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Bewildering Stories

Karl Schroeder, Lady of Mazes

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Lady of Mazes
Author: Karl Schroeder
Publisher: Tor, 2005
Hardcover: $24.95 U.S.
Length: 286 pages
ISBN: 0-765-31219-0

Some stories stride briskly forward on the legs of well-crafted plots. Others show us fascinating faces; these are the stories that live by great characterizations. Others shine by the glow of their ideas. The latter kind of story has a long and honorable history in science fiction. George Orwell wrote idea stories. Aldous Huxley wrote idea stories. Philip K. Dick did, too. Some of these ideas transcend the thin covers of their books and step into, or even change, popular culture. Others don’t make the grade. There’s nothing more passé than an idea whose time has come and gone, or which maybe never came in the first place.

Karl Schroeder is an idea man. The jacket of the book describes him as a hard-sci-fi writer, but that’s not really true. The science in his story Lady of Mazes is, as Arthur C. Clarke was famously quoted, indistinguishable from magic; it’s there, and it does stuff, and consider it magic, because the how of it doesn’t really matter. Schroeder’s story is more focused on the social choices humans make. In a way, that’s what a good writer should focus on: how technology, social engineering, and our own moral choices affect us. Otherwise, what we’d be looking for is a physics manual, and not many of us want to volunteer for that.

Schroeder’s humans live somewhere off in the blue beyond. Where and how doesn’t really matter, except that you should know it’s an enormous artificial environment, and extraterrestrials called the “anecliptics” maintain and manage its myriad human-inhabited realms. Imagine a huge continent (called Tevan), spotted with its own artificially separated kingdoms, which Schroeder calls “manifolds.” Right next to the pretty manifold of Westerhaven, with its fancily dressed and sword-bedecked inhabitants, is the forested realm of the Raven, where bare-chested warriors live in a sort of pure noble savage heaven. Beyond the horizon is Oceanus, whose inhabitants never come to land. There’s more: realms that look like cartoon landscapes and every variation one can think on, shaped and constrained only by the desires of their inhabitants. Yet strangely enough, all these wildly diverse environments share much the same physical space.

It’s all inscape, a sort of virtual reality, that lets Raven’s noble savages wander through the deep woods while Westerhaven’s courtiers duel and joust on the mowed lawn nearby. Tech locks provide the other key. It’s Schroeder’s idea that technologies determine society. If guns were allowed to enter Raven’s primitive realm, they would destroy or change its culture. Thus no guns are allowed in the noble savage paradise; no technologies that are inappropriate, in fact. There’s a master database up there somewhere that controls what’s allowed where. Inscape, in fact, which in the author’s own definition is a value-driven interface to technology sets.

Only there’s a group of mysterious strangers led by the secretive “3340” who want to tear down this pretty play-picture in the name of facing up to cold, hard reality. The artificial boundary (horizon) between Westerhaven and its neighbor collapses. The monstrous myth-creatures that exist in Raven are allowed to pillage and kill in Westerhaven; more disastrous collapses soon follow.

Livia Kodaly is one of the few people in Westerhaven who has survived — albeit in a traumatized condition — facing reality unfiltered by inscape. She flees her burning home with two companions. She doesn’t know what’s out there, but she needs to find out what 3340 is and what it intends in order to save Westerhaven and all it means.

The traveling companions soon leave Tevan and its myriad manifolds for an unknown Archipelago. Here are none of the boundaries of Tevan. Nothing is restricted. People live within their own individual virtual realities, aided by narratives that try to fulfill their deepest wishes; sympathy agents to soothe the slightest hurt; aggregate personalities called votes that naturally coalesce to take care of their group interests. People no longer have normal human reactions because they’ve lived with virtual reality too long. Drowning? What fun!

Only here, too, Livia and her companions find the subtle hand of 3340. A mysterious role-playing Book has just become wildly popular. The Book and its players have seemingly evolved out of the Archipelago’s society naturally, and the latest version is called... 3340, of course. What does the mysterious Book want? Read and find out.

Schroeder’s story is not great in terms of either plot or characterization, but his ideas are interesting. I think it’s the lack of understanding of the purely human element that makes his ideas fail, however.

One of his key premises is that technologies determine a society or culture. There’s some validity to that thought. No one denies that the Industrial Revolution changed British society in a fundamental way, for example. But let’s take, as another example, the bloodthirsty kingdom of the Aztecs, and compare it to the world of the ancient Egyptians. Technologies were roughly comparable; both civilizations built pyramids; both were top-down and hierarchical and essentially static. But there was a world of difference between the two societies.

Schroeder’s other premise is that societies that enforce specific set of constraints and restrictions may yield more satisfaction, in terms of the human spirit, than those that are wide-open and focused primarily on self-actualization. Again there’s some validity to this thought. But I notice that all of Tevan’s little kingdoms of like-minded souls are pretty good places. What sort of kingdoms would we really see if all like-minded people could group together and build their own little world and its no-exceptions-allowed rules? Are we all saints?

So here’s a revisionist view of history for you to ponder. One could say that the Puritans set sail from the Old World to the New not because they were persecuted in the relatively open-minded society of England, but because they wanted to build just such a restrictive kingdom. Left to their own devices, fully in control of their new little world, the Puritans soon instituted witch-burnings and gross oppressions for not attending church on Sundays. Did they really leave to gain freedom, or did they leave because they wanted to avoid it? Were they noble heroes, or narrow-minded zealots?

Though I think Schroeder’s ideas are flawed, it’s still wonderful to read a story that bothers to propose ideas about the human condition at all. Thank you, Mr. Schoeder. I’d love to have a great coffee-shop argument with you some day — and in the meantime, keep writing!

Copyright © 2006 by Danielle L. Parker

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