Sci-Fi Vacation Club

I have some ideas for essays kicking around, but I managed to get much reading done on vacation recently, so I wanted to do a quick media dump. I also went back to Breath of the Wild recently, digging into the new side quests, thankful that I was not pulled back into compulsively playing the game.

I read two pulpy Science Fiction on vacation, both page turners with widely different styles. The first was Dan Moren's The Caledonian Gambit. I follow Moren's writing about Apple, as well as his frequent appearances on The Incomparable. A veteran tech writer getting to publish his first novel would have attracted my attention, mostly because of my aspirations. Moren did an interview with Jason Snell about the process of writing the book that should be encouraging for aspiring writers.

The book itself is a fun little spy adventure set on a world that based itself on a Scotland. A mining world that has been taken over by an evil empire so expansive that it even took over Earth, there are three factions at work. The Empire itself which uses the mining world for its secret projects. The Commonwealth which is a Federation type outfit of Independent worlds, and a nativist group on the planet that isn't above using terrorism to achieve its goals. Caught in the middle is a pilot from the world who left to join the Empire's navy.

What plays out is a nice potboiler plot about an unknown secret project. Moren is particularly skilled at using shifting perspectives in the narrative to ensure you know just enough to keep reading.

This is not a book that will change your life, but it is a great vacation read. It leaves everything open for a sequel, one I think it earns without sacrificing the book's natural ending. When and if it comes out I will likely grab a copy, as I think this world has more stories to give.

Cory Doctorow is one of my favorite modern Sci-Fi writers, but I always preface that with an acknowledgment that he is an acquired taste. His work is full of long-winded polemics, info-dumps, and knowing winks to the audience. While lesser skilled writers would make all of that feel amateurish, Doctorow does it with a style and voice that lets you know this is his natural style. He is not trying too hard; he is just interested in this stuff.

Doctorow has said that Walkaways is a positive post-apocalyptic novel. Showing that Hollywood's idea that everyone goes feral when the lights go out is simply not our nature. The disaster at the heart of Walkaways is threefold. The first is that outside of cities huge chunks of the Earth are dealing with climate disasters that have left large swaths of the world abandoned. Astride this is an economic meltdown that has left most people either unemployed or on government assistance. Then you have the ultra-rich families that are aligning into huge, all-powerful cartels.

If you are sensing that Doctorow might be a bit of a lefty, you would be right. Which is where the hook of the novel comes in. This is not really about the disaster and coming together, but that included. This is about showing that "Abundance Communism" (my term not the novel's) is our road to a post-scarcity society. That 3D printing, vat-grown food, on demand recycling of materials into 3D printer stock, and even the singularity if shared properly means that everyone does not need to work any more than they want to.

At the heart of that is the idea that Capitalists' obsession with merit and rights to wealth is nothing more than a shared delusion that recreates the strife that created the modern world. More importantly, there is an underlying message that if we are not careful and we let the ultra-rich put the singularity behind a paywall, we are doomed to a life of feudal drudgery and just enough government assistance to prevent a riot.

I am not sure that Doctorow's particular blend of Anarcho-syndicalism and technological Utopianism is the way forward, but it is given as a compelling case. Even if you disagree with Doctorow, it is nice to see a writer who, like Heinlein, is actively thinking about society and how technology will shape it. Unlike Heinlein, Doctorow has pretty consistently been arguing against top-down power structures in his fiction all the way back to his first short story collection.

If you are worried about reading some boring treatise, don't worry. The thing that keeps me reading Doctorow's work is that he does all of this in the middle of page-turners. The biggest strength of this novel is that no matter how big the action gets we are kept at a human viewpoint. There's mechs, drones, zeppelins, and AI all in here, and every bit of the action stays grounded in characters we know relating to it in very human ways.

I am still surprised that no one has picked even one of Doctorow's short stories to make into a movie. His role as a blogger and EFF leader means that his views of technology stay grounded. Little Brother was talking about using TOR nodes to get around surveillance when the iPhone was a novelty device. Walkaways has some fantastical technology, but its based on the earliest prototypes of today.

I really like this book, but I know it is not going to be for everyone. Like Heinlein, your view of Doctorow's politics is likely to color your reading of him.

Mike M

Mike M

I have written various kind of reviews for years. I currently write for Make Use Of. I used to write for Digital Entertainment News, Macgasm, and the Examiner. My day job is as an IT monkey. Follow me on Twitter.