Friday, January 17, 2020

Stealing Worlds, by Karl Schroeder

Karl Schroeder's Stealing Worlds imagines a near future where enhanced reality, alternate realities, and virtual world overlays compete with the conventional economy to provide alternate sources of employment and entertainment for anyone who wants it. Blockchain-based crypto-currencies make it simple for people to evade the strictures governments impose on real-world commerce. That, in turn, makes it possible for people looking for the distraction of having an adventure in fairyland, or Transylvania, or fight club world to pay others to make real-world resources available or act as NPCs or design huge virtual arenas in which to play.

Most of the action takes place in the US and Canada, but the action is presented as if it's a world-wide phenomena that spans the globe and undermines third-world dictatorships as much as it does the nanny state. There's enough crossing back-and-forth to show both how people are given an incentive to provide support services, and how interested parties would work to direct the attention and efforts of others to support their schemes.

For most of the story, the coordination is depicted as growing spontaneously out of the intertwined needs and abilities of the participants and those who work behind the scenes. If you already understand the way the invisible hand can lead people to solve problems for others without meeting them or getting explicit direction from them, it all makes perfect sense. Toward the end of the book, this story goes off the rails somewhat as agents are appointed for other interested constituencies like local wildlife or watersheds, or the carrying capacity of the atmosphere. Somehow these agents are able to know what limits need to be imposed in order to keep the environment healthy. Luckily for the story, they work more in the vein of directing development to the right areas rather than shutting down violating activities, but there's a little too much "Gaia Hypothesis" and distributed central planning for my taste.

There have been quite a few overlapping alternate reality stories recently, but Schroeder does a comparatively thorough job of showing how a parallel economy could work. This happens because the characters here play on both sides of the line, and have reasons (they're being pursued) to want to understand who's chasing them and how observable they are.

And then there's the story and the characters. This was a fun tale, with interesting people. The viewpoint character, Sura Neelin, is running to escape bounty hunters working for people who think her father gave her the McGuffin. This provides a reason to make use of the parallel economy's ability to move people around in the shadows and a reason to trade with shady characters who know other ways to hide without going into isolation. She works in several overlapping augmented realities as an NPC, and sometimes in the guise of her increasingly prominent primary character when she wants to affect the story line of one of the live action games that have become ubiquitous. She makes friends and learns to rely on them, and to be dependable when they need help. The plot provides plenty of opportunities for chases, firefights, and intrigue. It's a lot of fun.

The libertarian implications aren't prominent, but can be drawn out. The underground economy thrives, and is fairer to people who might get the short stick in the conventional world. There are criminals, but people can deal with them collectively in a more direct and immediate way than the sclerotic justice system would. Nobody advocates overthrowing the disfunctional governments, they just route around them.