When does bullying become totalitarianism?

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I’ve been complaining for a while about the kind of author bullying that comes from cancel culture. By now, everybody should know how this goes: An author, often a young person-of-color who isn’t well established, offers a novel, and a mob on Twitter piles on with charges of racism, insensitivity and cultural appropriation. The mob keeps screaming until the author or publisher pulls the book. It may be quietly released later on, but the campaign has damaged the marketing buzz and reduces the sales and acclaim for the book. This activity recently spread to publishing when a mob incited by romance author Courtney Milan attacked a small publisher and a free-lance editor. The tactic generally works better on fairly powerless nobodies, as well-established authors can just ignore the whole thing. The question has been hanging there about whether this is just a “mean girls” sort of action where little jealousies lead to pulling people down, or whether it’s actually about something bigger.

A couple or three things have hit the news recently that are making me think this is something bigger, in fact, a symptom of larger and more dangerous social trends. The first of these is a revolutionary strain of anarcho-communist ideology running through the summer “protests against systemic racism.” In case anyone is still in the dark about this movement, it is a type of utopian communism that calls for the abolition of the state, capitalism, wage labor and private property. Supposed to “free” people from laws and government control, its goal is actually totalitarianism, where the prescribed beliefs become entrenched and are enforced by members of society as a requirement. Because of its proscriptions against capitalism, wage labor and private property, this movement means to destroy the usual avenues of success in Western societies like education, opportunity and rewards for individual hard work. That means if you’re a young person who has written a promising book, you need to be bullied into withdrawing it to keep you a nobody, and if you have a budding editing or publishing business, you need to lose it if you don’t toe the line on ideology. In case anyone is wondering what totalitarianism is about, it’s a dictatorial society that requires complete subservience to a list of stated beliefs.

So, what other evidence on totalitarianism do I have this week? I’ve just run across a proposal from academic Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, most recently noted for the 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist, where his main thesis is that antiracists should “dismantle” racist systems. Since publishing the book, Kendi has proposed a Constitutional amendment in the US to establish and fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA). This department would be responsible for “preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate and be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.” This is a huge amount of power. It sounds like embedding cancel culture as an official government function. And the big question is, what is going to constitute “racism?”

And my last bit of troubling evidence: I’ve been noting for a while the results of SFF awards that seem to trend toward particular favored groups and strongly discriminate against others. This seems to be an unwritten rule about what’s acceptable to win, however the results are managed. You’d think from the huge outcry about racism in recent years that this would promote persons-of-color, but it doesn’t look to be doing that. Instead, it has shown to benefit mostly white women. Now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (a.k.a. the Oscars) has actually published their award requirements, setting quotas for minority inclusion and limits on theme, storyline and narrative for writers:

A3. Main storyline/subject matter
The main storyline(s), theme or narrative of the film is centered on an underrepresented group(s).
• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

At first glance this might not seem to be that much of a problem. More minorities are employed, yah! But the damage to intellectual freedom is something else. This is a movement toward dictating what’s acceptable for people to write about and what’s acceptable for official recognition. During the Cold War, we used roll our eyes at the USSR and Maoist ideology-controlled books and films. Do we really want to go there?

The Myth of Family versus Factory Farms in SFF Stories

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Okay, one more rant in this series and then I’m done. There seems to be a myth out there about the pastoral family farm. Martha Wells uses this to describe Preservation’s economy, and I’m sure she’s right on the current zeitgeist. It’s more about that yearning to live a free life in a kind, caring, socialist economy that takes care of everybody (including animals) and provides the kind of safe food supply the US enjoyed in the pre-world war years.

This theme is a reflection of real life movements concerned about the welfare of animals crammed into crowded pens on factory farms. There are also concerns about disease in this system, and how quickly it can spread in crowded conditions. Activist groups are currently taking action on bills to limit factory farming in the US as a proposed method of “ protecting the food supply” from pandemics like coronavirus, apparently trying to make the association between these farms and the wet markets in China where animals are slaughtered onsite.

About 99% of US farm animals live on factory farms, and this isn’t unusual. Global studies suggest that about 90% of farm animals are raised on factory farms worldwide. So, if factory farms were banned, then a possible 99% of the meat supply would disappear off the US grocery store shelves.

Could we go to a vegetable or grain-based food supply instead? It’s definitely more efficient and cost-effective. Currently about 33% of corn produced in the US goes for animal feed, and about 40% goes to ethanol production. Only about 1.6% goes to bread and cereal products. US wheat looks slightly better: 36% percent is consumed domestically by humans, 50% is exported, and 10% is used for livestock feed, Couldn’t we add soy and turn these grains into burgers, instead?

The truth is that grain is also produced on factory farms. US grains are often genetically modified (GMO), leading to varieties that produce well, but may cause unknown health problems. Grains are also subject to disease, though generally fungus and not viruses like swine flu or coronavirus. Crops like grain, lentils and soybeans are often spraying with glyphosate (Roundup) to desiccate the green parts before harvesting. This after earlier spraying with insecticides to control pests. This means grain and vegetables from factory farms are often contaminated with chemicals that can cause cancer and affect hormones. You can see where the issue about factory farms is coming from.

So, is there any way to make the small family farm work again as the major US food supplier? The truth is that the small family farm has been in trouble for a long time. Most of them run in the red, and small farmers have to have second jobs that pay the taxes and actually support the family. Regardless, these small farms still produce about 27% of the US food supply. Can we get by on that? Probably not.

The issues are land available, profitability and population. About 44% of US land is currently available for agriculture, and many small family farms are gone, bought up for housing developments. Farming is also what’s called in economics a perfect competition, which means that profits often go down as production goes up. In 1900, the population of the US was about 76 million, and about 60% lived in rural areas and grew their own food. Today the population is about 273 million and only about 18% live in rural areas. That means it will be hard to create small family farms again, and to make them profitable. Next, would this system be able to produce enough food for the current US population? Not without major changes. So, trying to limit factory farms is a questionable goal without having a backup plan.

This also means that writers should take a second look at that idea of the bucolic economy supported by small family farms. It will only work if the population is small and most people provide their own food supply. This will not be a highly profitable economy. Small farmers have less capital to buy equipment and they lose the economy of scale advantage that large farms have in planting crops. That means everyone will need to work in the fields. Farming is not a leisure activity unless you have, maybe, a lot of bots that do the dirty work for you. That’s a big investment, too. Maybe illegal aliens instead? They work for low wages.

Why can’t governments just print money and give it to everybody?

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Some of the discussion following recent reviews is about the current socialist versus capitalist theme of the novels, stories, etc., so I’m feeling like basic economics warrants a blog post. This a big subject, and I can’t cover it all in a short post, but I’ll supply some links and recommend further reading.

I suspect the prevalence of this theme is a reaction to decades-long trends in real life, where government policy in the US, for example, has favored wealthy capitalists and made accumulation of wealth harder for the poor and middle class. After WWII, many developed countries got rich from financing the rebuilding, which benefitted both the US capitalist system and the middle class, but by about 1960, this advantage started to bottom out. Then in the 1980s the Soviet Union collapsed. This was the major socialist challenge to capitalism in the post-war years. The collapse seemed to validate the US system of capitalism, and left the US as the major global economic power. This encouraged further expansion of capitalism though deregulation and world politics.

Production has moved from the US to Africa and Asia in search of less regulation and lower labor costs, and increasing automation in the US is also causing reduced opportunity for workers. Young middle-class workers are burdened by student loans, and good jobs are hard to come by. As a result, there’s been a movement toward socialism in the US, and calls for taxing the wealthy to provide everyone a basic income. This is not a new idea. The UK tried taxing the rich, and the wealthy just moved out of the UK. That means there will be problems with it in the US, too. See article on various countries’ experiences with socialism here.

So why does a government have to tax anybody? Why can’t a government just print more money and use it to provide everyone a basic income regardless of whether they have a job? The answer is that printing money without supporting it with increased economic activity devalues money and causes huge price inflation. You’re used to paying a certain amount for groceries, and if more people have money to buy groceries, then supplies drop and the price goes up. Eventually the supply will catch up and the market come back into balance, but the price of everything has gone up the same way, and now your money isn’t worth what it used to be worth. Also, if you’ve been saving for something (investment, college, old age), the value of savings drops during inflation, so you lose the results of your labor. See article on inflation here.

Economic systems are part of world building for speculative fiction, so let’s look at a few from history. The simplest is hunter/gatherer societies. Early humans did this, and as late as the 1800s it was still good for Native Americans that followed the buffalo herds, for example. However, this only works when there’s plenty of wild bounty to support everybody. When things get scarce, then you lose too much in wars trying to protect your interests. The next step for a society is agriculture and animal husbandry. This means you can accumulate wealth in the value of produce and herds, and this generally results in a barter system, where you can trade chickens for blacksmith work, for example. The problem is that this generates something like a feudal system, sharecropping and wars over ownership of the land. Plus, cattle herds are too bulky for saving in a treasury and they tend to die in a disaster. This means you need a safe medium of exchange, often gold, that’s easy to carry and store. That way you can set the value of a cow to one gold coin, or whatever, and everyone agrees to abide by this policy. Eventually gold gets too heavy to carry around, so nations go to paper money backed by gold, and then maybe just the strength of the economic activity. From there, the next step is to electronic transfer of funds by cards, phone apps, etc. Regardless, this remains a store of the value of your economic activity. It can’t be replaced with funds that aren’t backed by economic activity without disruptions in prices and the supply of goods. Exchange rates between countries reflect the value of their economic systems. See article on the history of money here.

Next, economic analysis of the Corporate Rim versus Preservation in the Murderbot Diaries.

Erasing the Past to Change the Future?

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There are a number of issues that stand out in the recent RWA controversy. It would take a while to work through them all, but one thing that caught my attention is the apparent culture clash between one set of authors who thinks their work should be historically accurate, and an opposing author who charges that this perpetrates a dangerous, racist stereotype. More specifically, this is a look at Courtney Milan’s comment, “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against women.” This raises the questions: 1) whether Chinese women in the 19th century (as featured in Davis’ novel) were “submissive,” and 2) whether it’s racist to say so in contemporary fiction (as claimed by Milan).

First some background: Actually, there’s a long history of various cultures attempting to control women and their child-bearing capability, so enforced submission isn’t a problem that’s particular to Asian cultures. In general, Asian cultures are more collectivist than individualist. That means all members of society are required to show a responsibility and duty to the family, the community and the nation that should be stronger than his or her individual interests, i.e. everyone is expected to sacrifice for the greater good. I gather this expectation falls heavily on daughters, as much of the recent work I’ve read from Asian women seems to be about rebellion.

Besides this, the submission of women in Chinese culture in the 19th century was enforced by other customs, including foot binding. This procedure was promoted as enhancing beauty, but actually it crippled girls, reduced their mobility and prevented them from running away. This made it easy to control them in marriage, and also made them good workers in cottage industry. The end result of these social customs was outward compliance, though women generally developed methods of intrigue and manipulation to advance their individual interests.

So, is this mandated submission now a dangerous racial stereotype? Apparently, the answer is yes. Research verifies that the “submissive Asian woman” is a stereotype that persists, and that some men seek out Asian women with the idea they will be sexually submissive. When this turns out not to meet their fantasy, of course, rates of domestic violence escalate.

So, all the authors in the argument are correct in what they say. Now the question arises as to what writers should do in a situation like this. A story that is historically accurate has the advantage of exposing the practices that controlled women in the past, but it also has the danger of suggesting to some readers that these practices were appropriate and that Asian women are still somehow trained to be submissive. A story that erases the social conditions (like foot binding) leaves the reader with a false idea of how societies work and what dangers have historically limited personal freedoms. Issues like this aren’t singular to romances with Chinese characters, either. European women in the 19th century were controlled in various ways, too, not to mention African women. So what choice should the community of writers make? Should we agree that it is now sexist/racist to feature any subservient or submissive female characters in our work?

Checking through a few romances, it looks like the solution to this problem over the last few years is the headstrong heroine in a historical setting who somehow manages to have her way and her lover, too, a man who appreciates her willful character. Speculative fiction doesn’t even have to provide the romance. See Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Mulan, for example, where an Asian girl masquerades as a boy to save her father from having to serve in the war, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series that suggests women really did have a place in the early US space program. Both these are fantasy, but does it really have a purpose? Disney’s The Last Jedi came right out and said that Rey would never accomplish anything until she cut herself loose from history. Presumably isolation from the past is expected to give young women better self-esteem and more readiness to grasp opportunities. Will it work? Can we really change the future with fiction that rewrites the past? Or is this strategy only creating a dangerous ignorance?

Getting back to the issue with the RWA, men don’t generally read romance novels, so it seems unlikely that Milan was concerned that Davis’ book would influence their stereotype of Asian women. That strongly suggests she was: 1) attacking Davis with words she knew would cause damage, 2) using Davis’ book as a pretext for an activist rant on Twitter without regard for consequences, or 3) both. Now that she has generated a backlash, is she really a victim?

Review of Reactance by Dacia M. Arnold

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This young adult dystopia novella was self-published in August of 2018. It’s listed as Book #2 of the series, a companion piece to Apparent Power, and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Sasha Bowman is 18 and on the point of graduating from high school when disaster strikes. The awakening of a dormant gene divides society in the city of Denver into a new hierarchy of haves and have-nots. The haves can control and channel electricity, making them an asset, but also a danger to the general population. Sasha has the gene, which means people are afraid of her and the government wants to control her abilities. She and her mother are captured by the government, and put under control of DiaZems, people who can gather and use the power of people affected by the gene. The power-hungry Queen DiaZem murders everyone in the city without the gene, including Sasha’s father. Attracted by a friendly boy, Sasha writes some documents and then finds she is helping form a subversive organization, the Reactance. Can they fight against the new order and find some way to return the gene to a dormant state?

This should be well-received by the young adult age group. It’s a easy, quick read, written in journal format, that reveals Sasha’s problems and how her life suddenly changed when she became a captive of the DiaZems. Other issues investigated here include the responsibility of parents and the difference between activism and terrorism. I’m glad to see someone in young adult addressing that last topic.

On the not so positive side, this seems really soft-pedaled. I know someone wouldn’t instantly achieve wisdom when something like this happens, but Sasha has a lot of naiveté to overcome. It seems simplistic that she’s joined with a subversive group and doesn’t understand the consequences–or that the DiaZems don’t immediately come down on her in a really ugly way. If they’re murdering people, surely they’ve got means to watch, control and punish their captive population. I’ve missed the first book, so maybe I don’t quite understand the gene situation and the new political structure–a prologue to explain those would have been helpful.

Three stars.

Review of Numbercaste by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

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I was sort of taken by “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi, a finalist on the 2019 Nebula ballot, so I went looking for more of Yudhanjaya’s work. This novel was originally self-published in 2017 and runs 300 pages. It was the winner of the 2017 Virtual FantasyCon Award. Yudhanjaya is Shri Lankan and has worked as a programmer, tech journalist and social researcher. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 2030 and Patrick Udo lives in Chicago where automation means jobs are scarce. At his mother’s funeral, he meets Julius Common, who wants his father to do marketing and publicity for NumberCorp. About the same time, Patrick’s banking app asks him to log in with his number and UN-ID, and to supply social media accounts. When he checks to see what’s behind the app, it’s NumberCorp, a six billion dollar financial tech company based in Silicon Valley. The UN-ID is a global blockchain-based ID system, and the number rates your social worth. Fascinated, Patrick takes the job instead of his dad, where he goes to work in the Communications department. They do battle with Facebook and win, go on to capture America. Patrick is transferred to a project in Sri Lanka, where he helps launch the number in South-East Asia, then Europe. Patrick becomes the company’s man as they launch campaigns to take India and China. The number will build a new world order, but is what they’re doing right?

This book isn’t exactly a page turner, but it’s well-written, inquiring and a little scary. It’s the flip side of Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope , but instead of the protagonist looking at the elitist rating system from the outside, Udo works for the company that’s building it. The plotting, world building and characterizations here are excellent, as the author outlines the people, events and campaigns that build the company into world dominance, and then shows its dark underbelly. Another item of interest: Although this is initially based in Silicon Valley, it doesn’t have an America-centric feel. Instead, it’s very global. Commons is an immigrant, and much of the story takes place in Europe and Asia. It ends, as it began, with the UN.

On the not so positive side, there’s not much of an action line here. The story just cooks along at a leisurely pace as the characters interact and the company mounts various campaigns that finally prevail. What is probably the climax passes, and Yudhanjaya, maybe needing to fill out more length for the manuscript, adds articles at the end that Udo wrote about the founder Julius Commons. In the end, this just gives you something scary to think about.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Writer Walter Mosley Quits Star Trek: Discovery

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So, this is still a very interesting cultural collision that I think is worth discussion. Again, here’s my comment that was censored by Mike Glyer at File 770: “Normally African Americans are given a pass on the N word. The question is why someone complained about his use of it. Did they not realize he identifies as black? Is there maybe a mandatory reporting rule at the studio? I expect he’s gotten huffy because he feels entitled to use the word.” Why did Glyer think this would generate an uncomfortable discussion? One comment on the story at File 770 suggested Mosley’s reaction was about privilege and entitlement. Is this the problem we can’t talk about?

There have been previous issues with the use of abusive language at this particular studio, which may have set up, at least, encouragement by Human Resources to report any language that might lead to discomfort among the writers, if not a mandatory reporting rule. Next, Mosley has a very light complexion, so it’s possible some onlookers may not have realized he considers himself African American (and therefore, by US custom, entitled to use the N-word without sanction). Accordingly, here’s what he says about it: “If I have an opinion, a history, a word that explains better than anything how I feel, then I also have the right to express that feeling or that word without the threat of losing my job.”

If neither of these issues above supports why someone reported him to HR, then is it possible the issue is something similar to the NRA suing the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for calling them terrorists, or Ahrvid Engholm filing a complaint about Jeanette Ng’s Hugo-acceptance speech where she seemed to associate white males with the word fascist? In other words, backlash. Was the reporting co-worker annoyed that Mosley was exercising some sort of special privilege and entitlement in using the N word?

Some prominent discussions have recently emerged about the success of minority groups in American culture, in particular, and how this generates backlash. For example, over-achieving Asian students recently sued Harvard University for discrimination in Affirmative Action admissions. Jews are perennially targeted for their economic success. And, likewise, black Americans are becoming concerned that backlash from other groups will curtail some of the gains they’ve made. Some sources frankly called the Mosley case an example of cultural backlash against a minority writer. Mosley, himself, called it an action of the political culture, writing: “I do not believe that it should be the object of our political culture to silence those things said that make some people uncomfortable.”

So, how do we sort this kind of conflict out? Is Mosley responding from a position of privilege and entitlement, or does he have a real case that the N word is necessary to express his life experience? Comments?

More on Suppression of Speech

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Suppression of speech is always a danger signal that any republic is headed in the direction of totalitarianism. Control of a national conversation is one of the requirements for total power—because speech actually is dangerous. The reasons are 1) that saying something can make it real, and 2) asking questions reduces certainty and makes people think about the issues.

The reason this topic has come up again in my blog is that more examples have accumulated recently about US groups trying to 1) control public perceptions through particular speech, and 2) to control what’s said and who can say it through suppression of speech. First, here’s an example of a government entity trying to frame an activist group (with a membership of 5.5 million) as a terrorist organization. On September 3, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution declaring the National Rifle Association a “domestic terrorist organization.” The officials then went on to urge other cities, states and the federal government to follow suit. So, not only has the San Francisco government body said something fairly radical about an interest group that peacefully advocates, but they’re also encouraging other government entities to say it, too (trying to make it more real). The NRA, always responsive, filed an immediate lawsuit for defamation and infringement on their constitutional rights.

Next, here’s an interesting article on the state of free speech at colleges. This is an opinion piece at Bloomberg, written by Steven B. Gerrard, who teaches philosophy at Williams College in Massachusetts. Concerned by contemporary issues in suppression of speech, Gerrard offered a course in the fall of 2018 called “Free Speech and Its Enemies.” Although he was pleased with the results among the students enrolled, he was later attacked during a faculty meeting on freedom of expression by a student group that named him an “Enemy of the People.” This group presented a letter that said: “‘Free Speech,’ as a term, has been co-opted by right-wing and liberal parties as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.” Notice that this student group is attacking both right-wing and liberal parties with their condemnation—this suggests they see themselves as neither. Does this mean they’re anarchists? The student group went on to present demands including reparations and segregated housing.

My last example is more related to the SFF community. Walter Mosley is an African American writer most noted for mysteries, but he also writes occasional science fiction. After finishing a writing stint on the FX show Snowfall, he was hired to write for CBS’s show Star Trek: Discovery. After using the N-word in the writer’s room, Mosley received a call from Human Resources telling him he was free to write this word into a script, but that he could not say it because it had made one of the other writers “uncomfortable.” Rather than accept this attempt to “silence” him, Mosley quit. Apparently he forgot to mention this to the studio, which learned about it by way of Mosley’s op-ed piece in the New York Times detailing his experience.

This was reported at the SF newszine File 770, where editor Mike Glyer immediately applied his own suppression of speech. Intrigued by the issues in this example, I submitted this comment: “Normally African Americans are given a pass on the N word. The question is why someone complained about his use of it. Did they not realize he identifies as black? Is there maybe a mandatory reporting rule at the studio? I expect he’s gotten huffy because he feels entitled to use the word.” Alert readers may notice that the comment was never posted at File 770. It was edited out by Glyer, who said it “amounted to trolling.”

Irony, anyone?

So, I’ll end with a quote from Mosley, “The worst thing you can do to citizens of a democratic nation is to silence them.”

Review of The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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Tchaikovsky is an Arthur C. Clarke award-winner. This novella was published by Tor.com on July 17, 2018. It is science fiction and runs 176 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Handry lives in a primitive village called Aro with his sister Melory. When he is 13, one of the village men transgresses, and the Lawgiver brews a potion that will exile him from the community. The Lawgiver is old and his ghost is unreliable, so he fails to watch the brew closely enough, and Handry stumbles over the pot and gets some of the potion on himself. The villagers try to clean him off, but he is permanently damaged. He lives a half-existence, unable to digest the village food and somehow separate. Even the local insects avoid him. When the old village Doctor dies, the ghost takes Melory as the new Doctor, and then exiles Handry as unrepairable. Wandering, starving and scared, he finds a band of fellow exiles led by the prophet Sharskin, who leads him to a place called the House of the Ancestors. Sharskin talks to a presence in the House, and he thinks the Severed aren’t really damaged, but instead are released from the tyranny of the ghosts. When Melory comes looking for Handry, Sharskin captures and tortures her, trying to get information from her ghost. Now Handry has to make choices about his future. What will he choose?

This is light reading that starts off like fantasy, but as it develops, we get clues like technical language coming from the ghosts and the House that suggest it’s really science fiction about a society that’s forgotten its origins. This is character driven and Handry’s relationship with his sister is heartwarming. The world-building here is also pretty creative, and the development gradually reveals how the tech behind it all works. The author manages to describe what’s really a fairly horrific life disaster for Handry and Melory and still keep the narration pretty positive.

On the negative side, what Handry and Melory end up with is just knowledge of other possibilities, and no real answers about how he’s going to survive as one of the Severed. This is more about the reveal than about what they can do with the information. Although the novella has a hopeful ending, they haven’t really solved anything. I’m also suspicious about Melory following Handry into the wild–I don’t see how her ghost would allow her to leave the village. And what’s she been eating all this time?

Three and a half stars.

Review of Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

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This novel is science fiction and was released by Vintage on January 9, 2018. It runs 689 pages. For anyone wondering, gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow. It also has implications about shadow secret societies. This review contains spoilers.

London in the near future is a surveillance state where a Witness System monitors and records everything. The government operates as a type of perfect democracy where all citizens are polled to vote on issues at regular intervals, and a vote is upcoming on whether implants should be inserted into individuals who need special monitoring and possible adjustment. In this environment, the elderly Diana Hunter, an eccentric Luddite writer and suspected dissident, is brought in for questioning through the invasive method of reviewing all her thoughts and memories. She dies after an unsuccessful interrogation, and Mielikki Neith, an Inspector of the Witness System, is tapped to investigate. Neith reviews the recordings of Hunter’s neural activity during the interrogation and finds a blockade of fictions, apparently presented to defeat the system. Three different narratives emerge: Athenian financier Constantine Kyriakos who is being stalked by a shark; ancient Carthagenian scholar and alchemist Athenais who is attempting to resurrect her son; and brilliant Ethiopian artist Berihun Bekele whose daughter Anna and partner Colson are designing a digital game called Witness. In her own reality, Neith meets a mysterious presence who introduces him/herself as Regno Lönnrot, who seems to be invisible to the Witness system. As Neith works through the neural recordings, she begins to put together clues and symbols that indicate a shadow group controlling the Witness System. What can she do about it?

So, this is interesting and mildly entertaining. It’s another of those brilliant works that presents the questionable benefits of surveillance and government control in the interests of national security, all in general terms related to the story, of course. It’s also a SF mystery story, plus a narration where one reality blends into another and you end up not being sure of what the “true” reality is. As we work through it, we start to wonder whether Neith is a reliable character or not. Actually, Bekele’s narration sounds pretty attractive, too. And then, there’s Lönnrot. And a demon? Hm.

On the negative side, there is a serious readability problem here. First, this is waaay too long. On the initial attempt, I gave up midway and later started over. It took me DAYS of dedicated work to slog through it. I understand this is part of the author’s literary device—it mirrors how Hunter dragged out the fictional narratives in her efforts to block the Witness’ invasion of her brain, but still, it’s just not gripping enough to justify nearly 700 pages. Second, these narratives don’t add enough to the story to support their length and detail–we could have gotten the idea with a lot fewer words. Each one of the stories could have been a novel on its own, and together they crowd out the minimal plot where Neith carries out her investigation and reaches a decision. The realities all come together in a muddle of resolution at the end, and the author just leaves us hanging there. This is followed by a very nice discussion about consciousness and reality in the last chapter, but that didn’t make the effort worthwhile for me.

Four stars for the brilliance and the message, but read at your own risk.

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