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)