Book Review: ‘Lady of Mazes’ by Karl Schroeder

Schroeder's 'Lady of Mazes'

‘Lady of Mazes’ by Karl Schroeder (UK PBK 0765350785, Tor Books, September 2006)

Livia Kodaly lives in Westerhaven, one of many overlapping consensual realities (or ‘manifolds’) on the Teven Coronal, a vast ring-shaped habitat deep in the Lethe Nebula. Teven’s manifolds have coexisted peacefully for generations, the ‘inscape’ implants of their inhabitants generating the local reality and excluding others, and allowing multiple layers of privacy and simultaneous projected instances (‘animas’) of each resident to exist. Livia is better than most at travelling between manifolds, an act of will akin to the suspension of disbelief. This ability is due to an accident during her childhood which left her and a friend stranded beyond the reach of inscape technology, lost and powerless in a baseline reality that they could neither control nor comprehend.

While visiting a nearby manifold inhabited by Raven’s People, a society based on an ancient indigenous culture, she discovers that Teven is being invaded by outsiders with the ability to circumvent the ‘tech locks’ – the systems that prevent technologies from appearing in a manifold that is not designed to support them. The usurpers begin to break down the barriers between manifolds, sowing discord and conflict between their inhabitants. Soon the entire coronal is under their control, and Livia sets off with Aaron (her childhood friend with whom she was stranded in the past) and Qiingi (a member of the Raven’s People retro-culture) to get help from the mythical anecliptics, the alleged creators of Teven.

So begins Lady of Mazes, a detailed and philosophical slice of far-future post-human science fiction which defies concise synopsis. Schroeder has taken a bundle of classic hard sf tropes (consensual virtual realities, space habitats, emergent artificial intelligences, macro-engineering and trans-humanism, to name but a few), given them some side-spin, mixed in ideas from philosophy, sociology, politics and computer networking, and woven them together with action and intrigue.

Beyond the Lethe Nebula, which is not really a nebula so much as a huge experimental playground for post-human intelligences, Livia and friends encounter a solar system teeming with humanity’s descendents, all linked together by inspace implants into ‘the Archipelago’, a vast panoply of virtual realities akin to Teven’s manifolds, only magnitudes larger and more complex, and without the tech locks to keep them separated.

This immense canvas allows Schroeder to pull out all the stops on the creativity engine and really enjoy himself. A perfect replica of Scotland exists on the inner surface of a tube-shaped space habitat; a post-human secession movement achieves singularity on a subverted coronal, and blankets it with billions of cheap futurist propaganda novels; an emergent network program known as ‘Government’ roams around, complaining that no-one in the Archipelago’s adhocracy listens to it any more – there are enough set-pieces and big ideas here to populate a trilogy.

But Schroeder is doing some heavy thinking behind the stage curtains, weaving in themes and ideas that shine a light on the world we live in today – the consequences of dominant hegemonies, the right to cultural self-determination, the flaws of representational democracy, the will to power and the strength of communities are all explored.

However, the core platform of the story is the notion that technologies mediate one’s experience of the culture that one lives in – in fact, that technology and culture are fundamental functions of one another. At every level of scale in the narrative, the tug-of-war between objectivity and subjectivity surfaces in the thoughts and actions of individuals and factions alike. From Teven’s carefully controlled environment (which allows its denizens to choose the degree of impact technology will have upon them) to the Archipelago (which abounds with people who have long ago forgotten that there is such a thing as objective reality and who spend their entire life in some sort of simulation), the inescapable seduction of our power to change the world we perceive around us is examined from many angles and perspectives, providing ample food for thought for the reader who enjoys being philosophically stretched.

The end result is a novel beside which Niven’s Ringworld pales by comparison, despite sharing similar literary DNA. The sheer sense-of-wonder quota alone makes it worthy of attention for any far-future sf enthusiast, but it’s no mere catalogue of gosh-wows and maguffins. The plot is intricate and fast-paced, the writing spare and economical. Some of the supporting cast are a little sketchy, but Livia is a well-rounded and complex central character, driven by her own faults and failings as she struggles to save her home and people, and to uncover the mysteries that tie the threads of the story together.

While Lady of Mazes definitely belongs in the set of novels that are sometimes criticised as being densely jargon-laden and self-referential to the sf canon that precedes them, the reader who revels in the trappings of rich hard science fiction will find it an intensely rewarding read – both playful and serious at once, and packed with scenes and ideas that will linger in the imagination for weeks – maybe even years – to come.

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