Days of miracle and wonder
Invisible Armies was great fun to write, but it's a hard book to write about. I can tell you this much: it's a novel about a war between antiglobalization protestors and a transnational corporation, fought both online and on the streets. But the plot zigs and zags enough that anything else I say might spoil the story. Instead, I'll tell you a bit about how it came to be.
CS Lewis once famously said to Tolkien: "You know, there's far too little of what we enjoy in stories. I'm afraid we'll have to write them ourselves." I may not play in their league, but I know exactly what he meant. I'm 32, young for a novelist, and hardly any of the books I read today are populated by people I recognize. The entire thriller genre, in particular, seems stuck in the twentieth century.
I know: "that was only five years ago!" Thing is, for my generation, five years is a long time. We live in fast forward. I and most of my friends jump from job to job and from address to address. In between, we seek out cheap airfares and travel halfway around the planet to Third World nations: partly for adventure, partly for raw natural beauty, largely to live on twenty dollars a day. And, paradoxically, as we scatter, we form tight groups. We may meet only every six months, but electrical tendrils keep us connected: blogs, e-mail, text messages. Computers and mobile phones are as natural and necessary as oxygen.
We can talk for hours, days, about Hollywood and hip-hop. We read trashy science fiction and Dostoevsky with equal abandon. We're plugged in, we watch CNN and read newspapers, we're politically aware, we get angry - and, wherever on the political spectrum we live, I assure you, there's a whole lot going on that makes us angry - but we feel so distant from the world's decisionmakers that we don't know what to do with our anger. In fact, the more we think about it, the more the world seems to be set up so that there isn't anything meaningful we can do at all.
When I look for people like that in the stories I read, I find them almost nowhere.
Something else you should know about us? We live in the future. I mean that quite literally. William Gibson, poet laureate of cyberpunk and author of Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition, put it best: "The future is here. It's just unevenly distributed."
December 1999. The Battle of Seattle. A World Trade Organization summit collapses in the face of violent protest. Oh, the vast majority of protestors are nonviolent, passive-resistance, civil-disobedience types. But the ones who matter are the anarchists. The black bloc. The few who smash up Starbucks and Niketown stores, and provoke the police into massive overreaction, pepper-spray and rubber-bullet riot control. And it keeps happening. Quebec City. Genoa. London. Miami. Always the same ingredients: an international summit of Powers That Be; a huge number of peaceful demonstrators; a tiny, violent black-bloc hardcore; and a brutal, excessive police response. I remember a photo from Seattle, of a ragged, black-masked mob in front of a smashed window, a street scene that looked more like Grozny or Kinshasa than a major American city. I remember thinking: "Who are these guys?"
November 2004. I am wedged into one of Mumbai's commuter trains, trapped by ten thousand elbows, unable to move. It is difficult to breathe. I think of making this journey every day, and I shudder. Through a dust-smeared window, I catch a view of the gargantuan slum around us, wooden lean-tos and tin shacks, roofs patched with plastic bags anchored by rocks, rutted dirt streets, women and children dressed in filthy rags, slumped men with dead eyes. Hundreds of thousands of them, a mind-numbing ocean of poverty. In this same city, not far away, billionaires pilot enormous corporate empires, and teams of theoretical physicists study string theory. I remember thinking: "Talk about unevenly distributed."
July 2005. In Las Vegas, at DefCon, the world's largest computer-hacker convention, I attend a seminar entitled "Routing the Darknet." It is a dry, mildly interesting technical discussion conducted by the founder of Freenet, an organization whose software is intended to allow dissidents who live under repressive regimes to communicate with one another. The next day, the New York Times prints a bizarre, alarmist report on the seminar, stating "Initiatives like Freenet are certain to complicate industry and government efforts to restrict the digital sharing of proprietary data," and suggesting that Freenet's real objective is to circumvent copyright laws and abet the theft of pirated music and movies. I remember thinking: "What's really going on here?"
Invisible Armies is, in a way, one answer to that question.
These are, as Paul Simon once sang, the days of miracle and wonder. We live in an era when we can stand in Baghdad and call or text a friend in the Amazon jungle, and think nothing of it. An age when people talk seriously about AIDS vaccines, cures for cancer, and powering our cars with wind power and fuel cells. But it's also the age of identity theft, international terrorism, scary biotechnology, mindboggling inequality, and street revolts against transnational organizations that cannot be harnessed by national laws.
The nation-state is dying. That's what globalization is really about. Countries and their laws are limited by geography, by lines drawn on maps. But in this era of mobile phones, Internet everywhere, low-cost airlines, container shipping, and transnational corporations, geography doesn't matter any more. Maybe, in the long run, the death of the nation-state is a good thing: but the idea that authority is divided by lines on maps, by countries, is the world's most basic pillar of stability. That pillar is starting to tremble. And it's only going to get worse.
William Gibson was right. The future is now. We live there. Should we be excited? You bet. It's exhilirating.
But we should also be scared.