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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