Happiness, Meaning and Significance: Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes

Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes is one of the best pure SF novels of recent years. I read it in 2005 when it came out and was surprised it got so little attention. It seemed to me to be one of those books everyone would be talking about. I’ve just read it for the second time, and it holds up as well as ever. What a good book!

Livia Kodaly lives in Teven, a coronal (ringworld) where tech locks limit nanotech and inscape (perceptible virtual reality) to various consensual manifolds of reality. You can be right next to someone who sees you as a tree and you don’t see at all, you can duck out of a conversation and replace yourself with an anima who you can later reabsorb to review what you both said, you carry around with you a Society of chosen friends and relations who may or may not be connected to the real people they represent at any given moment. This is complicated and fascinating enough, but Schroeder sets it up only to destroy it and show us how Livia copes with that destruction and with the wider world outside Teven where she travels to understand what has attacked them and find help for her people.

[Read on below the fold…]

Lady of Mazes is rigorous hard SF, but the questions it raises are philosophical rather than technical. The problem with writing about post-humanity and people whose experience is very far from ours is the difficuty of identification—this can sometimes be a problem for me with Egan and Stross. Schroeder avoids the potential pitfalls, in any case for readers who are prepared to pay close attention even at the beginning when everything is unfamiliar. Lady of Mazes has a very high new-cool-stuff-per-page density, but without ever losing sight of the perceptions of its point-of-view characters. It has worldbuilding and ideas casually mentioned that most writers would mine for a trilogy, and it has one of the best descriptions of suffering chagrin I have ever read.

Set in the same universe as Schroeder’s earlier Ventus, Lady of Mazes also explores some of the same themes. Schroeder seems generally interested in what gives life purpose and agency in post-scarcity societies. Schroeder, like John Barnes in The Armies of Memory, seems to think that many people would retreat into unreality. Schroeder appreciates that people tend to become very baroque when given the opportunity. In Lady of Mazes we see new art forms, new ways of living, angst over relationships and other hallmarks of humanity. The illusions they embrace are the illusions of meaning and significance. They are happy and fulfilled within their ultimately meaningless experience.

Schroeder doesn’t have any answers, but he’s great on fascinating questions. Does it matter if what you do matters as long as you think it matters? What do you want to be, free or happy? How about if they really are mutually exclusive options? What is freedom anyway? How does humanity govern itself when each person can have anything they want? How does humanity govern itself when nothing is natural? And if a Chinese Room started to attack your home, how would you fight against it?

On this re-read I am more impressed than ever with Schroeder’s breadth of vision and clever construction. I also had a great time hanging out again with Livia and her world. The shadow of the post-humans and half-understood technology may hang over them, they may live in very odd worlds, but these characters are recognisably people, and people one can care about.

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