Sunday, August 31, 2008

Kim Stanley Robinson: A Short, Sharp Shock

Kim Stanley Robinson's A Short, Sharp Shock is a vague, meandering fantasy in which nothing interesting or consequential happens. Someone washes up on a shore and can't remember who he is or where he came from. A woman is also there in the surf, and when they are separated, he spends the rest of the book looking for her and then traveling with or passing time with her. The local terrain is an unending peninsula that apparently circles the world, providing an obvious opportunity for a trek. Thel (the name finally bestowed on the non-hero in the fourth chapter) wanders on his one-dimensional quest, encountering various bizarre groups with indecipherable goals and practices. Some of them chase him, some of them welcome him, some of them let him live peacefully with them. Thel doesn't spend any time trying to figure out who he was, or how he got here, or what his current situation means. Sometimes he's driven by events or pursuers on long sub-quests to find his companion again (who remains unnamed, and is merely "the swimmer" throughout the book). Other times, he spends long interludes in indolence or indulgence either with his swimmer or with someone else.

I've read other books in which nothing happens, but in the good ones someone learns or grows or at least strives. Sometimes the viewpoint character does none of these, but the reader is at least entertained because interesting things happen nearby, and the way these events affect or don't affect the protagonist is compelling. There was none of that in this book. Thel journeys, waits, searches, suffers, encounters, and debauches; all without learning, growing, or caring for anything beyond self-preservation and a drive to be with the person he first noticed next to him. This passage, near the end of the book seemed particularly apt. Thel has found a coin in the surf bearing a profile like the swimmer's.

"Were you ever the queen of an ancient kingdom?"

"Yes," she muttered sleepily. "And I still am."

But this, he supposed, was another of their misunderstandings. Thel had first noticed this phenomenon when he had seen a windhover, hunting over the meadows inland. "Look," he had said, "a kestrel." But the swimmer had thought him crazy for pointing into the sky, for that to her was the name of a kind of fish. And later he found that when he said loyalty she understood it to mean stubbornness, and when she said arbitrary she meant beautiful, and that when she said melancholy she did not mean that sadness we enjoy feeling, but rather mendacity; and when she said actually she meant currently; and when he said "I love you," she thought he was saying "I will leave you." They had slowly worked up quite a list of these false cognates, Thel could recite scores and scores of them, and he had come to understand that they did not share a language so much as the illusion of a language; they spoke strong idiolects, and lived in worlds of meaning distinct and isolated from the other. So that she no doubt understood queen of an ancient kingdom to mean something like a swimmer in the deep sea; and the mystery of the ancient alloy coin was never explained, and, he realized, never would be. It gave him a shiver of fear, thinking about it—it seemed to him that nothing would ever be explained , and that all of a sudden each day was slipping away, that time was flying by and they were getting old and nothing would ever come clear. He sat on the beach watching the clouds tumble overhead and letting handfuls of sand run through his fingers, the little clear grains of quartz flecks of black mica, pieces of coral, shell fragments like small bits of hard ceramic, and he saw that a substantial portion of the sand was made of shells, that living things had labored all their lives to create ceramic shelters, homes, the most permanent parts of themselves; which had then been pummeled into shards just big enough to see, millions upon millions of lives ground up and strewn under him, the beach made out of the wreckage of generations. And before long he and the swimmer too would become no more than sand on a beach; and they would never really have understood anything.

The idiosyncrasy of language between them hadn't been prominent to this point, and isn't raised again. If this is intended as the message of the book, it's a good thing Robinson spelled it out, because Thel and the swimmer don't spend their time searching for meaning or trying to build anything permanent; they don't even focus on enjoying their time together. They do appear isolated from one another when they're together, but not because they can't communicate so much as because they don't try. The passage seems a symptom of the lack of direction of the entire book.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Michael Resnick, New Dreams for Old

Mike Resnick's New Dreams for Old contains several very good stories. If you haven't been reading (or listening to) recent nominees for the Hugo awards, it's worth picking up. Out of 20 stories, half were nominated for or won a Hugo.

I'm a fan of Resnick, though I can't claim to be a completist. I have his name on my list of authors, so when I'm in a bookstore with time or money to spend, I make sure to look through his books and often find something interesting to read. I think he writes good adventure SF, but this collection also contains some interesting fantasy.

With short stories, the element of surprise seems more important than with longer works, so I'm hesitant to say much about these stories. There are a couple ("Robots Don't Cry", "Travels with My Cats") in which Resnick shows an ability to quickly make us care deeply about a character whether or not they're human. "The Chinese Sandman" is a wonderful evocation of the fairy tale genre, with an oriental flavor.

Some are serious investigations of serious issues; "Hothouse Flowers" and "Down Memory Lane" talk about how important quality of life is to those in their declining years. I think they make important points, even though I expect the state of medicine to improve sufficiently in the next couple of decades to make the issue obsolete.

Obligatory disclaimer: this book was provided to Prometheus, the LFS Newsletter, as a review copy. Since I'm a fan of Resnick, I jumped at the chance to read it. I'm glad I did, even though I was already familiar with the best stories in the collection.

Resnick's stories should resonate well with libertarians, even though there's nothing overtly political in them. "Guardian Angel" and "Keepsakes" take different views of dealing with criminals. In one case, the police aren't called in because the principals include ganglords, in the other, the police have to step gingerly because the "criminals" involved don't seem to have broken any laws. In both cases justice is served, though in one case justice isn't very satisfying. Resnick also has a healthy respect for self-sufficiency, and many of his characters could have come from the pages of a Heinlein story.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lessig's Change Congress proposal

Larry Lessig has an article in Metro, a Silicon Valley entertainment weekly. In it Lessig talks about his new campaign to reform national politics. Lessig does a good job of laying out and describing a problem that is worth solving. He ends by providing a vague idea of what he intends to do about it, but doesn't seem to notice that the solution only addresses the surface characteristics of the problem, and won't change the underlying incentives that make the problem so pernicious. His solution might make the problem more visible, but unless they provoke a separate, more fundamental change, it will leave politics as the same mess it currently is.

The problem that has attracted Lessig's attention is the pernicious affect of money on politicians. He has laid out the problem in illuminating detail. The problem isn't just explicit graft and corruption; the unrelenting need to raise money affects even those who manage to keep their values unaffected by the source of the funds that get them elected. Those who provide the money set the terms of the debate and determine which questions will be addressed. Even ideal politicians (if any exist) who retain their values and vote their conscience have to choose among policy prescriptions provided according to the current focus of attention.

As the theory of regulatory capture shows, the decision to regulate an industry is valuable to the companies currently in that industry, regardless of what form the regulation takes initially. Eventually, the industry will leverage its greater interest in the outcomes and its monopoly on experts in the field to ensure that the effective regulations change to its advantage. Once the question of regulation is in the air, people with an interest will weigh in in various ways, including campaign contributions, and eventually there will be a plausible case that congress should discuss what regulations are best. At that point the deck is stacked.

Lessig even provides an example showing that congressfolk completely understand the implications of this. When Al Gore was working on the National Information Infrastructure, one of his proposals was to deregulate the nascent Internet. When Gore's team presented the idea to people in Congress,

the reception was not favorable. "'Hell no,' we were told." The concern? Translated: "How are we going to raise money from those guys if we deregulate them?"

This is, roughly speaking, extortion. And if so, then the Communications Act is a kind of extortion-enabling regulation: regulation whose reach was explained, in part at least, by the opportunity such regulation would give regulators to raise money.

And if so, then how much other regulation is extortion-enabling in just this sense? How many other examples are there of government reaching beyond what it needs to regulate effectively, merely to assure (sic) that members can raise campaign funds more effectively?

So to combat this problem, what does Lessig propose? He's going to use Web 2.0-style media and networking tools to shine a light on congress. They'll connect votes to contributions and show the public what is going on. But given the discussion that has gone before, the only affect of this will be to drive out any explicit graft, and encourage the legislators to take fewer positions that seem affected by donations.

But that won't solve the problem. The problem is that congress can regulate, and does so when constituents demand it. The form of the regulation and its affects on society are extremely hard to see ahead of time, but we can predict that most of the time, the industry will be more in control afterward. And we can be sure that Congress will extract a rent during and after the process, and that the regulation will be structured so that Congress at least has the ability to intervene so there's a reason for affected businesses to keep paying them contributing. Even if we can see the connections between the contributions and the resulting legislation, the contributors will still be able to defend giving money to influential legislators, and legislators will be able to say the effects are all open and visible. There doesn't have to be quid pro quo in order for the influence to be beneficial to both sides.

Giving voters access to better statistics about the situation will make it clearer that interested parties contribute to powerful legislators, but there are legal and respectable ways to do this, and there always will be.

Am I missing something? Does Lessig hope to create an outcry that will change the fundamental incentives? Is there something other than pious hope behind the drive to remove money from politics?

I think the fundamental problem is that congress is allowed and expected to legislate on all subjects. We want citizens (who are also owners of businesses and members of public-interest groups) to be able to speak about their goals and priorities. Being able to spend money expressing support for policies and politicians is an essential way of participating in the debate. Since the laws that come out of congress affect people's goals, people who favor and oppose various outcomes will attempt to influence the decisions that are made.

Money isn't the problem, it's merely one of the more apparent forms of evidence about where influence is flowing. Money and influence aren't going to stop flowing. Maybe Lessig's affect here will just be in making the flow of influence more apparent. I certainly can't foresee any way that he can stop them from flowing.