Imagine your facebook page is run by an artificial intelligence that can mimic you with good accuracy. Your facebook page then starts talking with other people’s facebook pages and before you know it, your social life exists separately from you. Now imagine that virtual reality is so widespread in daily life that you can project those pages as people in rooms. Now you can carry that facebook page around with you and you can let copies of you talk to the people you meet during the day. Or, if you are in a conversation that you don’t really like, you disengage but let your facebook page continue the conversation.
Thus starts Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes. Set in a far, far future world of ubiquitous AI and VR, everyone carries around a Society, a collection of virtual copies (animas) of your friends, family and acquaintances with whom you can talk to in real life, as if they are sitting next to you. Or you can let your own copy talk to them. What is real and what isn’t? Does it really matter anymore? This premise is just the start of the book. What if you can look through the eyes of your copies that you have wandering around in the world, and switch between them too?
It is a really confusing world. People watch their copies make decisions and wonder if they would have made the same ones. What if you get notorious for what copies of you have done? What to do with them after your physical death? And so the questions multiply. And not all is rosy in this world. People start to get afraid to actually travel anywhere outside this infolded world, and mysterious unexplained virtual sightings upset the order.
The main character is Livia Kodaly, who is a kind of diplomat between societies in which people live according to different rules and also see different projected virtual realities that are kept separate from one another. She herself lives in an aristocratic world that is ruled by peerage and authority levels. It feels a bit similar to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which had a neo-Victorian nanotech society.
Schroeder’s science fiction book is highly conceptual and philosophical and can be confusing at start. Like Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief books and Greg Egan’s Permutation City, it requires a lot of attention and questioning by the reader to penetrate this strange, bewildering future world. But once you do this, your mind will be blown regularly. (continued underneath)
His world is a bit frightening. The way humans interact with virtual reality is questionable and it makes you wonder if this is a future that shows progress towards a better world, or whether the age-old human problems are just repeated with future technology. People insulate themselves in this technology to such a degree that it makes them completely dependent on the tech, and frightened of the real world. They get stuck in societies and in worldviews, as if the internet has bled out of the screen and enveloped the physical world. The main conflict in the book is a threat to this virtual reality, and Schroeder makes you wonder if that threat may be all that bad.
One of the eternally recurring struggles of human existence is how we can live a meaningful life, and Livia Kodaly’s world celebrates the richness of human worldviews in an artificial construction that forbids conflicts between them. But what is a meaningful life for a human if human interactions can be modeled by AI and there are no real achievements anymore in an artificially moderated world? But this is just the start of the story. It keeps gaining in scope. Every time you think that the book has settled on a particular location, we move on to something larger. Halfway through the book, we end up in places that you would never have imagined at the start of the story.
The story is at times quite confusing. Some pit stops are necessary to let your mind catch up on what Schroeder is talking about. Taking some sort of physical internet as a baseline that manifests itself around you through nanotech clouds, Schroeder makes Livia switch between rooms and landscapes and crowds, while the actual physical manifestations of those places exist separately on artificial halos in space. Do you follow? The factions are a bit hard to keep apart and the boundary between real and virtual is basically erased. It makes you feel lost, swimming in a dreamland without knowing whether you have reached the baseline of reality.
Lots of technical wonders in this book, and the plot moves along in an entertaining way. It is not that emotionally involving though, and the adventures of Livia Kodaly don’t really grab you by the throat. The final chapters are also really hammy, but the sense of wonder it evokes is worth it.