Little Brother

Arctic Rising by Tobias S. Buckell

Arctic Rising by Tobias S. Buckell

I have previously read and reviewed Tobias S. Buckell’s Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin, both of which I enjoyed. On the other hand, I am skeptical of alarmist claims about global warming. So it was with some ambivalence, a mixture of excitement and trepidation, that I began reading my advance review copy (ARC) of Buckell’s latest novel — his first foray into techno-thrillers — Arctic Rising (Tor, 2012). Though he had me worried a time or two, I was pleasantly surprised and glad I read it.

Arctic Rising is set in the near future — the Earth is warmer and the Arctic Circle is largely ice-free year-round. States and corporations are racing to take advantage of the new oversea North Pole trade route and the untapped resources made accessible by the receding ice. As you might expect, this is a situation ripe for political conflict, and environmentalists are none-too-happy with the change in climate either.

Buckell handles the environmental angle fairly gracefully. The global warming issue mainly shows up as background, for the setting, and as a plot device. Speaking of the plot, don’t read the GoodReads description of the book if you prefer to avoid major spoilers.

For the most part he avoids thumping you over the head with an ideological bludgeon. The one time I got really worried he was going to spoil the book for me was about 3/4ths of the way through when the co-founders of a green energy corporation go off on a talking point–ridden tag-team duologue, but let’s just say that the impact was lessened by the way they were subsequently portrayed.

Unlike many environmentalists I’ve encountered, Buckell has no difficulty recognizing that global warming would be harmful to some but also beneficial to others; that, contrary to the frequent warnings of doom and gloom, it wouldn’t be all bad. Sea levels would rise. But rising temperatures would open up more arable land in the north. While already hot regions might get detrimentally hotter, colder climes would get warmer as well and benefit from longer growing seasons. Resources previously buried under tons of ice would become open to exploitation. Moreover, once people have adjusted to the warmer temperatures, a return to colder temperatures of previous decades would result in winners and losers as well. There are no neutral climate changes; any changes in the Earth’s climate will have both positive and negative consequences.

As Arctic Rising opens, we are introduced to our sole viewpoint character — one Anika Duncan, a mixed-race Nigerian airship pilot for the chronically underfunded United Nations Polar Guard. As the story progresses we gradually learn more about her colorful past as a child soldier and later a mercenary pilot. When offered her dream job by the UN, prior to the start of the action, Anika had jumped at the chance for a safer, less eventful career doing what she loved.

And things were nice and quiet for Anika… until a hunch leads her to take a second look at a freighter. When something radioactive in the ship sets off her neutron scatter camera, Anika, thinking they are just nuclear waste dumpers, orders them to prepare for boarding. But the crew respond by blowing her and her co-pilot, Tom, out of the sky and into the still-frigid waters of the Arctic. Something bigger than nuclear waste dumping is going on here.

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BOOK REVIEW | For The Win by Cory Doctorow Thumbnail

Cory Doctorow’s latest YA novel, For The Win, just might be the Jungle of the digital age — a depiction of the plight of professional gamers and their struggle to unionize and extract concessions such as better pay, shorter hours, and safer working conditions (?!) from their employers through collective bargaining. Not being an avid gamer myself, much less a professional gold farmer, I’m left to wonder if it is as poorly researched and inaccurate as Upton Sinclair’s piece of socialist propaganda fiction. I expect left-libertarians will tend to like this novel but other libertarians will not. As for myself, I struggled to finish it and do not recommend it — as much because of the writing style and quality of writing as the subject matter.

For The Win opens with a gifted Chinese gold farmer — a working gamer who plays to collect game money and items to sell for “real” money to “rich,” lazy, mostly American gamers — in China who just happens to have the Western name of Matthew. He’s attempting to strike out on his own but is visited by Boss Wing’s goons and taught a lesson. Then we meet an American Jew in Los Angeles who goes by the Chinese name of Wei-Dong and moonlights, against his parents’ orders, as a gold farmer with some online buddies in China. Next, we’re introduced to Mala, aka General Robotwallah, a poor Indian girl with a talent for strategy and leadership, who is hired by a mysterious man to use her “army” to harass gold farmers in-game because they allegedly disrupt the game for honest, paying customers.

Before long we’re introduced to Big Sister Nor, a mysterious new figure on the scene who is out to organize working gamers into a union to fight corruption and improve their circumstances. As the novel progresses, we’re introduced to more characters, mostly in China and India, where the bulk of the action takes place. Perhaps the most notable is a female Chinese underground radio host who caters to the factory girls, giving them advice and urging them to stand up for themselves, while she dodges police raids, moving from safe house to safe house under a series of false identities.

One of the themes of the novel is how difficult it has been historically for workers to organize and how the internet (including social media and online games) provide game-changing tools for organizing labor. There is much truth to this, though I am skeptical that even the myriad tools of the internet can allow a voluntary global union to pull off anything like the ambitious scheme Cory’s protagonists endeavor to carry out in the novel. Although Cory has characters voice the usual skeptical objections to the efficacy of a voluntary global union, I don’t think he adequately addresses the difficulties such a union would face even in the digital age. Without state-backed coercion (directed at businesses, scabs, and their own members), how much power would a union really have, particularly spread out over the globe? Sure, gamers have an advantage in that they all work virtually in the same place — but still…

To Cory’s credit, however, he does depict a truly voluntary union whose leaders welcome freely competing unions in the market. The International Workers of the World Wide Web (IWWWW) or Webblies, as they call themselves,1 even eschew a formal hierarchy. The de facto head of the union at one point exclaims to her followers, “I’m not magic. … You all lead yourselves.” They also, admirably, do not seek compliance with their demands through legislation or regulation. Instead, they engage in self-help. Libertarians may find some of their methods questionable, however.

[Keep reading…]


  1. These terms were coined by Ken MacLeod, based on the real Industrial Workers of the World (or Wobblies), and borrowed by Cory Doctorow. 

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Finalists for the 2011 Prometheus Award for best libertarian novel were announced just yesterday. One finalist, Ceres, by past award-winner L. Neil Smith, has already been reviewed on Prometheus Unbound. Also making the cut is Cory Doctorow’s For The Win. I have a copy of this novel and plan to review it soon, after I publish a few overdue reviews.

As a reminder to our readers, we are open to submissions of reviews (as well as news, articles, interviews). Even if you can’t contribute regularly, we’d like to have a number of part-timers on our staff who only contribute occasionally. We’re even open to one-time contributors.

So if you’d like to read and review one of the other Prometheus Award finalists, nominees, past winners, or another piece of fiction, we’d be happy to consider it for publication.

Below is the full press release from the Libertarian Futurist Society, which presents the Prometheus Award:

[Keep reading…]

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BOOK REVIEW | Little Brother by Cory Doctorow Thumbnail

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is a tale about tech-savvy teenagers as they rebel against a Department of Homeland Security crackdown following a terrorist attack on San Fransisco. A piece of YA fiction that even adults can enjoy — it’s YA largely because of its teenage protagonists and its educational aim at young people — Little Brother is the 2009 Prometheus Award winner for best libertarian novel. Little Brother also won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and was a finalist for the Hugo Award.

Little Brother is set entirely in San Fransisco, California, in the very near future. Much of the technology in the story is already available, and what is not can easily be conceived as being on the horizon. The story is told entirely in the first person, from the point of view of the main character, Marcus Yallow. Marcus at first goes by the handle w1n5t0n (Winston in leetspeak, a homage to George Orwell’s 1984, as is the title of the book) but later switches to M1k3y (which could be a reference to the computer Mike in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress).

As the story opens, we are introduced to Marcus and three of his friends — Jolu (Jose Luis), Van (Vanessa), and best friend, Darryl — who ditch school to play an ARG (Alternate Reality Game) called Harajuku Fun Madness in and around the city. They happen to have the misfortune of being in the wrong part of town when terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge. In the chaos and confusion that follows, they get picked up by the Department of Homeland Security and then subjected to several days of interrogation and psychological torture in a “Gitmo by the Bay” before being released (with the exception of Darryl) with threats to keep quiet about their experience…or else. But once set free, Marcus and his friends are disturbed to see their city being turned into a police state.

Marcus resolves to fight back against the DHS, to restore civil rights and liberties and to free Darryl. He soon becomes the unofficial leader of a growing, decentralized movement of rebellious teenagers. But his covert struggle starts to put a strain on his relationships with his family and friends.

[Keep reading…]

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