Intrusion by Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod. Intrusion (Orbit Books, 2012).

Imagine a near-future Britain with the full mix of paternalism and police state authoritarianism from Tony Blair’s New Labour days. But the ASBOs are issued pursuant to social policies framed by Cass Sunstein and Michael Bloomberg. And the apparatus of surveillance cameras and detention without trial has been augmented by unmarked secret police vans where citizens are snatched off the streets and tortured with sterilized needles under their fingernails, a la Alan Dershowitz. Throw in revolutionary advances in biotech that simultaneously abolish Peak Oil and Global Warming. The result is a lot like A Clockwork Orange, but without all the squalor.

Large-scale wind farms and photovoltaic power are things of the past, in the world of Intrusion, thanks to genetically engineered plants — the “new trees” — that produce unlimited supplies of ethanol in a carbon-neutral manner. There are also new trees genetically engineered to grow in the shape of pre-fitted manufacturing components and construction materials. The “synthetic biology” of this future world bears only a distant family relationship to today’s genetic engineering — a trial-and-error approach which basically fires new genes into a nucleus and hopes they stick.

I’m writing this, serendipitously enough, on the same day I read about a revolutionary new genetic engineering technique called “Crispr,”

which has been likened to editing the individual letters on any chosen page of an encyclopedia without creating spelling mistakes. The landmark development means it is now possible to make the most accurate and detailed alterations to any specific position on the DNA of the 23 pairs of human chromosomes without introducing unintended mutations or flaws…

For both the permanent warfare state abroad and police state at home, the main enemy is the Naxalists — the near-future descendants of radical Maoist insurgents in India today, evolved into full-blown nihilism reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge on Snow Crash.

My allusion to Cass Sunstein in the context of the social policy in MacLeod’s dystopia wasn’t just a throwaway line. The government’s policies are literally based on Sunstein’s “libertarian paternalism,” in which the state uses various incentives to “nudge” behavior in a pro-social direction. As a Labour MP explains the government’s “free and social market” policy:

The neoclassical… model of a truly free market assumes that everyone in the market has perfect information. They must know what choices they’re making, otherwise it isn’t a free and rational choice, right? Now obviously, this doesn’t actually obtain in the real world. Nobody really has perfect information. In fact, even if we make it a bit more realistic, they don’t have all or even most of the relevant information. So for the market to be really free, it has to work as if everyone involved had all the relevant information. This is where the social side comes from — the state, of course along with civil society, the unions and campaigns and so on, steps in to allow people to make the choices they would have made if they’d had that information. Because these are the really free choices.

Under the pretext of safeguarding the health of the next generation, women of childbearing age — under the Safe Work for Women laws — have been banned from all workplaces which, in the judgment of the regulatory state, present environmental hazards. The effect, for all intents and purposes, is to relegate all pre-menopausal women to telecommuting jobs. After all, even with the ban on public smoking, embedded smoke particles from decades past might leach out and be inhaled. Every woman receives, at puberty, a near-compulsory “monitor ring” (“on the same finger as her wedding band”) which detects ingested substances in the bloodstream and uploads the data to the local health centre. A pregnant woman whose monitor band registers alcohol or nicotine — or who even makes a habit of slipping it off — gets a stern talking-to from the local helping professionals.

The “nudge” includes a lot of other stuff. Thanks to prohibitive alcohol taxes, a pint of beer is twenty pounds. A shot of whiskey, for those of average means, is a luxury enjoyed on major holidays. No swearing in public accommodations like pubs or restaurants, or they could lose their license for “creating a hostile environment.” I’m not clear on why musical performances are banned in such venues, although I suspect the “intellectual property” laws in MacLeod’s near-future dystopia are a lot like those in Cory Doctorow’s.

The most important advance in synthetic bio — the Fix — is a genetic patch kit, in the form of a pill for pregnant women, which repairs all mutations and defects in the genome of a gestating fetus. It amounts to a failsafe vaccination against birth defects. The authoritarianism and unbridled power of the state, between the “War on Terror” and the Bloombergian war on stuff that’s bad for us, simply provides the background conditions against which the dilemma presented by the Fix becomes so menacing and inescapable to the protagonist of the story — a pregnant woman.

At the outset of the story, conscientious objection to the Fix is still allowed on religious and other grounds. Hope Morrison, the protagonist, learns on our initial acquaintance with her that this policy is in the process of being changed — hence her dilemma. In the course of the story, Hope — at first not entirely clear, even in her own mind, on her precise objection to the Fix — sees her range of alternatives rapidly narrow as the near-automatic machinery of the social welfare state closes in on her. Before the book ends, Hope and her family are hunted with drones, and her husband Hugh is systematically beaten and tortured with sleep deprivation and prolonged stress holds in a military black ops center.

What’s striking about MacLeod’s dystopia, though, is how easy it is to evade the authoritarian state, either through black market workarounds (“smokeeasies”) or simply by using its own bureaucratic procedures against it.

For all its authoritarianism, MacLeod’s police state is remarkably hampered by its own internal logic, with one part of the state working at direct cross-purposes to another.

For example, a woman who has just been tortured in a police van and spent an indeterminate amount of time — motivated by a needle under her fingernails — screaming out the names of everyone she knows as likely terrorists is given a pamphlet for a trauma counselling helpline. Those who file formal complaints after such interrogations often get an official apology and a few hundred pounds in compensation. Both the leg-breaking and crutch-issuing machinery of the state operate independently of each other — for all intents and purposes on automatic pilot.

The people working the various parts of the state machinery seem, for the most part, to have reasonably good intentions as they go about their blindered routines. One functionary in the MI5 black ops base, whose role seems somewhere between a public defender and “good cop,” seems genuinely interested in helping Hugh clear himself.

No, seriously, Hugh. My job is getting people like you out of places like this. Do you have any idea of how much false positives cost the taxpayer in accommodation alone? How much of the time of skilled interrogators is wasted in extracting confessions from people who have nothing to confess? The sheer economic loss of taking innocent people out of the workforce? It would make your hair stand on end. And that’s leaving aside the cost of what happens when the subjects are cleared, if they ever are. Rehab where possible, compensation, legal costs…

If you remember, from Brazil, where the crew from Works shows up to plug the hole Information Retrieval left in Harry Buttle’s ceiling, you get the idea. A real world example, as incredible as it may seem: Until the end of his life, the German bureaucracy denied Adolf Hitler his wounded veteran’s pension because he never satisfactorily met their demands for documentation.

The rules against public smoking, musical performances, and the like are easily circumvented by an informal economy of “smokeeasies” and unlicensed gathering places that relocate as often as they’re shut down.

Indeed, Hope’s troubles stem in no small part from her principled refusal to make use of work-arounds. For example, her immediate dilemma results from a new court precedent under which refusing the Fix on non-religious grounds is no longer permitted. Everyone — even her case worker from the local health center — tells her to just make up a religious objection. Any objection at all. If she does so, the social welfare authorities will immediately call off their dogs to avoid an anti-discrimination suit. But for Hope and her husband — both doctrinaire atheists — even feigned compliance with the gods of the city for the sake of getting along is an example they absolutely refuse to set for their children.

The book also includes one of the best statements I’ve ever seen of the function of the social safety net and welfare state under capitalism:

A tiny proportion of the rent skimmed off from these impersonal, inhuman movements of human beings and alienated labour and all the rest was, for the system that generated them, a small price to pay, certainly compared to riots and crime and detention centres.

There’s a lot of great satire along the way as well, including a delightful spoof of the Room 101 dialogue in 1984.

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