Friday 30 July 2021

The Future Refusing To Be Born

There will always be a place that our unevenly distributed future reaches last.
(Image via Goodreads)

In Neil Sharpson’s excellent debut novel When The Sparrow Falls, that place is The Caspian Republic: a country founded by expatriate American and Russian bioconservative activists, whose boundaries are roughly those of present-day Azerbaijan.

While the rest of the world has embraced an almost-singularitarian future of AI-guided mass prosperity, near immortality, and widespread expansive human rights, this Caspian Republic has hewed to a quasi-religious “Humanity First” doctrine and polices the use of technology.

The reader’s guide to this setting is Agent Nikolai South, an aging detective with StaSec, one of the country’s various rival agencies devoted to maintaining ideological purity, and punishing those who try to use illegal technologies.

In a police state where ambition is often met with tragedy, South’s proclivity for keeping his head down has kept him safe. But when the agency needs someone politically reliable, yet expendable, he gets swept up into a protection detail and investigations that have implications for the entire country.

Sharpson’s prose is sparse, clear, and engaging. He ably paints a picture of a deeply flawed society, and one that is the all-too-believable result of nostalgia-driven politics and identity-driven ideology. Because the Caspian Republic’s technology is pretty much limited to what was common in North America in the 1980s, readers will be reminded of late-era Cold War spy stories.
Welsh statesman 
Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960)
once described Fascism as
"The future refusing to be born."
(Image via Wikipedia)

But while the setting may seem familiar to readers over 40, many readers will engage with it viscerally because of quotable passages like “Nominally, the currency of the Caspian Republic is the moneta, but in truth the coin of the nation was fear. Whoever could inspire fear was rich, whoever lived in fear was poor.”

One of the highlights of the book is the way in which cultural mores come into conflict between the protagonist and influences from the world outside the boundaries of the Caspian Republic, and the questions that are interrogated. Who or what deserves to have legal rights? What limits should be placed on individual action for the good of the community? To what extent should we allow technology to dictate the future of the species and the planet?

There are coincidences scattered throughout the book that do strain credulity. It is suggested at one point that this may be due to an iteration of Roko's Basilisk — a thought experiment about a future artificial intelligence so advanced it can manipulate events in our present to ensure it comes into being — but for us this thread of the novel fell flat.
Author Neil Sharpson provides
interesting insight into his novel
on an episode of Androids and Assets.
(Image via Amazon)

Likewise, it was at times difficult to believe South’s emotional journey from apathetic true believer in the national cause, to someone who sees the country’s problems and is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Not because this journey can’t happen, people can change beliefs, but because of the speed with which it happens in the novel. Over the course of two days, South becomes comfortable betraying all he has stood for his entire life.

While many reviewers have made comparisons between When The Sparrow Falls and Orwell’s 1984, we feel that those comparisons, while useful, are perhaps superficial. Although both authors begin by examining repressive government autocracies, Sharpson is far more hopeful and seems to suggest that all such regimes are unstable and will collapse under their own internal contradictions. We feel that When The Sparrow Falls is just as much in conversation with a lesser-known midcentury science fiction novel: the infamous Hugo winner They’d Rather Be Right, as it tackles similar questions of governance by algorithm.

Because the novel takes place almost entirely within the borders of the Caspian Republic, the AI-embracing rest of the world is largely ignored. The few glimpses of the mind-uploading, technocratic, utopian society are somewhat facile (though it has to be admitted that such scenes are difficult to write well). We were left with questions about whether the rest of the world is that much better than the Caspian Republic. If nothing can be done without approval of the Artificial Intelligences that guide humanity, in what way is it not a totalitarian state?

The strength of Sharpson’s prose, the fast-paced and engaging plot, and the extraordinarily interesting political dynamics of the setting make for one of the best debut novels of the year, despite some minor flaws.

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