Whoa, so Guy Haley has a new novel out, and my library inexplicably has it in stock not two months after its release. Kudos to my library for whatever motivated that purchase. Thanks to my Angry Robot Books subscription, I discovered Haley through Reality 36 and its sequel, Omega Point, two mysteries set in a future where strong AI has become a fact of life. In Crash, Haley takes a slightly different approach to the future, but the results are still delightfully entertaining and thought-provoking.
Set in the twenty-second century, Crash depicts an Earth on which the cries of Occupy Wall Street have fallen on deaf ears. The 0.1% have become the 0.01%—the “Pointers”—a select few families who control 80% of the world’s wealth while everyone else toils in the proverbial muck to eke out an existence. The automation of the economy that we started in the late twentieth century has continued full-force, with the stock market now existing predominantly as the Market, a sub-sentient network of trading algorithms supervised (but seldom scrutinized) by human traders.
It’s a future that is drearily realistic considering our present. If corporations finally shove geriatric governments to one side and take a more active role in daily affairs, if people become even more complacent and unwilling to take a stand and try for change, then the future could very well be like Crash. Haley channels much of the cyberpunk vibe of Neuromancer’s Sprawl, but with less of a focus on the deleterious effects of unchecked technological augmentation. This is a world where augmentation is affordable only to the mega-rich, and all the proles are just trying to get by.
Instead, Haley develops a discourse around the nature of power and its abuses. First, on Earth, he shows how the asymptotic gap between rich and poor has warped the power relations in society. The Pointers’ word is essentially law. Everyone else toils, eking out a miserable existence and hoping not to get noticed for the wrong reason. Most of the Pointers have a belief in their right to power in a divine rule sense—their ancestors were wise enough to become wealthy, and now they have an obligation to rule everyone wisely so that they can stay wealthy. Hmm.
The question is whether this vicious cycle of exploitation and destitution can be broken. With the situation on Earth, which is now home to twenty billion humans, looking increasingly poor, the Pointers have decided to launch a fleet of colonization ships. Two Pointers accompany the colony sleeper ship ESS Adam Mickiewicz on its voyage. Sabotage causes it to leave the fleet and crash on a different, tidally-locked world. Its unintended detour took 500 years, and now 900 years have passed on Earth.
Haley never revisits Earth; the rest of the story focuses exclusively on how the 4000 survivors pick up the pieces of their colonization effort. For all they know, they could be the last surviving humans in the universe. This enforces a strong feeling of isolation, and factions begin to form as priorities shift. Insectoid-like aliens attack the settlement frequently, attracted by its radio emissions—but if they are as sentient as they appear, is killing them wrong?
One faction doesn’t care. The two Pointer brothers, Leonid and Yuri, aren’t as power-hungry as their father. He feared this and sent a servant genetically-engineered to have unquestionable loyalty to him. This man, Anderson, strong-arms Leonid into wresting control from the democratic council he set up and instituting martial law. What follows is a chilling flirtation with the type of oppressive totalitarian government that manifested in the middle of the twentieth century. Haley doesn’t spend too much time in this mode—he keeps the pace moving pretty swiftly—just long enough to establish that tone before moving on to the next stage of the colony’s development.
Some of those humans have to live with their guilt. Dariusz is the saboteur, sympathetic because he is motivated out of love for his son and ignorant of the true motives of his employer. When he discovers that his actions have caused the deaths of so many people, he is nearly incapacitated by grief. He only stays around long enough to receive the retrovirus that will allow him to digest the planet’s indigenous vegetation. Then, he strikes off on self-imposed exile, determined to find the ship’s Systems Core and return it before turning himself in for sentencing and probable execution.
Meanwhile, the sophisticated technology rebels. Somewhere along the way, we realized that electronic computers just don’t cut it, and we started building robots with organic brains in jars. Unfortunately, this causes no end of problems. So the colonists have to start falling back on older technology and means of production, as symbolized by Sand’s enthusiastic rediscovery of how to do heavier-than-air flight from scratch. Part of this is a commentary on how dependent we’ve become on technology. Part of this is a demonstration of the stupidity of making all our technology too complex (complexity breeds failure modes). But mostly, I think, Haley demonstrates the versatility of humankind.
For Crash might be dark at times, but it is ultimately an optimistic vision of the future. It might have shadowy artificial intelligence presences, but it is ultimately about the ability for humanity to survive. It might present us with a dismal vision of Earth’s future and a dark opinion of how much power corrupts, but it is ultimately a story of hope and resilience and essential decency winning out over fear. It’s about how much we repeat the same mistakes, over and over, despite what we have learned—but how we swear, every time, we will do better.
So next time, let’s do better already.
With Crash, Haley showed me he can do more than write mystery novels. This is a multi-layered story with several key protagonists. His vision of the future is, if not well fleshed-out, then defined well enough for me to fill in the gaps myself. I was hooked while I was reading, and I was sad when it was over. But I also like that it is a standalone story without a sequel hanging over its head. I can breathe when I get to the ending.