Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain

Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was a joyous discovery for me. I have long been aware of the story, but didn't have any expectations about it beyond what's obvious from the title. When I started reading it, I discovered that Twain used a simple scenario to explore problems of government and to illustrate freedom's benefits over coercion. Twain's penchant for stories celebrating individual endeavor drives this story.

The Connecticut Yankee is Hank Morgan, a blacksmith and horse doctor, who gets knocked out in a fight and awakens in King Arthur's England. Morgan quickly realizes that with his "modern" knowledge, he can do things the people around him won't understand, and he can use this to gain power that he can use to accelerate progress and bring about an early renaissance. Morgan's concerns are education, sanitation, and preparing the people for democracy. It doesn't take him long to figure out that they aren't ready, but he maintains his confidence that it's only a matter of time and education. He is convinced that once they come to see that the nobles are people, too that they'll be willing and able to govern themselves. In the end, he decides that it isn't the people who are the obstacle, but the hereditary aristocracy who can't learn that they aren't different. I suspect Twain was insinuating that the government of his day was composed of people who thought they were naturally suited to manage other people's lives.

Morgan starts out by gaining King Arthur's trust by recognizing the date of his scheduled execution at the court of King Arthur as the day of a lunar eclipse, and pretending to be a mighty wizard (in competition with Merlin) who can control the Sun. Once he has access to Arthur, he uses his understanding of modern science and manufacturing techniques to develop tools and processes that give him real powers to do things none around him know how to do. He then sets about reforming the country by vanquishing individual knights and setting them to tasks like promoting the use of soap that will completely remake society.

Along the way Morgan has to battle superstition, lack of critical thinking, learned helplessness, and many other obstacles. He builds a corps of youngsters who attend his secret schools and man his secret factories to turn out a long list of products that will improve people's lives.

The story is by modern standards closer to fantasy than science fiction, but Twain clearly intended to make the technology development plausible. There are times when his hero takes shortcuts that modern understanding makes obvious, but were probably less clear in Twain's time. For instance, Morgan's first miracle after calling the eclipse is to blow up Merlin's tower, for which he needs dynamite and wire. Twain assumes that making some wire could be done in a couple of weeks starting from scratch, but it without the infrastructure of a manufacturing economy even something so simple would be a lot more work.

I found this a remarkably enjoyable read, and was surprised that Twain covered so much territory. If you can get past the dated prose and Twain's conceit that a single person could manage such a vast enterprise with help only from people who have no concept of the idea of individual initiative, you'll probably enjoy it, too.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ready Player One: Ernest Cline

Ernest Cline's Ready Player One takes place mostly inside a virtual reality/MMORPG, though as usual with the recent spate of books in this genre, the action bleeds back and forth with physical reality. The setting is pretty familiar: it's 2044, and the economy has bifurcated into haves and have-nots, and most people seem to spend the bulk of their time in the OASIS. James Halliday, the billionaire founder of the company that runs the OASIS has died, and has set up a contest inside the system that will determine who gets his company shares, his wealth, and control of the OASIS itself. It turns out Halliday was hugely into eighties trivia, and most of the story involves the main character, Parzival, and his on-line friends finding and devouring movie, music, video game, and science fiction trivia from that decade. If you're not averse to geeking out on this stuff, it's a fun romp.

Parzival is the first to find the Copper key, the first step on the quest that Halliday built. Others soon figure out how to backtrack on Parzival's location which gives them the clues they need to follow on his trail. This starts a race to complete the quest and beat Innovative Online Industries, a company that wants to win the contest in order to exploit OASIS's business possibilities. The action is fast-paced, the settings are widely varied, and I enjoyed the references to familiar games, movies, and bands. The character development is fairly shallow, with Parzival maintaining a close friendship with one fellow gamer and a crush on a female-named character that lasts throughout the story. He's convinced he knows that it's someone he could love in real life, and never takes seriously the idea that people can have very different personalities and appearance than their avatars.

Ready Player One is a finalist for this year's Prometheus Award, but I don't think it's a very strong contender. The major element of libertarianism is that the central struggle is over whether the game's virtual world will be under the control of the main character and his friends or the bad guys. If you think the OASIS will be all the reality that matters to most of its denizens, you might want to cast that as a struggle over governance. But the choice isn't between any kind of freedom and some kind of authoritarianism, it's between a faction that has one particular corporatist view of how things should be run, and another that has no explicit goals other than keeping the VR out of their control. No mechanism is suggested for preventing the games' owner from doing whatever he wants. Maybe that's a libertarian outcome, in that it's private property, but that's not what the story's struggle is about.

The science fiction element in this story, like a lot of this genre, is thin. The particular capabilities of the VR software are beyond what we can do today, but not very far. The economy and society depicted outside the OASIS aren't a straight-line extrapolation from today, but they bear a strong resemblance to what some mild pessimists seem to expect. It fits the criterion mostly by being the kind of story that members of the LFS would be likely to read and appreciate.

If you like that kind of thing, it's fairly well done, and worth the read.