Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder

(2006-03-01)

   

Tor hardcover 2005.

Lady of Mazes, the latest novel by Canadian author Karl Schroeder, is a unique blend of hard science fiction, space opera, and philosophical speculative fiction that succeeds on all three levels. The novel takes place in the same universe as Schroeder's 2000 novel Ventus, but can be read as a stand-alone story.

In the outer reaches of our solar system a few hundred years into the future, humanity has constructed several ringworlds or "coronals." The inhabitants of these coronals are able to manipulate their environments in every way imaginable through the development of virtual reality and networking technologies called "inscape." The book opens in Teven Coronal, an isolated coronal the inhabitants of which have imposed limits upon such godlike control of reality by putting "tech locks" into place. Tech locks enable different groups of people to prevent certain types of technology they deem undesirable from existing within their "manifold" or environment. This limitation applies not only to certain technologies but also to those who use them. Teven Coronal therefore contains numerous manifolds, each with its own culture.

Inscape also enables people to interact with friends and family instantaneously regardless of geographic location, as people are perpetually surrounded by holographic "societies" of acquaintances with whom they interact. People can also create "animas" of themselves, holographic imprints containing the same psychological and experiential characteristics of the original. This enables people to simultaneously engage in multiple conversations with others, who in turn may be using animas themselves to engage in such conversations.

The two most prominently featured cultures in Teven Coronal are Westerhaven, a cosmopolitan culture, and the Raven people, a culture approximating traditional Native American values and pre-European conquest technologies. The story opens with Livia Kodaly, a young diplomat from Westerhaven, visiting the Raven manifold. Her arrival coincides with the appearance of people claiming to be the Raven people's ancestors. These ancestors bring with them technological artifacts that should not be able to exist within the Raven manifold due to the tech locks.

Livia and Qiingi, a Raven warrior, suspect that the ancestors are not who they claim to be and escape to Westerhaven, which is now being invaded by an army of Raven warriors led by the ancestors. Livia learns from the founder of Westerhaven that the ancestors are agents of an outside entity called "3340." Livia, Qiingi, and Aaron Varese, a gifted but malcontent friend of Livia's, escape from Teven Coronal into space with the hope of learning more about 3340 and obtaining help to fight the ancestors.

The three travel to the Archipelago, a system of coronals that lies apart from Teven Coronal, which the Archipelago inhabitants do not even know exists. The Archipelago functions without tech locks, and reality there is as ephemeral and subjective as one's thoughts. In the Archipelago Livia, Qiingi and Aaron search for the source of their home coronal's troubles, but find themselves becoming embroiled in the local politics. They encounter "votes," who are personifications of the interests of different segments of the population. There is also a mysterious "good book" that assigns adherents to various tasks. The votes and the good book are both ways in which order is imposed upon the Archipelago's chaotic reality. Doran Morss, a wealthy individualist with a small world of his own, represents a dissenting voice in the Archipelago in opposition to the omnipresence of inscape and its control over how people perceive their world.

Lady of Mazes takes a refreshingly unexpected turn in the Archipelago, as the story becomes less about the heroes' mission and more about the internal struggles they face when taken away from their world and ways of life. Stripped of the comfort of their societies and the cultural restraints provided by Teven Coronal's tech locks, the three heroes become emotionally isolated, taking divergent paths dictated by their different pasts, cultures and personalities. By exploring their back stories, Schroeder develops Livia, Qiingi and Aaron into realistic and sympathetic characters. The quest to save Teven Coronal is threatened as much by the heroes' personal issues as by the mysterious outside influences, and the resolution of these personal issues will therefore determine both the characters' fates and the fate of Teven Coronal. As such, Schroeder does not completely abandon the political plot in favor of character development, but instead incorporates the two into a richer narrative that carries the reader through to the story's exciting climax.

Schroeder has created an incredibly complex world, but he shows a great talent at describing it through his story-telling instead of subjecting the reader to reams of infodumping. Although this means of exposition can be initially disorienting, it can also serve an important purpose. By thrusting the reader head-first into this strange universe, Schroeder connects the reader to Livia, Qiingi and Aaron, as they too will experience things that will challenge their conventional notions of reality. This narrative method also enables Schroeder to exercise some creativity in setting and description, as some story elements when viewed in isolation could appear silly (e.g., a space-faring Tudor house!) but in the sweep of the narrative work just fine.

The inscape environment in the coronals provides fertile ground for philosophical inquiry. What is reality? Is it merely that which is perceived? What are the connections between technology and culture, technology and perception, culture and perception? Is there an inherent value to a particular culture that necessitates its perpetuation in the face of encroaching cultures and/or technologies? If so, what is that value? Schroeder does an outstanding job depicting the impact of technology on our personal and cultural identities as well as our moral value systems, and explores the way cultures impose their realities on others. While some of the answers he suggests in turn raise more conundrums (for instance, it is possible to value a reality independent of one's own?), Lady of Mazes provides a fascinating world and entertaining story in which to pursue these discourses.

Lady of Mazes possesses the best elements of modern science fiction: deft characterization, engaging storytelling, and far-flung future possibilities that touch upon present-day issues. Most impressive of all, Schroeder accomplishes all of this in under 300 pages. I highly recommend this book and look forward to reading more of Schroeder's work.

Arthur Bangs

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