Tor hardcover - 286 pages
Cover art by Stephan Martiniere
Book reviewed October 2005
Rating: 7/10 (Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
"Technologies come in families, like people, and when you invite one into your home, the whole family will eventually move in and they won't leave."
- Karl Schroeder, Lady of Mazes
In the next century and beyond, our society will undergo changes all but impossible to conceive of today. One of the reasons that science fiction is the most important branch of contemporary literature is that SF can help us to consider the consequences of those changes before they arrive. With Lady of Mazes, Canadian author Karl Schroeder ingeniously envisions how technological advances may alter humanity.
Lady of Mazes is set far in the future of our solar system. It takes place in the same future universe as Schroeder's earlier novel Ventus, but the two books are completely independent. In this future, "inscape" technology allows individuals to perceive the world around them however suits them - sort of like virtual reality that travels around with you. In most of the solar system, inscape will even manipulate the world for your benefit. So, for example, if you're feeling blue, inscape will arrange for you to bump into an old friend likely to cheer you up (the real person, mind you, not a make-believe version). But is this too much of a good thing? If reality is continually rearranged to suit you, what are you missing?
Teven Coronal was founded by people determined to find out. Teven is a huge ring-shaped satellite, part of a string of satellites orbiting the sun in an area of the solar system supposedly left fallow. The founders of Teven have surreptitiously created a world-sized experiment where it is possible to adopt alternative cultures, based on different levels of technology. Various groups in Teven have chosen the level of technology they wish to live within, and "tech locks" programmed into inscape prevent them from perceiving anything beyond it. Thus, members of a group who wish to live like ancient Native Americans are simply unaware of neighbors flying around in aircars. (What keeps these people who can't see one another from bumping into each other I didn't quite follow.)
Our heroine Livia Kodaly lives in a district of Teven called Westerhaven. Westerhaven's culture is extremely advanced by our standards - for example, Livia can use "animas" to in effect be several places at once - but compared to the rest of the solar system, Livia's people are like the Amish of today, holding to an older and simpler lifestyle.
Years before, Livia was at the scene of a disaster that caused inscape to fail. While many could not endure the resulting unwonted exposure to reality, Livia and her close friend Aaron Varese were hardy enough to lead a group of survivors out of the affected area. This experience has left them more acutely aware than their fellows of the difference between their perceptions and reality.
Thus, Livia and Aaron are better prepared than most when an invading force arrives at Teven and begins to disable the tech locks, endangering the world's stability and eradicating its prized cultural diversity. Joined by Qiingi, a refugee of a very primitive culture (even by our mean 21st Century standards), Livia and Aaron leave Teven to seek aid from outside. But first they will need to overcome their culture shock at encountering the main part of the solar system's civilization, which does not even know of Teven's existence. Once they do, they begin to realize that the same power that invaded Teven is threatening the entire solar system.
The future Schroeder has created is fascinating and provocative. His solar system teems with trillions of people as well as godlike post-humans and different types of hyper-advanced artificial intelligences. He has intricately fashioned the details of this future civilization. For example, he envisions a bizarre political system where inscape automatically recognizes when a sufficient number of people form common interests, and creates human-like beings who exist only to advance the pet causes of the interest groups that gave them life (come to think of it, maybe this isn't so different from our political system).
Schroeder uses Teven Coronal as a marvelous backdrop for the question of how technology shapes culture. Lady of Mazes raises a host of moral and social issues that may seem far-fetched right now, but we had better start thinking about them soon. For instance, the main part of the solar system is dominated by post-singularity artificial intelligences, and so human beings have lost control of their own destiny. But if those A.I.s have created a system that makes people very happy, is that such a bad thing? Is a "reality" created by manipulating our own perceptions any less rewarding or meaningful than true reality, whatever that is?
All of this elaborate detail about the future, of which I have only scratched the surface, makes Lady of Mazes well worth the price of admission, even though the story is not compelling. In part, Schroeder is a victim of his own success. His future world is so intricate and fully realized that it is often difficult for the reader to understand what is going on, just as many of us found William Gibson's Neuromancer difficult to follow when we first read it. Unfortunately, another part of the problem is weak characterization. Livia is a fairly interesting leading lady, but the other characters are sketchy at best. In particular, Aaron plays a crucial role in the story, but he is not a complete, believable character. The ostensible villain, the entity that invaded Teven and is now threatening humanity, is also not adequately defined.You should not expect to become emotionally invested in the story of Lady of Mazes, but you will be hard pressed to find another novel so full of fascinating ideas about what the future may hold.
What do you think? Comments are welcome!
Please send them to:
|Copyright © 2005 Aaron Hughes|