Synopsis: In the 23rd century, Humanity has fallen in two opposing fractions: gene-editing Shapers, striving for optimised biology and genius intelligence, and the Mechanists, replacing anatomy with cybernetic parts. This story follows Shapers, who have found a competitive advantage in dealing with an alien race.
They buy transport to the Beteigeuse system, where they want to investigate an even more alien race, the Swarm. That one has been around for millions of years, consisting of ant like beings which aren’t intelligent and don’t have a language besides their pheromones.
The Shaper agent thinks that he can exploit them. He only needs to test the workings of his artificially produced pheromones and bring back the gene sequence of the aliens. An endless army of mindless, efficient workers as biological machines would sure enough help the Shapers dominate humanity.
Well, the Swarm has survived a long time, and humans aren’t the first ones to exploit them.
Review: This is Sterling‘s first sold story, which appeared in the Magazine of SF&F, just when the age of Cyberpunk started. He is one of the founders of the subgenre, and created another one together with William Gibson, namely Steampunk, with his novel The Difference Engine. Boy, was I confused when I read that in the 1980s and all I wanted was cyberpunk, cyberpunk, cyberpunk.
This is also not cyberpunk, but Transhuman SF. The Shaper/Mechanist conflict is brought out in other stories of that setting, especially in the novel Schismatrix. Here, it is only a highly interesting background noise motivating the Shaper agent‘s moves.
Far more interesting are the inner workings of that other extreme of evolution, the Swarm. Sterling makes a great case of „intelligence comes into the way of life“, discussed from the perspective of several angles. That’s how I love my SF: exotic setting, some sensawonda, intelligent sociological discussions, and enough plot to keep me reading on. When I just thought that the conflict would be scientist versus secret agent, the story took yet another twist.
This is a fun story to read, and a great introduction to Sterling‘s works.