Schroeder, Karl -- Lady of Mazes

If A Fire Upon the Deep was the last word in The-Future-as-Usenet, this is the last word in The-Future-as-Livejournal. A civilization elects to maintain itself as multiple non-overlapping cultures in the same physical space -- everyone runs sensory filters to screen out foreign elements, so they can associate with their own kind of people. The plot is less cool than the setup: people from this (meta)-culture run into other high-tech cultures, and things get less convincing.

This came out in 2005, and I described it then as "The-Future-as-Livejournal". (If I'd been hipper I would have said "Friendster"; younger, "Facebook".) Pick your social network, the principle still applies. The people of Teven Coronal can filter their realities: select friends and family and scenery and technology, and live the lives that they choose. Then evil invaders start knocking down the walls.

The Archipelago, the civilization beyond Teven's horizons, has picked up a bit more resonance in the past seven years. There, the same world-filtering technology serves a different purpose: it gives people's lives meaning. You are steered towards people you can care about, careers that fit your talents, causes and projects that will satisfy your soul. And if you don't like the way the narratives run your life? There's a narrative for that too! Your struggle against the system will be gratifyingly effective! As far as you can tell.

You could describe that as an Internet dating service run mad, but the better analogy is personalized search, right? Google is my view of reality, to a large extent, and if it decides to show me what I need to become (Google's idea of) happy... I sure wasn't looking at Google with such suspicion in 2005. If Schroeder was, he gets a very large gold star.

Futurism aside, how does Lady of Mazes do as a book? Eh, it's okay. The setup is good, but the plot gets murky in the latter half, and the parts that come clear feel contrived. It's perhaps an inevitable flaw: the point is that nonhuman / superhuman intelligences run everything, so why should their plans be comprehensible? Half the time they're opaque scenery, enforcing rigid rules for no obvious reason but to make the setting work. The other half, they talk and act like human characters; then the sense of awe falters and gives us only petty scheming in return.

One can easily see sketches of the Virga series here. Teven is the (relatively) low-tech enclave in a vast post-human civilization. The question of living in a universe of "artificial nature" arises; so does the question of extracting meaning from life in a post-scarcity (or post-physical) reality.

At the same time, the character writing (while vivid) is clumsier and less subtle than in the Virga books. I might say the same for the plotting, but then I thought Virga wound up as rather a plot-mess too. Well, if nothing else, Schroeder is learning to keep a story moving for more pages at a time.

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