Stealing Worlds, Karl Schroeder (Tor 978-0-7653-9998-4, $29.99, 320pp, hardcover) June 2019
There are a handful of SF writers whose novels are both vastly entertaining and which also serve as engineer-level blueprints for refashioning the world. In this category I would put Kim Stanley Robinson, Vernor Vinge, Cory Doctorow, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and Charles Stross. Now, with a shift in his focus from far futures to near horizons, I would add the name of Karl Schroeder. His latest is a day-after-tomorrow scenario in which all the less-appealing trends of 2019 are extended and harshened, so as to force a rethink of how communities and civilization at large should work. Bubbling-under positive factors are emphasized to show us how to carve a liberating underworld out of dystopia, making us believe it is within our grasp, while also delimiting mankind’s hubris. (Schroeder had a trial run with this mode in his story “Eminence” in the anthology Chasing Shadows.)
Schroeder might have titled his book Run, Sura, Run!, for that is the condition our heroine finds herself perpetually in. Sura Neelin—whose suitably talismanic first name is literally the word referring to the chapters of the Koran, and also very close to “sutra,” the thread of Buddhist teachings—at first glance appears to be just another drone in the merciless economies of her era. She is without close relatives to rely on. Her Mom died of natural causes several years back, and her eccentric, gadabout father is alienated from her. Having just lost her job, Sura decides to blow her old debt-ridden identity for a new one. But then Marj, her father’s recent main squeeze, contacts her to deliver the news that her father is dead, thanks to an “accident” at a leaking petrochemical plant. Marj implies the accident was murder, and that the forces who killed Neelin père are now interested in Sura—for reasons inexplicable. So Sura’s flight into anonymity becomes even more vital.
But despite her best efforts—and given her larcenous childhood, she’s pretty good at such things—she is tracked down by a bounty hunter named Jay. Captured, she is about to be handed over to her foes when Jay has a change of heart. Freeing her, Jay introduces her to a woman named Compass who can help Sura live free. And that’s the entrance to Schroeder’s vast countercultural rabbit hole.
Compass is a representative of the gameworld/frameworld/larping counter-economy, where Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and Mixed Reality converge to form a kind of quasi-potlatch, quasi-barter, quasi-communal, cryptocurrency ecosystem. Inducted into this tribe, Sura proves herself an adept who learns rapidly, as she aspires to Larpwright status. She meets an incredibly diverse set of fellow players, some friends and lovers, some neutral, some antagonists. Schroeder has a ball juggling all these vibrant characters and illustrating how their worlds prosper in contrast to the hollow shells of capitalism, communism, religion, and all the other -isms. We learn the ins and outs through Sura’s own education.
But her past won’t leave her alone, and there are several instances where she comes close to being caught again, still unwitting of why the bad guys want her.
Midway through the book, Schroeder gives an uninterrupted multipage speech to Pax, one of the main architects of this new future.
“This new civilization is not money-based. Instead, it works to optimize higher-level measures of human well-being, and those metrics are defined by you, the players! This civilization isn’t governed by a hierarchy; it’s polycentric governance in which each frameworld runs itself according to the rules and smart contracts that its players create locally. It’s simulation-based resource allocation, with you running the sims…
“This is why you’re here,” Pax cries. “You’re here because over the past year you’ve helped refine and perfect a new kind of society, one that doesn’t depend on disproven theories, like the theory that we’re all ‘rational economic actors.’ It uses a more generous economics that’s neither socialist nor capitalist but something bigger and better than both. History will henceforth be divided into two eras: the time before this day, and what comes after. And you are the ones who cleaved time!”
It’s a stirring revolutionary paean, but it sets the old and desperate establishment forces afire too. Oppression and counterattacks loom. But what’s worse, Sura comes to suspect that even the frameworlds are a “Ponzi game” that will bankrupt the planet. Maybe if she could learn what her father knew, she’d find a way around all the roadblocks to her own peace and the world’s health. So a trip to Lima, Peru, where Neelin père died is mandated. But with her quest there only half over, Sura is summoned back to the US by a pogrom against the frameworlds and her friends. Will she be able to contribute to the world’s utopian prospects and finally stop running? Perhaps only with the help of some non-human players much larger than herself.
Lest readers should imagine that this book is all lectures and disembodied digital exploits, let me reassure you that, to the contrary, it is tangibly fleshed out and full of deftly choreographed action pieces, such as Sura’s rescue of a pal named Bill Duchene from his kidnappers. In fact, the theme of the insufficiency of humanity’s brainchildren against the majesty and implacability of nature proves to be the key to Sura’s quandary—and the world’s.
I will mention one trivial place where Schroeder sets his foot wrong, only because it is indicative of how even the finest writers can betray logic and art when they are intent on making an ideological point (something I mentioned in my Locus review of Cory Doctorow’s latest). At an appropriate moment, we find this sentence: “Sura laughs; she has no idea what she is, sexually, but doesn’t care; her generation is past the whole labeling thing.”
Now, we all recognize this statement as a current truism about Gen Z. But Sura is several generations beyond them. (Although the date of the book is indeterminate, we know through such radical manifestations as hyperloop travel to South America that decades have passed.) So either this observation is superfluous (i.e., bad art)—Sura should just unconsciously accept the still-dominant Gen Z revolution in sexual non-labeling that has informed her whole life without a need to comment on it—or it’s illogical by the book’s own backstory—we are never shown any kind of revanchist interregnum, where an intervening generation did begin labelling their sexuality again, thus forcing Sura’s generation to assert themselves. It makes as much sense as this sentence: “Sura’s generation had their own music; no one listened to Perry Como anymore.” Schroeder’s sentence exists only as a signifier of hipness.
But this incredibly minute glitch does nothing to hinder a propulsive, heartfelt, wise and generous near-future novel that holds out a hope we desperately need. Sharing a vibe and lineage with both Chris Brown’s Tropic of Kansas and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, Karl Schroeder’s exciting and tangible reification of his academic futurist credentials is a book that could be a map to a better world, if only readers remove their blinders and don metaphorical smart lenses that encourage lateral thinking and optimism.
At one point, a friend defines for Sura what a Larpwright does: “See a new world, make it visible, and invite people in. Gradually turn down the volume on the reality they’re coming from, while you turn up the volume on the new one.”
By this measure, Karl Schroeder is Larpwright Supreme.
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