Each technology equated to some human value or set of values, she saw. She’d known that. But on Earth, in the Archipelago, and everywhere else, technologies came first, and values changed to accomodate them. Under the locks, values were the keys to access or shut away technologies.
Title: Lady of Mazes
Author: Karl Schroeder
Rating: 4/5 stars
At the most basic level, Lady of Mazes explores an age-old question: what is the best way to live life? More specifically, it’s about the role of technology in our lives and the ways in which it affects us, constrains us, or frees us. Should technology influence our values, or should it be the other way around? Another of the book’s big questions: when you can live your life in a virtual world that suits your own lifestyle and beliefs, is that preferable to the “real world,” or is it running away from reality? Set in a post-scarcity future of abundant energy and programmable matter, the book also asks: “How does humanity govern itself when each person can have anything they want?” Schroeder comes up with some intriguing possible answers to these questions, in a book that provides the reader with plenty to think about.
Events begin on a coronal (a ringworld) called Teven, which has been isolated from the rest of humanity for centuries. The inhabitants of Teven grow up living their whole lives in sophisticated virtual realities called manifolds. Each manifold is its own world with its own unique society, customs, and values; the whole virtual reality system is known as inscape and works via neural implants. And through devices called tech locks, each manifold allows only certain kinds of technology, consistent with the values of that society. For instance, if you lived in a low-tech manifold like Raven, with a civilization something like that of early Native Americans, then you’d never see aircraft in your world. If you wanted to see aircraft, inscape would read this through your implants, and you’d see the world fade around you, to be replaced by a manifold that contained that technology. Not many people on Teven travel in this way, but there are a few cultures that are interested in exploring other manifolds. The main character, Livia Kodaly, is from just such a culture, and this along with other experiences have prepared her well for the adventures ahead.
Those adventures start when Teven is invaded by an unknown adversary known simply as 3340. This invader quickly takes over by manipulating inscape and blurring the lines between manifolds, allowing attacks with advanced weapons on people with no defenses. With Teven quickly falling into chaos, Livia and a few friends manage to escape, making their way into the wider human civilization called the Archipelago, a vast conglomerate of coronals and other artificial habitats, as well as planets and moons, spanning the solar system. Here they will seek help for Teven and information on 3340, but they have to be careful, since they find themselves in a dangerous and alien situation they don’t understand. For one thing, the Archipelago uses inscape, but there are no tech locks; the people there live unstructured lives of wild fantasy where anything is possible and all kinds of realities are mixed together. And there are various political and ideological factions to navigate: the versos, who favor a return to hard reality; post-humans with near-godlike powers; and the anecliptics, the even more powerful beings who control the solar system and dole out the power of the Sun.
One interesting feature of the Archipelago is its system of automated government. Through the implants everyone receives as a child, whenever enough people share a common interest — no matter what it is — a “vote” is generated. A vote is an AI being representing its constituents in matters of policy. And the votes as a whole group also generate a single AI averaging all interests, known as the Government. Fascinating idea, I think.
The book’s primary focus seems to be the pros and cons of simulated reality, and different views on it. Is it a way to take control of one’s life? Is it a kind of imprisonment? Is it mere escapism? Two contrasting views can be seen, one from Livia:
Kale’s words had been clear: he believed the people of Teven were using inscape to hide from the real world. But Livia had lived outside inscape; she had seen nothing there that she didn’t see within it. It was the emphasis that changed when you changed the technologies mediating between you and the world. Before the accident, her angels, implants, and augmented senses had skewed reality one way; afterward, her clothes, hands and feet, and biological senses had skewed it another. Part of reality had been turned up, other parts turned down or shut off. But neither showed the total picture; one was not true and the other false.
And the other from Morss, someone sympathetic to the versos:
… humanity’s turning into a race of fucking sleepwalkers. Those of us who believe in the existence of a real world are in a shrinking minority. Most people think inscape is all there is. They’re more and more out of touch with reality….
There are other features I won’t delve into here: the Societies, animas, angels, faeries, the eschatus machine. Suffice it to say Schroeder does a pretty good job at building a world of some complexity that engages the reader’s mind in trying to figure it out. That’s not to say Lady of Mazes shines in every way. The characterization and overall plot are average, and Schroeder definitely has some room to grow there. I feel the book sits right on the border between three and four stars; I kicked it up to four for the sheer density of concepts and its ability to make you think — which is, after all, one of the primary goals of science fiction.