Reviews of “Swarm” (1982) and related work

“Swarm” (1982Text)

Bruce Sterling (writer).

Read in 2021.

A new ambassador to a spacefaring species that eschews intelligence.

The premise is interesting and serves as a good hard-SF counterpoint to the “hive mind” metaphor for collectivism, but it’s underdeveloped.

References here: Schismatrix (1985).

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“Spider Rose” (1982Text)

Bruce Sterling (writer).

Read in 2021.

A truly solitary figure encounters interstellar jackdaws.

An extraordinary fusion of Notes from Underground (1864), soft-SF space opera, hard-SF cyberpunk and a series of beautiful thought experiments, including the most wonderful interrogation of cuteness in genetic engineering for neoteny. Spider Rose herself is a good character; her technological control of emotion is far smarter than, for instance, the magical Vulcans of Star Trek (1966).

The jackdaw-like alien species are euphemistically called Investors. In the intradiegetic chronology detailed in the later novel, the Investors appear only a few decades before the plot of this short story opens, which is quite late on the scale of Spider Rose’s own life. I picture them like Brian Froud’s Skeksis in The Dark Crystal (1982).

References here: Schismatrix (1985).

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“Cicada Queen” (1983Text)

Bruce Sterling (writer).

Read in 2021.

Hans Landau designs lichens for the terraformation of Mars while the Czarina-Kluster habitat (C-K, hence “Cicada) cracks up economically. It’s organized around an exiled Investor who may have become an unwilling participant.

References here: Schismatrix (1985), “The Nagus” (1993).

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‣‣ “Sunken Gardens” (1984Text)

Bruce Sterling (writer).

Read in 2021.

In 2554, impoverished posthuman factions indebted to the lords of Hans Landau’s Terraform-Kluster participate in a dubious contest to improve the ecosystem of one of the “sunken gardens” of Mars: A valley deep enough to have breathable oxygen in an intermediate stage of terraformation.

In the intradiegetic chronology of the setting, this is the last work in the Shaper/Mechanist cycle, by a wide margin. It is a conservative vision that reminds me of Dune (1965). The remaining factions are weird but not much weirder than Herbert’s Navigators, Bene Gesserit, Tleilaxu and Ixians. As in Dune, the basic model of social organization is feudal. Other works in the cycle mention a Mechanist project to discover the FTL travel technology of the Investors, which resembles an Ixian project to do the same in God Emperor of Dune (1981), but in the coda of “Sunken Gardens”, Sterling concludes that this project failed, not for technical reasons but because T-K and the Investors collaborated to squash it.

If Sterling had continued writing in this setting, the conservativism would have been a disappointing cliché of space opera, but Sterling had integrity. Half of the setting’s stories have pessimistic endings, while half are more optimistic. Pessimism in this instance maintains the balance and falls in line with the primitivism of Earth in the later novel. Out of the entire cycle, it is only this story that mentions “o’neills”, i.e. Gerard O’Neill’s 1976 cylindrical space habitats, appearing in Mobile Suit Gundam (1979). Like Gundam, the Shaper/Mechanist has people making the correct choice of building in space first, before they settle other planets. The corruption of the uneconomic terraforming project is thematically correct in that regard.

References here: Red Mars (1992).

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“Twenty Evocations” (1984Text)

Bruce Sterling (writer).

Fragments from the long life of financier Nikolai Leng.

This is the weakest of the Shaper/Mechanist stories, but it was strong enough for me to get the Schismatrix Plus edition and read them all, years after first encountering this one.

References here: Schismatrix (1985).

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Schismatrix (1985Text)

Bruce Sterling (writer).

Read in 2021.

In his twenties, Abelard Lindsay was educated by the Shapers, a powerful faction in the future solar system. This education makes him a liar and impresario just beyond the edge of human capacity, a skill set that keeps Lindsey alive long enough to witness the fractionalization and spalling of humanity across 200 years. The witness is not constant, affected by the churn of history.

The methods of cyberpunk applied to more traditional science fiction, just soft enough for FTL travel to be possible. Told in Sterling’s flint-like prose of extreme density and near-opaque detail that scrapes the brain, it’s a gloriously extrapolative vision of the future. This future includes catastrophic climate change, broad ecological collapse and plausible computer technology, but is still biophilic and reasonably hopeful. Corporations, while powerful, are not an overwhelming dystopian force; they never eclipse the characters. This is romantic but Sterling’s romanticism is admirably restrained.

The narrative is cozily marked by the time of its creation. Monitors in the early 2200s still have visible scan lines, dates are still given in idiosyncratic US month-day-year order, the Shapers and Mechanists are mostly Western and Eastern European respectively (while the term “zaibatsu” is inexplicably still current), and the dangers of extended microgravity are greatly underplayed. At the same time, the eyeball kicks and complications of the futurology are absolutely wonderful. In a rare feat, Sterling manages to portray a long swathe of development in a decentralized civilization where extremely high intelligence is common, and he doesn’t muck it up or descend to caricature.

The earlier short stories of the “Shaper/Mechanist” universe all provide good background for this novel. Afriel’s embassy in “Swarm” (1982) is mentioned. The events of “Spider Rose” (1982) are not mentioned, but that story provides a better look at the Investors than the novel does. “Cicada Queen” (1983) provides more details on the Lobsters and Czarina-Kluster; Lindsay lives there at one point, knows Wells/Wellspring, and experiences C-K’s fall from a different angle, without the short story’s closure, while the novel explains how the Investor got there in the first place. Lindsay’s life is more interesting than that of the “Twenty Evocations”’ Leng, and the narrative vastly richer.

References here: Eon (1985), Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: A War in the Pocket (1989), Accelerando (2005).

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