Wednesday 11 December 2019

The Ebullient Imagination of Stealing Worlds

Optimistic and replete with ebullient imagination, Stealing Worlds is a compelling techno-thriller
Karl Schroeder's at his best
when proposing new ways to
organize political power.
(Image via Goodreads)
elevated by first-rate near-future world-building.

At one level, the plot is a fairly linear whodunnit; On the run from shadowy figures, protagonist Sura Neelin finds refuge in an augmented-reality game world that allows her to hide in plain sight. As she learns more about her new-found community, she investigates the circumstances around her father’s death.

But at another level, it is the story of revolutionary societal change. It is on this second level that the novel succeeds most fully.

Stealing Worlds is a highly political novel, not in a partisan sense, but because it offers thought experiments about how power structures can be organized. While the book depicts a global capitalist structure that continues to erode human freedom, Schroeder also envisions self-organizing communities that work in the interstices of the modern world. New technology and tools evolve to allow for the exploitation of idle and forgotten resources, to the benefit of those left behind or targeted maliciously by those in power.

The most interesting innovations in the novel, however, don’t come from the technology of augmented reality, but from cleverly imagined legal constructions. Schroeder’s idea of giving legal life to inanimate objects and abstract ideas is the most intriguing part of the story. To accomplish this, Artificial Intelligences (AI) are programmed to operate on behalf of eagles, forests, and other entities and to bargain with people to meet the needs of that legal entity. For example, an AI responsible for the legal personhood of a forest might negotiate the sale of lumber to pay for reclamation or protection. More complex ecosystems might comprise numerous, smaller AI actors that coordinate the survival of, for example, a boreal forest by ensuring the rivers are clean, the animals are not overhunted, and enough habitat remains to support life. Using markets to place value on natural resources isn’t a new idea but this agency provides the natural resources a mind-blowing role in the process.

Schroeder demands more than a passing level of technical knowledge. For example, basic levels of
A futurist by trade and
training, Schroeder brings
intellectual rigor to near-
future science fiction.
(Image via
blockchain and cryptocurrency literacy help. While this may turn off some readers, it will make the work more engaging for others. Impressively, Schroeder doesn’t condescend, but builds and explores these concepts for a wide range of readers.

The novel has a clear separation between worldbuilding and adventure. Sura’s path weaves between investigating her father’s death and learning about the hidden world of augmented reality. While reading the thriller portions of the novel, we were left wanting more of the intellectual story and the sharp critique of our world. When delving into the world building, we occasionally forgot entirely about the narrative because we got lost in Schroeder’s irrepressible imagination.

Often, when reviewers focus their praise on a book’s worldbuilding, it is a sign that the book might have significant flaws in other areas. In the case of Stealing Worlds, it is an indication that the novel is possibly the crowning achievement of one of science fiction’s most accomplished — and optimistic — futurists.

The fact that Schroeder proposes a believable and positive vision of the future puts this among our favourite novels of 2019.

Monday 2 December 2019

Yearning For Policy-Intentional Science Fiction

There will come a day when novels about climate change will be marketed as historical fiction instead of science fiction.

That day is probably closer than most of us care to realize, which is why all near-future science fiction is naive if climate change is ignored.

This is both a burden to the genre of science fiction, and a set of related opportunities: The opportunity to credibly predict the ramifications of a warming planet; the opportunity to envisage effective climate change mitigation strategies; the opportunity to build a public narrative that
Paolo Bacigalupi's The
Water Knife
is one of the
most underappreciated
novels of the decade.
(Image via
engenders positive policy changes.

It is this last opportunity that we would like to discuss. There is a need for policy-intentional science fiction that is rooted in the most accurate available forecasts.

The sub-genre of climate fiction (or cli-fi) offers some notable examples that genuinely tackle the human-caused warming of the planet; Paolo Bacigalupi, Saci Lloyd, Barbara Kingsolver and Kim Stanley Robinson have ably attempted to bring the issue into focus within science fiction. Is the general public’s reticence to embrace these works simply a general disinterest with science fiction or a more reactionary resistance to accept climate change science?

It has been argued that one of the most important roles of science fiction is to provide the self-defeating prophecy. That is, to build fictional predictions so compelling — and so well-realized — that they affect the public consciousness and, sometimes, force political responses. Orwell’s 1984 is often held up as the case example of this, having perhaps persuaded generations of voters to reject authoritarian politicians.

Sadly, there does not seem to be a book of comparable impact for climate change. When politicians refer to science fiction about climate change, it is often with derision.

The climate change novel most cited by politicians in Washington seems to be the lamentable State Of Fear by climate change denier Michael Crichton. The book depicts eco-terrorists faking the evidence for climate change. In fact, State of Fear has been cited in congressional records more often than the combined totals of all books by Kim Stanley Robinson, Paolo Bacigalupi and Barbara Kingsolver.

Senator Jim Inhofe suggests that a
conspiracy of scientists are faking
the case for human-caused climate
change and cites SF novel State of Fear
as evidence for this claim.
(Image via Politico)
“Dr. Crichton, as I said, is a medical doctor and scientist.
He very cleverly weaved a very compelling presentation
of the scientific facts of climate change 
— with ample footnotes 
and documentation throughout, I might add — into a gripping plot.”
 Jim Inhofe (R - OK) January 2005

It is clear that — as in most crises — the poor, the disenfranchised, and the ethnically marginalized will bear the worst brunt of the consequences of climate change. Which is why it’s interesting to note that in their lists of novels about climate change, several mainstream sources neglect authors who can speak to those perspectives. We would suggest Moon Of The Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice deserves to be recognized as a vital, vibrant and essential text that should not be omitted from such lists, as is Omar El Akkad’s American War.

It is shocking to us that cli-fi remains a surprisingly small sliver of the overall science fiction field. It’s a niche that warrants an obligatory panel discussion each convention, but which is often overshadowed by subgenres like steampunk and space opera. A review of programming at the latest Worldcon corroborates this (e.g., discussions of Doctor Who and of superheroes far outnumbers discussions of climate), as does a scan of novels published by the major science fiction publishers in 2019.

This dearth of reality-based cli-fi can be seen in public discussions. The climate change narratives that seem to be top-of-mind for members of the mundane public are exceedingly problematic from the perspective of presenting a believable warning about the effects of climate change. The Road; The Day After Tomorrow; Snowpiercer; Oryx and Crake; State of Fear; Waterworld. Many of these are enjoyable works of fiction, but they can inadvertently serve to undermine understanding of climate change and delay urgently needed action.

Stephen Baxter (an author respected by this book club) offered possibly the most egregious example of this trend in his books Flood and Arc — which depict oceans rising unabated until the world has no more dry land at all. The beginning of the first volume is compellingly real, but this warning is
Waterworld is so risible it discredits
the idea of climate change, much to
the detriment of good policy.
(image via
quickly submerged by scenes of complete fantasy.

Waterworld, as fun as it is, may be the most extreme example of alarmist (and unbelievable) depictions of rising ocean levels, and unfortunately one of the most iconic. The effects of climate change in Waterworld is almost as nonsensical a fantasy as the science-denial fantasy that the Earth isn’t warming at all. The broader public is being fed competing nonsensical narratives — making it more difficult to parse fact from falsehood in the mundane world.

Projections of how climate change will impact society should be influencing policy. This is an important burden that science fiction should be taking up. There needs to be more policy intentional climate change-related science fiction, and the more it is based in real-world science, the more seriously it is likely to be taken.