When Sci-Fi Meets Cyberpunk

TheSkySoBigAndBlack

I went on a little sci-fi bender over the last month since there are few good game of note put out at the end of last year.  I started with Childhood’s End (weird,) then Rendezvous with Rama (good adventure story,) reread Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead (still awesome on repeat readings,) and slogged through Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.   Oddly enough, the one that stuck out in my mind ended up being The Sky So Big and Black by John Barnes.  It is a great blend of sci-fi cyberpunk.

The book is the last in the Century Next Door series.  It focuses a teenaged prospector Teri and shrink/friend during the colonization of Mars.  The story begins not long after an idea (meme) war breaks out on Earth.  This leads to the assimilation of everyone by the True One, a viral program that runs inside people heads that controls their action.

In the beginning, Teri works with her dad as a prospector hunting trapped water and gases on the surface of Mars.   They are one of thousands that are terraforming Mars.  Her life, outside making a big gas score, is rather mundane for a teen.  She graduates school, gets dumped by her boyfriend, and ponders the future.  During the first two-thirds of the book, I wondered this narrative was leading but soon all hell breaks loose.  The ending left me conflicted.  On the one hand, it is depressing to see what she went through and on the other the story end with her mostly happy.  It is weird to read about something were protagonist couldn’t tell you if any of the preceding narritives are real or made up by some computer program.

ghostintheshellWhile not be best best book I’ve read in the last month, the concept of a program running inside someone brain makes for fascinating reading.  Throughout the book, I wondered if what the main character is remembering is real or something concocted by the virus.  It reminds me of the excellent anime movie, Ghost in the Shell, where people’s brains get hacked and controlled. 

It is worth checking out if you are into sci-fi or a cyberpunk fan.  Though those not familiar with the series might want to start with the first book Orbital Resonance.

Review: Capitalism Hits the Fan

Over the Christmas break, I listened to Rick Wolff’s lecture/movie, Capital Hits the Fan, an interesting historical perspective on the build up leading to the credit crisis.  He historical points:

  1. The feeling of American Exceptionalism became ingrained from a consistent increase in prosperity starting in Industrial Revolution through the 1970s.
  2. Since the 1970s workers have felt the effects of wage stagnation.  This is due to globalization, increasing minority/women workforce participation, and productivity gains.
  3. People still wanted to increase their prosperity even if their pay checks were not getting bigger.  So they borrowed and worked longer hours to maintain their standard of living.  I don’t completely agree with some of his finer points, but the idea is solid.
  4. Banks and companies saw increasing profits from the great productivity gains of the digital revolution, which they then lent to consumers (and governments.)
  5. Consumers became overburden with debt…the crash happened.

While I agree with his snarky historical reasoning about what led up to the housing debacle, he should have tones down the smugness of his presentation.  It made his solution seem idealist and hooky.  He wants workers to own their companies rather than the capitalists or managers.  This might sound like communism, but in is more nuanced than that political philosophy.

American Airlines and parts of Volkswagen Group operate this way.  Instead of investors getting rich, the profits flow to the workers instead.  Sounds nice, but it is hard to run a large company in this way.  There are downsides to this method:

  1. When a downturn hits (as they always do,) will workers/owners downsize themselves?  Unions often can run a struggling company into the ground, what would happen if they also control the purse strings too?
  2. Workers don’t have the capital to expand without borrowing from bankers, the same people who overextended our economy in the first place.
  3. Not every company can be run as a flat organization like Valve Valve (New link.)  Someone will still need to make strategic decisions and get paid a lot of money to do it.

Overall, there are some interesting things to be learned here, but how the content is presented makes it not worth the $20.

Update 10/19/2015: Updated link to valve handbook.