Review: Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

By Chris Hibbert

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

I really enjoyed reading Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, though it was more the setting than the story that had me entranced.

Doctorow envisions a relatively high tech future with a strong upper class with strict controls on many aspects of society, but there’s an informal, unsupported safety valve that makes it possible for people to get out from under the plutocrats (called Zottas here). Doctorow’s society is fraying around the edges, so there are lots of abandoned industrial facilities and vacant land that people who are fed up can Walkaway to. Once there they create informal voluntary societies, and exploit the abandoned wealth they find around them. As with Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom this is a reputation based society, but many of the people who fuel this iteration explicitly reject the ideas of ratings and rankings and tracking contributions. People work together for the joy of it, and record their ideas and plans so others can replicate what works and improve on what doesn’t.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

In a focal early scene, Limpopo and her companions have been working for months to build a habitation called the Belt and Braces in the wilderness. Limpopo leads by doing a lot of the work, and she has argued convincingly that using leaderboards and rewarding people based on their contributions are ineffective ways to encourage desirable behaviors because they incentivize the wrong kinds of effort. Jimmy had lost an earlier round of this argument and been asked to leave. He returns with a crowd of allies one day when Limpopo is working outside, and his crowd uses the lack of formal rules to rewrite the software controls and impose a reward structure. A common response to this kind of disagreement would be to wage a “revert” battle in the software, but Limpopo uses this opportunity to demonstrate the depth of her commitment to the “Walkaway” philosophy by announcing that she’s not going to fight over it. Instead, she’ll go somewhere else and start over, leaving Jimmy with full possession of an empty shell. When pressed, she declares “I didn’t make it. It wasn’t mine. I didn’t let him take it.” The Walkaway philosophy is to not have belongings, so as not be attached to your stuff. It’s impossible to steal from them because they don’t acknowledge ownership.

The Art of Not Being Governed by James C. Scott

For me, the model that strikes home is the ability to withdraw from an existing government and decamp to a new location to just start over. The current international order doesn’t seem to leave any gaps for things like this, but I’m currently in the middle of reading James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, which presents a history of South East Asia that says that the shape of the societies in that part of the world has been driven for millennia largely by the people who moved to less accessible locations in order to escape governments that were getting unbearable. Scott argues that the sociology of the closely related peoples living in hills and valleys were driven more by which crops and living arrangements were easy for governments to count and tax in the valleys, and hard for them to find and more durable in the remote and higher settlements.

Doctorow doesn’t try to argue that it’s easy, and in fact shows that the walkaway crowd is doing an immense amount of work in order to rebuild. I find this model of decentralized self government very sympathetic. There’s no acknowledged government with territorial exclusivity, and people are able to leave if they don’t like the way things are being run. There is plenty of open room to move to, and there’s enough generalized wealth at hand and accessible know how that people don’t feel tied down.

The unfortunate part of Walkaway is that Doctorow needed a conflict, and the one he sets up is that the Zottas are jealous of their control over society, and see the walkaways as a threat, so they’re willing to kidnap, torture and send in the troops in order to regain control. In the final battle scene, a Zotta leader’s daughter is in the target area, and the Zotta’s back down. But in the meantime, the walkaway society’s story is one of resisting violence from outside rather than the peaceful coexistence they’re working so hard to get.

I agree with Doctorow’s aesthetic sense; focusing on this society after the Zottas have ceded control wouldn’t provide conflict at the same existential level, but it would be a much nicer place to live, both for those who walk away and those who remain behind in the “default” economy.

Doctorow knows how to tell a story: There are a lot of funny and touching scenes in the story, and he covers a lot of ground. In addition to the overall situation which I’ve focused on so far, the story covers many kinds of relationships, uploading makes a major sub-plot, and the unequal distribution of society’s benefits is explored. He does have a darker outlook than I on where technology is heading. The reason there are riches lying around is that the Zottas would rather shutter outmoded plants than sell them and allow someone else to exploit the resources they contain. There are many highly trained mercenaries around that the Zottas can hire who will do their bidding, no matter how distasteful it might seem to us. But that’s visible in many of his other stories, and he still manages to be entertaining and paint a hopeful picture about how people can get along together and build something great. This book is being considered for this year’s Prometheus, and it’s my current favorite.

Review: The Corporation Wars: Insurgence, by Ken MacLeod

By Chris Hibbert

Ken MacLeod’s The Corporation Wars: Insurgence is the second book of a trilogy. It (along with the first book in the series, Dissidence, is a finalist for the Prometheus award this year.

Insurgence continues the story of awakened robots struggling for freedom, and uploaded human ex-combatants fighting to retake the planetary system the robots had been mining and exploring.

This installment focuses less on the robots’ claim to be agents worthy of separate respect, and more on the uploaded warriors struggle to figure out the nature of the reality they inhabit while mostly following orders to fight the battles their supervisors are pursuing. Their ultimate worry is that they don’t have enough information to tell which side they’re fighting on or who they are battling to subdue. When you live in a simulation (particularly when you can tell that someone else has access to the control panel) it’s a little difficult to be sure that your choices aren’t effectively controlled by someone else.

Next, cracks appear in the simulation, and “real” revived people see the shortcomings, but non-player-characters (MacLeod calls them philosophical zombies) think everything is normal, so the real people can tell who’s just a simulated person. The idea of zombies in philosophy (sometimes “p-zombies”) is an exploration of the idea of consciousness. What if there were beings that acted just like people, but had no consciousness? Would it make a difference to them? Should we accord them lesser rights?

I consider the idea of p-zombies to be incoherent, but many smart people treat the question as exploring an important distinction. MacLeod here undercuts the point of the argument since there are actual behavioral differences. It isn’t an exploration of whether consciousness matters, it’s just that some characters in the story are imperfect simulations without an inner life, and the actual thinking beings can tell who they are. At the same time, MacLeod makes sure we notice that the robots and AIs who are active in the battles and the scheming do have an inner dialogue, and are making plans and collaborating with others to get things done.

The starting position for the agencies that represent the current Earth government and act under its protection is that only humans are allowed to be sentient. Even AIs’ powers are circumscribed. Whenever self awareness arises otherwise, it must be stamped out. It’s not clear why this would be a plausible stance, since it’s clearly the case that the AIs can become self-aware for short periods, and autonomously operating robots have the capacity for spontaneous self awareness given the right trigger. So they must be constantly battling to defeat uprisings, and track down newly minted sophonts who either try to escape from control, or hide in occupied systems. It would make more sense to forbid use of tools with the capacity for self awareness, than to constantly try to stomp them out. I’d also have a hard time going along with a regime that wanted to outlaw and destroy a class of beings because they were self aware. Self aware and hostile is a separate thing, but that’s not the distinction they’ve settled on.

Before one of the final battles, one of the leaders of the simulated humans challenges the combatants to each eat a slice of p-zombie flesh to prove that they believe they’re in a simulation, and that there can’t be any moral issues with simulated eating of simulated meat from simulated people that were never actually alive or aware. Except for a few who object to the initiation-ceremony aspect of the act, they all partake.

So there’s a lot of exploration here of of philosophical questions of identity, and what it means to be human. The questions of liberty are mostly focussed on what kinds of agents deserve respect as actual people, though I think MacLeod fumbled some of the issues. The action is interesting and the conflict exciting. Besides there are also weaponized communications packets, interrogations of potentially hostile agents by sending them into a dungeon simulation, double and triple agents, and terraforming. It’s a pretty good read, and the lead-in to part three, of course, leaves a few things to be resolved.

(Chris Hibbert is treasurer and past board president of the Libertarian Futurist Society. He works as a software engineer in Silicon Valley.)

Review: The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, by Ken MacLeod

By Chris Hibbert

Ken MacLeod’s The Corporation Wars: Dissidence is the first book of a trilogy. It (along with the second book in the series, Insurgence) is a finalist for the Prometheus award this year.

Book CoverThe story starts with a scene in which a pair of mining robots exploring an asteroid (in a distant solar system) and representing different corporate interests have an encounter, which leads them to realize they have opposing interests, which leads them each to recognize that they have interests, which leads them to self-awareness. The corporations are in a tenuous situation, trying to assert their ownership of the robots, trying to be civil about their contractual cooperation, but objecting strenuously to breaches by the opposing robots. The corporations end up fighting one another, while the robots band together and spread the concept of self-awareness to other nearby robots with sufficient computing capacity. Since the corporations don’t seem likely to grant them independence, the robots form an independent faction in the upcoming battle. The corporations are loath to destroy their valuable property just yet.

When they do decide that military actions are called for, they end up dredging up opposing troops of uploaded warriors from past wars. All the AIs and non-self-aware robots and other actors are under a deep compulsion that only humans and their uploads can actually be armed for combat, even against rogue self-aware robots. So the “humans” spend parts of their time embodied as people in a planetary environment, training and relaxing between missions. In the missions, they’re downloaded into articulated space-battle suits. Every time they die in battle, they return to the training site to start again. Over time, they find reason to doubt the reality of their home, and eventually detect serious cracks.

The uploads gradually learn enough about their realities to doubt that they’re still fighting for the side they were loyal to in their first lives. Apparently part of the distinction between uploads and awakened AIs is that the operators can’t tinker with opinions and loyalties directly, but they can easily lie and mislead about who they’re representing, and what their opponents are fighting for. Of course, it wouldn’t be an interesting story if the operator’s control couldn’t be subverted.

Ken MacLeod tells a good story, and gets us to think about what kinds of entities should have rights. The authorial point of view allows him to show the action in the eyes alternately of the awakened robots and the revived soldiers, so we feel their fundamental humanness. The characters, ex-human and non-human alike, think about who they should allow into their coalition and whether other actors are actually aware or just act like it, and have varying motives.

My biggest complaint about the story and the characters’ attitudes is a simple universal acceptance among them that some other characters aren’t self-aware and thus can be treated as objects, based simply on statements from other people in authority roles. In war, it doesn’t make much sense to worry about whether the people shooting at you are actually thinking beings, but deciding that some category of bystanders don’t have inner lives should be a cause for more investigation. It’s an easy allegation to make, and not far from common attitudes about one’s enemies that we’ve mostly moved past.

It will be interesting to see how MacLeod resolves these issues in Insurgence and in Emergence, the concluding novel of the trilogy which is due to be published in the fall of 2017.

(Chris Hibbert is treasurer and past board president of the Libertarian Futurist Society. He works as a software engineer in Silicon Valley.)

Review: The Core of the Sun, by Johanna Sinisalo

By Chris Hibbert

book coverJohanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun is a finalist for the Prometheus Award this year.   It has enough SF elements to qualify as standard near-future fiction, and provides biting social commentary. In feel, it reminds me a lot of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but I liked this better in several ways.

The story takes place in a future Finland that has managed to selectively breed its women so that they’re either docile sex dolls and mothers (“eloi”), or sterile, powerless but competent workers (“morlocks”). They’ve also outlawed psycho-active drugs from alcohol to heroin, and somehow included capsaicin (hot peppers) on that list. The protagonist, Vanna, is a morlock who was raised as an eloi, which allows her to pass in polite company. She’s also hooked on hot peppers, and has started dealing in whole, dried, and preserved peppers in order to afford her next fix.

Compared with Handmaid’s Tale, the viewpoint character is a more active agent, with more freedom to act for her own interests and to undermine the system; her allies against the state are more fully bought into the fight; and the state she fights has taken more reprehensible steps, though it seems to have less thorough control of its subjugated females.

The story is told with a mix of present-tense action and recollections by Vanna of how she got to her present situation, mostly written as letters to her long-lost eloi sister, Manna. The two were raised away from the city by their eccentric aunt, which gave Vanna the opportunity to act naturally most of the time, and mimic her sister when visitors were around. This gave her the tools to pass as eloi when she grew up.

After the aunt dies, Manna finds a husband Vanna suspects to be after the family farm, since neither Manna nor Vanna (passing as an eloi) can legally hold title to it. Vanna finds a man to partner with who values her for her unusual intellect and her ability to act independently (a useful tool for his black-market activities).

Vanna pursues the secrets behind her sister’s disappearance until events force her to escape with her partner. I found the prose (and occasional poetry) to be delightful and very evocative. The characters were convincing, and Vanna’s struggle to be her own person in the face of societal expectations was heartbreaking.

(Chris Hibbert is treasurer and past board president of the Libertarian Futurist Society. He works as a software engineer in Silicon Valley.)