‘I can buy you, grow you, sell you, cut you into bits. Your screams: my music’; A Review of Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix

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Though published in the mid-nineties, Sterling’s compendium Schismatrix Plus includes the Schismatrix novel itself, along with several shorts and prose pieces that add to his Shaper/Mechanist universe, including Swarm, Spider Rose, Cicada Queen, Sunken Gardens and Twenty Evocations, all of which were written between 1982 to 1988, cementing them within the cyberpunk lexicon. Unlike the sprawling cyberpunk novels of Gibson, Sterling’s fiction within the Shaper/Mechanist universe is a lot more technical, precise and deals more so with the post-humanity of the flesh as opposed to the inner wiring of the hacker. The Shaper/Mechanist universe deals in the grand scheme, and examines schismatic fracture of ideologies, or philosophies, fought through technology.

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‘The ruins of the unsustainable are the 21st century’s frontier’, Bruce Sterling.

For the purpose of this article, I will be focusing on Sterling’s Schismatrix (each other piece requires an article of their own, but if this one is popular enough, I might consider it) as it’s the primary cog in the Shaper/Mechanist universe.

The synopsis goes:

‘The future of mankind can take one of two directions…
The Mechanists are ancient aristocrats, their lives prosthetically extended with advanced technology. The Shapers are genetically altered revolutionaries, their skills the result of psychotechnic training and artificial conditioning.

Both factions are fighting to control the Schismatrix of humankind.
The Shapers are losing the battle, but Abelard Lindsay—a failed and exiled Shaper diplomat—isn’t giving up. Across the galaxy, Lindsay moves from world to world, building empires, struggling for his cause–but more often fighting for his life.

He is a rebel and a rogue, a pirate and a politician, a soldier and a scholar. He can alter the direction of man’s destiny—if he can survive.’

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‘But we’re small creatures, and the Kosmos doesn’t care,’ (Sterling, B 1996, pp. 433).

As mentioned above, Sterling’s primary interest with his Shaper/Mechanist universe is the examination of a divergent post-humanity; one biologically created by use of eugenics, and one that sustains itself through copious use of mechanical implants. And this is where Sterling shines best. Many of his characters such as Kitsune, a genetically engineered prostitute, Ryumin, an ancient wirehead, Philip Constantine, the protagonist Lindsay’s rival are each unique and written so believably. They were humorous, iconic and feel weighty when dealing with Lindsay. This interaction with various characters from the two cliques allows the reader and theorist to analyze and critique both forms of post-humanity, which of course makes for a very interesting read, and is something to commend Sterling on. Bravo!

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‘My machines can do that for me,’ (Sterling, B 1996, pp. 35).  Artwork by Marius ‘noistromo’ Siergiejew.

The universe itself is also quite unique. As one proceeds through the novel, the universe seems to warp into some strange, and near convoluted, but also very intriguing. Things become even stranger when Lindsay meets the reptilian alien race known as the Investors, something in which shifts the balance of power in the schismatic universe, which again makes for an intriguing read.

Unfortunately, Sterling’s writing borders on either being too wordy, or complicated, or even being too dull. I found myself often drifting off if one of the aforementioned characters weren’t present at the time, and having a boring protagonist didn’t help either. Lindsay functions the way a protagonist should function, but he just didn’t rub off on me. The excuse some may have for this is that Sterling wasn’t concerned with his characters, just the universe. And yes, that does have merit, but if that were so, then why are his outer characters just so damn appealing? It is my opinion that Sterling required more time to further finesse Lindsay for the mere fact that we spend so much time with him. And I mean a lot of time. The entire novel.

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‘They gave me to the surgeons,’ she said. ‘They took my womb out, and they put in brain tissue. Grafts from the pleasure centre, darling. I’m wired to the ass,’ (Sterling, B 1996, pp. 60). Android Geisha by Rusaiji.

But, like Neuromancer, there is something so endearing about Schismatrix. The technology is wonky, the landscapes very 80’s, and themes very interesting, and is something that warrants discussion today. There are problems, many problems, but I do recommend this text even if it is a hard, complicated slog at times. At least for the cyberpunks in us.

Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling – 6/10.

If you’d like to follow or even say hello to Bruce Sterling, you can do so via his Twitter, @bruces.

You can find Schismatrix Plus, the novel with associated short stories, here.

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