Russell Letson Reviews Stealing Worlds by Karl Schroeder
Stealing Worlds, Karl Schroeder (Tor 978-0-7653-9998-4, $29.95, hc) June 2019. Cover by Stephane Martinière.
Thanks to its depiction of a tech-based, street-smart, stick-it-to-the-man counterculture, Karl Schroeder’s Stealing Worlds will inevitably be compared to classic cyberpunk, but the vibe is quite distinct and not nearly as noirish. The setting is a just-over-the-horizon heterotopian future that nevertheless had me thinking of the much more exotic and farther-out worlds of Schroeder’s earlier novels, Ventus (2000) and Lady of Mazes (2005). But this novel starts in a much more familiar place, not unlike the settings of recent near-future-crisis books such as Christopher Brown’s Rule of Capture or Jack Skillingstead’s The Chaos Function. The situation here is not as dire, but it’s bad enough – an overheated America “in a state of perpetual, low-grade civil war,” increasingly dominated by overweening corporate powers that make their money from automated-everything, from manufacturing to parcel delivery, along with the ability to trace and track every transaction. Part One, titled “The Precariat”, is named for the shakiest parts of the American workforce, marginalized by the Amazon/Uberization of whole swathes of the productive and distributive system:
…all around the city dozens of cars have rented out their trunks, which contain cigars and scotch and stuff. Every now and then one of these trunks will pop open, seemingly at random and often while the car is driving, and a drone carrying a bottle of Talisker’s or Oban will zip off at right angles, delivering the package to a waiting customer and justifying the company promise: Five minutes or it’s free.
Those cars, by the way, are autonomous self-drivers generating revenue for their owners, which might themselves be autonomous, AI-operated corporations.
Sura Neelin, like many outside the security of the much-shrunken middle-class, is scraping along in the gig economy, saddled with debt she has no prospect of paying off. But she has, if not a superpower, at least an odd talent and skill-set: since her teens she has been a recreational burglar, casing houses and then breaking-and-entering, not in order to steal but to take trophies in the form of smartphone scans of objects. That is just one indication of her outsider personality. She has recently lost her mother to a long illness (thus the crippling medical debts) when she learns that her long-absent father has been murdered and that whoever killed him might be looking for her. When she finds a last gift from him – a hidden stash of fake identity documents – she is able to completely untether herself from her old life.
In her new persona, Sura falls in with an interlocking series of subcultures that exist within, beneath, and outside the official social-economic system, and what follows is both a tour of these marginal worlds and a thriller, featuring capers, exploits, heists, kidnappings, and escapes, all wrapped around a techno-utopian idea-set. The science-fictional (literal) enabling devices that drive much of the action are the near-universal virtual-reality smart glasses that connect the wearers to an all-pervading internet and fill your visual field with all manner of flags, tags, ads, directions, and suggestions. But there’s also the “mesh,” a “parallel pirate network” that allows one to avoid the “unstoppable surveillance machine” of the official networks and to participate in elaborate freeware VR games that overlay real spaces with imaginary ones – Mixed Reality. And those games are gateways to an underground economy that interacts with the non-gaming world and allows people like Sura to make a living that is both virtual and real.
Sura finds fellow refugees from the mainstream economy/culture, gets help from a range of guides and allies, and works her way through increasingly subversive levels of an emerging alternative to the status quo and its power structures. Each stage of her journey has its characteristic adventures: In Pittsburgh, she runs a crew of gamers in the labyrinthine, steampunkish meta-game called Rivet Couture, through scenarios that increasingly merge virtual and real-world exploits that use game processes to do real work, like finding, tagging, and redistribuing unallocated resources. In Detroit, she becomes involved in the “frameworlds,” practical extensions of the gaming ecology that are reclaiming and rehabilitating abandoned parts of the city and in the process building a new set of socioeconomic structures, independent of the official system.
Always on her mind, though, is her father’s fate and the puzzle of who might be looking for her and why, and this is one of the places where the virtual and very material worlds intersect – it’s all fun and virtual games until somebody puts a real eye out. When Sura tracks her father’s activities to the Amazonian rainforest, she is in turn tracked by real-world thugs and has to deal with them in a non-virtual manner. Nor are they the only dark elements in the Mixed Reality – white supremacists have built their own alternate-history world, and “apocalypse-porn incels… liv[e] out their Mad Max fantasies” in an actually fortified abandoned factory. And of course the threat to the status quo represented by the cooperative, self-organizing, non-capitalist frameworlds cannot go forever unnoticed by the official powers that be, so there comes an inevitable showdown.
Despite its dystopian possibilities, Stealing Worlds bears a broad streak of idealism and even optimism, and the ideas embedded in the busily eventful story-line point to where Sura’s adventures merge with the visions of Ventus and Lady of Mazes. All three books are centrally concerned with the complex relationships between constructed and natural worlds, how humans navigate both, and how the two can coexist without one destroying each other. In Ventus, the physical environment is an elaborate, nanotech-driven set of intelligent machineries that mimic a natural world; in Lady of Mazes, most people live in consensual, collective virtualities – inscapes – that are skinned over their physical environments. Stealing Worlds could be a kind of origin story for both books.
Schroeder seems fascinated by a family of questions: How might we organize ourselves? How does nature organize itself? How might we couple the two sets of organizing systems? Can we have organization without compulsion? Without destruction and exploitation? When we look at nature, does nature look back? In the first chapter of Stealing Worlds, Sura imagines the “web of exchanges” that bind together the natural processes in her neighborhood:
True, the flowers traded their nectar, there were markets in the bushes, but there were also gifts being bestowed, such as the oxygen sighing from the leaves…. and everywhere little leaf factories banging on incoming molecules with their trip hammers…. All these trillions of projects ran independently yet were somehow nested in harmonious circles, invisible to the old man mowing his lawn….
In her subsequent adventures, she travels through increasingly extensive webs that bind human to human and eventually humankind to the natural order (the damaged condition of which is always noted by the text). Each level of adventure offers occasions to consider ideas about ownership, allocation, cooperation, autonomy, and other matters affecting how we get along with each other and the systems of the physical world – which has its own kind of autonomy. The final chapter ends with an echo of that earlier passage (though the circles have become less invisible) – and of a similar one at the end of Ventus. There is a critical-analytical essay on the through-line implied by these echoes waiting to be written, but for now it is enough to enjoy the ride that Schroeder provides and to recognize that there is more to it than twists, turns, velocity, and thrills.
Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.
This review and more like it in the October 2019 issue of Locus.
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