Schismatrix Plus — Bruce Sterling

Cover of Schismatrix Plus

Schismatrix Plus
Bruce Sterling
319 pages
published in 1996

As a literary movement, cyberpunk has had the misfortune to be dominated by not just one particular writer, (William Gibson) but by one particular novel: Neuromancer, which ever since its first publication in 1984 has served as a template for what is and isn’t cyberpunk, stultifying the genre almost from its birth. I do not blame Gibson or Neuromancer for this, but rather the legion of mediocre writers who jumped on the cyberpunk bandwagon after it, churning out third and fourth rate copies. Everything that was original and good about cyberpunk got lost in this flood, anything that deviated from the Neuromancer template shoved aside.

Which unfortunately included Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix, which never quite got the acclaim it deserved. Coming out only a year after Gibson’s Neuromancer, it should’ve taken its rightful place beside it as one of the acknowledged classics of the genre. However, this never quite happened. Somehow, cyberpunk had already solidified too much for Schismatrix to fit in comfortably. It was just too different from the low life with high tech template put forth by Neuromancer and its imitators. Schismatrix‘s influence would only be felt later, in writers like Charlie Stross and Neal Stephenson, after cyberpunk had crashed and burned.

For me personally, Schismatrix was one of the seminal cyberpunk novels, one of the few available to me when I was still almost entirely dependent on the Middelburg library for my science fiction fix. Together with of course Neuromancer and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series I’d discovered at the same time, it was a first taste of modern science fiction, because until then the library mainly had stocked Golden Age and New Wave science fiction, not so much new stuff.

What Schismatrix showed me was a future in which space stations needed not be clean and sterile, but could actually decay and smell funky. A future in which space travel was boring, something you had to do to get from one place to another, not an adventure or a noble striving to be free of the ties of Earth. That was new to me.

Looking back, Schismatrix was of course very much influenced by the Cold War environment in which it was written, with its Solar System divided between Shapers and Mechanists. The first are those who use genetic enginering and psychological training to shape their bodies and minds, while the Mechanics use cybernetics and software. In the 23rd century, these are the conservative faction struggling for supremacy. Caught up in this battle for power are the various independent and not so independent colonies on the Moon and in L5, ruled by or allied to one faction or another.

The Mare Serenitatis Circumlunar Corporate Republic is one of these colonies, ruled by ancient Mechanist families, whose innate conservatism strangles the possibilities for the younger generations in the colony. In hindsight, a very eighties concern as the baby boomers came of age and started grappling with political power. Something Sterling would also come back to in the later Holy Fire. Abelard Lindsay and Philip Constantine are two friends who’ve both been trained as Shaper diplomats in nominal service to the colony, rebellious and wanting to make a grand gesture to change its politics. That fails, it kills Vera Kelland, the woman they both loved and sets them against each other. Constantine remains at the colony, Lindsay is exiled.

As Lindsay moves from colony to colony, Constantine stages a coup and assumes control of the Mare Serenitatis Circumlunar Corporate Republic. His presence remains as a menace in the background, driving much of the plot of the first half of the novel, as Lindsay attempts to get away from his influence. Ultimately he ends up on an asteroid colony originally founded by a Shaper clan and now taken over by a Mechanist cartel. His attempts to keep peace between the two factions fail and open war breaks out, which he and his new love only survive due to the coming of the aliens, the socalled Investors.

The second half of Schismatrix is taken up with the impact their arrival has on the Solar System’s political scene and economy, as it’s soon clear they care nothing for the Shaper/Mechanist squabbles. Détente sets in, but isn’t kept. In the meantime the struggle between Constantine and Lindsay continues, half hidden in the everyday political manoeuvring of the various powers. This part of the story stretches over decades and centuries.

Unlike Neuromancer, Schismatrix has dated much less, even if its politics are very eighties. Sterling has a knack for creating believeable, lived in, dense political and cultural futures and a scope that’s at easy with centuries and the entire Solar System to play in, in contrast to Gibson’s more cramped, Earthbound futures. Nevertheless there are similarities. The dirty secret of the cyberpunks is that, despite their rebellious stance, they were science fiction True Believers, confident that humanity’s future lies in space and in both novels that future is in progress. If you squint hard enough, they could be part of the same future.

Apart from Schismatrix itself, Schismatrix Plus also contains the Shaper/Mechanist short stories originally collected in Crystal Express:

  • Swarm (1982)
  • Spider Rose (1982)
  • Cicada Queen (1982)
  • Sunken Gardens (1984)
  • Twenty Evocations (1984)

The Instrumentality of Mankind – Cordwainer Smith

Cover of The Instrumentality of Mankind

The Instrumentality of Mankind
Cordwainer Smith
238 pages
published in 1979

Cordwainer Smith was one of the more interesting science fiction writers of the fifties and sixties. Under his real name, Paul Linebarger, he had been instrumental in the development of psychological warfare, worked in China in WWII to coordinate military intelligence there, became a confidant of Chiang K’ai-Shek and consulted for the US Army in the Korean War. His science fiction reflected his life, much more literate and creative than was the norm in the genre at the time, influenced by Chinese literature and culture among other things and not afraid to be poetic, especially in the titles.

Smith had a real knack for creating gorgeously strange far future worlds, on display here even in the earliest story in the novel, “War No. 81-Q, written in 1928 when he was still in high school. Most of his stories, including the majority here, are set in the same universe, The Instrumentality of Mankind as in the title. It’s a future that stretches out from 2000 AD to 16000 AD, with the Instrumentality itself established around 5000 AD. There’s almost no continuity with our own time, though two stories here do star timelost refugees from the collapse of nazi-Germany, the Vonacht sisters, in “Mark Elf” and “The Queen of the Afternoon”, set early in the revitalisation of humanity after the devestation of the Ancient Wars that had destroyed civilisation.

All the instrumentality stories in this volume, from “No, No, Not Rogov! to “Drunkboat” are in chronological order, with the non-Instrumentality stories bunched up at the end of the book. Short text pieces connect each of the first couple of the Instrumentality stories with each other. To be honest, the stories here aren’t the best Cordwainer Smith has written. As the back cover makes clear, The Instrumentality of Mankind was the last in Del Rey’s seventies republishing of Smith’s oeuvre and some of these stories clearly are leftovers.

But these aren’t bad stories and although this isn’t perhaps the best volume to try Smith with, there’s enough merit here to pick it up if you find it. Otherwise, there’s the NESFA Press collection The Rediscovery of Man which has all of Smith’s stories in one convenient volume.

Stories in this volume:

  • No, No, Not Rogov!
  • War No. 81-Q
  • Mark Elf
  • The Queen of the Afternoon
  • When the People Fell
  • Think Blue, Count Two
  • The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-at-All
  • From Gustible’s Planet
  • Drunkboat
  • Western Science Is So Wonderful
  • Nancy
  • The Fife of Bodidharma
  • Angerhelm
  • The Good Friends

Who Fears Death — Nnedi Okorafor

Cover of AWho Fears Death

Who Fears Death
Nnedi Okorafor
386 pages
published in 2010

As I was reading Who Fears Death, about a third to halfway through it, a simple question sprung to mind: why did I think this was set in Africa? There had been no recognisable place names, no mention of Africa, no hint of what the Seven Rivers Kingdom corresponded to in the real world until almost at the end of the book, when it’s revealed to once have been part of the Kingdom of Sudan (which as far as I can determine, has never existed, at least not under that name). Yet from the start I had no doubt this was set in some part of Africa, but why? Was it just because Nnedi Okorafor is a Nigerian writer? Or the cover, which does look very “African”? Ironically, for once in a field where protagonists are often whitewashed on the cover, here the opposite may have happened; the heroine, Onyesonwu, is described as being “sand dune coloured” in the book, paler than most people.

Because of this, by just looking at her, people know she’s the child of rape, an Ewu, born of an Okeke mother raped by a Nuru man, as part of a strategic campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Nuru of the Okeke, traditionally their slaves. Any child born of rape is not just a permanent reminder of Nuru superiority, it also undermines the Okeke’ future directly, as they aren’t Okeke and nor would their children. Onyesonwu therefore, like all Ewu, is outcast, barely tolerated in Okeke society and that only because of her father, not the man who raped her mother, but the man she chose for her when she and her mother came out of the desert they’d been living in. And it is when her father dies when she’s sixteen, that everything changes for Onyesonwu, when it becomes public that part of the unwanted heritage she has gotten from her mother’s rapist is the ability to practise magic. Now she has to find somebody to teach her how to control her powers and how to use them to protect herself.

That’s all in the first two short chapters, setting up the rest of the story. At the end of the first chapter it’s established that it’s being told by Onyesonwu to an unknown listener, four years after the death of her father, while she’s waiting for her own death. Throughout the rest of the story she occassionally flashes forward to this moment, as we learn more about why she ended up there. At first the story is told mostly in flashback however as Onyesonwu talks about her growning up and trying to fit in with a society in which she’s an outcast. Her innate sorcerous abilities, in a society where of course sorcery is the domain of men, doesn’t help. Large parts of her story revolve around her struggle to control and learn to use her powers, in the face of the (well intentioned) refusal of those who could help her.

The town Onyesonwu lives in is far removed from the realities of the slow burning civil war that her mother fled, but as the novel progresses it comes closer. It also becomes that the driving force behind the genocide of the Okeke is her own father. And with Onyesonwu’s becoming a woman and growning mastery of her sorcery, she comes to his attention, seemingly setting things up for a familiar quest story, in which Onyesonwu has to defeat her father and overcome the racial and tribal perjudices of both her peoples.

Though this is what more or less happens, it doesn’t quite fit the mold though. Onyesonwu often is more pawn than hero and never escapes the fate that she sees in her initiation rite when the local sorceror master finally takes her as his pupil. At which point it also becomes clear to the reader, if it hadn’t already, that she’s narrating the story shortly before she will be killed by stoning. She’s at peace with this, as the same vision also revealed that her death would change everything for the Nuru, Okeke and Ewu.

But what really sets Onyesonwu apart from a Luke Skywalker say, is that once in full possession of her powers, she’s as destructive and vindictive as her father. When her friend is killed in one town, she blinds the inhabitants. Worse she inflicts on the Nuru capital, through killing every Nuru male in it, whil impregnating every Nuru female, avenging what was done to her mother a million fold.

This isn’t really the sort of behaviour we expect from our science fiction or fantasy heros. Sure, genocide is always the first option space opera protagonists reach for when things get difficult, but it’s supposed to be done rationally, not so emotionally as this. It also makes a mockery of the elegant structure of the prophecy she’s supposedly enacting, as her actions have already changed the world, her death just a coda.

And all through this I kept wondering why it felt so African to me when it was only on the very last page it was revealed it was indeed set in Sudan. Granted, the genocide and civil war reminded me of the South Sudan and Ruanda, but it could’ve just as well been Bosnia twenty years ago. Perhaps it was that curious mixture of what seemed like superstition mixed with actual sorcery embedded in a society that seemed organised on the village level, where high technology like computer tablets do exist, but seem external to village life. Maybe Who Fears Death is just deliberately designed to feed on our prejudices and stereotypes of “Africa”.

This wasn’t an easy novel to read, much more so than Lagoon was. I”m not sure it entirely succeeded in what it set out to to, or even what that was. If you’re new to Okorafor’s writing, perhaps Lagoon would be a better start.

How diverse are my book shelves?

Not very it turns out. Below are the fifty science fiction and fantasy writers I’ve bought the most books of, according to Librarything. Thirtyeight male, twelve female writers, one writer of colour. Part of that discrepancy is of course the inertia of any collection: it takes time and effort to get new writers into the top fifty. But I think part of it is due to the fact that it has been easier for white, male writers to keep their career going than it has been for women/writers of colour. It hasn’t been that long since there were only two first grade Black writers in science fiction: Butler and Delany. I like to think that if I look at this list again in one or two years time, it will be more diverse.

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The Nemesis from Terra — Leigh Brackett

Cover of The Nemesis from Terra

The Nemesis from Terra
Leigh Brackett
150 pages
published in 1961

One of the disadvantages of the exploration of the Solar System that got started up in the middle of the 1960s is that it destroyed the cozy picture science fiction had build up over the decades. Gone were the humid jungles of pulp Venus, the night and day sides of Mercury and of course most famously, the Martian channels and any hope that it may yet be a habitable planet. Though I was born well after the pulp sf ideas about the Solar System had been shown to be false, I still like reading about it, as long as it’s not some hideously reactionary re-imagination of it but the real deal. Leigh Brackett of course always satisfies and it’s no different here.

Rick Urquhart is space scum, kicked off his last ship’s crew for slugging the first mate and currently running away from the press gangs sweeping through the ancient Martian city of Ruh, looking for fresh bodies to use in the mines of the Terran Exploitations Company. When he stumbles into one Martian hidey hole, the old crone living in it, suggests she tells his future, to kill the time, hoping no more than to hypnotise Rick and shove him outside. Much to her surprise however she finds out his shadow will hang over Mars unless she kills him now. Rick struggles and kills her, then flees only to run into another press gang. For somebody prophesied to be the new ruler of Mars, he has remarkable little luck…

As Rick is stewing in the mines, he keeps looking out for chances to escape to fullfill his destiny to rule Mars, which is how he interprets the crone’s prediction. He’s not the only one: his killing of her is the catalyst for a Martian uprising. For the first time, the city states stand as one in a conspiracy to throw the Terran Exploitations Company off Mars, preferably with all other humans. And they’re not the only ones after the TEC: there’s also the Union Party, full of Terran do gooders wanting to raise the Martian living standard and make it an independent planet. One of them, Mayo McCall, has infiltrated the TEC and is present when Rick tries to escape.

Her cover is blown in the attempt and she and Rick flee into the mine tunnels, in the most harrowing part of the novel. Pursued by the company’s watch dogs they move deeper and deeper into the mine, coming out in the tunnels dug by one of Mars’ natural tunnellers, a giant worm like creature, whose carcass they have to move through to get to the surface. More dead than alive they reach another of Mars many half ruined cities, where Rick and Mayo are looked after by Kyra, one of the last surviving members of an ancient Martian race. These tend to crop up a lot in Brackett’s work.

Meanwhile, TEC’s second in command, Jaffa Storm, has taken over the company and crushed the first Martian rebellion, but not before Rick had been taken prisoner by them and tortured on behalf of the son of the woman he’d killed. With the leaders of the rebellion now dead and Rick’s destiny still playing in the back of his head, he persuades Mayo and Kyra to help him organise a new one, using Mayo’s contacts in the Union Party, his own among the spacer community as well as the indigenous Martians, already organised. Together they beat TEC, but Storm escapes while Rick is betrayed. It all comes to a climax in the abandoned city of yet another Martian race as Rick has to chose between power and love…

The Nemesis from Earth started out as “Shadow over Mars”, originally printed in the Fall 1944 Startling Stories. With such a pulp background it’s no surprise it packs a lot of action in its 150 pages, with the characters being a bit twodimensional. What is surprising though is the relative sophistication of the politics. This is no simplistic story of heroic natives rising up against an exploitative company; the Martians have their faults, TEC itself has some good points and the Union Part is willing to use realpolitik to achieve its goals. It’s all rooted in a mid twentieth century understanding of colonial politics; it could’ve been set in an African or Central American country except, you know, for the mind powers and such.

In the end The Nemesis from Terra is a minor Brackett story, not as refined or interesting as her later Mars stories. But it’s a quick read and the action is fat enough to keep your attention.