Friday, 14 March 2014

Appendix N part 3: the indignity of labour!

This is the third part of my Cyberpunk gaming Appendix N series. It was going to be about Leggy Starlitz and Bruce Sterling, buuut... look, I never made any claims to consistency! I'll get around to him.

Part 1 was all about Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy and the 1950s noir that influenced it.
Part 2 deals with cyberpunk inflected spy stories - Gibson's Blue Ant trilogy, Don Delilo, John Le Carre...

Part 3 will be all about novels about work. About employment or professional life, as something other than a spy or soldier or criminal. Or, for that matter, an artist (or a journalist). Novels where work forms the basis of the plot. 

Given how much time the average person spends at work, you'd think more literature would cover the subject. And yes, I meant literature, not just "genre fiction". There's Revolutionary Road and... 

There are clear hurdles to writing this kind of novel. Every profession comes with its own metalanguage, which can be opaque for the reader as well as the researching writer. There are difficulties in plotting - no padding the novel out with gun battles and meteor impacts (probably)! There are even difficulties in finding a readership - escapism is half the reason for reading fiction, and people don't necessarily want to read a novel that sounds like it might be about work. I'm sure genre publishers are scared of it. So the arrival of a novel like this ought to be treasured.

In the swirling world of post-cyberpunk Cory Doctorow is the writer most associated with novels about labour, so we'll start with him!
Life in the Bitchun' Society

When I set out to write this, I assumed I'd begin talking about Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom first, follow it up with some discussion of Eastern Standard Tribe and then go onto talk about Makers. However, i'm reading Down and Out like, now, and I can't help but think about it in relationship to Makers. Furthermore, the more I think about this the more I realise that my response to those three novels has essentially been the same. So - as of the typing of this sentence - i'm going to try describing them all in one messy togetherness. 

Lets get one of these novels out of the way quickly. I read Eastern Standard Tribe a couple of years ago, and it was a wonderful nostalgia trip back to 2004: not coincidentally, the year it was released. This is a science fiction novel so timely it was basically outdated before it came out. It also occurs to me that I can't remember the plot, just visual snatches (and radioactive coffee). It describes a world of networked tribes linked by ideas and values rather than geographical location - while that's still a current idea, the atmosphere reminds me of the forum culture of ten years ago. It's very funny and very sharp and very short. All it has to say, it says about an ephemeral cultural moment that lasted maybe four years and passed a decade ago.

I don't think I've ever been as excited for a novel to come out as I was for Makers, despite the fact that I'd never actually read any Cory Doctorow. A novel all about the rise of 3d printers, my economic and political obsession for years! My excitement was justified, as it turned out. Makers is a sprawling, human novel, taking in several decades of success, friendship and heartbreak. Three idiosyncratic, fully realised characters advance through a plot built around high interpersonal stakes that must have been informed by real start-up culture stories (all of these novels are, I think). Corporations and microcorporations rise and fall and the social effects of those stories aren't brushed aside as they are in many "heroic entrepreneur" tales.

If I have a problem with Makers it's that it isn't radical enough. The story recapitulates the stories of start-up cultures and new technologies over the last few decades in an intensely compelling way, but I don't feel it engages with the full potential of on-demand production - a revolution every bit as important as modern communications technology and every bit as revolutionary as the steam engine. People forget that every nation that industrialised in the 1800s experienced some kind of major war as result of shifting power structures - 3d printing and distributed power systems promise just as much chaos and realignment. There's also another issue that I don't feel Makers engages with - i'll come back to that in a minute.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a book set in utopia, the kind of future that the Makers crowd are trying to build. It could even be a sequel. The novels share obsessions - specifically Disney World, and the degree of obsessive artwork the "imagineers" put into making that place sing. In the bright world of the future bureaucracies and "shareholders" have been defeated by fast moving "Ad-hocs" and a reputation based economy - "Whuffies" - that encourages consensus building. It's a genuinely exciting attempt to imagine an entirely new form of economy and lifestyle, all the more so in the light of Fredric Jameson's assertion that we now live in a time when "it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism." Naturally, this idealised geekiverse is known as the Bitchun' Society

The plot concerns itself with a battle between two ad-hocs for control of Disney World, as a group dedicated to the original artistic integrity of the park clashes with a well organised clique apparently dedicated to updating and replacing the old rides. The novel is short and fun and again based on real interpersonal stakes. It's clear eyed about the world it presents, and isn't afraid of letting its characters act like complete assbags in completely plausible ways.

Both these novels embrace a self-consciously geeky utopian vision, resolutely a California tech-nerd's dream of the future. But Makers in particular left me with a big question - this shifting world of geeky communes and ephemeral passion projects is all very well, but how do any of these people (or any of the people in this world!) raise families? I really want to see a Cory Doctorow novel that engages with this question (and now that he has a child of his own, I suspect an answer might be forthcoming!). From a gaming point of view, Makers is the best "techie" novel around, while Down and Out provides an entirely new vocabulary for the social world of the setting - the kind of thing that makes the familiar strange and cyberpunk fiction soar.

There is another - brilliant - Cory Doctorow novel about work called For the Win. It's also about so much more, so i'm going to cover it at a later time!

Adrift in the Oligarchy

Back to something more conventionally cyberpunk. Nicola Griffith's Nebula Award winning Slow River isn't set in anything approaching a utopia - in fact, aside from some minor technological advances, the world is recognisably our own. Lore, the young scion of a corporate dynasty, is kidnapped and left for dead on the streets of an unnamed northern European city. Taken in by a predatory criminal called Spanner, she has the chance to return to her family. Her reasons for remaining, and her struggle to rebuild her life on her own terms, form the bulk of the novel.

When I began Slow River I assumed it was going to be another novel in a proud subgenre (the one in which a wealthy person loses their electronic identity and then has to survive among the norms) that includes Philip K Dick's Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and Frederick Pohl's fantastic The Space Merchants, among many others. Instead, Slow River flows in an entirely different direction.

This is the best novel about working in a sewage plant ever written. There, I've said it. I'm prepared to defend that statement to the hilt.

Nicola Griffith tells an introspective, absorbing story about a person losing and finding herself again, interwoven with corporate malfeasance and petty crime. Lore's determination to live for herself eventually alienates her from Spanner, a cynical 'runner who lives by blackmail, electronic theft and drug infused prostitution. In trying to separate herself from both Spanner's world and the dysfunctional corporate dynasty that made her, Lore takes a job in a water plant. The book is obsessed with bioremediation and water - corporate exploitation and reconstruction, contamination and processed shit. It's fundamentally a novel about coping with personal trauma.

Slow River passed completely under my radar until last year, when some friends were kind enough to give be a bunch of book tokens and I decided to spend them all on books chosen almost at random from Gollancz's Science Fiction Masterworks series. At the risk of being an unpaid shill for a publishing house, I really like what they're doing! The novel frequently turns up in lists of the best LGBT sci-fi - it's radical in that it simply normalises the lesbian relationships in the book without leering comment (in a just world, that wouldn't be worthy of praise!). 


The ideal of a post-scarcity society comes up again in one of the most idiosyncratic novels every written - Francis' Spufford's Red Plenty, a historical novel that reads like science fiction. The most accurate one sentence description of this work might be "Soviet economic policy in the Khrushchev era: the novelisation." If that doesn't grab you, then... well, I can understand how it might not. Red Plenty sets out to tell the tale of the Soviet cybernetic movement, through the lives of many characters bound up in it - some real, some imagined. It is extensively footnoted, but that doesn't break up some genuinely wonderful prose. 

Here's the set up: the Soviet Union had just gone through both Stalinism and a brutal world war. Marxism was always an industrial ideology, predicated not on redistributing the wealth but control over the means of production, giving every worker control of his own life. The Bolshevik leaders carried out their revolution in the hope that Germany would follow (as it very nearly did, in 1919). Without an industrial communist state in Europe to provide the worker's cornucopia, they had to build one from scratch. And they did - in the 1930s, the Soviet Union was building factories to build factories to build factories, investing more of its output into expanding output capacity than any other economy in the history of the world. 

By the mid-1950s, they had factories. Stalin was gone and with his passing many of the worst elements of his rule passed as well. For the first time, output was being directed to consumer goods. New, better housing was going up. Clothing and luxuries were available. There was a mood that believed the sacrifices of the past had been awful but to some extent necessary: now was the time for the planned economy to fulfill its promise. 

So the question was: how to proceed? The Cybernetics movement, with its equivalent in the US, seemed to provide a politically palatable option. What it came down to was systems theory. Mathematical systems (now used by corporations to manage supply chains) were to be used to iron out inefficiencies. Questions of how to judge demand - always where the Soviet economic model fell down - became paramount in building a new economic model. To tell this story Spufford assembles a cast of compelling people real and fictional from across the economic and political spectrum. To quote Ken Macleod: It's a bit like reading a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, Neal Stephenson, or Ursula Le Guin - or maybe a mashup of all them; full of arguments between passionate and intelligent people, diverting (in both senses) infodumps, and all about something that actually happened - and, more significantly, about something that didn't happen, and why it didn't. What could have been a very dry subject is made real by personal stakes and strong characters.

Frankly, the entire book is worth reading for an early chapter describing the American exhibition in Moscow - a giant Buckminster Fuller dome full of giant television screens, naturally - and an emotionally fraught clash between the paid propagandists of the two rival ideologies, that crosses the line from the theoretical to the very personal. Like Makers, it's a novel about adapting technology in an attempt to build a utopia, and the personal costs therein.

Oh - and since this post is allegedly a gaming aid, its the single best source of ideas for Soviet alternative history ever. If your Cyberpunk future still has the Soviet Union - for that real 1980s feel - there's no better source for ideas on making it strange and futuristic. Trinary processors!
Coming up next in this series... oh, I don't know. Something good!