L. X. Beckett’s 2019 Gamechanger is a standalone science fiction novel.
The crises of the 21st centuries brought global disaster, but also reform. In the modern era, trolls and wasters are no longer tolerated. Society expects conservationist, socially responsible behavior, as enforced by a universal social scoring system.
Unfortunately for political agitator Luciano Pox, his inability to display common courtesy leaves him in the social poorhouse. No matter how he screams at people, they only downrate him while refusing his very reasonable demands for reform. A challenging client for freshly minted lawyer Cherub Whitling.
Cherub doesn’t begin to comprehend the difficulties that she will face in her efforts to socially rehabilitate Pox. The true explanation for Pox’s lack of social skills may not be that he’s on the spectrum or that he’s an aged relic of the early 21st century. Interpol Special Ops Agent Anselmo Javier suspects that Pox cannot master routine human behavior because Pox isn’t human. Javier believes Pox may be that fabled monster of myth and legend: a rogue AI.
There is a trivially easy way to disprove Javier’s theory. All Cherub needs to do is have a face-to-face meeting with her elusive client. Even given 22ndcentury restrictions on travel, it shouldn’t be that hard to verify there is a flesh and blood retiree behind Pox’s online identity. But tracking Pox to a physical location proves oddly difficult.
The world’s secretive community of AIs could tell Javier that he’s quite right: Pox is a being of zeroes and ones. Human fear of the Singularity requires the AIs to keep their existence secret (or at least unverifiable). The AI hivemind will have to find a way to eliminate Pox on the down low.
In fact, both humans and AIs are wrong. Yes, Pox is monumentally antisocial. Yes, he is the AI that the hivemind believes him to be. He is also an envoy of the Prime, imperialistic Galactics who believe Terrestrial society is finally ripe for the picking. The Prime can offer Earth easy solutions to the climate crisis. The price: slavery.
I seem at some point to have lost the capacity to accept for the sake of a story a rise in global rationality, during which enough people agree to take the long view to make that the new normal. In addition to which, I have the same issue with this as I did with Malka Older’s books, which is “how do you get from where we are to where this book is, in the time allotted, given the events depicted?” Which is a bit odd, given that I’ll accept settings in which the rigorously supported models of relativity are thrown out the window for narrative convenience. It may come down to having to deal with humans daily while never having had to accelerate objects to the speed of light.
This is a quasi-utopian setting1, but there do exist convenient antagonists (groups of nasty individuals) who don’t get viewpoint characters. Their motivations aren’t fully fleshed out; all we know of them is their devotion to their cause and their propensity for terrorism. The villains: Trollgaters and Freebreeders. The Trollgaters believe in their right to be nasty online; the Freebreeders object to mandatory birth control. In this world, baby permits are doled out only if balanced with several deaths2. Population must shrink!
I don’t like state-mandated population control. However, I will grant that trying to regulate other people’s reproductive habits is a pretty common human trait, right up there with warfare and genocide. So that’s realistic, as is the human propensity to troll.
SF generally dates quickly. This novel, rich with extrapolations from the social media of the early 21st, is probably going to age more quickly than most. The ad copy encourages comparisons to Neuromancer and Star Trek, but I’d suggest a better comparison: Fire Upon the Deep’s invocation of early 1990s USENET.
If I’m still writing book reviews thirty years from now, I will be able to look back upon this novel and opine with greater perspective.
It turns out that fortune smiled on me in the weeks since I first wrote this review. Sudden dramatic changes are indeed possible, and people who have spent their entire political careers being obstructionist pains in the ass can suddenly change course (or not, not mentioning names here). Sweeping alterations to status quo turns out to be entirely doable, given the correct circumstances. I am still skeptical that any of this will involve changes for the better.
At least this novel is a change from the usual depictions of the post-climate-change dark ages. The 21st was even worse than the 20th, but civilization didn’t collapse and the survivors are trying to make something better.
Gamechanger is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).
- Whether the setting is utopian or not probably depends on how hard it is to live up to the prevailing mores. No doubt there would be real people for whom conformity is difficult (like folks on the spectrum). They’re going to have a hard time with the social scoring system. I need a font for massive understatement.
- Prospective parents probably aren’t allowed to instigate the deaths required to free up a slot for their kid. Legally allowed. What desperate would-be parents might do illegally…