By Karl Schroeder

Rating: 5 stars

I got this book on the recommendation of Charles Stross, and although I downloaded the free ebook to my smartphone I wasn’t expecting to get to it any time soon. It was only because I finished my paper book while on holiday sooner than I expected that I turned to this. And I was gripped within the first chapter. It starts off very much as a typical fantasy story where the young protagonist is stolen away and ends up on a quest to discover himself, but as the world widens, we discover a very hard SF story.

The world of Ventus was seeded about a thousand years ago by a nanotech seed pod to terraform it. Powerful AIs called Winds oversee this process, but when the settlers finally arrive, they find the Winds refusing to communicate with them. Worse, seeing them as a threat to their ecosystem, they wipe out their technology, reducing them to a pre-industrial civilisation. Fast-forward to the present day, and young Jordan Mason finds himself kidnapped by off-worlders because in his head is a remote sensor placed there by a former slave of the destroyed evil AI “3340” who wants to take control of the Winds and recreate his former master.

The scope of the world building is tremendous, from the Archipelago of human worlds to the immensely intricate world of Ventus itself. The idea of a completely artificial world, where nanotechnology is in everything but where everything could also be out to get you is a powerful one. Jordan is a good everyman character through whose eyes it’s fascinating to see the world, and to see him grow as the story progresses.

The other really interesting character for me, is Queen Galas – a monarch with remarkably progressive views, who tries to make radical changes in her nation, thus sparking off a civil war with the establishment. Her experimentation and struggle in such a staid civilisation felt remarkably fresh, if somewhat doomed to failure.

There’s also a strong philosophical thread running through a lot of the book about intelligence and narcissism which I enjoyed. There’s an awful lot to like in this book. It’s grounded and has an almost space-opera feel to it which is unusual but which I sometimes see in Iain M. Banks’ work (definitely a compliment, I love Banks’ Culture novels).

Although an option to buy the book (through PayPal) is available on the author’s website, I didn’t pay for it at the time since I didn’t know if I’d like it or not. As soon as I finished it, I went back and left a donation via the PayPal button. This is definitely an author I’d encourage to keep writing, and this is my little way of doing that. I’ll definitely look out for more of his work in future.

Book details

ISBN: 9781429983945
Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2000

Lady of Mazes

By Karl Schroeder

Rating: 4 stars

Livia Kodaly lives on a ringworld called Teven Coronal somewhere in the vicinity of Jupiter and, like everybody else on Teven, neither knows nor cares about the wider solar system. This all changes when outsiders come into her world in preparation for an invasion that could change the face of the entire solar system.

This book is a prequel to Ventus, although there is almost no overlap between them, this showing the birth of the rogue AI 3340 that was the focus of Ventus. The book aims, like its predecessor, to cover huge themes of science fiction, philosophy and sociology in its pages. The protagonist, Livia, lives in Westerhaven, which isn’t so much a country, but a philosophy (called a ‘manifold’), where people of a similar mindset can gather and live together. Westerhaven is metropolitan and engages with high technology, but right under their noses is Raven, which eschews all this technology in favour of a communion with nature and spirit animals and totems. Not metaphorical totems, but enabled by the same technology that enables the animas and ‘societies’ of Westerhaven. A combination of augmented/virtual reality, nanotech and neural implants ensure that residents of Westerhaven and Raven could walk past each other and never see each other. These differing worldviews are enforced by ‘tech locks’ that prevent technology that lives outside of the worldview from working within that manifold.

This is a fascinating idea, and Schroeder explores it to the full, before taking his protagonists outside the shifting worldviews of Teven to the wider solar system, where they encounter yet more differing philosophies on what it means to live and be human, as they search for allies to help them fight back against the invaders who want to collapse the manifolds and make the inhabitants of Teven see a single view of ‘reality’.

That is really what this book is about, for me anyway. The nature of reality, and how it shifts depending on the values of the viewer. The manifolds and AR/VR of “inscape” just take that to the nth degree. As Schroeder says in one of the essays about the book on his website, we already inhabit different manifolds when we visit from the city to the country, or even different regions of a city (my own manifold, for example, is probably very different from someone living in The Gorbals). The technology described in Lady of Mazes just takes this to one logical conclusion.

And it’s a view that I loved reading about. I loved the ideas that it covered and the way that so different worldviews lived together peacefully on Teven and the clash that occurred upon exposure to the wider solar system. The idea that civilisation was now so complex that humans just can’t cope with it any more, and the Government has become a distributed AI, with a ‘vote’ (basically a new node in the Government AI) compiled and brought into existence to represent not just serious political ideas, once they gain traction amongst the population, but also fashions, pet lovers, Shakespeare and almost everything else.

There’s an awful lot to digest from this book and once I get through my (ever-growing) to-read pile, I’d love to come back to both this and Ventus and re-read them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780765350787
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction
Year of publication: 2005

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