal crap that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in the 50s. Gibson at least deals with the big ideas of the era in which he writes his novels.

    Still, you’re entitled to your opinion. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

    And back on topic, Schismatrix is bloody amazing, although I agree with you on the pacing aspect. I’m not sure if it’s actually a fix-up of shorter pieces or not, but it does read like one.

  3. I don’t think he was saying “Gibson is a hack”. I think he was saying “those that hack” (imitate poorly) “Gibson’s writings”.

    You know, pale imitators. Like “Shadowrun” novels…


  4. You know you’re right – I shouldn’t call Gibson a hack. He’s an author who has made a fine living writing – and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. I’m glad Nueromancer sold so many copies in the same way I’m glad of the Harry Potter series – neither are great writing, but they get people reading and that’s a good thing.

    I should merely point out that if you think Gibson is great, you haven’t read enough.

    But what do I know? I liked the Naomi Novik books so there is clearly something wrong with me.

  5. I agree with Scott. There is clearly something wrong with him. Ba-dum crash! 😉

  6. Also known as NEUromancer!


    “I should merely point out that if you think Gibson is great, you haven’t read enough.”

    He’s had a couple of great ones, especially if you put them in the context of when they first came out.

    But he’s had more than a few duds. Am I the only one who did not think “Pattern Recognition” wasn’t the greatest thing since sliced bread?


  7. You’re right, Fred. Gibson, like his computers, is full of ones and zeros, hits and misses. Neuromancer and some of his short stories like Burning Chrome and The Winter Market are fine pieces of work, but I wish I’d taken a miss on Count Zero.

    Looking forward to cracking open Schismatrix.

  8. Fred, that’s what ultimately gets me about people’s reaction to Gibson. I always hear that somehow he was a pioneer or that Neuromancer was some sort of watershed novel for the time. Have these people never heard of Philip K Dick or Stanislaw Lem? It would be like somebody telling you that the new Battlestar Gallactica was innovative.

    Gibson does a good job of mashing up the voice of Raymond Chandler with the worlds of Philip K Dick. For that I give him a nod, but I just can’t agree he was a pioneer of ideas or genre. He didn’t create the idea of cyberspace or the internet (as we all know, that was Al Gore) although he did create the word. He didn’t create dystopias, he didn’t create the ideas he presented in his books.

    He did popularize the idea that technology will always be used in ways the creators didn’t predict. Anybody who works in the technology field could tell you this, but Gibson did a great job demonstrating its impact. Technology gone amok is one example of that (seen in 50’s sci fi) – a robot that kills its creator certainly went beyond expectations. But Gibson showed how people will exploit technology personally and I like that. Sterling’s Mechanists are one ultimate expression of this.

  9. theproffet // July 5, 2007 at 10:48 am //

    A nice review of Sterling’s first major success, but the slam on Gibson (in the penultimate sentence?!)is an unfortunate choice. And I suppose I used to be a Gibson fanboy, but now I’d probably echo Fred and bloginhood above. However, I don’t really see a bit of Dick in Gibson’s works–Gibson would probably be horrified by the thought, seeing Dick as a wet old hippie! Not that I would agree . . .

    I should mention that I’m looking forward to re-reading Schismatrix soon, in the SFBC edition. I first read it back in the 80’s, borrowed from a friend in a white hot rush. Having just finished Revelation Space, I may be looking for influences Sterling may have had on Reynolds–perhaps not inconsiderable . . .

  10. I agree – I was feeling snarky when I wrote this and swiped at Gibson. My point was to tell folks that Sterling is the read deal.

    I’d change the blog entry, but then it would make all the comments here look odd, so I’m leaving it and hoping the comments expalin myself better.

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