Nanotech, for those few who might have missed it, is a rapidly developing technology which could make it possible to create absolutely anything by manipulating matter on the molecular level with the help of robotic assemblers, or nanobots, so small as to be invisible. Nanotech is often touted (as, of course, prior technologies have been as well) as potentially bringing a final end to all scarcity, and bestowing upon us lives of endless leisure.
In "More More More: Nanotechnology and the Law of Accelerating Returns," Ronald Bailey, the Reason science correspondent, writes:
"Computing will be integrated into our clothing: no more palmtops and laptops, and going to a Web site will mean going to a shared virtual reality environment. Around 2030, we should be able to flood our brains with nanobots that can be turned off and on and which would function as "experience beamers" allowing us to experience the full range of other people's sensory experiences and if we find ordinary experience too boring, we will have access to archives where more interesting experiences are stored."
Bailey is quoting Ray Kurzweil. More on him later, but there you have it. Toronto-based Karl Schroeder's third novel, Lady of Mazes need not take place off-world in the far future. The technology it describes is coming soon to a theatre near you. Like, next week.
Bailey's quote more or less describes the environment of Lady of Mazes, except that the venue is an AI-built ringworld near Jupiter, called Teven Coronal. Schroeder foresees a future in which entire realities—"manifolds"—inhabit the same physical space, and where there is little delineation remaining between the experience of the real and the experience of the virtual. The cultures of each manifold are kept discrete from one another by tech locks, the implications of which give the book its philosophical underpinning. The book's heroine, Livia Kodaly, is a diplomat between these virtual worlds.
Called by her old friend Lucius to join in an adventure, Livia travels to a neighbouring manifold, Raven, where people live in a neoanimist culture, amidst talking animals and trees. Raven is plagued by the sudden appearance of a rash of "impossibilities": objects of higher technology such as robots which are proscribed in Raven. The tech locks should allow the maintenance of virtual worlds subject not to homogeny but to personal taste. Ergo, the technologies available in Raven will be different from those in Oceanus, or Westerhaven, Livia's home manifold. Even before this, Qiingi, a warrior of Raven, knows his world isn't really "natural," the way we mean it, but is nonetheless content. (This was a bit of a hard sell. More on this later.)
Livia discovers that first Raven, and then the other manifiolds, are being invaded by a mysterious something, perhaps an AI called 3340, which breaks down the barriers between worlds in a bid to create a monoculture.
Inscape, a nanotech extrapolation of the Internet, has replaced reality to the extent that few ever experience the real world, and never for extended periods of time. Due to a systems crash that took place during their childhood, Livia and her best friend Aaron have some experience of the real world, and hence a bit of backbone. Most of the survivors of the localized crash eventually died or lost hope, unable to understand that a severe thunderstorm is a fact of nature and that no food or water means just that. Because they were able to learn this lesson, Livia and Aaron are somewhat less feeble than those around them and take it upon themselves, along with Qiingi, to leave their ringworld in a flying house (which I want), to go to the neighbouring Archipelago and endeavour to discover the nature of the invasion and whether or not it can be stopped.
During their adventures they learn many things, including that in the Archipelago an inscape monoculture subjugates (or is that cares for?) all; Teven Coronal's suppressed history; and the true nature of 3340. They meet a transhumanist, a god, someone called the Government, and some votes, who are a terrifically clever idea. They do save Teven, but it and they are irrevocably changed now that they are privy to the nature of the world outside their petri-dish reality, which, along with many other things, the makers of their world have kept from them: the price of knowledge is innocence lost.
Bill Joy reminded us, in his famous Wired article "Why The Future Doesn"t Need Us," that Thoreau said, "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us." Joy wrote his warning after a meeting with author Ray Kurzweil in Tahoe in 1998. I've been to Tahoe, but just for the downhill skiing. I wish I'd been the proverbial fly on the wall at the bar that day, because in a way, Lady Of Mazes is a child of that meeting. Schroeder is keenly aware that we are living through a historical moment in which human lives are increasingly controlled by pervasive technological systems. To his great credit, he questions the inevitability of the railroad riding us. Is technological progress a priori a good thing? Lady of Mazes's impressive achievement is that it takes on this mostly unexamined tenet, not just of hard SF but of post-Enlightenment Western (read global) civilization.
In Qiingi's words, all technologies reflect the values of their designers. Even a culture with little or no technology has chosen: such an environment reflects the values of the citizenry, or at least those with power.
Schroeder's carefully considered solution to this problem, to ensure that we ride the railroad and it does not ride us (I'm constantly amazed by how many people I know who are ridden by their cell phones) is the aforementioned tech locks. I found the questions they raise slightly unexamined, although in general Schroeder's setting is well-realized. Do the citizenry, beyond Livia and Aaron and Lucius, never question the founders? There is on Teven little individual power beyond choosing to live in the manifold or submanifiold most to one's liking. This is not the same as the much greater power of the founders or designers: to themselves create worlds amongst which the masses may pick and choose. As well, the ostensibly natural world is in fact created and maintained by nanobots. But if they're so small you can't see them, it's as if they aren't there, right?
Still, Schroeder's society is seductive, and, in his version, ends up infecting the galaxy, as most people, once they've heard of them, agree the tech locks are what they want.
Wandering the remote back woods at my old farm, I occasionally saw or heard wildlife, including coyotes, black bears, white-tailed deer, grey wolves, great grey owls, red foxes, and countless birds, which I'm not good on beyond being able to differentiate the raptors in flight at a distance; after a decade of extremely casual study I can now tell an osprey from a red-tailed hawk from a turkey vulture.
Was it the animals' world or mine? I was never entirely sure, and glad of it.
In Raven the coyote would have wished me good morning, in English, instead of in its own way, which was to stop on its trail and look at me and my infant son awhile before it ambled on.
In Raven's worlds, no one would even think to ask the entrancing question: is it the coyote's field or mine?
They would know the talking coyote wasn't really real, not in the way mine was. This may seem a quibbling distinction, but I fear it may turn out to be very important.
I bring in this real-world tale because many will read Lady of Mazes as fiction, which it is, but it is not just fiction: in a time when the pace of scientific discovery is accelerating to the point where few notice, let alone understand enough to create a critique, irrevocable change has already occurred. The research Schroeder drew upon to write Lady of Mazes is reality based, much more so than the sources used by earlier nano-novelists such as Kathleen Ann Goonan. Schroeder has framed important questions eruditely enough to make me look up Bill Joy and Ray Kurzweil and learn a little more. I'm convinced this was part of his authorial intention, and he was successful.
I have written more about the scientific issues than I have about the novel itself, and this reflects its greatest virtue. But if Lady of Mazes discusses important questions, is it equally successful as a good read? Hard SF is often critiqued for being about gadgets and ideas to the detriment of characterization, and while Livia isn't terribly deep or complicated, and her heartbreaks are not rendered quite heartbreakingly enough for us to weep for her, she ain't bad. Likeable and believable, she's a hesitant anti-heroine who undergoes various epiphanies and cathartic changes, as any good protagonist must. Her friends Aaron and Qiingi are well drawn: Qiingi, especially, serves as conscience not just to Livia but to all of us. Kudos to Schroeder for having written a book that's fun to read, where plot, character, and content hang together in an engaging and interesting manner, so that by the end we have internalised his ideas about technology and, hopefully, given them further thought.
Of course, many might in fact prefer a world such as Teven, just as many prefer their cell phones and email and MSN to face-to-face contact now. Unlike many of his hard SF predecessors and compatriots, Schroeder knows that all technologies are value based. On his blog, he tells us that this is the main point of Lady of Mazes, and that his invention, the tech locks, solves the problem, allowing consumers the choice of "creating" or at least participating in a multitude of technology-based realities, unlike in the neighboring archipelago, with its inscape monoculture. As a novelist, Schroeder's primary job is to entertain, and this he does easily as well as Neal Stephenson, yet my own reaction is that the underlying and unexamined premise of not just Lady of Mazes but of pro-nano non-fiction by Kurzweil, Bailey, and other science writers, is that a simulacrum of nature will be indistinguishable from, and just as satisfying as, the real thing.
Come off it.
At the risk of being called a neo-Luddite, I'll have to agree with Gertrude Stein when she said, "there is no there there." I'd still prefer a real ocean, a real wolf, and a real sunset to Teven Coronal. I bet, for one thing, that they'd never get the smells right, and the better part of authentic nature, even more than what it looks like, is the complexity of its aromas. That's the nano-novel I'm waiting for: the one that tackles that issue head-on.
I haven't read Schroeder's earlier novels, Ventus (2001) and Permanence (2003), nor have I read Charles Stross, to whom Schroeder is often compared. He is also often grouped with the Australian writer Greg Egan, whose short fiction I am familiar with. Goonan's Queen City Jazz (1994) is dystopian: nano run amok. In it, she anticipates Eric Drexler, another important real-world nano enthusiast, who coined the now famous term "grey goo" to describe a world destroyed by out of control nanobots. Drexler has since backtracked, telling us why we needn't fear such an outcome, and Schroeder too seems optimistic, as if the dangers of nano are insignificant. In this way, Lady of Mazes is a sister (or is that brother?) novel to Neal Stephenson"s The Diamond Age (1995), a pseudo-Victorian nano-romp, and, like that novel, includes a mysterious meta-book. Perhaps we are witnessing the emergence of a subgenre trope.
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