I had suggested reading something by Schroeder for the Kepler’s book discussion group, and was happy that we’d be reading this one since it’s the one book by him I haven’t read (I read Sun of Suns when it was serialized in Analog). Unfortunately, I think this is the weakest of Schroeder’s four novels to date.
The novel is told in three parts. The first part takes place on Teven Coronal, a ring station whose populace is divided up into separate “manifolds”, virtual reality spaces with different technological levels and cultures. Peoples’ perceptions are carefully regulated based on their belief systems, and it’s difficult to move between the manifolds since it requires being able to consciously change your perceptions. Our heroine, Livia Kodaly, lives in the Westerhaven manifold, which has a veneer of upper-class Renaissance culture (where authority and reputation govern who’s willing to interact with and listen to you), but with a sophisticated technological level. But Livia and her friend Aaron were in an accident some years earlier in which they were stranded outside the manifolds, and this experience changed their perceptions of Teven, and Livia is able to move between the manifolds more easily than most of her peers.
In this part, Teven is invaded by representatives of something called 3340, who are subverting the manifolds by pushing the peoples’ perceptions to the edges of what their manifolds support, which causes the boundaries between them to collapse, resulting in war between the manifolds. Livia, Aaron, and their ally Qiingi – from a low-tech manifold – manage to escape the invaders and cast off into space in a makeshift craft, in seek of help.
This leads to the second part, in which they arrive in the Archipelago, a society of stations in the vicinity of Jupiter. There they learn that Teven is in a part of space which is kept off-limits to the rest of humanity through the authority of powerful posthumans known as the Anecliptics. One of Teven’s founders gained the right to the station through a bargain with the Anecliptics, but no one else is allowed in, making hope of allies to save Teven look bleak. The Archipelago is rather the opposite of Teven: Individuals freely interact, but each has their own computer-managed “narrative” which nourishes their lives to make them as comfortable and rewarding as possible. A handful of people choose to live without narratives, but they’re in the minority. Among these is Doran Morss, a rich man with his own ship who seeks to free humanity from the oversight of the Anecliptics and the narrative system, but his pleas mostly fall on deaf ears.
Livia and company find their way in the Archipelago, covertly trying to find someone to help them save Teven, until they learn what 3340 is and what its goals are. This leads into the third part, in which we learn about Teven’s history, the Anecliptics’ mistakes, and 3340’s plans and allies.
Once again, Schroeder delivers the goods in the form of some thought-provoking and challenging ideas, contrasting the homogeneous society of the Archipelago with the forcibly-separated ones on Teven, and driving the plot with the struggle to free oneself from societal constraints imposed by higher beings. But unfortunately the goods come along with some “bads”: The book’s themes and struggles feel so abstract, and its characters so one-dimensional, that it’s very difficult to figure out what the various sides are, never mind which ones to get behind.
The book is extremely slow to get moving, although others in our discussion appreciated the first part (of three) for its cultural anthropological examinations. I felt like I got the idea rather quickly, and I wish for character development and for the plot to get moving, but it wasn’t until the second part the either happened, and then it was only the latter; the characters never did develop very much. Doran Morss could have been the most interesting character in the book – experienced, thoughtful, passionate – but we only saw brief glimpses of his feelings, so he was only slightly more than a peripheral figure – not much more than a plot device to enable 3340’s ultimate goal, really.
The final third felt quite muddled to me; although Livia’s resolution to the basic problem of 3340 was pretty clever, the story tailed off after that, with a set of epilogues (of sorts) which just didn’t work for me.
There are a lot of crunchy ideas here, but I think Schroeder just didn’t organize them into a good story. The book actually bears a lot of resemblance to his first novel, Ventus, which I’d say was his weakest book before I read this one, but it feels more concrete and like it flows more smoothly, even if its ideas are more conservative. But story counts for a lot, and the story here was both thin and scattered. A disappointment.