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Lady of Mazes, Karl Schroeder, Tor, 2005, 286 pp.

Karl Schroeder's first novel for Tor, Ventus, took place far in the future but on a remote planet that was isolated from the rest of human civilization. In his new novel, Lady of Mazes, Schroeder takes us on a trip into that civilization but at a time when we are mostly located in the immediate solar system. Of the many issues and advances that are found in Lady of Mazes, the major concern is simple: what are the effects on society when the virtual overlay on any one person's experience of reality can no longer be distinguished from reality? The permutations and consequences are a great deal of fun.

Livia Kodaly lives in Westerhaven, a small community on the Teven Coronal. Teven is a huge artificial colony in deep space, and many small communities live there. But people in Westerhaven don't see their neighbours often, if at all, because the inscape -- Schroeder's term for the all-encompassing virtual layer -- separates them. The people can be in the same physical space and they wouldn't even notice, because the inscape takes control of their autonomous systems and makes them walk around obstacles without the detour registering on anyone's consciousness.

Science fiction fans will start guessing as to where Schroeder is going with this. Will Westerhaven become too divorced from reality? What happens if the inscape suffers from a glitch? Who controls the inscape? And so forth. Schroeder doesn't let us hang, because all of these things get thrown into the mix right away. Livia goes to the nearby community of Raven with a friend to investigate some anomalies, and discovers that the "ancestors" who have recently arrived are busy taking over the society and breaking down the inscape. The duped people from Raven attack Westerhaven. Livia is one of the survivors partly because she has already survived something like this, in her case an inscape crash when she was much younger.

By about 100 pages into the story, Livia's home civilization has been destroyed, and she has fled along with two of her friends. They find an unusual mode of transport to one deserted coronal after another, until they finally reach an area of the solar system that is occupied. It's called the Archipelago, and the humans who live there are prevented from visiting the coronals by even more advanced beings called the anecliptics. The last two-thirds of the book detail the efforts of Livia and her friends to figure out Archipelago society and get help for whoever might have survived back home. It doesn't make things easy that Archipelago society is even more firmly enmeshed in inscape than anyone in Westerhaven or Raven.

Lady of Mazes is an interesting novel that takes a serious look at the philosophical and social implications of a strong overlay on reality. I give Schroeder full marks for his approach to the topic and the way that he has used his imagination in a full yet coherent way. It's a convincing book; Schroeder puts his imprimatur on the notion of the inscape.

Like any book about a complex future, Lady of Mazes suffers from a heavy amount of exposition. Schroeder's clarity of prose saves the introductory sections in Westerhaven and Raven, insofar as it is saveable. Livia explains, in grinding detail, items and processes that should obviously be mundane to her. It's like describing the inner workings and technological history of the internal combustion engine rather than saying that I took the car and went to work. This tendency is ameliorated further along in the book when Livia is encountering societies and ways of life that are new to her. She has to figure out why people are doing what they are doing, how to get around, how to gain influence, and so on. We are along with her for the ride and this sympathy for the protagonist makes the book flow much more smoothly.

This is an old technical problem (that is to say, a challenge to the writer's technique) in the field of science fiction. As I said, Lady of Mazes takes place in a complex future, and just as we back here in the early 21st century might not be able to understand a document that completely details such a future, Schroeder himself might not be able to fully imagine such an era. Other writers have pushed the envelope much further than Schroeder does here; Schroeder chooses to explain and describe and rather than to dump us into this future unprepared. It's a tricky balance and it's hard to fault Schroeder's choice since I could have just as easily been complaining about the lack of comprehensibility if he had taken the book in a different direction.

That said, the dilemma faced by Schroeder becomes clarified by the ending. I won't reveal the nature of the climactic showdown; suffice to say that Livia, after many twists and turns is back in Westerhaven, with a full cast of characters around her, and she and the others have some crucial choices to make. But since these choices are from a sophisticated context, based on the considerations of technological consequences of various kinds, there is not much of a gut connection with the perils or possibilities faced by the protagonist. Yes, Lady of Mazes is generally a cerebral book, and I applaud this. However, Schroeder tries to speed up the pace for the final confrontation, and this simply doesn't work well for the narrative at hand. The ending sequences have just as much information to convey as anything earlier on, but they are compressed or chopped up for the sake of a suitably turbulent conclusion. When the cerebral side suffers, and the book doesn't have a visceral relation with the characters, the ending has much less to stand on.

Lady of Mazes is an ambitious book, and that ambition makes up for a number of flaws in the technical aspects, prose-wise, of the story. Schroeder takes the idea of the inscape -- a nifty extrapolation of what we've seen so far of consciousness, the nature of qualia, and the internet -- and runs with it. For that alone, it's worth checking out.

Last modified: August 29, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by James Schellenberg (

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