Karl Schroeder's new novel is the real thing -- head-snappingly cool SF, with big and clever ideas, almost believable transcendence, and a way to map human scale stories into a world where "post-human" powers exist. It's set in the fairly far future, in a Solar System populated by humans living in space habitats, by post-humans -- humans who have gained "god-like" computational powers, and possibly by aliens. Ultimately the story concerns people trying to live human scale lives, yet also lives with meaning -- and various solutions are suggested. This is ambitious stuff. Schroeder -- one of the most reliably ambitious young writers we have -- doesn't quite pull off everything he tries, but he makes a brave stab at it.
The protagonist is Livia Kodaly, a diplomat living in a human society, or "manifold", called Westerhaven. A "manifold" is a set of technological and social values adopted by a community, and enforced by implants and virtual reality. Thus in one manifold people live in what seems to be roughly a traditional Native American tribe; while in another flying machines and guns might be allowed, but not spaceships. And so on. As it happens, these manifolds coexist on a single space habitat, Teven Coronal -- something like one of Iain M. Banks's "orbitals", or a mini-Ringworld. VR mediates people's interactions so that people from different manifolds can be in the same place and not see each other. In some manifolds, like Westerhaven, people have "societies", groups of friends who can always be present (if usually as simulations, with conversations stored for the "original" to experience later if necessary).
This setup is pretty cool -- reminiscent in some ways of John C. Wright's Golden Age trilogy. But it turns out not to be the point of the book. For Westerhaven and its fellow manifolds are under attack by a mysterious entity called 3347, which seems determined to undermine the "tech locks" that maintain the identity of each manifold. Livia and her close friend Aaron Varese, along with a newly met man from another manifold, Raven, escape in a flying house. And soon we are introduced to the main stream (perhaps) of human society, a cluster of habitats from which Westerhaven has been isolated.
Here people also live lives mediated by VR, so that they might seem to be in almost any environment -- a cartoon world, an old city street, a Scottish manor, etc. -- while in "reality" (whatever that might mean) they are living in artificial space habitats broadly similar to Teven Coronal. Social life in these habitats is controlled by various means -- AIs called collectively the "Government," and composed of independent AI "votes," for one example. Or, for another crucial example, groups of people living according to the Good Book -- a set of rules for social interaction.
Best perhaps to let Schroeder tell his story from here. Livia and her friends continue to search for help in saving their home Coronal. But they are also seduced by the prospect of life in the "wider" world, as it were, with its less limited horizons. And there is also the lurking presence of post-humans, and of the mysterious "anecliptics," the beings who have among other things shielded Teven Coronal from interaction with the rest of the Solar System. Some people are looking for ways to become "gods" themselves.
Ultimately Lady of Mazes asks: "What does human life mean?" or "How can life be meaningful if 'reality' is an infinitely malleable construct, and nothing basic ever changes?" Or similar questions. Livia, not surprisingly, has a central role to play. At times the story bumps into a common problem of wild far future stories -- how can we believe or understand the technological wonders that seem to drip by fiat from the author's pen? But in the end I felt the book mostly worked. And the closing passage (before a slightly anticlimactic epilogue) is truly lovely.