Lady of Mazes, Karl Schroeder

Tor, 2005, 286 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31219-0

After only two solo novels (Ventus and Permanence), Karl Schroeder has already established himself to be one of the best Hard-SF writers in the business. Combining deep characterization with far-ranging speculation, Schroeder has wowed critics and earned a small legion of loyal fans —not to mention an Aurora Award for Permanence. His third solo novel was eagerly anticipated. Now Lady of Mazes comes to fulfil all expectations.

Almost jokingly set in the same universe as Ventus, Lady of Mazes owes more to the short scene in Permanence where the characters’ reality is altered by an interface sitting between their brain and their senses. Inscape, as it’s called, can be used to augment reality in different fashions. An elementary application would be to kill-file people in real life: Inscape would simply “blank out” the person and steer us around that person should they be in the way. (Kill-filing would presumably be most effective when it’s mutual.)

But that’s just small potatoes when you consider the logical ramifications of Inscape technology. Why bother kill-filing one person when you can get rid of an entire segment of the population? Why not create a conservative utopia by getting rid of all of those icky liberal meddlers –and vice versa? What’s to prevent several mutually invisible population from co-existing in the same physical space?

And that brings us to the first few pages of Lady of Mazes, a story largely set on a ringworld where Inscape technology is universal. Several populations co-existing in the same place, completely ignorant of what the others are doing. You want to ignore certain types of technologies? Join the appropriate reality. One of Schroeder’s key notions are “technology locks”, the idea that societies choose their appropriate levels of technology for their preferred existence and then implement safeguards to prevent further progress.

Our heroine, Livia Kodaly, may exists in one reality, but she also has the unusual ability to “travel” to other realities, acting much like an ambassador. Not an esy job, and it becomes even more complicated when the ringworld is attacked and the help she needs exists in a completely different way of life. Post-human power games and unusual social structures suddenly acquire some importance as she tries to go back and liberate her home reality…

Lady of Mazes may be significantly shorter than Schroeder’s previous solo novels, but don’t be fooled by the size: There are enough Big Ideas here to make you go “Whoah!” ten times over. Schroeder tackles new and fascinating concepts at a furious rate, showing us a complex future crammed with original possibilities. Your head will hurt, but in a good way. Inscape alone is the kind of new idea fit to be stolen by a generation of other writers and integrated in the core of SF’s bag of gadgets.

But in Lady of Mazes, Schroeder has also managed to fashion a cheerfully political novel. Pure politics, not simple dumb partisanship: Lady of Mazes takes a long hard look at how humans can live next to another —or choose not to. It studies concepts such as “adhocracies” and “open source politics” and “emergent social organization systems.” It stares at post-humanism and laughs at it.

Exhilarating stuff, with the proviso that you almost have to be a hard-core SF fans to make sense of it. Lady of Mazes is a pure genre novel in that it requires a lot of background information in order to make sense. Can’t distinguish animas from AIs? Tough luck.

To this, one has to add that Schroeder loves to throw his readers in the bath before handing them the soap: The first hundred pages of the novel are high in unexplained weirdness and low in straight-up exposition. Don’t be surprised to find the first third of the book to be a difficult slog. It clears up shortly afterwards, once we’re back in a reality whose language is more familiar to ours. But then buckle up, because the rest of the novel rarely lets up. The conclusion appears a bit rushed and easy, but by that time the chances are that you’ll be too exhausted to care.

It’s definitely a trip, and a strange one at that. With this third novel, Schroeder proves that he’s among the vanguard of modern SF writers, not afraid to confront a new future by wrapping fascinating speculation in good storytelling. Fabulous stuff for SF fans: it’s the kind of novel that makes Science Fiction look good.

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