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Bruce Sterling’s short story “Twenty Evocations,” originally published as “Life in the Mechanist/Shaper Era: Twenty Evocations,” first saw the public in the spring of nineteen eighty four. “Twenty Evocations” was the second story published before Sterling released his Schismatrix novel. Oddly enough, the original title, with the line “Life in the Mechanist/Shaper Era,” suggests the story would provide a thorough look at the period which Sterling’s stories take place in. However, “Twenty Evocations” looks at the life of one man, Nikolai Leng, in the shortest of all of the Mechanist/Shaper tales. Yet while “Twenty Evocations” is indeed the shortest tale, it also presents the reader with a wider viewpoint, spanning, in just a few pages, the life of a man who lives to be over two hundred years old. This unique perspective allows the reader to view several different aspects of Sterling’s unique world and make their own inferences relating to it.
Sterling’s use of schematized aspects is almost superb in his tale of Nikolai Leng, utilizing brief excerpts of one’s man’s life to show a glimpse into the world he has created. Within the second “evocation” Sterling already touches on the topic of post humanism. While all of the stories within the Mechanist/Shaper universe touch upon the ideas of post humanism (as the universe is post humanistic), Sterling directly displays the feelings the factions have for their past through the young Nikolai, whose “falling tones betray[ed] a rapid loss of interest” when human beings and Earth were being discussed (313). Nikolai’s feelings represent those of both factions, not only towards humanity, but of the universe in general. Post humanistic creatures view anything unrelated to their own agenda as dull.
Throughout Sterling’s stories, characters generally suppress their feelings (a symbol of one’s own humanity) through the use of drugs. True emotion is rare, and logic is the rule. Even marriage is motivated by other means then love, as Nikolai later marries his mechanist wife for stability, while she marries him for money. While the exact perquisites for a post human are not discussed, a loss of emotion, whether through synthetic or natural means, would clearly place one closer to the state of post humanity.
In the fifth evocation, a bar is mentioned with the name “ECLECTIC EPILEPTIC,” surely an odd name for a bar. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines eclectic as “selecting what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles,” while an epileptic is someone who experiences “convulsive attacks usually with clouding of consciousness.” These two words suggest the entire nature of the post humans. Eclectic suggests a form of logic had been applied to create the best form of life available for the post humans. However, logic and emotion often are opposites, and so in this attempt at creating the best available lifestyle, the Shapers and Mechanists cloud their minds with drugs and over reasoning to escape the emotions in their reality.
One specific instance where the post humans act out of pure logic, without compassion, is demonstrated in the twelfth evocation. The twelfth evocation, called Mass Defection, tells of a group of Shapers, called the Superbrights, who wish to move into Nikolai’s colony. The reason for the Superbrights’ defection is that the Ring Council (a governing body of Shapers) believed the Superbrights to be “mentally unstable and ideologically unsound.” Rather then solve the Superbright problem by taking proper precautions with the faction, the Ring Council handled the Superbrights problem in the simplest and easiest manner possible, murder.
The reader is also given a glimpse into the more advanced race of the reptilian Investors with the fourteenth evocation. When Nikolai meets the Investor ensign for the first time, he greets the alien and states that he is interested in the philosophies of the advanced species. The ensign tells Nikolai that the only philosophical question the Investors have is what does Nikolai own that they want. Through this simple meeting, along with the current logical state of the post humans, one can infer that Sterling himself believes that the more advanced a race becomes, the less focused it is on an emotional state as it converges to a more logically oriented physical state.
“Twenty Evocations,” though brief, utilizes twenty short intervals of one man’s life in the
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