Monday, January 26, 2009

Cory Doctorow: Little Brother

Cory Doctorow's Little Brother is a fun, modern, flashy, but stark warning in the vein of Lewis' classic It Can't Happen Here. Like MacLeod's The Execution Channel from last year, it takes place in the current anti-terror climate, but Doctorow focuses more on the consequences and costs of the resulting repression and shows how we (or at least those with a connection to technology and time on their hands, meaning smart high school kids) might fight back.

Doctorow even has an afterword from Bruce Schneier and a bibliography to underline the fact that technologies for privacy are available and urging people to do more to prepare for the resistance now. Since I can attest that all the technology in the book is either available or easily developed, the book has to be placed in the future history category to qualify as science fiction. It has been nominated for this year's Prometheus and I'd have to say it's the best candidate I've read so far.

The story is told from the point of view of a small group of teenagers in San Francisco who are imprisoned by DHS in a general sweep after a terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge and BART tunnel. Once they are released, they (principally Marcus Yallow, a hacker and LARP player) work to undermine the terrorist state and build tools that their friends can use to communicate privately and organize out of the government's sight. There are enough details about what tools they build and what systems they compromise to serve as an outline for budding hackers who aren't sure how to fight back. These details occasionally intrude into the story in the form of Marcus explaining things to his audience, but I think readers for whom they aren't obvious will take it as necessary background.

The story also shows clearly how torture can come about, and without taking their viewpoint makes the actions and motivations of the guards and torturers believable. Marcus and his friends react to their harsh imprisonment in a variety of ways, just as the people on the outside react to the increasing repression differently. It's not surprising that kids in school (who are used to hiding some of their activities from their parents and teachers) adapt readily to using surreptitious means to hide from DHS as well.

The story doesn't have a young-adult feel; even though the protagonists are mainly teenagers, the story is told with an adult sensibility. Being youngsters, Doctorow has plenty of opportunity to show them growing intellectually and emotionally. The characters are well filled out, and have appropriate conflicts that drive the story. The story is exciting and well motivated. Marcus starts working with a journalist early enough in the story that her role in the denouement isn't a surprise. And compared to the Queen's similar role in Walton's Half a Crown, it seems completely plausible.

I really enjoyed this book. It had some of the flavor of Vinge's Fast Times at Fairmont High, without being as far ahead of the curve, and gave an exciting depiction of the fight against an enveloping tyranny (harking back to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) along with a concrete vision of how and why we'd fight back set in an all-too-plausible near future.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Jo Walton: Half a Crown

Jo Walton's Half a Crown completes her "Small Change" series with a distinctly different ending. The second novel in the trilogy, Ha'Penny, was a co-winner of last year's Prometheus Award.

Small Change is an alternate history in which Britain made peace with Hitler and itself moved toward fascism. The story follows Peter Carmichael, a police inspector in the first novel, now head of Britain's Secret Police, The Watch. Carmichael is gay, and this fact is being used by his superiors to keep him in line. But they don't seem to know that Carmichael has been secretly operating an underground railroad from inside The Watch. In Half a Crown, Carmichael additionally struggles to deal with the troubles of his protege Elvira Royston, a debutante planning for her presentation to the Queen. Elvira accompanies a friend to a political rally to watch the parades, and is rounded up along with the provocateurs after a riot erupts. The government decides to make an example of the provocateurs and Carmichael has to scramble to extract Elvira from the mess at great cost to himself and his friends.

The books provide a clear depiction of innocent well-meaning people getting caught up in a totalitarian struggle, and having to choose which of the things they value they will work to preserve and at what cost to their other values and to the rest of society. The first two books had downbeat endings, as Carmichael and others gave in on major issues that allowed the totalitarian government to take power in order to preserve a small amount of personal autonomy. This third book has the same feeling most of the way, but in the end Elvira finds a way to turn the tables and expose the machinations that led to the government takeover. I don't know if Britain's government really would work the way Walton portrays it, but as an American, it felt like deus ex machina.

The characterization is interesting. We've come to know Carmichael from the previous books, and his motivations (protecting both his lover Jack and Elvira, furthering the secret projects that allow some people to escape) are clear and well established. Elvira is a newcomer to the story, and Walton demonstrates her thinking and motivations clearly in alternating chapters that Elvira tells in the first person. The others, which mostly follow Carmichael, are given in third person, which allows Walton to follow other characters when necessary.

Half a Crown has been nominated for this year's Prometheus, and it's a strong candidate. The application to libertarianism is clear, but I think there are other books which will do better. Cory Doctorow's Little Brother seems a more powerful cautionary tale along the lines of It Can't Happen Here, though I'm not quite finished with it yet. The book is well written, and my only complaint is that the happy ending seemed forced. I don't think dystopias have to end in a downbeat to be effective, but the total collapse of Britain's fascist government seemed to run against a lot of previous description showing how that the government had co-opted most of the country's leaders and that the institutionalized prejudices were in harmony with those of the populace who were learning to get along with the other consequences of institutionalized repression. The quick turnaround in response to a single speech was a surprise. This is, after all, still an alternate history in which the Germans and the Japanese have taken over two thirds of the globe. Britain will have to figure out how to co-exist with an external world dominated by fascism.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Diane Coyle, The Soulful Science

Diane Coyle's goal in writing The Soulful Science was to explain why economics is relevant and to convince readers that the bad rap that economics seems to carry is undeserved. She argues that modern economics studies important topics like the causes of growth and of happiness, and thereby provides important clues as to how we can relieve poverty and increase personal well-being. I think the book is a good introduction to the economic way of thinking that might draw a more humanistic audience into the field.

Coyle's approach is non-technical and engaging. The book has only a few graphs and charts, and I don't remember seeing any equations. Coyle tells the story of the people who made the advances that interest her and what their results imply about how we should organize society, what society can and cannot accomplish, and how these advances in knowledge affect our lives.

The first two-thirds of the book contains most of the meat. Part one talks about what economists have learned over the last several decades about what makes economies grow, and by implication, what we can do to reduce poverty where growth is still sparse. She starts out this section with a chapter extolling the virtues of the economic historians who have dug into obscure archives and surprising sources to collect detailed data about how people lived before record keeping was as persistent and consistent as it has become. This work required a fair bit of inference and a lot of perseverance, but in the end, we have a good view of how well people got on in different times and places. This data can tell us a lot about how quickly growth occurred in different circumstances. From this we can deduce a fair bit about when and where progress flowered, which shows some facts that seem to nearly always be true beforehand. (Protection of property rights, respect for education) But the inconsistencies; other societies that seem to have all the prerequisites, but don't enjoy the growth that occurred elsewhere show that it's an incomplete model.

In her chapter on alleviating poverty, Coyle admits that we don't have a formula that works reliably, but argues that we have identified some policies that are worth encouraging and we have learned about some approaches that don't work. If developmental economists and leaders of underdeveloped countries pay attention to these lessons they'll be able to lay some groundwork that will put them in a better position to take action as we continue to learn more. It'll also stop people from hoping for quick results from ideas that we now know don't work (natural resource discovery and exploitation seldom leads to improved living conditions for the populace.)

The second part of the book focuses on people, usually the province of microeconomics. But Coyle focuses instead on recent advance in personal happiness and work on rationality and biases. She does a thorough job of presenting an overview of the implications of recent research for how to live your life, and on what interventions actually make people happier. She also talks about how people behave in markets, and what the economists have figured out about our behavior based on theory and experiment. Theory has filled in the consequences of asymmetrical information: how it affects negotiations and outcomes, and how people gain an advantage in business or politics by controlling access to information. Experimental economics has taught us a lot both about how people actually act in market environments as well as what kinds of institutions and frameworks make markets more effective at allocating goods and how to reduce undesired outcomes like pollution.

The final section addresses larger topics that have been attracting economists' attention recently: how evolutionary and chaos theory can be used to enhance classical economics' approach to the emergence of behavior from collections of interacting agents, and public choice theory's observations about how incentives on bureaucrats as individuals reduce the effectiveness of government as a tool for effecting change. This section is interesting, but doesn't get into a lot of detail.

Overall, The Soulful Science is a well-written non-technical introduction to the most interesting fields in modern economics. Coyle is an insider and quite familiar with the personalities in the field and she presents recent findings well while giving a sense of how economists work together to develop and explore these ideas.