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: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz (Creative Commons photo)

By William H. Stoddard

Annalee Newitz has had a successful career as a print and online journalist, and has published several books, but until Autonomous, all of these were nonfiction. It was a happy discovery for me that her first venture into fiction showed real mastery of the craft. I laughed at her epigraph from “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate,” and promptly tracked the song down and bought it; and the opening page of her narrative hooked me and kept me reading. Both her handling of characterization and plot, and the quality of her prose, were the kind of thing I hope for when I glance at a new book and ask if I want to read it.

The title Autonomous refers to one of the novel’s plotlines and themes: an examination of the ethical and legal rights of artificial intelligences, through the struggles of various robots to deal with their “indentured” status. Ingeniously, Newitz envisions a future society where human beings, though born free, can also become indentured after falling into debt, or take on indentures to finance education and training. The complexities of the resulting laws affect a number of significant plot points, including a subplot about an indentured human being. Newitz has ingeniously combined a social satire on the problem of educational debt with an exploration of the ethical status of nonhumans.

However, the primary plot reflects a different issue: intellectual property. This has been much debated both in public policy and among libertarians; the emergence of the online world has heated up the debate, as copying and sharing texts, pictures, music, and videos has become all but costless. Libertarian views have ranged from support for indefinitely prolonged intellectual property rights to complete abolition of copyrights and patents. Newitz’s protagonist, a smuggler who sells pirated drugs to people who can’t afford to pay what the patent holders are asking, discovers that one of her products has seriously destructive side effects; ironically, it’s her efforts to set things right and make amends that entangle her in a struggle with the company that holds the patent, and with the covert operatives who try to enforce it on their behalf. I think libertarian readers will find this thought provoking. Both in the case of indentures and in the case of patents, Newitz’s story explores the possibility that some things that are called “property rights” may be unjust and exploitative.

It appeals to me, too, that Newitz’s protagonist is an entrepreneur; and that,  having discovered a problem with one of her products, she promptly sets out to make things right for her customers. Everything else follows from that, in the same way that everything in the Iliad follows from Achilles’ anger with Agamemnon. So the whole story is one of virtuous entrepreneurship. Autonomous doesn’t show us a large-scale transition to a free society, but it gives us a protagonist who has the qualities we would like such a society to nurture.

Our latest ‘Hall of Fame’ nominees span many decades

Rudyard Kipling

The Prometheus Hall of Fame Award honors classic SF that promotes individual liberty, and with our current crop of nominees, we’ve reached across decades of work — one of the nominations is for a Rudyard Kipling story published in 1912, and we also have work from the 1940s, the 1960s and the 1980s. Official press release follows.

— Tom Jackson

The Libertarian Futurist Society has selected five finalists for the 2018 Hall of Fame Award. This year’s finalists are:

• “As Easy as A.B.C.,” a short story by Rudyard Kipling (first published 1912 in London Magazine): In the second of his “airship utopia” stories, an unpopular minority in a future society calls for the revival of democracy, and a largely hands-off world government is called in to protect them from mob violence.

•”With Folded Hands . . .,” a short story by Jack Williamson (first published 1947 in Astounding Science Fiction): A cautionary tale of a future society under the control of entirely benevolent AIs.

•”Starfog,” a short story by Poul Anderson (first published 1967 in Analog): An agent of a mutual aid association spanning many solar systems seeks a way to carry out a large-scale project without taxation or central planning.

• “Conquest by Default,” a short story by Vernor Vinge (first published 1968 in Analog): Vernor Vinge’s first exploration of the possible form of an anarchistically organized society, set on a post-nuclear war Earth visited by an alien culture.

• The Island Worlds, a novel by Eric Kotani and John Maddox Roberts (first published 1986 by Baen Books): A libertarian independence movement in the asteroids struggles against domination by an Earth-based bureaucracy—and its own disagreements over strategies for attaining freedom.

In addition to these nominees, the Hall of Fame Committee considered six other works: “ILU-486,” by Amanda Ching; That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis; 2112, by Rush; A Time of Changes, by Robert Silverberg; “Harrison Bergeron,” by Kurt Vonnegut; and The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlyn, by T.H. White, as a combined nomination.

The final vote will take place in mid-2018. All Libertarian Futurist Society members are eligible to vote. The award will be presented at a major science fiction convention.

Nominations for the 2019 Hall of Fame Award can be submitted to committee chair William H. Stoddard (halloffame at this domain) at any time. All LFS members are eligible to nominate. Nominees may be in any narrative or dramatic form, including prose fiction, stage plays, film, television, other video, graphic novels, song lyrics, or epic or narrative verse; they must explore themes revelant to libertarianism and must be science fiction, fantasy, or related genres.

The Libertarian Futurist Society also presents the annual Prometheus Award and welcomes new members who are interested in science fiction and the future of freedom. More information is available at our website, www.lfs.org.

 

Author Victor Milán has died

Author Victor Milán, who won the Prometheus Award in 1986 for Cybernetic Samurai, died on Feb. 13, age 63.

Locus has posted an obituary, and author George R.R. Martin has posted a warm appreciation. 

“I first met Vic not long after I moved to Santa Fe in 1979. Outgoing, funny, friendly, and incredibly bright, he was one of the cornerstones of the New Mexico SF crowd for decades, a regular at Bubonicon in Albuquerque, the perennial masquerade host at Archon in St. Louis, a fan, a lover of ferrets and collector of guns, a gamer (I can’t tell you how many times we stayed up till dawn playing Superworld, Call of Cthulhu, and other RPGs with Vic, and laughing at the outrageous antics of the characters he created). But above all, he was a writer,” Martin writes.

“He wrote all sorts of things, in and out of our genre: westerns, historicals, men’s action adventure, more books than I could possibly list… but it was in science fiction that he did his best work. CYBERNETIC SAMURAI and CYBERNETIC SHOGAN were two of the best known from the old days. More recently, he was finding new readers by the score all around the world with his DINOSAUR LORDS series,” Martin wrote.

 

Reason magazine on our fight over ‘The Dispossessed’

My Jan. 24 blog post on the death of prominent SF writer Ursula K. LeGuin mentioned that she won our Hall of Fame Award in 1993, for The Dispossessed.

I know now a lot more about the history behind that award, thanks to a new article by Victoria Varga. 

Varga, the former editor of The Prometheus, the newsletter we sent out until we established this blog, explains that the novel came out in 1974 and she nominated it for the Hall of Fame Award in 1983, touching off years of debate. LeGuin appreciated the nominations but privately expressed doubt it would win, although it finally did. The people defending the novel included Robert Shea, who won the Hall of Fame Award in 1986 for the Illuminatus! trilogy, co-written with Robert Anton Wilson.

If you are curious, you can look at the full list of our award winners. 

— Tom Jackson

Ursula K. LeGuin has died


Ursula K. LeGuin (with Harlan Ellison) at Westercon in Portland, Oregon, in 1984. Creative Commons photo by Pip R. Lagenta. 

Ursula K. LeGuin, who has died at age 88, wrote a variety of fiction and poetry. She preferred to be known as an “American novelist.” But we science fiction fans can claim her, too, as the above photograph illustrates. Her awards included a Hugo and Nebula for The Left Hand of Darkness, but she also won our Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 1993, for The Dispossessed.

Futures in Collision: Firefly’s Divided Society

Actor Nathan Fillion, who played Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds. Creative Commons photo by vagueonthehow. 

By William H. Stoddard

In the decade and a half since Firefly came on the air, it’s emerged as one of the high points of television science fiction, both for its characterization, and for the unusual depth in which its setting is imagined. In fact, that depth helps explain the characterization. The crew and passengers of the Serenity come from different places in a complex world, and their motives and relationships reflect this. On a first viewing, they’re inevitably two-dimensional, inviting the watcher to see them as dramatic stereotypes. Fitting the description of Firefly as a “space Western,” they often seem like Western stereotypes: the cynical veteran, the glamorous dance-hall girl, the preacher, the naïve city dweller out of his depth. But over the course of the first (and only) season, viewers came to know their backstories, and to see their actions in more depth, in relation to their pasts as well as their presents.

Their society is an internally divided one. Unlike Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, it isn’t a unified organization with only external foes; unlike Star Wars, with the Empire facing the Rebel Alliance, it isn’t neatly divided into heroes and villains, who see each other only from a distance. Both sides are represented on board the Serenity: the Alliance by Inara Serra, Simon and River Tam, and probably Derrial Book, as part of his mysterious past; the Independents or “Browncoats” by Malcolm Reynolds, his loyal ally Zoe Washburne, and Kaylee Frye. The two main romantic tensions within this group, between Mal and Inara and between Kaylee and Simon, both cross over this split.

The situation can be read as part of the “space Western” aspect. Many of the classic Westerns took place in the years following the American Civil War, a struggle between the central authority of the Union and the rebellion of the Confederacy. The Independents could very well have adopted the motto of the American South, “All we ask is to be left alone.” It’s noteworthy, though, that Whedon has inverted one aspect of that struggle: His Alliance, after the war is over, maintains what amounts to slavery, with many people held legally in bondage (at one point Inara claims Mal as her “bondsman”), whereas the Browncoats appear to have defended independence for others as well as themselves. This allows Mal to be a sympathetic figure, and helped lead to the show’s fans calling themselves “Browncoats.”

But there’s more to it than that. The ‘Verse, the setting of Firefly, also reflects a quite different conflict, one within science fiction itself.

How do we envision the future? Much of science fiction is set in imagined futures. Of course the human imagination can produce all sorts of things, and science fictional futures are diverse. But are there common patterns?

One common pattern can be seen in the fiction of H.G. Wells. Wells is a deeply ambivalent writer at times, one whose work often is deeply pessimistic, as in the grim visions of humanity’s evolutionary future in The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds (where the vampiric Martians are described as the inevitable end state of intelligent life) or of the imperfectly humanized creatures of The Island of Dr. Moreau. But he also hints at a different future in novels such as The Sleeper Awakes and A Story of the Days to Come and in the final paragraphs of “The Star.” This Wellsian future is highly urbanized, with large, centralized populations sustained by advanced technology. At his most optimistic, Wells hoped to see this technology developed and controlled by scientific elites, such as the “samurai” of A Modern Utopia. Visually, this is a world of clean, well ventilated, brightly lit cities, usually with urban planning that ensures a consistent architectural style – in other words, it’s what James Scott (in Seeing like a State) calls “high modernism,” as exemplified by Le Corbusier.

Wells’s vision was picked up, after him, by Hugo Gernsback, who made it part of his vision of the future. Isaac Asimov portrayed several such urbanized futures—in the Earth of The Caves of Steel, for example, and in Trantor, the planet-spanning city of the Foundation stories; he also portrayed scientific elites, such as the Council of Science of his juvenile “Lucky Starr” series, the Eternals of The End of Eternity (though they were a deeply flawed elite), and the psychohistorians of the Second Foundation. Disney’s Tomorrowland started out offering a similarly shiny high-tech future, and the original Star Trek helped bring it to a mass audience: The Enterprise’s voyages might take it into all sorts of dark, dangerous places, but the ship itself, with its clean, brightly lit corridors, was like a Wellsian city of the future in miniature.

At the same time, a different image of the future was emerging. If space really was “the final frontier,” as Star Trek described it, its people could be envisioned as frontier dwellers—explorers and colonists struggling for survival and perhaps wealth in a rough, dangerous environment. E.E. Smith hinted at such a vision in his Lensman novels, with their portrayals of “meteor miners” and of a uranium mine on a remote planet (with two different heroes assuming the role of miners during undercover investigations); but it was Robert Heinlein, in his juveniles, and later Poul Anderson, who gave us a fuller vision of space travel as a continuation of the American westward movement. Their stories also reflected American ideas about constitutional government and free enterprise, in contrast to the more planned worlds that Wells and Asimov thought were inevitable.

What’s striking about Firefly is that its setting combines both visions of the future. Most of the episodes take place in “frontier” worlds, with relatively small populations leading hardscrabble lives and having little access to technology on a day-to-day basis. But elsewhere in the same interplanetary community are the wealthy, high-tech, shiny worlds of the Alliance. Alliance military ships travel the same regions of space as the Serenity and other beat-up small spaceships, imposing the authority of the central government. And the political and cultural elements of both futures are also present, perhaps best captured in the opening of the film Serenity, which shows a very young River Tam in a high-tech classroom questioning the rationale for Unification, the Alliance’s imposition of its control over the outer worlds.

Curiously, Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, is definitely progressive politically, and opposed to the libertarian or conservative ideas the “frontier” setting suggests; and it’s not uncommon for the show’s fans to share his political outlook. But Whedon made Malcolm Reynolds, a staunchly libertarian independent, the show’s hero, and the “Browncoat” fans of the show largely seem to identify with him. Firefly seems to offer, as J.R.R. Tolkien put it, not allegory, which imposes an interpretation on the viewer, but applicability, which sets views free to find their own understandings of it, and to like it even while disagreeing with aspects of it. And this is also the case for libertarian viewers, who can appreciate Whedon’s making such an eloquent case for values he doesn’t entirely share. (The Libertarian Futurist Society awarded Whedon a Special Award in 2006, for Serenity.)

As for the “science fictional” aspect of Firefly, here, too, its two colliding futures embody two different understandings of science itself. The Alliance reflects science as an organized body of knowledge, on whose basis rational plans can be made and order imposed on the world, in Scott’s “high modernist” style. This is science as the application of existing knowledge. But frontier settings, which the independent worlds represent, confront things that aren’t yet known or ordered, that have to be discovered, and thus reflect science as a process of discovery, one in which we don’t yet know what we’re doing. And at the deepest level, the revelations of Serenity show that the Alliance, in important ways, didn’t and doesn’t know what it’s doing, and needs to be open to discovery, and to the free communication of what has been discovered.

Prometheus winner ‘Ready Player One’ out soon as a movie

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, the 2012 Prometheus Award winner (in a tie, with Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze) is about to become much better known. A movie version, directed by Steven Spielberg, will be released March 30.

Not everyone has climbed on Ernest Cline’s bandwagon. “Second Opinion: Ready Player One is the Worst Thing Nerd Culture Ever Produced,” published last year and written by I. Coleman, tries its best to live up to the title. Sample paragraph:

Ready Player One is a 2011 novel that lifts its setting, premise, and most of its story beats from 1992’s Snow Crash, removes all of the self-awareness, badass action, and philosophical musings on the nature of the relationship between language and technology, replaces them with painfully awkward 80s references, and changes the main character from a samurai pizza deliveryman and freelance hacker to the asshole kid in your friend group who claimed he ‘didn’t need showers,’ vomited onto the page by Ernest Cline. Its bestseller success and Cline’s subsequent 7-figure sale of the screenplay to Steven Spielberg is as close as we can get to objective proof that the meritocracy isn’t working.”

More here.

I’ve noticed other folks on social media who are scornful of the book. Disclosure: I enjoyed reading it..

I wasn’t the only one. Reviewing the book for the Boing Boing website, Boing Boing founder Mark Frauenfelder wrote,

“It seems like every decade or so a science fiction novel comes along that sends a lightning bolt through my nervous system: Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971). William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003). And I recently discovered what my mind-blowing novel for the 2010s is: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.”

Just in case you couldn’t tell if he liked it, Frauenfelder later adds, that the book is  “a rollicking, surprise-laden, potboiling, thrilling adventure story that takes place both in the OASIS and the real world. It is loaded with geek-culture references from the 1980s that resonated strongly with me — but they are all integral to the story and never feel gratuitous. You don’t need to know about 1980s pop culture to appreciate the story. I loved every sentence of this book, and was a little sad when I reached the end and re-entered reality.”

— Tom Jackson

 

 

 

Article on Robert Heinlein now available online

Robert Heinlein signs autographs at the 1976 Worldcon. (Creative Commons photo).

The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, a project of the Cato Institute, has now been published online. 

As a result, the article on science fiction author Robert Heinlein by academic and LFS member Dr. Amy Sturgis, originally published in 2008, is now available to everyone.

Sturgis argues that The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is his chief work. “Heinlein here offered a loose retelling of the American Revolution, with the revolt against tyranny set on the moon. The ‘Loonies’ rebel against the iron control of the authorities on Earth and in the process learn the lesson that ‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’ or, as Heinlein states it in the novel, TANSTAAFL. Ultimately, the Loonies, like the colonials after whom they were modeled, achieve an independence of sorts, but not without great cost,” she writes.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress won a Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 1983, the first year the award was given.

— Tom Jackson

Victor Koman classic returns as an ebook

Victor Koman’s Kings of the High Frontier, winner of the 1997 Prometheus Award, has just been reissued as a reasonable priced Kindle ebook ($5.95.)

We weren’t the only folks who liked it; see the Amazon page for endorsements from the likes of Gregory Benford and Ray Bradbury.

Koman is a three time winner of the Prometheus Award; more information at his official site.