Review of LockStep

Since the tech of science fiction tends to be more realistic than its social science, I am especially interested in science fiction praised for its social realism. Alas I usually find even those wanting. The latest such book is Lockstep. Cory Doctorow:

As I’ve written before, Karl Schroeder is one of the sharpest, canniest thinkers about technology and science fiction I know. … Now he’s written his first young adult novel, Lockstep, and it is a triumph. Lockstep’s central premise is a fiendishly clever answer to the problem of creating galactic-scale civilizations in a universe where the speed of light is absolute. … Lockstep has enough social, technological, political and spiritual speculation for five books. It is easily the most invigorating, most scientifically curious book I’ve ever read that’s written in a way that both young people and adults can enjoy it. (more)

Paul Di Filippo:

And then, within all this gosh-wow fun, Schroeder inserts a detailed subtext on economics. He’s concerned with income inequality, arcane trade arrangements between locksteps, theft and conquests of sleeping cities. In fact, this book should probably be read in parallel with Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood. … Both these books prove that far from being the “dismal science,” economics can provide fascinating grounds for speculations. (more)

To explain my complaints, I’ll have to give some spoilers. You are warned.

Lockstep assumes that for each star there are many thousands of planets that sit far from stars. It focuses on an empire of such planets spread over a few lightyears, an empire that has lasted for fourteen thousand years since starting near Earth, and slowly grown to cover thousands of planets. This empire is ruled by a small family and a strong religion, which together limit what tech can be used and how many robots each human can own, and require humans to hibernate for all but one month out every thirty years. So local humans have experienced only forty years in all this time, and growth in the number of human residents has come mostly from immigration.

Near the stars there are super-AIs and post-humans and things happen much faster. They grow but then crash and burn, and don’t accumulate net growth, which is why there has been room left for this lockstep empire to expand. Why do they keep crashing? Apparently because you need real flesh humans to have real motivations; without human flesh you forget why anything matters. Really. Sigh.

Other than by providing this crucial motivation, humans are described as a net drain on society. Humans use things up, and then it takes thirty years for the robots to restock. Without humans hibernating, everything would run out. Yet we see that robots sometimes subcontract to black-market humans to do their jobs, because robots worry about wearing themselves out on tough jobs. And humans can survive on the wages they get from this. But this shows that humans don’t have to be a net drain.

This particular lockstep empire isn’t the only one; others hibernate at different frequencies and phases, and also grow very slowly on net. Apparently the ones nearby also limit tech strongly enough to keep those motivated flesh humans in charge. It isn’t clear if any of those empires are as successful as where our hero lives, and many human-dominated societies must crash and burn out there, since this place get all its immigrants from their crash refuges.

Our hero and his friends want to convert the lockstep empire into a democracy, and weaken its religion. Neither he nor the narrator seem much concerned that this might destroy whatever has prevented this empire from not crashing. Democracy is just the fair thing, and religion is foolish, and that’s that. Which seems to me a pretty irresponsible attitude here. If in fact consistent growth over a long term has been extremely hard to achieve, and this particular lockstep has managed it somehow via authority, religion, and aggressively preventing change, then I’d be very wary about introducing big related changes whose consequences I didn’t understand.

This highlights one of the reasons science fiction usually reflects poor social science: more accurate social science would often conflict with the ideologies and attitudes authors use to inspire readers. Better to say rah rah democracy, atheism, and real human flesh!

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    “Neither he nor the narrator seem much concerned that this might destroy whatever has prevented this empire from not crashing.”

    I don’t believe civilizations are as fragile as in the book, but when it’s the premise one should indeed be careful not too uproot everything at once.

    In any case it’s impossible to do accurate forecasting on the far future (more than a century into the future). The whole of human psychology may change as a result of an EM transition or artificial enhancements and changes to the human body, meaning we can’t say much about far future economics, religion and politics.

    How about we look into the near future when human psychology is still the same as it is now and economics are still the same or only transitioning to something else. How will humans deal with the threat of a genetic divide for example? Will a world government arise? Etc…

    • RobinHanson

      What is your threshold for “accurate”? That is, do you mean to say it is impossible to predict anything better than would a random forecast?

      • IMASBA

        Almost yeah. You’d have to make so many assumptions for any one scenario that it’s almost like guessing.

    • Weaver

      New intelligences and psychologies would still be limited by Darwinian pressures under nearly all circumstances…we know that much…

  • Doug

    “Why do they keep crashing? Apparently because you need real flesh humans to have real motivations; without human flesh you forget why anything matters. Really. Sigh.”

    This might not be likely, but it seems plausible enough to base a science fiction story around. Human minds have evolved over a very long time and a wide range of conditions, a history that favors high stability and reliability. Assume AI tech allows the creation of super-human minds, but their designs are highly complex and ultimately unpredictable. Not unlike the experience contemporary humans face when designing computer software.

    Unlike present day software, a mis-specified super-AI is a lot more dangerous. It can outwit the debuggers who try to kill it. So it’s easy to imagine a situation where AI designers keep trying to push the threshold to outcompete local competitors until they hit a bug and destroy everything in the neighborhood. (Not unlike Yudkosky’s example of a super-AI running a paperclip factory that converts the entire solar system to paperclips).

    Of course, you might counter that highly sped up EMs offer human stability and super-human intelligence. But even that might not be the case. A brain consists of a lot of processing overhead not needed for an EM, like the entire brain stem. Once EMs are around the temptation might be to hack EMs to remove needless functionality. Hacked EMs might create the same performance-stability tradeoff equilibrium as super-AI.

    • RobinHanson

      Just as the lockstep society had humans to keep motivation and robots to get stuff done, given your assumptions an em society could use mostly unmodified ems to keep the motivation, and modified ems to get stuff done. And that em society should easily outcompete and out-grow the lockstep society.

  • Anonymous

    Can you tell us which books you have found realistic from the point of view of social science?

    I haven’t read much science fiction since my teenage years exactly because I find it so irritating that most scifi writers’ vision of the future is basically the current world with all the same power structures and social constructions but with flying cars, plasma pistols and space travel.

  • Weaver

    Do none of the fast civilisations want to invade the Lockstep?

    • RobinHanson

      Apparently not.

    • IMASBA

      How would they do that with the limitation of light speed, then again the author does assume political unity and waves of immigrants as well… Apparently people are very patient in that universe (though it probably helps that they hibernate so much).

      • Weaver

        A thought – in a universe with near-perfect hibernation tech, what happens to interest rates? Why not sleep for centuries until your accumulated capital raises you to the plutocracy?

      • IMASBA

        How will the economy grow while all humans are in hibernation and robots only having orders to restock and nothing more? It wouldn’t make sense to charge interest over that time and even if you did everyone and their grandma would use it so it just results in massive inflation.

      • Weaver

        I assume that if everyone hibernates, then there will be lowered interest rates. But couldn’t they simply let the robots build utopia and wait in hiberantion for it to be ready?

      • IMASBA

        They could. but the premise is that they don’t (because somehow even with all their technology it’s just not sustainable).

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I don’t think there are any old-school, get-the-damn-science right, science fiction authors of the same calibre who invented the Alderson Drive with attached math, or worked out all their planetary orbits and corresponding climates before they started building aliens, who know and write about economics. The SF authors writing about economics are just not of that calibre; they are fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, learn-from-a-blog-post writers, at least when it comes to economics.