Pluralistic: 01 Jul 2021

Today's links

The cover of Neil Sharpson's 'When the Sparrow Falls.'

When the Sparrow Falls (permalink)

WHEN THE SPARROW FALLS is Neil Sharpson's debut novel, published this week by Tor Books. It's a tense dystopian thriller about the unraveling of a paranoid hermit kingdom established as a final redoubt against humanity's ascent to the cloud.

During a late 21st century revolution that saw the Earth governed by three super AIs (China's Confucius, America's George and the EU's Athena), a group of AI refuseniks created the Caspian Republic, annexing Azerbaijan and banning on consciousness uploading and AIs.

Baku was renamed Ellulgrad (in honor of the technoskeptic philosopher Jacques Ellul) and the civil/ethnic wars with Armenians and Azeris finally reached an uneasy detente, but the Republic became increasingly paranoid, subject to purges and secret police kidnappings.

Now, with the Earth beyond the borders in robust good shape thanks to AI management and human dematerialization, the Republic has become a paranoid hermit kingdom, eating its own, hanging a world-famous philosopher who was once its most celebrated writer.

The execution triggers UN sanctions and the Republic begins starves. Agent Nikolai South – of the State Security force, a secret heretic, and a widower – is increasingly called out to investigate the empty bodies of citizens who have uploaded their consciousness to escape.

This epidemic of traitorous suicide-by-machine brings South into the orbit of the Party Security apparatus, the night-stalking disappearers of dissidents, and though he fears for his life, he's by no means relieved to be summoned by the head of his own StatSec.

StatSec's director has a job for him. A highly respected ultra-orthodox columnist has died, and in death, he was revealed to have been a secret AI, clothed in cloned flesh, an unthinkable abomination in the doctrine of the Republic.

What's more, the AI has a widow – another AI who would set foot on the Republic's sacred soil and identify her dead husband's remains. It is blasphemy and worse – but that's not how the desperate, starving Parliament sees it.

For them, it's an opportunity to curry favor with the UN, to get the sanctions lifted.

That's where South comes in. It's his job to escort Lily – the machine – around the Republic, she can identify the dead ideologue, while South keeps her safe from ParSec's thugs.

Within the doctrinaire, cloistered world of the Republic, it is a suicide mission. There is no way South will finish out his chaperone duty without acquiring the indelible stain of heresy.

And yet, he does it.

South doesn't have anything to lose, after all.

But when Lily – the AI widow in a cloned body bought in a Tehran boutique – arrives, she is wearing the face of his dead wife, his self-destructive plan is undone.

Thus begins an intense, mysterious, rich tale of a land where defending humanity means surrendering the humane, where the human soul can be captured in a chip and uploaded to a server in orbit, and where the bodies of buried plotters and their victims stir in their graves.

It's a truism advanced by many writers – Charlie Stross, Ted Chiang, me – that sf stories and real-life fears of runaway AIs are really just a proxy for our fears of the autonomous, pervasive, powerful and casually cruel corporation, AKA the "slow AI."

A limited liability company is a colony organism, potentially immortal, self-reproducing, self-preserving, relentlessly hungry, and to the extent that it considers humanity at all, it is as a kind of inconvenient gut-flora.

But if an AI is a stand-in for end-stage capitalism, what are Sharpson's characters – people afraid of AIs – meant to stand for? Perhaps they are a metaphor for the toxicity of nostalgia and romanticism, the danger of declaring the boundary of what constitutes humanity.

Or for the inevitable corruption of a society founded to defend freedom, but built upon conquest.

Or perhaps they're a warning about any ideology that brands its critics as not merely wrong, but as intolerably dangerous and a threat to humanity.

I'm going to be talking with Sharpson at a launch event on July 10, hosted by Mysterious Galaxy, and I'll be asking him about this (you can ask questions too).

If you want to get a flavor of the book, you can check out this excerpt, courtesy of Tor:

A screengrab of Unearthed's covert video of Exxonmobil lobbyist Keith McCoy boasting about his ability to corrupt the political process.

Exxon lobbyist confesses to his crimes (permalink)

50 years ago, Exxonmobil's scientists warned that continued use of fossil fuels would render our planet uninhabitable by humans. Exxon's response? They buried the reports and embarked on a disinformation campaign modeled on the tobacco industry's cancer denial.


That campaign continues, even as floods-of-the-century crop up every month or two, as thousand-year heatwaves strike again and again, as wildfires stain our skies the color of blood and zoonitic plagues shut down all activity for years at a time.

Exxon, of course, claims that they're good corporate citizens, committed to preserving the habitability of the only known planet in the entire universe capable of supporting our species.

It's a total lie.

Exxon spent millions on corruption: disinformation and influence campaigns (AKA "bribes") to make tens of billions – and imposed trillions in costs upon the rest of us, and incalculable losses in the form of lost human lives and natural wonders.

Exxon denies this – in public. In private, the people who direct these campaigns are immensely proud of their work and keenly aware of the fact that other large, corrupting industries are always on the lookout for talent who can corrupt on their behalf.

For the past eight years, Keith McCoy has been the top Exxon lobbyist in Washington, DC. When Unearthed (Greenpeace UK's media arm) contacted him pretending to be a corporate recruiter with a lucrative offer, he jumped at the chance to boast about his corrupting accomplishments.

The resulting nine-minute video confirms everything that Exxon's critics – and anti-corruption campaigners – have said for decades. It's a gleeful, boastful confession that catalogs the company's many lies and cheerfully identifies them as such.

In the video, McCoy describes how Exxon uses front-groups to sow doubt about the climate emergency and the need to eliminate fossil fuel consumption.

He names the senators whom he has (successfully) lobbied to blunt or remove climate protections from Biden's $2T stimulus. It's a heartwarmingly bipartisan parade of biddable officials-for-hire whom Exxon has helped out with an often lucrative side-hustle.

On the Democrat side, there's Joe Manchin (D-WV), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Jon Tester (D-MT), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Chris Coons (D-DE) and Mark Kelly (D-AZ).

While the Republicans are Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), John Barrasso (R-WY), John Cornyn (R-TX), Steve Daines (R-MT), and Marco Rubio (R-FL).

McCoy is especially fond of Joe Manchin, whom he calls "a kingmaker" whose office holds "standing weekly check-in calls" with Exxon lobbyists.

McCoy speaks fondly of the Trump years, and invites the interviewer to google "trump exxon" to get a sense of just how many gifts his employer received during 2016-20.

He also frankly admits that Exxon front groups like the American Petroleum Institute are "whipping boys" sent to hearings in Exxon's stead, to absorb the performative criticism of lawmakers who nevertheless fail to take substantive action to curb Exxon's slow genocide.

And he describes how Exxon secretly funded "shadow groups" to "aggressively fight against some of the science." He stresses – probably correctly – that nothing that Exxon did was illegal.

He neglects to mention the work Exxon has done to ensure that this unimaginably terrible conduct remained legal.

But he isn't shy about Exxon's ability to influence policy otherwise. For example, he admits that the only reason Exxon has publicly endorsed carbon taxes is that they know they can prevent any carbon tax from becoming law – it's all a show.

Exxon corporate, confronted with the video, claimed that it was all reflective of Greenpeace's bias against giant, sociopathic polluting companies and asks who we're going to believe, an oil company or our own lying ears?

Do watch the video, if only to hear McCoy describe how he baits the hook for senators and then "reels them in."

"I make sure I get them the right information that they need so they look good. And then they help me out. They’re a captive audience. They know they need you."

McCoy has since posted a groveling retraction on Linkedin, claiming his "statements clearly do not represent ExxonMobil’s positions on important public policy issues." He doesn't explain why he made those statements if they're not true.

Exxon has "condemned" the statements and claims McCoy – the company's most senior lobbyist – "wasn’t involved at all in forming policy positions."

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Brazil rises up for free speech in 40 national demonstrations

#5yrsago Researchers find over 100 spying Tor nodes that attempt to compromise darknet sites

#5yrsago Spotify threatens to report Apple to competition regulators over App Store rejection

#5yrsago Elizabeth Warren on monopolies in America, including Apple, Google, and Amazon

#1yrago Snowden on Little Brother

#1yrago Invigilation CEO doxes student

#1yrago Big Cop's corporate armorers

#1yrago Bossware

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Yesterday's progress: 280 words (7883 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Inside The Clock Tower
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla