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.

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