Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Prisoner, Carlos J. Cortes

Carlos J. Cortes's The Prisoner has a very dark mood (partly because a lot of it takes places in sewers and other underground places) but has a freedom-oriented atmosphere. The government has exploited the development of a technology that allows suspended animation to convert prisons to cost-effective body warehouses. Some of the highest officials in the prison bureaucracy have taken advantage of the system to get rid of enemies, or to make money hiding people for the world's crime syndicates.

Someone with inside information and an axe to grind with Odelle Marino, the chief bureaucrat, puts together a team and a plan to spirit out one particular prisoner with the best chance of embarassing Ms. Marino. The plan would be appropriate for a Mission Impossible script, and the sewers that the team escapes through would make great cinema. The novel describes the stench and the slime, while a movie would have to leave the odors to our imagination. This would be an improvement, as the book revels in the ick factor. It also portrays the bad guys (particularly Marino) as caricatures, but since they're not the center of the story, this isn't a huge problem.

The good guys come from all levels of society, from a powerful Senator (willing to abuse his power for the right ends) to homeless vets living in abandoned subway tunnels. They know why they fight against the entrenched bureaucracy, but the novel focuses more on the action and intrigue than on the politics. The climax has a bit too much deus ex machina for my tastes--it wouldn't have been too hard to convincingly portray a General who takes the side of the schemers as anti-establishment, or chafing at some of the abuses, but his motivation remains unstated.

The main weakness of the story, from a libertarian viewpoint, is that the characters are only concerned with obvious abuses of power, and not with the inherent abuse that come with vast centralized power. The government in this future has enormous power over network communication, travel, and employment, and the protagonists spend their time trying to reduce corruption and abuses of that power, without more than annoyance directed at the impositions it provides.

Overall, I'd say this was an fun near future adventure story with a weak message against abusive government. The Prisoner was nominated for the Prometheus award, but wasn't selected as a finalist.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Create Your Own Economy, Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen's Create Your Own Economy argues that Asperger's syndrome and Autism are more common than most people realize, and that part of the reason is that people like Cowen gain more advantages than disadvantages from their condition. The overall point of the book is that we should treat neuro-diversity as an asset, both to society, and (for the neuro-diverse) to themselves.

The advantages that come with aspergers are a greater ability to focus, and to creatively find order in data, while the concomitant weakness is a lower ability to see the big picture. The condition is sometimes referred to as the autism spectrum, because there is such a variety of symptoms, but Cowen points out that both the strengths and weaknesses have a large and largely independent range. One of his repeated refrains is that finding ways to see the strengths has two beneficial effects--it both enables us to take better advantage of our personality quirks once we recognize them, and it encourages others to find the strengths hidden within the ways they see the world and develop them. So overall society benefits from people who think of themselves as differently-enabled rather than differently-disabled, and find ways to contribute and earn, rather than ways to get support and assistance from others.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Makers, Cory Doctorow

I really enjoyed Cory Doctorow's Makers, which is a Prometheus award finalist for this year even though it doesn't reach very far into the science fiction realm. I think many of the other judges, not living in Silicon Valley, don't see the same kind of ongoing inventiveness as I do, and don't see makers as an unrelenting force in the world.

The story follows the activities of a pair of makers (the modern, more popular term for the good kind of hacker), who invent a continuing stream of disruptive technologies, start a couple of movements which grow and crash serially casting fame and angst in all directions though wealth is sparser. The characters are prototypical hackers, with varying social skills, but always with the ability to adapt to new circumstances. From time to time, they each need to take on more managerial or other non-technical roles, which they sometimes do well, and other times pass on to others more suited for the role, and are always pining to get back to being creative.

The characters were completely plausible, and their inventions were eminently reasonable. Many people might blanch at their universal constructors, but everything they build is macro-scale, no nanotech required. Their diet interventions were more fantastic, allowing people to eat unlimited quantities, while burning all the calories wastefully, and therefore losing weight. The drawbacks and work-arounds were also plausible.

The fun part of it is that you get to see hackers spinning out new ideas, and new businesses growing up in all directions. The two primary characters are followed around by a reporter who decides they're the most interesting thing going on, and blogs their activities non-stop. While this means they have few secrets, it's also a source of unending publicity for them. Many of their inventions help other people move up from the bottom rung of the economic ladder, and keep lawyers and business managers continuously busy.

The battles over ownership and control of the technology were priceless, as well as the corporate intrigue and underhanded shenanigans to keep them from destroying other company's (mostly Disney, a perennial bad guy in Doctorow's stories) plans.

As a Prometheus nominee, there must be a libertarian connection, right? Well, open source production, entrepreneurial drive, and undercutting the normal order of things will have to suffice, since the characters pretty much ignore the government except when someone is suing someone else.

BTW, Locus Magazine had a great April Fools announcement that Ayn Rand's estate had picked Doctorow and Charlie Stross (both Prometheus winners, as Locus pointed out) to write a sequel to Atlas Shrugged. Meanwhile, Stross' own site announced that due to the sorry state of the SFF market, he'd be coming out with a line of sparkly unicorn-themed novels aimed at the teen market.