Tag Archives: Fiction

Short Story: Perfect Justice

Almost two years ago, I wrote a post about the idea of “Rationalia”, a country run on scientific principles. I put forward various argument about why this was a terrible idea: that science would be politicized, that science is a moving target and that morals matter in constructing a society as much as facts do.

When I wrote it, I mentioned a short story connected with it. They story was written but I didn’t like it. It was choppy, blunt and crude. Eventually, I rewrote it an epistolary, which I hope you will find enjoyable. It is now here or on the link to pages to your right. If you want to avoid spoilers, go ahead and read it then come back.

What stimulated the publication was this article at Reason, which looked at the idea of a society run by algorithms. I am very skeptical of this idea, since algorithms are not magics spells; they reflect the thoughts and beliefs and biases of their programmers. So a society run by algorithms is still a society run by humans. Just more so.

But in reading through that analysis, I found out that the story I’d written had already been done. The novel Gnomon is apparently based on the idea of a society creating a “perfect” police force guided by an overwhelming surveillance state and the problems that flow from it.

For a while, I was just going to toss the story in the rubbish bin. But I hate throwing things away and there is one aspect of the story I really wanted to get out: an attack on the idea of Rationalia, an attack on the idea — very popular on the Left in particular — that we should enact various polices because social science tells us they will work. And the idea that such a technocracy is a desirable goal.

I am extremely dubious of these ideas because social science is in the throes of a replication crisis where many of its results have proven to be garbage. And we have a great deal of real-world experience in seeing policies informed by social science go badly awry: a Great Inflation caused by theories that said inflation could end unemployment; an obesity epidemic worsened by claims that fat was our biggest concern; hiring decisions made by an implicit bias test that has turned out to be worthless.

Harkaway’s well-received novel — which I have not read but now added to my “hopefully I can read this one day” list — apparently goes into the human aspects of such a “perfect” police state. My take is a bit different. What informed this story was two aspects of such a “perfect” justice system:

1. Our country has a zillion laws, many of which are contradictory, and the average citizen can not help but break numerous laws as they go through life.

2. Any attempt to “rationalize” our laws in the name of science would almost certainly produce an even worse situation, with laws based on junk science or laws that flapped and fluttered with every little breeze that blew.

In short, I don’t think a society like the one that Harkaway describes would function at all, even if it were “perfect” and insulated from human failings. My story is based on my hypothesis that such “perfect” state would almost instantly go up in a fiery blaze of contradictions. So it’s less 1984 I’m going for, and more Brazil.

Blindly turning to science — least of all social science — to solve our problems is a surrender of self-determination. It is little different from blindly turning to the divine right of kings. Science is important and can inform our debates. But we always be aware of its limitations and tendency toward error. This story looks at what would happen to a society that threw such blind faith into algorithms, computers and social science.

Writing, Writing, Writing

So a few updates on where I am with fiction writing, since it’s been over a year since The Water Lily Pond dropped.

  • The Water Lily Pond is available for free download just for today. It’s gotten a couple of very kind reviews and has had a couple of hundred downloads. That’s about as well as I could expect, all things considered. I have been toying with creating a paperback, which Kindle now has easy tools for. However, putting it onto dead tree is a bit intimidating. I would like to make one more pass through the book. And I’d like to get more comments as I suspect a lot of people would have issues with the liberties I’ve taken in describing New York and the art scene therein.
  • In terms of novels, there are two I’m tinkering with. Penumbra is a novel I wrote most of a decade ago and then abandoned when it became clear it was a shadowy reflection of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But I’m not terribly worried about its commercial prospects, so I will probably resume it and either publish it cheap through KDP or serialize it here. Most of my novel time has gone into Umbra, its sequel. But that too has been sidetracked now that a similar story is showing up in the highly successful The Expanse.
  • Much of my recent effort is on Oddish, a seven-part series of short novellas that tie together. Part One (Ben Olson’s Restless Leg) is mostly written, Part Two (Rachel Thorson’s Late Period) is partially written. But I will not put it out on this site until all seven parts are written. In the middle of working on it Stranger Things came out, which has some overlapping themes. But it’s still on the front burner.
  • I have four short stories in the can. The first — Highest Noon — I liked enough that I plan to submit it to a science fiction magazine. I have little hope but you can’t get shot for trying. It will show up here if it is rejected. The second — Perfect Justice — needs a lot of work to not stink. But it and a companion post on “Rationalia” will show up soon. The third is a three part story — Dreams in the Long Dark, Co-Orbital, and Table Manners. It is done and I like the first part. It will show up on this site once it has been cleaned up. The final one — Lost by Translation — may or may not show up. I’m kind of mixed on how I feel about it. At the very least, it needs heavy revision.
  • I know this sounds like excuse-making but, honestly, I’ve written more in the last year than I have in any previous year. That’s almost 40,000 words written in a year when I have been very busy with work and family and probably wrote a couple of hundred thousand about the election. So the purpose of this post is to just let you know: you’ll see the results soon.

    Update: After writing that, I had some second thoughts on Perfect Justice. The story is the first I’ve written in epistolary form. But … this being the internet … I’m thinking of getting creative in its presentation. Hyperlinks and readthroughs might make it a little more fun for the reader.

    Stay tuned.

    The Return of Linkorama

    Linkoramas are getting rarer these days mostly because I tweet most articles. But I will still be occasionally posting something more long-form.

    To wit:

  • A fascinating article about how Vermeer used a camera obscura to enable his paintings. Yet another example about how people were pretty damn clever in the supposedly unenlightened past.
  • This is a couple of months late, but someone posted up Truman Capote’s christmas story. The recent death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman reminded me of this little gem.
  • This is the second and by far the largest study yet to show that routine mammography is basically a gigantic waste of money, being just as likely to precipitate unnecessary treatment as to discover a tumor that a breast exam wouldn’t. Do you think our “evidence-based” government will embrace this? No way. They already mandated mammogram coverage when the first study showed it to be a waste.
  • I don’t know even know if this counts as mathematical malpractice. There’s no math at all. It’s just “Marijuana! RUN!”. Simply appalling reporting by the MSM.
  • This on the other hand, does count as mathematical malpractice. The gun control advocates are hyping a Missouri study that shows a rise in murder rate after a change in the gun control laws. However, in doing so they are ignoring data from 17 other states, data on all other forms of violent crime and data from Missouri that showed a steep rise in the murder rate before the laws were changed. They are picking a tiny slice of data to make a huge claim. Disgraceful. And completely expected from the gun-grabbers.
  • I love color photos from history. Just love them.
  • This is old but worth reposting: one of the biggest feminists texts out there is loaded with garbage data, easily checked facts that are completely wrong. This was a big reason I distanced myself from third-wave feminism in college: it had been taken over by crackpots who would believe any statistic as long as it was bad. In college, we were told that one in three women are raped (they aren’t) that abuse is the leading cause of admission to ER’s (it isn’t), that violence erupts very Superbowl (it doesn’t). I even had one radical tell me — with no apparent self-awareness, that murder was the second leading cause of death among women (it’s not even close). As I seem to say about everything: reality is bad enough; we don’t need to invent stuff.