Thursday, February 19, 2015

Seriously with the goddamned dolphins

David Brin writes very good books that I can enjoy reading while still fuming at them and wanting to argue with something on almost every page.

I am not going to deny that I love (most of) The Postman - what fan of post-apocalyptic fiction doesn't? And the Uplift books seem mostly silly and not actually harmful from an outsider's perspective. But Earth bugged me. Kind of a lot.

I just did some research and it seems like a lot of Brin's positions in Earth have been changed - he doesn't come off nearly as technophobic now as he did in 1990, but it appears that the one thing I really well and truly disagree with him on is a position that has only solidified - privacy.

Brin is pretty well know as an advocate for transparency and individual citizens taking up cameras and filming the people who are filming us: my problem is that he wants to accept as a given that we now live in a world where you're always going to be observed.

Brin is an astrophysicist. He's clearly looked into historical precedents when it comes to privacy. But he ignores (or disregards as unimportant or atavistic - which is worse) that mammals don't like being looked at. Primates REALLY don't like being looked at. Apes HATE being looked at. And humans hate being looked at enough that it's one of the few things that will provoke a violent reaction out of a complete stranger in spite of normal social protocols. Brin uses a diner as an example: in a public setting you can actually have a lot of privacy because everyone is able to see what's going on so there's a strong disincentive to stare or eavesdrop. What this example ignores is that if someone IS staring at you in a diner there's also a strong social urge not to confront them about their direct observation. You don't actually have any real privacy in such a setting, you have the illusion of privacy and no way to back it up.

Brin talks about how transparency will only work if the little guy believes he matters, but holy shit do we have proof that the little guy doesn't matter. What's my proof? How about any single time police were filmed doing something that was clearly illegal and STILL weren't sent to jail or even fired from their jobs. The little guy isn't exposing the big guy and protecting the other little guys - the little guy is figuring out neat hacks to disperse a shitload of naked pictures of the other little guys. Who loses jobs because they're transparent about the activities they enjoy? The little guy. Who suffers when we expose a gigantic scandal like everything having to do with banks in the last thirty years? A hint: it's not the fucking big guy.

But anyway. That's Brin as a whole, not Earth as a novel.

Earth has a robust story and lots of fascinating characters to follow around. It's broken up into very manageable chapters but the novel as a whole is wearying. It took me an unusually long time to pace through it because I just kept losing interest every couple hundred pages and ditching it for a few days.

The book is just a bit too preachy for my taste. I mean, I get it. Humans are awful, we're doing terrible things to the planet and continue doing terrible things to each other. Rah rah rah, fight the system and similar sentiments. Maybe it's just that the book is so dated - a 50 year prediction written 25 years ago is obviously going to miss the mark on a few significant points - that it comes off as more jaded than Brin intended it to be.

And also the dolphins. There are only two scenes out of 600+ pages that involve them, but man is is clear that dolphins are important to David Brin. He's written lots of books about them, thinks they're awesome and all of that. But fuck dolphins. They're the assholes of the sea - largely because they're pretty much the closest thing on the planet to being us.

     - Alli

Brin, David. Earth. Bantam. New York: New York. 1994. (1990)

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