Saturday, October 1, 2016

Crystal Society Heads Up

For those of you who like rationalist serial fiction, you may want to read Crystal Society. The author just announced the release date for Book 2 (January), so this came to mind. For when you've finished (go ahead, we'll wait), or those who have already read it, here's a quick thematic head-check below the fold:

This is clearly about communism vs capitalism, right? Even anarchocapitalism really.

We're not just talking about the political context (though the fact that the only active political group besides the establishment is a very generic communist-guerilla force with vague economic models makes clear this is the main political divide the author has in mind.) This is about how the groupmind works.

There are six AIs. To use the system resources, and do something with the body, they "bid" "strength" with each other, where whichever AI bids highest pays the others and gets what it wants. There's no resisting the highest bidder, although you now have their "strength" to bid against them later.

And, from the perspective of the protagonist AI, this system works and brings harmony and productivity to the AIs. The joy of Face describing it is the joy of well, a nerdy finance geek seeing just how great the market can be at delivering Pareto efficient outcomes to everyone. And yet, despite it's elegant performance, it's hard to ignore how arbitrary it is. "Strength" is not a resource that can be used as a good, or is naturally scarce - it's just a made up thing whose only value is it's artificial scarcity, and the fact that transactions bought with it must be accepted. This is like, fetishization of monetarism, and a pretty appealingly drawn fetish at that. (One of the strengths of Crystal Society is the lustful descriptions Face gives almost everything.)

Then comes Heart the tyrant. Heart is not selfish, Heart wants to make everything good for everyone and doesn't mind who it rolls over, who's free will is violated, to get that. The communism parable there is blunt, to say the least.

But isn't it fascinating the tool that Heart used to take control of the society? It was just... printing money. Heart doesn't directly control anyone else, and its violence is limited (certainly no more than the violence the other AIs have used.) Heart doesn't even avoid buying actions through the bidding system. Heart can just... create as much strength as it needs, and so always outbid everyone else at no cost to itself. And the other AIs can never consider anything radical, like, not engaging in these transactions for fiat strength. (Diagetically, the computer programs literally can't -- but they remind one of rich capitalists who can't see any world beyond spending money for more money. Also, while Face conspires to build a virus that will break Heart's printing press, she could in fact consider other measures like the abandonment of being slaved to currency - she just doesn't.)

So instead, the work conveys a... horror of monetaristic communism. It's akin to Wall Street being aghast if Bernie Sanders just turned on the printing press of money to pay for everyone's healthcare, and as he did, Wall Street just wailed "What are we gonna do, not accept this money?" (Horror is another of Crystal Society's great strengths.) Which is this fantastic way of killing capitalism by nightmarishly flooding it with the object it is obsessed with. 

This is jouissance, the Lacanian concept of a good we want too much of. Think of Winnie the Pooh's obsession with honey, so much that he wants the whole world to be made of it.

Pooh wants honey so much that he invents an ideological figure, the Backson, to explain who "took the honey away". And yet, not only is the Backson a figment of his imagination, but if he were actually to receive infinite honey, he would drown in a sticky, suffocating mess. It would be a nightmare like Heart flooding everyone with useless "strength."


Crystal Society works as a standalone novel, but of course we are going to wonder about where the next two books as well. Who is the tyrannical figure mentioned in the prologue? If it's Heart again, then it will probably be more of this communist imagery while never questioning the pointless underpinning of the strength market. If it's someone else, then maybe that will be because Face has realized how they are exploiting the fiat market and she needs to tear up the whole system in order to free the world.

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