Pluralistic: 26 Jul 2022


Today's links



The Macmillan cover art for Ruthanna Emrys's 'A Half-Built Garden.'

"A Half-Built Garden" (permalink)

A Half-Built Garden (published today) is Ruthanna Emrys's new novel, a spectacular first-contact novel about complicated utopias and networked conflict – it's a wild ride, and a perfect example of one of the smartest structural analyses of science fiction I ever heard:

https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250210982/ahalfbuiltgarden

I got this analysis from my editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, nearly 20 years ago, when he was giving me his editorial notes on my debut novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and it's shaped everything I've written since. Patrick explained to me that an sf novel is like a piece of clockwork with two gears: there's a small, quickly spinning, high-torque gear (the protagonist), and a huge, slow-moving gear that it propels (the world).

The protagonist is a microcosm for the world, and their job is to spin around and around, until they propel the world through a single full revolution, giving us a complete, 360° view of the social speculation embodied by the world.

One of the ways that an sf novel can go wrong is to have a mismatch between the protagonist and the world: if the protagonist gear isn't a good microcosm for the world, the teeth on that gear won't mesh with the huge world-gear, and the world's turning will be jittery and incomplete.

This is an incredibly useful critical insight for planning or improving sf novels: if something doesn't seem to be gelling, ask yourself whether the world and the protagonist are sufficiently self-similar – and ask yourself whether a different character, one who is a better microcosm of the world, should be promoted to protagonist.

This is a uniquely stfnal literary convention, subtly and importantly different from other conceptions of what makes a good protagonist, like "a protagonist is the character with the most to lose" or "the protagonist is the character who is changed the most by the story."

As noted, Half-Built has a perfect match between the protagonist and the world. The world of Half-Built is a complicated utopia, one in which a century of incredibly hard, smart work has carried us through the climate emergency, to the point where it's possible to believe that, over time, we will stabilize our relationship with the only planet in the known universe capable of sustaining our species.

This stabilization came about as the result of a radical restructuring of society around networked "watershed" societies, organized around the watersheds of the world's mighty rivers. These watershed societies are as transnational as their rivers, and each society is a semiautonomous part of a global federation that allocates carbon, shares intelligence, and deliberates among one another.

The deliberative technology in Half-Built is marvellous to read about, a beautiful stfnal dramatization of some of the most interesting ideas about ecological decision-making. The watersheds use "dandelion networks" to decide how to govern themselves: these are huge, democratically accountable, transparent, machine-learning-filtered message boards.

Users open threads on the subjects of the day, post comments on them, argue, learn, and vote, but with the volume managed by algorithms that (unlike, say, Facebook's) are trusted by and accountable to the people who use them.

Among the entities in these threads are machine-learning systems who post on behalf of ecosystems, speaking for trees and bacteria and soil and rivers, turning sensor data and historical trends into narratives and points of view that are part of the debate. It's an idea that's been posited for real-world ecosystem management, and that has appeared in other sf, like Karl Schroeder's Stealing Worlds:

https://memex.craphound.com/2019/06/18/karl-schroeders-stealing-worlds-visionary-science-fiction-of-a-way-through-the-climate-and-inequality-crises/

The people of the dandelion networks use neural interfaces to sense their environments, literally feeling it when an ecological process is running smoothly – or going off the rails – and these same sensory augmentations are used to understand the tenor of their networked debates, as well.

The protagonist who is the microcosm for this world is Judy Wallach-Stevens, a member of the Chesapeake Bay network whose life is dedicated to living with and caring for the Potomac. Judy and her partner and their newborn are part of a big, blended, queer family that includes another couple and their child, all organized around the Chesapeake and the Potomac.

One night, Judy is summoned to check out an anomalous sensor reading in the bay – and finds herself making first contact with an alien spaceship that has touched down just around the corner from her home. She wakes up the network and starts posting threads looking for advice – and is pressed into service as humanity's first diplomatic envoy to the Ringers, an interspecies federation of two alien races that has come to Earth to save us.

The Ringer civilization was formed when the "plains people" found the "tree people" and saved them from the seemingly inevitable fate of technological species: to poison their planets with badly understood, badly managed industrial processes, driving themselves to extinction.

The Ringers have solved this problem by transcending the need for planets – whose complexity makes them intrinsically unsuitable for stable civilizations – deconstructing whole solar systems and turning them into vast, star-girding rings. Determined to save other races from extinction, they've embarked pon faster-than-light voyages that have always arrived too late, happening upon planets whose intelligent races have all died, drowned in their own waste.

For the Ringers, finding the Earth – which they learned about in advance by studying our leaky radio and TV broadcasts – is the vindication of that long-run project. Finally, they've arrived in time to save another species from slow suicide, and they can't wait to yank all humanity off the planet and relocate us to one of their Rings, joining their interspecies federation and taking our place in the stars.

For the watershed networks – and Judy, especially – this is abhorrent idea. It echoes the ideology of the networks' sworn enemies, the corporations who lost the great power-struggle that birthed the networks and were exiled to "aislands" – AI-powered, artificial islands run by corporate ideology.

What's more, the corporations are eager to cut a deal with the Ringers, and bring their doctrine of limitless expansion to the infinite universe. Between the networks and the corporations are the world's creaking old national governments, embodied by envoys from NASA, form whom the Ringers' arrival is the culmination of their life's work.

The action that unfolds – skullduggery, espionage, interstellar travel, cyberwar, interspecies coupling, betrayal, nobility and all the rest – is set against the backdrop of the badly damaged, slowly recovering planet, whose unpredictable and violent climate can be spun to vindicate the Ringers, the corporations, or the networks.

Judy makes such a good microcosm for this scenario. The healing, sickened Earth is a complicated utopia: it's both terrifyingly fragile and beautifully hopeful. This Earth isn't a utopia because we've solved its problems – it's a utopia because we've recognized those problems and committed ourselves to addressing them:

https://locusmag.com/2022/07/cory-doctorow-the-swerve/

Judy, meanwhile, copes with an anxiety disorder the way the watersheds cope with thousand-year storms: understanding them as forces she must weather, not end. Judy's complicated family relations need the kind of hard work – and deliver the same kind of deep rewards – as the Ringers promise to humanity. There are countless more correspondences like these, and they make for a deeply satisfying method to lay out Emrys's complicated social speculation and theories of change.

This is a wildly exciting novel, a wildly imaginative one, a beautifully wrought one. It's deeply touching and profoundly hopeful. It is a profoundly science-fiction type of sf novel, one where worldbuilding and character work together to depict a future that illuminates the present.


Hey look at this (permalink)



This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Delusional UK millionaire leaves Tories fortune to fight sexually perverted pharmaceutical execs https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/jul/24/conservatives.politics

#10yrsago Anti-Super-PAC Super PAC https://archive.nytimes.com/thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/17/the-super-pac-that-aims-to-end-super-pacs/

#10yrsago DC police chief issues extremely excellent guidelines on citizens taking pictures of cops https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/07/dc-police-chief-announces-shockingly-reasonable-cell-camera-policy/

#5yrsago Paper Girls volume 3: the all-girl, time-traveling Stranger Things gets even better https://memex.craphound.com/2017/07/26/paper-girls-volume-3-the-all-girl-time-traveling-stranger-things-gets-even-better/

#5yrsago American wages are so low, the robots don’t want your job https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/upshot/maybe-weve-been-thinking-about-the-productivity-slump-all-wrong.html

#5yrsago Leaked memo details Koch Bros’ astroturf strategy to lower US corporate tax rate https://theintercept.com/2017/07/26/koch-brothers-tax-reform-plan-grassroots-document/

#5yrsago China forces Xinjiang Uyghurs to install mobile spyware, enforces with stop-and-frisk https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/government/china-forces-muslim-minority-to-install-spyware-on-their-phones/

#5yrsago Roomba wants to sell the maps of the inside of your home it created while cleaning https://www.reuters.com/article/us-irobot-strategy-idUSKBN1A91A5

#5yrsago Escaping prison with D&D https://www.vice.com/en/article/padk7z/how-inmates-play-tabletop-rpgs-in-prisons-where-dice-are-contraband

#1yrago Surge pricing violates antitrust law https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/26/aggregate-demand/#pure-transfer

#1yrago Oregon's carbon offsets go up in smoke https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/26/aggregate-demand/#murder-offsets

#1yrago Disney parks and aggregate demand management https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/26/aggregate-demand/#why-are-we-waiting

#1yrago Charter schools are money laundries https://pluralistic.net/2021/07/26/aggregate-demand/#ed-bezzle



Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. Yesterday's progress: 594 words (25102 words total)

  • The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, a nonfiction book about interoperability for Verso. Yesterday's progress: 509 words (21384 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. (92849 words total) – ON PAUSE

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

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

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Reasonable Agreement: On the Crapification of Literary Contracts https://craphound.com/news/2022/06/27/reasonable-agreement-on-the-crapification-of-literary-contracts/

Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

  • Red Team Blues: "A grabby, compulsive thriller that will leave you knowing more about how the world works than you did before." Tor Books, April 2023


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