Schismatrix (1985) by Bruce Sterling

Available works by Bruce Sterling


Bruce Sterling’s Shaper/Mechanist series (1982-1985) consists of several short stories and only one book, Schismatrix. The series revolves around a conflict between two ideologically divided factions: the Shapers who dream of a transhumanist utopia via biogenetic engineering, and the Mechanists who strive for perfection through machine implants and computer circuits. Set in a widely colonized 24th Century Solar System, Schismatrix is an early and hugely influential example of postmodern space opera.

Abelard Lindsay, born into a Mechanist family, has changed allegiance to the Shaper cause. Political intrigue has forced him into exile in the circumlunar criminal enclave of the People’s Zaibatsu, a lawless and slowly decaying society. Lindsay eventually manages to escape so he can begin a journey across the Solar System, promoting peace between the Shapers and Mechanists, working for the Preservist cause of trying to preserve a core of humanity’s baseline, an endeavour that is tied up in and threatened by a decade-long rivalry with his former ally, Philip Constantine, now a Shaper militant. By the intervention of a technologically more advanced alien race known as the Investors, who weigh in by pursuing peace for the sake of a free flowing economy, Lindsay initially succeed at establishing an uneasy détente between Shapers and Mechanists.

The Shaper/Mechanist schism is only the tip of the iceberg and symptomatic of much wider splintering of humanity in the world of Schismatrix, a sf trope that has since come to define most of postmodern space opera, such as David Zindell’s Neverness Universe (1988-1998) and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos (1989-1997). Sterling envisions a mature space-faring civilisation where any sense of community has evaporated, where a global understanding of humanity is impossible. The sheer amount of therapies available within each camp means that is not even possible to reduce the Shaper/Mechanist schism to a simple binary. While Mechanist "Lobsters" permanently seal their bodies into life-support shells, allowing them to live and work in deep space, Mechanist ‘Wireheads’ have left their bodies behind to live as computer simulations. The splintering of humanity has also led to an explosion in different ideologies, from Preservationism, the idea that the human baseline must be preserved, to Cataclysm, a libertarian resistance to social controls, to Zen Serotonin, a bioengineered drive for zen-like bliss and slowing down of societal change.

Technology has also opened up the field of human phycology and what it means to be human. Shapers can change mode of consciousness at will, they can free themselves of emotional baggage to enhance their analytical acumen. Side-stepping humanness for political or economic gain is the source of continual tension in the work, a theme that anticipates Peter Watts’ multi-layered investigation into the nature and evolutionary purpose of consciousness in the his still ongoing Blindsight series (2006-2014?). Subject to the same evolutionary logic, Shaper children are bioengineered to mature early and learn faster than their baseline counterparts known derogatively as the Unplanned. With so much money and effort put into breeding – in what is basically a case of survival of the best engineered – it is only natural that the Shapers have evolved into an aristocratic society where one’s genetic heritage is of great importance. It is suggested that augmented cognitive power has paved the way for a post-scarcity society, and it is therefore not surprising either that the Shapers worry a great deal about ageing and spend large sums of money on rejuvenation therapies. 

Concerns over economic growth play an important part in the book where data volume is used as a measure for progress. Humanity has clearly learned valuable lessons from Earth, now a marginalised backwater following an ecological collapse. An yet, not everyone is in favour of technology controls. The faction known as Cataclysts demand an end to all controls, favouring a super-charged neo-liberal agenda which recalls Charles Stross’ Accellerando (2005).