Can’t remember why, but I decided I should try to read some sci-fi — or I guess they’re calling it “speculative fiction” now. In my youth I read some, and liked it. But haven’t read any in years. So, based on the fawning reviews, I thought I’d read The Three-Body Problem. And Infomocracy.
The thing I liked best about 3BP was that it was set in China, written by a Chinese author, presumably for a Chinese audience. It spans a period including the Cultural Revolution, with characters that are impacted — as victims and participants — by the tumult. That’s a pretty unique setting for a sci-fi novel and made the first half of the book interesting. The later half is set in contemporary time and is, by contrast, not as culturally interesting or detailed. Maybe I just don’t understand the subtle politics which are being described or implied, but it lost richness as it went. Beyond that, the characters are not very compelling to me and the drama not that interesting. They have children and families which barely seem to matter emotionally. The “scientific” speculations are kind of interesting with a kind of mystery/discovery format which adds some interest. But mostly, it feels like a thought experiment played out in somewhat clumsy way. It’s partly cultural, I’m sure, but the motives of characters and their reactions just didn’t strike me as credible or compelling.
I found Infomocracy via twitter — I follow the author, Malka Older, who worked in the humanitarian sector and sometimes comments on humanitarian issues. There’s a lot going on in the book — basically international governance has somehow converted to “centenals” — blocks of 100,000 citizens who self-determine, and affiliate with transnational governance. These super-centenal structures compete for world domination through elections, like political parties, or ideological competitors. There’s an additional superstructure organization, Information, which provides… information and impartial process management. The book doesn’t explain how this global governance system was achieved, except through oblique and vague references. There’s no UN and countries sort of exist as legacy affiliations, but not as political or governance entities. This is all kind of interesting, but super implausible for all sorts of reasons. The primary characters are Mishima (strange name choice) who works for Information, and Ken who works for one of the governments contending in the coming elections. There’s intrigue — election cheating, a possible war being planned, spying. And there’s romance between Mishima and Ken. And there are disasters: earthquakes and technological failures and civil disturbances. And it drives forward with pace, so what’s not to like?
Somewhere midway through I started getting annoyed with the characters and their jet-set, blue-flame lifestyle. They spin around the globe on missions, responding to disasters one day, taking on spying assignments the next, fighting off would-be assassins, then flying to the Maldives for a tryst. Information, travel, skills are infinitely available — Mishima seems to have her own private futuristic jet (a “crow”). They’re young, childless, unattached, without family or culture or any kind of attachment except to their work and, improbably, to high-minded humanitarian and liberal values. They don’t have rent, student loans, or social circles. Local cultures, context, people are backdrops — the characters enjoy local fare for meals and seem to have favorite hotels and restaurants. But otherwise, there’s awfully little honoring or caring about all these places except as objects of humanitarian action or electoral ambition. Information is the currency of life — and is freely available until disaster strikes and it’s not. And that’s one of the main propositions — that quality information is freely available, trustworthy, constantly maintained and updated by swarms of analysts and worker bees in cubicles around the world. The business model is never explained, although businesses dominate some centenals.
What Older is describing is a fictionalized and idealized version of the humanitarian aid workers — who she was earlier in her career. So what annoys me is how uncritical and un-self-reflective she is about that. Even by 2016, the sector was aware that this kind of internationalist cowboy-ing is not good and has all sorts of downsides. We’re all trying to be a bit more humble and move away from that model of doing things — certainly not exalting the jet-setting aid workers deploying all over with little knowledge or attachment to the places and people where they minister.
The book is from 2016, which maybe slightly pre-dates the crisis of truth we now face: fundamental disbelief of news and information from large sections of the public, and lots of fabricated news, sophisticated deep fakes,
The characters are cool, or would be cool to me if I was still in my 20s and wanted to forget that I had parents and obligations, much less children and a mortgage. Everyone is young and sexy and text messaging from all over the globe. They get in combat, and then the next day are cranking on spreadsheets between meals of local curry. It’s all so glamorous.
So that was kind of fun, but also kind of annoying. The big plot — an effort to corrupt the election — is kind of boring and also implausible. Although, after Trump, I suppose it’s not quite as ridiculous as it once seemed.
I did read one more sci-fi that I really did like, though. It was a short story, “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” later renamed “Helicopter Story”. I heard about it because it was big on twitter for a while — and became controversial when a lot of online people decided it was transphobic. Obviously, gender plays a big role in the story — but it has a lot of dimensions to it and was really thought-provoking. It’s not very long, either, so I sort of consider it a must-read. One of the core ideas — that gender might be rewired in service to the government, and more specifically, to the military — is quite wild and yet conceptually plausible. Not that we have the technology to understand, much less rewire gender. But, we do have the technology to do that on many other elements of personality, identity, and desire. The story posits gender in this way, which is speculative. But the idea is provocative because the government — and hegemonic ideology — already does so much programming of people in support of hegemonic notions of gender and capitalism and power and social hierarchy. Gender fluidity is, in this way, a form of protest and individuation. But why couldn’t plasticity of gender be coopted in support of existing power and structures? Other aspects of the story are strong; the war envisioned between and against algorithmic entities and AI-generated societies; the backward reflection on “when I was a woman.” And all of it made much richer with a knowledge that the author is trans-woman who fell under the twitter mob for writing this story. It’s very cool.