Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Zendegi, Greg Egan

Greg Egan's Zendegi is another novel nominated for this year's Prometheus Award that features social media being used by an underground movement to topple a government. But this is Greg Egan, so there must be something about silicon consciousness or artificial life involved, right? Well, yes there is, but the political plot works out to be more interesting this time around. Egan's focal characters are Martin Seymour, an ex-pat American journalist living in Iran and Nasim Golestani, an Iranian scientist who worked in the US but has now returned. At the beginning of the story Golestani is working on the Human Connectome project, which gives her a background in mapping the brain to software. Seymour gets involved when cell-phone pictures help topple the Iranian religious dictatorship.

In the second half of the novel, Golestani works on improving the AI for a virtual reality game company that is struggling to keep up with its competition, while Seymour runs a bookstore in Tehran. Golestani starts incorporating data and software from the Connectome project into the NPCs, which raises the ire of fundamentalists. Seymour, meanwhile, has contracted a fatal disease, and wants to find a way to ensure that someone he trusts will continue to provide guidance to his son, and hits on the idea of getting Golestani to build an artificial mind for him.

Egan's depiction in Diaspora of the development of consciousness in artificial minds was ground-breaking, but nothing of similar scope happens here. There are many scenes in virtual reality, but the story-telling emphasis is on Seymour's attention to influencing his son's maturation. The descriptions of the development of the artificial consciousnesses focused on brain mapping rather than awareness. In the end, the characters decide that the simulacrum of Seymour isn't up to the task of mentoring his son, which renders many of the interesting conflicts and questions moot. The protesters against enslaving artificial being can be pacified with a promise to keep them below the level of a simple automaton, and Golestani doesn't have to grapple with her own moral sensibilities about just how conscious they might become. It feels like Egan really side-stepped the issue here. And his solution doesn't do anything to prevent other developers from taking the same step later.

It's especially bad because Egan has previously made it clear that understands these issues. His Diasporah, and Permutation City directly address issues related to artificial consciousness. In the latter work, his characters explore a large variety of different scenarios of partial experience, and directly discuss the issues concerning how real they are as persons, and what rights a partially aware entity should have.

While the story is well-written, topical, and engaging, the liberty-related themes are sparse and limited. The populace revolts against a corrupt dictatorship, but that's more celebration than presentation of issues. Artificial creatures are developed, but never get advanced enough for their rights to be a serious question. It's neither a strong contender for this year's Prometheus, nor as much as I would have expected from Egan.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Directive 51, John Barnes

John Barnes's Directive 51 is a fast-paced action story that covers a dystopian apocalypse and the struggle over presidential succession in a suddenly low-tech society which suffered huge losses. It's hard to call it libertarian, since the focus is on how the government will help people pull the country together again, but it does realistically show that the struggle for power trumps many other considerations, even when most of the survivors are fighting just to find food and shelter in an emergency.

The situation is that "Daybreak", a leaderless underground movement, has piggybacked on the Internet (there's a lot of that going around in SF this year, isn't there?) to put together a coordinated attack plan to destroy modern civilization. The participants all have different reasons and different objectives, but they agree that "the system" is broken, and we'd all be better off without it. Most of them haven't thought any deeper than that, and don't realize just how much they'd lose. Some of the movement's participants have invented bacteria that eat plastic and "nanoswarm" that gunks up powered machinery. Others have devised plans to ensure that these destructive agents are spread far and wide (worldwide, though the story's focus is on the US) on the appointed day. All this, of course results in the collapse of civilization, 100s of millions of deaths, and nearly everyone else being reduced to fleeing refugees trying to get out of the major metropolitan areas.

All of that serves as background to the story that Barnes really wants to tell. Directive 51 is (truthfully) the latest in a sequence of Presidential Directives laying out the process for maintaining constitutional government in the aftermath of a calamity that removes the bulk of the leadership of the federal government. In this depiction, the consequences are a deadly struggle for power that seems to supersede the attention that should be paid just to getting people back on their feet.

In order to justify one faction's claims that the nation is still under attack, the book has to enable Daybreak to conduct a continuing series of hydrogen bomb attacks after the devastation has occurred. This is both out-of-character with the rest of Daybreak, and hard to believe technically. Nearly everything else has broken down, but the bombs keep falling.

The book has been nominated for the Prometheus Award, and while it's an exciting story, and well-told, and it shows how power can corrupt even in a paramount emergency, I was disappointed that the focus of discussion of the recovery was largely on the government's efforts. It's clear that behind the scenes, individuals are doing most of the work independent of the government, but we're mostly watching federal efforts to ensure that the government continues to function. You might find that outweighed by the fact that people, acting on their own are the primary source of recovered food, the primary hope for growing more, as well as the drivers of a multitude of new inventions that provide some technologies that can continue to function in the face of the proliferating nanoswarm.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

For the Win, Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow's For the Win is very much of the moment, covering an Internet-driven global uprising. In Doctorow's case, though it's a union organizing outbreak among Internet workers (gold farmers, mechanical turks, etc.). Not surprisingly, real-world union busting tactics are used to fight back. Doctorow, as usual, has a firm grasp on the zeitgeist, and has written another story just a few months into his own future. Published last year, it must have been written even earlier. The introduction on his webbed version of the story (linked above) talks up the relevance to the recent financial crisis.

There are a couple of fascinating ideas on display in the book: the parallels to current events in the Middle East of course, the discussions of on-line role-playing games and their various denizens, and the story itself and the characters and events that drive it.

The action centers around the Far East: mostly China and Viet Nam, though Cambodia, Indonesia, and India show up, too. Several groups of gold farmers are the focal characters. They're each controlled and abused by a relatively wealthy investor, who underwrites their access to the net, and resells the gold and treasures they earn on-line. In exchange, they're paid enough to keep them alive, and they get to play games all day. Rather than mindlessly wandering the games or doing the obvious quests, their modus operandi is to play the games and look for exploitable weaknesses—monsters that are easy to kill relative to the treasure they give, places that are unusually likely to spawn a good treasure, or actual bugs in the implementation that let players turn straw into gold with less than the usual effort. Since what they do is fun and exciting, and a lot like playing games, there are always plenty more players available, so individuals don't have a lot of leverage with their employers. In this kind of circumstance, it's not surprising that the situation occasionally turns more explicitly abusive, and that's the context that leads some of the characters to approach union organizers. Once they're gotten in contact, the support goes both ways: the on-line workers provide communication and publicity to traditional union workers, and the organizers provide manpower and experience in dealing with violent tactics.

The book was nominated for the Prometheus Award, but it's hard to identify explicitly libertarian aspects of the story. Most of the conflict is between (abusive) owners and workers, with governments not getting very involved. I found the context intriguing, and Doctorow tells a great story, but the closest I can get to a libertarian angle is to try to describe it as a struggle against authority—but it's only a struggle against power, which isn't quite the same thing.

For the Win is a fun read. Doctorow excels at depicting action crossing back and forth between virtual worlds and the real world, and at giving a feel for a future that's only a little advanced over our own. There's a fair amount of violence in this story, even though Doctorow presents it as a young adult novel. In the anti-union violence there's a fair amount of head-bashing, though eventually it's countered with ghandian non-violence. Definitely worth the read.