Thursday, July 06, 2017

Redemption Ark, by Alastair Reynolds

Alistair Reynolds's Redemption Ark is a great yarn, with action spaning a long time scale and many star systems. It takes quite a while to figure out that the Inhibitors have the same goals as Saberhagen's Berserkers—they want to eradicate intelligent life (though there's some hint that they're doing it to stave off a more thorough cleansing by unknown agencies). Unlike the Berserkers, these killers wait quietly while monitoring commerce between the stars so that when they strike, they'll be able to wipe out all traces of the civilizations they notice. And they don't attack with space ships and robotic warriors; they build megastructures to destroy entire star systems. The humans who figure out their objectives have to make even longer range plans in order to counter them.

And the main characters here are willing and able to think that far ahead, and set up long term goals. A few of them have the longevity to pursue this kind of plan, and still interact with shorter-lived people on a human level. The factions include a borg-like collective, though they seem to follow plausible physics, and members don't participate in the group mind when they're not on the same planet. They do have faster than light travel, though there are reasons it's rarely used. They still have a civilization that spans multiple star systems, so they have the ability to hibernate while on long journeys. Given time dilation at near light and other effects, they're used to (at a societal level) dealing with people who remember the distand past at first hand, and have institutions that allow people to carry out long term plans when the principals might be away for extended periods.

One of the things that has cut down the prevalence of interstellar travel is the presence of plague, a nano-scale infection that they seem unable to stop except by physical isolation. The story starts with the return of the ship captained by a revered long-lost ancestor which seems to have been infected or attacked by a new kind of agent. After this, we follow a couple of different story lines among the borg, on a colony world in political turmoil, and following a local transport rocket pilot around a densely inhabited system. Characters and events influence one another in various ways across the different story lines.

We gradually learn that an inner cabal within the closed leadership group inside a faction of the borg knows about some super weapons created in the distant past that might be useful in fighting the Inhibitors. The Inhibitors have recently become more active, and a few factions figure out that someone needs to act. The struggle to find and control the super weapons drives much of the conflict in one story line. Other groups pursue other schemes in the converging story lines, to keep things dramatic and interesting.

Anyway, the struggles between long-lived and widely traveling post humans and ordinary people living out their lives on planets in distant solar systems are fascinating to watch, and quite plausible. The further they are from an ordinary lifespan, the more alien their motivations and goals, but most of them seem to be trying to work towards a greater good as they understand it. Even the few with truly alien viewpoints know how to work with others to achieve mutual goals.

I've read a few of Reynolds ' books at this point, and I enjoy the broad scope, the immense vision, and the finely detailed characters. The stories are suspenseful, and even when they leave a hook for a follow-up story, the endings are satisfying.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott

I found a lot to like in James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State. It presents a way of thinking about the consequences of governments' interventions that makes a large category of unintended side effects appear coherent. Once you see this consistency, you can make predictions about other interventions and the ways they will turn out without needing to ascribe motivation to the planners behind them. In order to achieve their goals, bureaucrats and autocrats have to make the population they intend to help more surveyable, visible, and regular. That very act, independent of how much the rest of the change might be done with the best interests of the people in mind, reduces the relevance of the local knowledge and expertise that they have built up over time, making them more dependent on government, and less able to fill in the gaps in the ways that lead to smoothly functioning societies.

Scott describes several grand schemes, mostly done to help various populations, though often in ignorance of the ways of the people living in the affected area. He discusses state-sponsored forestry, Corbusier's city planning, government-sponsored (and private) experiments in industrial agriculture, China's Great Leap Forward, resettlements in Tanzania, as well as touching on other examples. In each case he shows how the (necessarily) high level plans of of the top officials were translated into concrete details for the convenience of those implementing the plan, in ignorance of the deleterious consequences for the affected villagers. The end result in each case conformed to the planners' specifications, but left an unlivable environment in which the inhabitants were more dependent on the government, and often much poorer than they started out.

Whether the results of all these grand schemes ended up being helpful is questionable, and is certainly independent of what the original intent was, or how much effort was spent during the planning stage in considering ways to make the outcome closer to what the subjects would have asked for. Since plans and maps are necessarily abstractions from reality, and since the plans must be carried out by intermediaries whose interests are distinct from both the rulers and the people being 'helped', those doing the work will have to have to fill in details about how to get the work done. This will often be done in ignorance of the intent, and more usually without concern for the extended well-being of the future of the community.

As with Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities, the point isn't to move towards a conclusion on how to do a better job of redesigning a society, so much as of having skepticism that it's possible to achieve humane objectives by trying. In most cases, hubris would lead to addressing problems by allowing people to adjust things in an incremental manner. Otherwise we risk replacing things that seems suboptimal to an outsider with situations that are truly dismal for those left behind. While discussing Soviet collective farms, Scott talks about some attempts by American industrial agricultural firms to do something similar in the midwest. Their grand plans for integrated industrial farms didn't succeed any better, but the difference was that when the outcome became clear, the companies involved backed off and the land reverted to more local, context-sensitive control.