Daniel Suarez

Book cover

I commented in my review of Daemon that I wasn’t sure I was up for pushing through the writing to read this sequel, but Seth convinced me, so here I am. The closing comment I made in my prior review was that the plot presented a tension between the story’s implicit ideals of decentralization and resilience, and the top-down way in which these ideals were operationalized in the story (basically, the master plan of one possibly-mad genius type). Freedom does address these ideals a little more extensively, but ultimately, I do not think it resolves the tension in a satisfactory way.

I can’t help but draw an analogy to Atlas Shrugged, a book that I slogged my way through because it seemed important to understand. I would describe Freedom as a bizarro version of AS where everything is reversed, but the style and approach are basically the same. Both books are clearly written to serve as vehicles for the deeply held beliefs of the authors; in Rand’s case, it is a devotion to unregulated capitalism; in Suarez’s, it is a devotion to high-tech communities with radically decentralized infrastructure and governance. I definitely sympathize more with Suarez’s point of view than with Rand’s, but even so, the polemical nature of the book still detracts from it as a piece of literature. In both books, the line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” is blindingly obvious, with the bad guys being mustache-twirling caricatures (venal government bureaucrats for Rand, greedy disaster capitalists for Suarez). Ironically, this design weakens the polemical point in both cases. It’s not that impressive to be victorious over an obvious straw person. I forget where it comes from, but I like the advice that the strongest way to win a debate is to start by stating the other side’s position better than they themselves could.

Like AS, Freedom has an internal contradiction built into it, I don’t think by design, and it’s even worse in this book. In AS, the irony is that the protagonist is a railroad tycoon, when in reality, railroads were only ever developed with huge support from the government and wouldn’t have been economical otherwise. In Freedom, as I mentioned above, it’s that the decentralized state is reached via one genius’s master plan. This tension is not resolved in this book, and indeed, the centralized nature of the plan plays a key role at multiple points in the plot. [spoilers removed]

All that said, I think the book does raise some very important issues, even if it doesn’t address them very extensively. First, the idea of self-sustaining “holon” communities is a very attractive one to me; if you want some insight into my personality, check out the book “The Millennial Project” by Marshall Savage; I happened upon this book as an adolescent and was totally into it for a long time. Sometime I should write a post just about that book. A related comment is made in Freedom, that the projects undertaken by the holons are ones that could have been done under capitalism, but were not because they were not profitable according to the metrics favored by that system. This is a deep point that I think is worth reading/writing more about. It brings together two important economic concepts, the internalization of external costs and the social discount rate, which may be significantly different than the private discount rate. (These issues are very important in climate change policy evaluation.) Different societies can differ widely on these things, and while wonks like to talk about policy levers such as Pigouvian taxes, I think they are also heavily influenced by culture and religion. The hard and soft aspects of social cost accounting influence each other, and for those of us who don’t believe the status quo values are correct, it’s worthwhile to think about both the cultural and the policy aspects of how a society might move from one equilibrium to another.

Another very timely issue raised, though not addressed, in the book is that of algorithmic/democratized information flow. The Darknet communities use some sort of vaguely-specified collective newsfeed with community upvoting/downvoting. This is put forth in the book as an unproblematic way of disseminating and consuming information, but recent cultural discussions around Facebook, fake news, etc. cast some doubt upon that view. In the world of Freedom, there’s no consideration of “clickbait,” i.e. stuff optimized to get a lot of views/likes/upvotes that few or no people would objectively describe as worthwhile. Clickbait is part of the same deep problem as heavily engineered fake-food, and so far, no one has come up with a decentralized or algorithmic structure that is also capable of solving these problems. (Centralized food regulation and human editorial control each have their own problems, but each is at least moderately competent at solving the clickbait problem.) I don’t think they are insoluble problems, but the book does readers a disservice by implying that a simple upvote/downvote-based system of information dissemination “just works.”

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars