Lady of Mazes

by Karl Schroeder

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: July 2005
ISBN: 0-765-31219-0
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 286

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Schroeder is, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked writers of hard science fiction currently writing. His first novel Ventus, despite suffering badly from a slow start and general pacing problems, showed considerable potential in its explorations of the cultural effects of advanced nanotechnology. Permanence was refreshingly not a sequel, was tighter and more engrossing, and sprinkled intriguing ideas (the rights economy, neo-Shinto) into a coming-of-age space opera and BDO story in the classic mold. Now, he tackles head-on questions of cultural identity, community, human interaction, and tradition in a world where humans are free to shape everything about their perceptions and environment.

I have been eagerly awaiting this book for nearly a year after reading some of Schroeder's essays from his blog. Other writers have tackled these ideas but seemed too focused on the technology and not enough on the human consequences. Schroeder talked about emotional aspects of intentional communities and consensual realities that I'd not seen elsewhere, so I had great hopes for a novel-length treatment.

Not only was I not disappointed, but Lady of Mazes was even better than I was hoping.

Imagine that, rather than relying on text instant messaging with your friends on computers and cell phones, full holographic representations of them complete with body language and verbal emotional cues were always available (but dismissable when you didn't want to be distracted). It's done through implants of some kind; how the technology works isn't particularly important any more than the details of how your cell phone works matter. Further, imagine that both you and your friends can share your sense picture of your surroundings when you wish, so you can both feel as if you're in the same place, or immediately show some grand sight to each other.

With such higher bandwidth interactions, you need some way of filtering input so that you only see what's really important. Enter AI simulations of your personality, anima, who can chat with your friends (or your friends' anima), alert you if anything requires your immediate attention, or otherwise update your memories at speed when you find it convenient. You can, of course, drop in to replace your anima at any time in a conversation, replaying the last few minutes to bring yourself up to speed. Even more usefully, if you're reacting too emotionally, you can drop out and let an anima take over for a moment, or bring up a mask, until you've calmed down.

And what if, to the delight of those of us who need uninterrupted time alone, physical presence were the same as virtual IM presence? You can simply dismiss your friends as simply as you could close your chat windows, removing distractions while your anima continue to take care of anything that's truly important. And when you do so, you disappear from the perceptions of everyone else as well. Perfect, controlled privacy.

These are the ideas from just the first thirty pages of this book, and Schroeder doesn't slow down.

The heroine Livia is born into such a world of ubiquitous AIs and implants, a blurring of one's thoughts, surroundings, cultural constructions, and personal computer assistance. Her world is divided into a number of separate consentual realities, each one defined by a culture and an internally consistent set of technology appropriate to that culture, invisible to each other. Most people live their lives within a single culture, or manifold, but one can travel from one to another by letting go of one's belief in the rules and definitions of one's own manifold and accepting the rules and definitions of another. (There are some brilliant, understated observations here about tourism and exploration.) Some people find this much easier than others; Livia is particularly good at it due partly to a trauma in her past.

As Livia discovers, however, the tech locks that maintain these manifolds by screening out any technologies inconsistent with the local culture are somehow being bypassed, threatening not only Livia's home manifold of Westerhaven but the entire system of manifolds on Teven Coronal. In the pursuit of help against the mysterious organization called 3340 that is subverting the manifolds, Livia and her two companions will end up fleeing the coronal for the even stranger and more advanced worlds of the Archipelago.

At that point in a summary, we're still less than half the way through the book.

Schroeder has written something out of another era of science fiction: a tight 300 pages of intensely focused plot, a stand-alone novel that reaches a firm and independent conclusion rather than adding to a bloated series (readers of Ventus with good memories will understand some early clues more easily, but reading Ventus first is entirely unnecessary), and a story that tackles idea after idea head-on and weaves them into a vision of future possibilities that's as thought-provoking as it is jaw-dropping. I cannot say enough about Schroeder's improvement at pacing and editing. Ventus had serious flab problems and Permanence still had the average amount for a good genre book, but Lady of Mazes is one of the leanest and most efficient science fiction novels I have ever read.

Where Schroeder refreshingly departs from the older eras of hard science fiction is that, despite the technological wonderment, he neglects neither character nor story. There is climax and denouement sufficient to please a hardened reader, and while I can nit-pick the characters a little (Livia is sometimes passive, driven by the story rather than creating it), they feel like people, with complex reactions, uncertainties, and no pat endings. This is the whole package; I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed a piece of idea-driven hard science fiction this much on every level.

I've only barely touched on the ideas here. There are the coronals themselves, updated ringworlds of far more modest and achievable construction that, rather than surround the sun, face it edge-on with a central mirror to create night and day. There are nanotech factories and lurking god-like AIs with their own agendas, worthy of Stross or Banks. The concept of Votes is an intriguing take on politics in emergent systems. Personal narratives and their drawbacks are a wonderful bit of psychological observation that I've already been able to apply to our mundane world. Still later is the true nature of the tech locks and the statements they make about the interactions between ethics, culture, and technology. And I'll refrain from mentioning Schroeder's beautiful set pieces lest I go on forever (but really, who could not love space travel in a house?).

This is not a perfect book; Schroeder still has a few places he could improve. Perspective shifts are perhaps the most annoying flaw. I would have strongly preferred to stay with Livia's view for the entire story, and while I can see places where that would have been difficult, I found most of the perspective changes jarring (if thankfully brief). He still has a few problems with language, places where phrasings are leaden or words are overused (I got rather tired of "anima" in the first few dozen pages, although this gets much better later on). And while I would hate to see this story lose its admirable succinctness, many characters other than the main three do suffer from being painted with broad strokes. There just isn't time to do full justice to the complete cast.

This, though, is the obligatory constructive criticism. In the end, it just didn't matter; Lady of Mazes blew me away. I had to stop every few pages and just think about what happened, and there are dozens more moments, scenes, images, and ideas I want to mention and haven't. I can't do it all justice. You'll simply have to read the book yourself; I know I'm going to do so again.

Consider this my Hugo nomination for the year.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-09-17

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21