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Future Washington

Locus Recommended Reading List, 2005 (Novellas)

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I’ve got a story in Future Washington, an anthology that just came out. As the title implies, the anthology collects stories about the future of Washington DC, and in my case, the future of regulation, too. I’ve read about half the stories in the anthology since my contributor’s copy arrived in the mail yesterday and I’ve yet to come up with a dud. Not surprising, given the contributions of writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, Joe Haldeman, Brenda Clough and many others.

My story is a novella called “Human Readable,” and of all my short fiction, it is the story I’m most proud of. It’s the tale of a world that’s been upended by hyper-efficient planning algorithms based on ant-colony optimizations, so that Los Angeles has the best traffic in the world. However, when these networks crash, they really crash — cars, surfboards, and many other common conveyances end up catastrophically failing, with concomitant loss of life.

Human Readable is the story of a couple who break up over their relation to the ant-networks. Reiner is a hacker who works on improving the networks. Trish is an activist lawyer who wants to see them regulated. Their irreconcilable differences turn them from being lovers into being political opponents.

“We, as a society, make trade-offs all the time,” Rainer said. He was wearing a different suit this evening, something that Trish had to admit looked damned good on the studio monitors (better than her frumpy blouse and wool winter-weight trousers). “We trade a little bit of privacy for a little bit of security when we show identification before going into a federal building –”

The ewok held up his paw. “But how much should we be willing to trade, Ms. McCavity?”

She looked into the camera, keeping her eyes still, the way she’d been told to if she didn’t want to appear tourettic. “Wickett, when Franklin said, ‘Those willing to give up a little liberty for a little security deserve neither security nor liberty,’ he wasn’t spouting empty rhetoric, he was laying the groundwork for this enduring democratic experiment that we all love. Look, we’re not opposed to the use of autonomous networks for *some* applications, even *most* applications, with appropriate safeguards and checks and balances. No nation on earth has the reliance that we do on these networks. Are they an appropriate way of advising you on the best way to get to the mall on a busy Saturday? Absolutely, provided that everyone gets the best advice the system can give, regardless of economic status or influence. But should they be used to figure out whom the FBI should open an investigation into? Absolutely not. We use judges and grand juries and evidence to establish the sufficiency of a request to investigate a private citizen who is considered innocent until proven guilty. We learned that lesson the hard way, during the War on Terrorism and the Ashcroft witch-hunts. Should we trade grand juries and judges for ant-colonies? Do you want the warrant for your wiretap issued by an accountable human being or by a simulated ant-hill?”

The ewok turned to the camera. “Both sides make a compelling case. What do you think? When we come back, we’ll take your calls and questions.” The lights dimmed and it adjusted its collar and cracked its hairy knuckles on the table before it. Ever since it had made the move to a pbs, it had been grooming its fur ever-more conservatively and trying out a series of waistcoats and short pants. It turned to her and stared at her with its saucer-sized black button eyes. “You know, I just wanted to say thanks — I had self-identified as an ewok since I was five years old, but Lucasfilm just wouldn’t license the surgery, so I went through every day feeling like a stranger in my body. It wasn’t until your law got enacted that I was able to find a doctor who’d do it without permission.”