by Kyt Dotson
Karl Schroeder displays his peacock plumage for anthropological science fiction writing in his seminal work, Lady of Mazes. He paints a world that connects a multitude of people with a tight grip of technology and science, but spends less time on the basis of the technology itself, and more time on the consequences of the interaction with that technology. The book follows a young woman, Livia Kodaly, as she lives out her life in a culture connected through consensual realities and filtered by powerful artificial intelligences that remain subtly hidden beneath the fabric of her very reality.
The plot that compels the characters forward happens to be one about bridge building and threats to cultural cohesion—well, perhaps cohesion is the wrong word as the people in her world live in a forever-compartmentalized universe of thought and relationships. The outside threat instead seeks to break down those compartments and mush them together into one, ever overlapping community.
When it comes to cultural science fiction the concept of the Singularity comes up a great deal. Lady of Mazes consists of a story told post-Singularity, a time after which humanity has transcended the concept of locale and discovered an information society that inherits the ability to partition cultures from one another. One of the most compelling subjects to this story happens to be the concept of horizons—or artificial compartments that separate different cultures from one another through barring the use or operation of particular technologies. Otherwise, more profoundly, anything would be possible. A seemingly weird anthropological offshoot of the utopia of everything is that branching cultures desired to control the code of their own development by prohibiting certain avenues of progress and carefully filtering interaction with other cultures.
The main character of Lady of Mazes is something of a liaison between these different manifolds of reality. In her position, it’s her job to determine if each community is using the resources allocated to them sufficiently; if they aren’t, she then decides to reallocate the territory within their manifold (or partition) back into the commons or to give it to another community who are doing a better job.
The next fun concept presented by Karl Schroeder happens to be that of Societies. These are basically virtual personae updated from actual people who act in proxy for an actual person. As a result, people in the first community we encounter in the book have entourages of virtual partners they can hold conversations with at any time they like to update or entertain themselves. In the story, these Society entourages are presented as a sort of always-connected social awareness that permits people to maintain their reputation and presence without actually being there.
Modern day humanity has already seen how computational power and communication both brings people together and separates them. The Internet and other communication technologies have conspired with our world culture to dissolve the barriers generated both by geography, language, and economics to create a much more homogenous culture; this culture, in turn, continues to subdivide again into enclaves of thought stretched across millions of miles and sometimes separated by vast gulfs of linguistics. We currently have the capability to play video games from Arizona with our friends in Russia with minimal lag.
All of this leads to questions that Lady of Mazes toys with.
In the story, Livia Kodaly must determine what she should do about this intruder, which will inevitably destroy the foundation of her civilization at its technological roots. One day, the horizons and manifolds of her world will collapse and the people living in them would have to adapt. Through her, Schroeder explores a multitude of different cultural technologies from fully artificial intelligence driven communities to a people who sought ultimate unity by disconnecting their individuality to join a single hyperconnected hive mind. The book explores a great deal of philosophical questions involving the disposition of societies built atop presumptions made by particular technologies and the sort of people that evolve from them.
As always, Schroeder seems to be enamored with self-organizing systems that base themselves on basic code, a concept otherwise known as emergence. Examples of this are portrayed liberally through his thinking. Savvy readers who delve into computer science will see a lot of parallels to current thought and scholarship in that field of study.
Overall, the book kept me reading it through the long dark nights and I looked forward to the new revelations that would compound Kodaly’s world experience. Don’t come to this book looking for a character driven adventure or hard-boiled hard science fiction, this is a philosophical foray into the technological future of humanity who have survived Singularity and seek to once again pull the wool over their eyes—to pretend back to simpler times—as much as it’s about growing up in a universe where hiding under a rock isn’t always the best solution.