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Literature / Schismatrix

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Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix is to Neuromancer what Gormenghast is to The Lord of the Rings, at least as far as its place in the Cyberpunk canon is concerned.

In the 23rd Century, Abelard Lindsay is about to kill himself in the name of humanity.

There are two major superpowers in the solar system — the Shapers, who use genetic engineering, psychology and conditioning techniques to improve human potential, and the Mechanists, who believe in cybernetics.

Lindsay's family, aristocrats in the Mare Serenitatus Circumlunar Corporate Republic, one of the crumbling space colonies orbiting the moon, sent him to the Shapers for diplomat training, along with his lower-class friend Constantine, who was trained in genetic engineering.

When he came back he found that the Mechanists were on top. Being a political liability, his family placed him under house arrest and married him off to a mechanist 50 years his senior. Lindsay, Constantine, and Lindsay's lover Vera had decided to stage a coup in the name of the eternal human verities, the latter two choosing to kill themselves to make a point.

Of course it doesn't go quite right. While Vera kills herself, Lindsay's family interferes in his own suicide attempt, only for his uncle to fall victim to a booby-trap Constantine had placed on Vera's body, in case Lindsay chickened out.

In the ensuing scandal, Lindsay is exiled to a decaying colony, the Mare Tranquillitatus People's Circumlunar Zaibatsu, which recognises a single human right: The right to death.

Lindsay politely declines, and decides to be a Manipulative Bastard instead.

The story that follows can only be described as "epic".

This novel displays the following tropes:

  • Accidental Art - the fate of Esair XII when the Investors arrive.
  • Alien Arts Are Appreciated - subverted and averted, in that order, without even mentioning the literature on the [untranslatable]. (Though according to the story Spider Rose, the latter would be very appreciated.)
  • Alien Geometry - Implied to be one of the horrors in the Arena. Though it doesn't help that at the time, the narrator's mind was completely destroyed by drugs.
  • Artificial Human - Shaper "Antibiotics", Kitsune and her children
  • Brain in a Jar - the "wireheads", or more politely, "senior Mechanists", apparently one of the more successful forms of life extension
  • Brown Note - The literature on the [untranslatable].
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Soul - alluded to by some Shapers, but averted, particularly with the Mech journalist, playwright and later, Wirehead Fyodor Ryuumin. Subverted with Spider Rose and the Zen Serotonin clade, who dampen their emotions deliberately with drugs.
  • Designer Babies - the Shapers
  • Distant Finale - the short story Sunken Gardens, though it was written before Schismatrix itself.
  • Elaborate Underground Base - not entirely true, but the Mavrides Family asteroid bears most of the hallmarks.
  • Exotic Equipment - Kitsune eventually grows into a space station. With unusual furniture.
  • Eldritch Abomination - in the final section of the novel, more or less completely inverted with the Presence, which turns out to be a bit happy-go-lucky.
  • Failed Future Forecast - The Red Consensus is mentioned to have been owned by the USSR
  • Fan of the Past - Lindsay, to begin with, along with the Preservationist faction he had a hand in founding.
  • Flesh Versus Steel - the Shapers vs the Mechanists.
  • Future Imperfect - Characters live long enough to see this happen to their own life.
  • Genre Shift - the earlier short stories portray a World Half Empty focused on alien horror, but Twenty Evocations is more about weirdness and future shock. Schismatrix itself is set in a World Half Full with a good dose of comedy.
  • Good Is Old-Fashioned - Inverted, utterly. For all that he starts the story as a Fan of the Past, Lindsay spends the entire story adapting himself to the changing situation. Antagonist Constantine on the other hand sticks to his preferred habits.
  • Insignificant Little Blue Planet - By choice. Earth's government blamed science for a massive ecological collapse, and those who escaped into space agreed to stay away.
  • Insufficiently Advanced Alien - the Investors are implied to have bought or stolen all of their starships
  • Last-Name Basis - Lindsay and Constantine in particular.
  • Manipulative Bastard - Abelard Lindsay and the other Shaper-trained diplomats. Lindsay's rival Constantine is this as well in spite of being untrained.
  • May–December Romance - Lindsay and his first wife, Alexandrina Tyler, who is fifty years older than he is.
  • The Neutral Zone - inside the People's Circumlunar Zaibatsu, setting foot in the demilitarised zone leads to instant death
  • No Transhumanism Allowed - The Neotenic Cultural Republic, which exiles all its citizens when they reach the age of 60, though the residents don't mind as they see it as just a temporary phase in their centuries long lifespan once outside the colony. In the rest of the book, this is throughly averted, as people do anything and everything imaginable to their bodies, to the point where many are not even recognizably human anymore.
  • Older Than They Look - Due to advanced genetic engineering technology, anyone with a little money is essentially immortal, so there is no relation whatsoever between looks and actual age.
  • Organic Technology - the Shapers, to a degree
  • Planet of Hats - though we never get to see their homeworld, the Investors as a species care for nothing but a good deal.
  • Sex Bot - subverted with Kitsune, a human Sex Bot created by the Shapers. Having what amounts to an extra pleasure centre where her womb should be causes all of her emotions to be overshadowed by lust, but rather than turning her into "a blank-eyed erotic animal", it resulted in an utterly pragmatic genius.
  • Shout-Out - mostly internal. Characters from the short stories tend to appear all over the main novel.
  • Space Amish - Deconstructed in Earth's civilisation, which chose stability over development. It appears only once, from a distance, and is portrayed as an utter Crapsack World.
    • Subverted with the Investors, who are equally stable due to being interested only in profit, and nevertheless have FTL and the best technology they can buy. Also subverted by the Swarm, who chose to maintain stability by turning into a mostly non-sentient space-borne Hive Mind.
  • Scenery Gorn - The Mare Tranquillatus People's Circumlunar Zaibatsu
  • Schizo Tech - the Mavrides' clan live inside an asteroid full of Organic Technology, but sew their plastic space suits by hand. and defend themselves from pirates with slingshots, flails and candles.
  • The Singularity - implied to happen to most species that don't kill themselves off
  • Soundtrack Dissonance - "...that most ancient of Japanese instruments, the synthesizer."
  • Starfish Aliens - The Gasbags, one of whom kills itself when it sees a solar flare that is somehow blasphemous in shape.
  • Technology Marches On - cassette tapes are ubiquitous
  • Terraform - the eventual goal of the Posthumanist clique is terraforming Mars
  • Time Abyss - the Investors, and to a lesser extent all the characters, who indulge in life-extension techniques. Simon Afriel's conversation with the Swarm.
  • Time Skip - The first four chapters take place near continuously. However, the rest of the book time skips like crazy. By the end of the book, at least 171 years have gone by.
  • Used Future - though not the case everywhere in the solar system, the Lunar Concatenate is in a pretty bad way, and the Red Consensus makes the Millennium Falcon look like something built by The Culture.