Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s 2020 Analog/Virtual: and Other Simulations of Your Future is a collection of short pieces that all share the same setting, if not the same characters.
Nation states died in the Population Catastrophe. Happily, for humanity, or at least that fraction of it that matters, the Bell Corporation seized the opportunity presented by global chaos to enforce a new world order, a pure meritocracy with no room for the inefficient, the weak, or the unfashionable. In other words, utopia!
The collection’s twenty pieces1 paint a portrait of Bell Corps’ exciting new world as instituted in Apex City (formerly Bangalore). Those who conform to Bell’s standards of excellence have access to the best technology, the latest fashions, the most sumptuous luxury. Those who are not quite top-drawer material earn lesser rewards. Those who downright disappoint might be exiled from Apex City to live out their lives in grueling poverty. They are allowed only outdated technology. Or they may simply have their organs salvaged for use by their betters.
Even the elite live precarious lives. Everyone, rich or poor, is subject to ranking by judgmental software. Fail and you may find yourself plummeting to the depths of society.
Of course the system works. From time to time critics may point to inefficiencies, even looming disasters, but the critics are then downrated into social death. Without dissent, surely there can be no crises!
There are people outside the system: the poor, the analogs. They may criticize Bell Corps, but their criticism can be disregarded. If they were worth attention, surely they’d be ranked into the top ten percent. They aren’t, QED. The analogs and the poor might even plot revolution. But overthrowing the natural order? That would be (to quote Vizzini) inconceivable.
This appears to be my week for stories featuring astonishing but at the same time believable computer security issues. In Apex City, the issue would seem to be poorly guarded passwords. But security is lax because the technorati believe that they are the only ones who can understand how the system works, the only ones who can wield the tools that control the system. They underestimate the intelligence and determination of the outcast hackers.
You may wonder who could support this system if everyone is at constant risk of being cast out. There doesn’t seem to be any stable upper class, immune to judgment. This struck me as odd, given that the elites of most Western democracies claim to support meritocracy (and justify their status as earned) but, as we have seen, will do damn near anything to keep their privileges and pass them on to their children. In this setting, it seems that the brilliant techies who set up the system might have been dedicated enough not to leave backdoors that would exempt themselves from demotion. Or they may have never considered the possibility that they themselves might fall prey to the relentless software.
Despite its twenty chapters and 312 pages, the story collection doesn’t develop any of the characters in depth; they have their moment on stage, then exit. Still, the brief depictions are vivid. I enjoyed the collection and wondered what the author would do with a novel.
1: Twenty stories which I am not going to list one by one. Cue rejoicing, if only from my editor.