Lone Wolf Bioterrorists and the Trajectory of Apocalyptic Narratives

Time to revisit this post first published in 2017?

In this academic article, the authors explore a range of science fictional texts dealing with so-called ‘lone wolf’ bioterrorism, and ask what we might learn from them about dealing with the real bioterror threats of the future.

CAS_4qyz (1)
Type-I CRISPR RNA-guided surveillance complex (Cas, blue) bound to a ssDNA target (orange). By Thomas Splettstoesser

Abstract

The possibility of an engineered pandemic is one of the more terrifying new risks of the 21st Century. As technology lowers thresholds for developing bioweapons, even individuals with relatively ordinary knowledge and budgets could become responsible for extraordinary threats. Although several real-life bioterror incidents are known, no large-scale pandemic has yet occurred as a direct result of terrorism. Fiction, however, offers detailed scenarios of such events. Writers of these narratives find themselves at the intersection of modern science and deep literary tradition of pandemic narratives, originating with biblical accounts of plagues. This working paper examines portraits of ‘lone wolf’ bioterrorists in several contemporary fictional sources, focusing on how writers draw on counterterrorism discourse, particularly in their attempts to psychologically model the perpertrators. It flags up the dangers of a truncated speculative space, and concludes with a discussion of impacts these imaginaries might have, through influencing how emergent bioterror threats are perceived by scientists, policymakers, and the public.

Dr. Polina Levontin, Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London

Dr. Joseph Lindsay Walton, Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh

Prof. John Mumford,  Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London

Dr. Nasir Warfa, Centre for Trauma, Asylum and Refugees & Department for Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex

Continue reading “Lone Wolf Bioterrorists and the Trajectory of Apocalyptic Narratives”

Digital Humanity: Collaborative Capital Resistance in Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway

This article originally appeared in Vector #288.

By Kirsten Bussière

Doctorow

Since the 2008 global financial crisis, social movements which once pursued scattered causes are increasingly united against a common enemy: capitalism. In his recent article “The New Combinations: Revolt of the Global Value-Subjects,” Nick Dyer-Witherford recounts how the “landscapes of globalized capital” are riven by scenes of political unrest. We have witnessed a decade crossed with an “ascending arc of struggles”: demonstrations across different cities “mark the convergence of a range of campaigns and activisms,” while coalitions of political groups “often exceed single issues and specific identities,” and find means to converge on shared anti-capitalist perspectives – pushing back against a society built on purposeful scarcity, a society that predicates the wealth of the few on the poverty of the many (Dyer-Witherford 156-158).

Capitalism, in spreading wealth at an unequal rate, “can set all its subjects in competition with each other.” This separation of the population ensures that the masses will not rise up against their oppressors. That’s why the mobilization of different political activism groups as one anti-capitalist multitude is particularly dangerous to the existing hierarchy. So what has changed? There are many factors, but one which stands out. Modern day demonstrations and protests take place not only in the streets, but also in the realm of cyberspace. Information technology allows resistance groups to communicate and co-ordinate as never before, and what starts as a hashtag can quickly sprout into a powerful movement for change. Plenty of cyberactivism isn’t even that overtly political, but nevertheless strikes a blow against capitalism by de-commodifying capitalist products through “piracy; open source and free software initiatives; peer-to-peer production; and gift economy practices” (Dyer-Witherford 175-180).

Building on the longstanding tradition of social science fiction, the 2017 novel Walkaway by Cory Doctorow explores the extension of the digital community beyond the realms of cyberspace and into the physical world. It imagines a symbiotic post-digital relationship between humans and machines. The communal nature of producing digitally rendered objects in the non-digital world provides a technotopian solution to the anti-utopian capitalist regime – unyielding in its commitment that there is no better world possible.

Continue reading “Digital Humanity: Collaborative Capital Resistance in Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway”

Hugo Nominee: “True Names”

This week’s story. This week’s commentary:

Abigail Nussbaum:

A literary collaboration between Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum seems, at first glance, like a dubious proposition, but I congratulate whoever it was–the authors themselves, or Fast Forward editor Lou Anders–who came up with the idea, because the result of this marriage, “True Names,” is a complete triumph. As I said in my Hugo ballot post, it combines both authors’ strengths and favorite topics–Rosenbaum’s penchant for surrealism and literary pastiche, not to mention the basic building blocks of his Hugo-nominated short story “The House Beyond Your Sky,” and Doctorow’s fascination with the way that social structures and conventions both shape and are shaped by politics and economics, and with post-singularity concepts of self (of course, now that I’ve spelled out which parts of the story I think were contributed by each author, it’ll probably turn out that I’ve got them completely backwards). This, no doubt, is to make “True Names” sound extremely strange, which it is, dizzyingly so at points. But it is also, fundamentally, a swashbuckling adventure, complete with sneering villains, threats of world domination and destruction, doomed love, a prince on the run from his guardian with his wise tutor, and battles to the death. In what I assume is a sly meta-reference, near the middle of the story one of the characters performs in a play which recasts her life into its canonical form, and has her swinging a cutlass on the deck of a pirate ship.

“True Names”‘s actual setting, however, can best be described as, but is probably much more complicated than, a computer. In the vastness of space, two entities, Beebe and Demiurge, fight for dominance and for the raw material they can convert into processing power. Demiurge is monolithic, all its subroutines guided by a single agenda. Beebe is chaotic, with different sub-entities taking on lives of their own and vying for control, spawning new and subtly altered copies of themselves on a whim. And, it soon becomes apparent, both Beebe and Demiurge have the power to model each other, and sometimes the whole universe, in order to predict their enemies’ actions. We end up, therefore, with several different iterations of each character, only some of whom exist in the ‘real’ world. Like “The Tear,” then, “True Names” is a story about individuality in a world in which personality is easily edited and copied, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow pull off the trick McDonald wasn’t quite up to, and easily distinguish between different versions of their characters while maintaining a coherent core for each one. This is, however, far from their greatest accomplishment with this story, which on top of being a genuinely exciting adventure is both clever and cleverly put together–the sheer mass of information required to fully grasp the rules under which the characters operate is nearly overwhelming, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow not only make it easy for us to learn their world, they make it fun. Perhaps most importantly, it is the only story on the ballot which feels truly, meaningfully SFnal, telling a familiar story in a setting that is so strange that it forces us to see that story through new eyes.

Mentatjack:

I’ve not done my quota of lists on this blog, so here are my reasons why True Names is AWESOME.

  1. It’s short. It can be read in a sitting or listened to over the course of a couple commutes.
  2. It’s not TOO short. It’s a novella, if you’re frustrated with me being vague.
  3. It’s written like Bach’s inventions. Simple components combined and recombined into beautiful complexity—simple is relative, of course.
  4. Quantum Computers Rock!
  5. Modeling Universes is FUN
  6. Sock puppets are almost as cool as muppets. Actually the sock puppet might be cooler if it was a goddess
  7. Galactic battles SO enormous they can only be described via metaphor.
  8. Go is the best game ever, and the game played in this story is one of the most seamlessly integrated I’ve ever encountered in a science fiction story.
  9. It introduced me to Ben Rosenbaum … actually the name sounded familiar. I’ve heard 3 of his stories on Escapepod. If you like True Names you’ll dig “The House Beyond Your Sky,” (or vice versus) and the other two stories, while VERY different, are quite spectacular. I’m totally grabbing a copy of The Ant King and Other Stories when it’s released.
  10. It got me excited enough to write this list, and I haven’t even finished listening it. I’ll update this after I finish listening to it on my drive to work.
  11. update: I finished this on the way to work. So, imagine reality is the reality of The Matrix and then imagine there are other realities competing for computation. That’s the simple idea I mentioned in point 3, and Cory and Ben layer it upon itself beautifully. It’s wild having events happen at the scale of galaxies, yet still be a very personal tale. I could see that the abstract convolutions could turn a few people away, but if you can follow a Tarantino flick, then you’ll be able to follow as the secrets of the universe reveal their secrets and their secrets’ secrets.

Rich Horton:

The longest and arguably most ambitious of these entries is “True Names” by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum, nearly a novel according to Hugo rules. Perhaps this is a new entry in Doctorow’s ongoing series of riffs on famous SF stories. It concerns a far-future set of civilizations, mostly living in virtual environments. (That being the main nod to Vernor Vinge’s famous model — otherwise there is less thematic connection to the predecessor stories than in Doctorow’s “I, Rowboat”, “I, Robot”, and “Anda’s Game”, and for all I know, it’s not really intended to be a Vinge riff.) One civilization is democratic, consisting of numerous entities vying for control, while the other is more or less totalitarian, ruled by a single strict program. The two polities battle across the Galaxy, not always noticing the threat of a third virtual environment, which seems lifeless but unstoppable. The plot involves computer program sex (sort of) and heroism, and questions about reality versus simulation — at multiple levels — and it’s fast-moving and interesting but for me it fell into the trap of excessive abstraction. I never quite believed in — nor always understood — what was going on. Nonetheless, it’s quite a thought provoking effort.

What’s good here — tons of imaginative ideas, lots of rigorous thought behind the setup. And an ironic and well thought out conclusion. What didn’t work for me — as I said, much of it simply seemed too abstract. Too much the authors telling us what we should think about what was going on rather than making us believe it. And, I’m not sure I understood everything. Which, I hasten to emphasize, is as much or more my fault than the authors’. Pace much discussion of Greg Egan’s Incandescence, there are some stories that demand a lot of their readers (in different ways for different stories). And it’s not a fair argument to say that the burden is entirely on the writers to make a story accessible to all readers, or even most. If a story is properly told in such a way that only a subset get it, that’s fine, particularly if telling it differently would ruin it. Heck, that’s the case for much of the SF genre when so-called “mundane” readers encounter us! That said, in all honesty, if the story didn’t work for me, I can’t vote it ahead of stories that did. But I respect those who did get it.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro:

Fast Forward 2‘s showy centerpiece is the novella “True Names” by Cory Doctorow & Benjamin Rosenbaum, presented in hyper-widescreen. This is a story so densely populated with “—al” ideas (ontological, epistemological, SFnal, computational, mythological, legal, cryptographical, take your pick) that it’s probably as close to actually being made of computronium as a contemporary SF story can be. Many of these ideas (those which I understood, or think I understood) tickled my brain and commanded my respect, and as an exercise in extreme imagination I found it impressive—but as a work of fiction it is the one piece in Fast Forward 2 that failed to keep me entertained or engrossed. “True Names” presents a Universe in which three highly advanced forms of AI, Beebe, the Demiurge and Brobdignag compete for computation and ideology. […] the power struggle between them, as experienced by the characters of Alonzo, Algernon, Paquette, Nadia and others, sometimes as emulations inside each other’s entity matrices, serves as the springboard for the novella’s central, and abstract, preoccupations. I found myself unable to develop any attachment for the characters or their simulations: the dialogue was too stultified with adolescent-sounding techno-avatar-isms like, “But Alonzo, she’s so hot!” and their behavior comprised more of wide-eyed naivete and sardonic posturing than any real emotion. This left me skating on the sheer and audacious profligacy of concepts. What I found was a beautiful museum collection, a magnificent display of pre-existing ideas arranged in fabulous geometries and twisted into pleasing, recombinant strategies of exuberance, only lacking the one arresting moment of originality that can take our breath away. This might seem like a strange claim on my part. Perhaps “True Names” is so Far Out, in setting, that I found myself not caring sufficiently about how Far Out it was. Not even the Solipsist’s Lemma could save me.

Paul Raven:

By dint of sheer size alone, the centrepiece of Fast Forward 2 is Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “True Names”, an implicit homage to Vernor Vinge’s seminal novella of the same title (often credited as being one of the first fictional appearances of a recognisable technological singularity as well as one of the earliest works to have a fully realised ‘cyberspace’ as its setting, three years prior to Gibson’s Neuromancer). No surprise, then, that it’s a crazy bells-and-whistles epic of big ideas that pits three different post-singular societies against each other on a galactic scale. Because of that, it’s sure to be the sort of story you love or hate; fans of Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes, Stross’s Accelerando and some of Doctorow’s own material are going to lap up the multiple iterations of the same characters, the nested and interlocking simulated realities, and the sheer ebullient geekery of the whole thing. I enjoyed “True Names” a great deal, but there’s a case to be made that the flux of characters and situations (and the firehose of ideas) could be hard reading for a reader more accustomed to conventional narratives; it might also have been a little shorter. But considered as an imaginative sensawunda geek-out, “True Names” raises the bar for the subgenre.

HOWTO overthrow the government

Cory Doctorow’s first three novels are all filled with the gosh-wow science fictional ideas I love: fans taking over the Haunted Mansion and the reputation economies in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the ad-hoc traffic-jam P2P networks and time-zone-linked groups in Eastern Standard Tribe, and in Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town the tech ideas are mixed in with truly out-there fantasy ideas in a way which shouldn’t work, but somehow does. Add to this his increasingly impressive short stories (I, Rowboat is my particular favourite), and you can see why I was eagerly anticipating the muchpraised Little Brother.

Which makes it a shame that it almost completely fails to work for me.

Marcus is 17, and lives in San Francisco in the unspecified near-future, in a surveillance society filled with gait-recognition cameras and spyware-filled school-issue laptops. Marcus lives to subvert and play the system, and when he’s up against the clueless school administration it’s all fun and games and teenage rebellion. Then San Francisco suffers a terrorist attack, and Marcus and his hacker friends are imprisoned by Homeland Security and released to a city where preventing another terrorist attack is the priority, no matter how much their hi-tech security measures infringe upon privacy and civil liberties. Marcus decides to use all his considerable tech abilities, and the friends and allies he has and makes along the way, to fight back.

Clearly this is a world not too distant from our own, which is what makes the infodumpery and worldbuilding so hard for me to swallow. The first part of the book is loaded with explanations – LARPing, ARGs, TOR, botnets, all explained in handy paragraphs of exposition. I’m not convinced that knowing exactly how anonymous routing or botnets work is necessary for the story, and I’m sure you don’t need to know about SMTP headers to appreciate a cool idea, but I have a certain admiration for just dropping it into the text without even trying to disguise it. Unfortunately I already know what all the acronyms mean, and how a botnet works, and by the fourth or fifth time I had modern technology explained to me it was pretty tedious work.

It’s also a world not too distant from our own in terms of politics, and the way that terror attacks are used as an excuse for the gradual eroding of our freedoms – San Francisco under Homeland Security rule is only a few steps down the line from where we are now. I happen to know the politics of the author, because I read his blog, along with probably several million other people, and being a card-carrying liberal I agree with Marcus/Doctorow’s arguments as to why we shouldn’t be letting this happen. What I don’t get along with is how much of a straw man the other side comes across. I don’t if it’s simplification of the political ideas for a teenage audience, or that I’m jaded to their arguments from too much time online, but when Marcus’s dad sounds like a better-spelled version of a poster from Comment is Free, I find it hard to read Marcus’s rebuttals as any more than lip-service to the arguments. The Homeland Security workers, both low and high-level, are black hats without a shade of grey to them.

So if it’s too didactic and infodumping to appeal to me through the politics and ideas, what about the rest of the story? Here it fares a little better – Marcus is likeable enough if a little too competent at everything he does, and his dilemmas at whether his tactics are causing as much trouble and harm as those of his opponents ring true. I could have done without the revelation that Marcus’s long-time female friend turns out to have feelings for him, especially when I was pleased that they’d managed to do the “hey, my nerdy female friend has grown up and become h4wt!” scene without it turning into a relationship. Marcus’s actual romantic interest is smart and geeky and cool, and basically a female Marcus but I can live with that. There are some neat ideas which have small but important twists on our world – using Livejournal quizzes as an information-gathering tool, the revolution will take places on X-Boxes running Linux, using flashmobs to cause a distraction in the real world. The writing is straightforward and functional, which mostly works – it falls short of conveying the terror of Marcus’s capture by Homeland Security early in the book, but the later scenes (I’m thinking of when Marcus meets Darryl’s father) work better.

For a book which is all about the power of blogs, distributed networks, and what one person can do to undermine the establishment, the ending is disappointingly conventional, as Marcus tells his story to a newspaper reporter – one from a free weekly paper, and not the mainstream media who are as hostile and stupid as you would expect when it’s an internet revolution they don’t grasp. It’s the journalist’s coverage of Marcus’s revolution and torture that finally turns public opinion against the security measures.

I’m probably giving a more negative view of the book than it deserves, but while it may succeed for many as a call to arms and an instruction manual on how to fight the government, it fails for me as a novel. If you’re not familiar with the rhetoric and the ideas it contains, I see it would work better. That’s going to include a lot of people in the target young adult audience, and I find the idea of indoctrinating a generation of young people with a guide to online revolution quite cheering even if the book isn’t for me.