posted Wednesday 18 January 2017 @ 5:11 pm PDT
Chasing Shadows: Visions of Our Coming Transparent World, edited by David Brin & Stephen W. Potts (Tor 978-0-7653-8258-0, $29.99, 336pp, hardcover) January 2017
The twin and inextricably intertwined notions of privacy and surveillance have been an important element of the core issues of science fiction since the birth of the genre. And the broader literature’s concern with these themes actually extends back even further than SF’s genre origins. Every utopia and every dystopia since Plato’s Republic has been concerned with monitoring its citizens somehow, to track their compliance with either supposedly liberating principles of fraternity and equality or with totalitarian dictates of limitation and suppression. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell the two extremes apart.) The tightrope balancing act between freedoms of the individual and civic duties always involves the question of how much information is to be shared among competing entities.
And so from Zamyatin’s We to Lang’s Metropolis, from Orwell’s 1984 to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, from Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” to Doctorow’s Little Brother, the genre has presented us with classic, mind-blowing exercises in secrecy versus transparency. (Novels involving generalized telepathy, such as Bester’s The Demolished Man, are an eccentric offshoot of the theme, as are ones that posit universal space-time viewers, such as Baxter and Clarke’s The Light of Other Days.)
When the computer revolution began to accelerate in the mid-1960s, prospects for even more intrusive practices than possible in the past began to impinge on the minds of SF writers. I recall one of Isaac Asimov’s essays from F&SF, at least forty years ago—which one, I cannot pinpoint; perhaps a reader will know—that speculated on the pluses and minuses of a universal identification card. If I remember correctly, Asimov was not wild about the idea, but felt in the end that it would have more benefits than deficits, especially for honest upright citizens who never did anything wrong—an argument still being made today.
A milestone work of non-fiction in this vein, now almost twenty years old, comes from within the genre. David Brin’s The Transparent Society (1998) surveyed the new technology that is driving us towards more and more disclosure, and drew fresh new conclusions about the issues.
Now, still cogitating on the ramifications of these issues, and displaying admirable tenacity and dedication to the cause, Brin offers an anthology of fiction on the topic, featuring a stellar lineup of contributors. At this juncture, I might also mention a similar contemporary project in which I myself was involved: Watchlist, edited by Bryan Hurt.
Brin and Potts’s book features a majority of original pieces with several reprint selections, as well as some non-fiction. We can select a few highlights from the over-two-dozen excellent tales—mainly from among the fresh items—that shed exceptional light on the matter to hand.
We start with a superb introduction by James Gunn, who covers in fascinating detail the territory that I highlighted above. Then we leap into “Mine, Yours, Ours” by Jack Skillingstead, which follows the fate of a woman who subscribes nobly to the share-an-organ plan of her era. “What is it you need from me?” “Your right lung for transplantation.”
James Morrow in his typical confidently acerbic mode slyly conflates a serum for temporary werewolfism with a device that sniffs out secrets, all in a setting of local schoolboard politics, and gives us “The Werewolves of Maplewood.” His hacker hero is surprisingly Ruckeresque.
D. G. Compton’s The Unsleeping Eye from 1973 was, if not the first, then one of the earliest stories to examine the notion of a person wired to transmit what they saw for public consumption. David Walton proves that the trope still has hidden corners in “Eyejacked.” “You promised the bedroom would be off-limits,” our protagonist implores his publicity-addicted wife. And the coincidentally allied title from Jack McDevitt—“Your Lying Eyes”—actually refers to a pair of smart glasses that reveal the falsity of any utterance. McDevitt compacts a lot of social change and challenge into a small compass.
Possibly my favorite entry in the volume, for its sprightly refusal to trade in clichés and its cockeyed optimism, is Brenda Cooper’s “Street Life in the Emerald City.” The radical move of equipping the homeless with drones results in nonlinear transformational social changes. “A park had grown on our street. The empty lots where two buildings had been torn down were green. There were trees and benches.” The street finds its own uses for things, indeed.
Ramez Naam gives us “The Disconnected,” which is a Wellsian “story-essay” that paints an utterly convincing future paradise—then pulls the rug out from under it by showing us “the holes in the world…the dark place…the dark hours.”
Karl Schroeder’s “Eminence” gives us the scoop on “Gwaiicoin,” the potlatch currency of a future Canada, while also dealing with the attendant encryption rituals, all while not slighting the deeply human aspects of the tale.
“Elephant on Table” is primo Bruce Sterling, showing us postmodern life in the Shadow House of Sardinia, circa 2073, “an opaque structure in a transparent world,” and the motley inhabitants thereof: the Chief, Tullio and Irma. Overstuffed with ideas and speculations, the story pivots and darts all over the map, yet remains organically whole. The hooker-cum-industrial agent Monica might be the most vibrant character: “My sugar daddy is a big defense corporation. It’s an artificial intelligence… It knows all my personal habits, and it takes real good care of me… So sometimes I do a favor—I mean, just a small personal favor for my big AI boyfriend…”
And finally, Brin himself closes out the book with “A Tsunami of Light,” a cogent wrap-up essay.
This anthology satisfies on many levels. It offers dramatic storytelling, grand ideas, and mutually divergent speculations which hew to no particular ideological party line. If we enter the transparent world with any kind of foreknowledge, it will be due to well-conceived and well-executed projects such as this one.