Lady of Mazes (2005)

Short review of Karl Schroeder's 2005 science fiction novel Lady of Mazes.

When I started reading Lady of Mazes, I already started criticizing the book in my head. A simplistic society that tried to control risk by having frozen tech levels and all that came with it. But after finishing the book, I must admit that my first impression was dead wrong. The tech locks of Teven Coronal were an extreme solution to a much more complex problem than I first imagined and, considering why they were installed in the first place, made a lot of sense.

At the core of the book is Schroeder’s usual pet peeve with all things virtual. While I completely disagree with how society would shape up when given the technology of the Archipelago, his line of argument is still relevant (I loved the idea of the Cliff test) and makes a lot sense on a smaller scale. Given that some mind researchers think being human means just having a brain that tells itself a complex story about it’s own importance and place in the universe and then given the technology that could actually accommodate that view of reality, I can definitely see the danger.

I still think the tech locks are both a placebo and a crutch, one that delegates responsibility and takes away freedom and doesn’t solve the real problem. But given the society Schroeder came up with, in the context of the story it makes a lot of sense and in the end, life is all about compromise and finding a workable solution, not the best one.

Lady of Mazes can be positioned in the same transhuman/posthuman camp of science fiction as the works of Egan, Stross, MacLeod and a few others. But where a few try to show the possibilities of changing the human condition and others the horrors that all those technological advances might bring, Schroeder (a bit like MacLeod) tries to look how mostly baseline humans can live a life where their decision still makes sense. At what scale can normal humans still operate and make meaningful contributions, when there are beings that are a thousand times stronger, smarter and so on. And what means meaningful at all in that context.

One trick answer obviously is 3340. There was one irritating thing about his earlier novel Ventus (which chronologically takes place long after Lady of Mazes). And that was 3340, the big, posthuman AI that was the big bad in the background. Ventus was such a smart novel, and 3340 stood out like a sore thumb, a cliched evil AI bent on taking over humanity. Important from a narrative point, sure, but still stupid as hell. And Lady of Mazes rectified that irritation, giving us a very smart explanation what 3340 actually was and why it did what it did.

It’s more than just an evil AI, it’s another attempt of baseline humans to cope with posthuman AIs controlling their world. It’s also a solution that’s even worse than the problem, but there you go.

If Ventus showed me that reading Schroeder’s oeuvre was worth it, Lady of Mazes completely cemented that belief. This is a fiendishly clever novel that doesn’t shy to ask big questions but has also the skill to pull it off convincingly (even if I disagree with a number of things). There are still a few problems on the written side, Schroeder characters are still a bit too predictable and sometimes the plotting a bit clunky, but overall, definitely worth it.