Karl Schroeder's "Stealing Worlds": visionary science fiction of a way through the climate and inequality crises

Karl Schroeder (previously) is literally the most visionary person I know (and I've known him since 1986!): he was the first person to every mention "fractals" to me, then "the internet" and then "the web" — there is no one, no one in my circle more ahead of more curves, and it shows in his novels and none moreso than Stealing Worlds, his latest, which is a futuristic roadmap to how our present-day politics, economics, technology and society might evolve.

Stealing Worlds is a near-future novel of ecological and economic catastrophe, in which an ever-larger pool of people have been replaced by automation and an ever-expanding proportion of our planet is becoming uninhabitable due to climate change. Mass surveillance has spread to the internet of things, and every corner of the world is now studded with sensors that monitor things like compliance with a too-late ban on fossil fuels (while simultaneously feeding into a tight mesh of surveillance of every living thing, including humans), and ubiquitous blockchain technology is used to create transparency for the powerless masses, revealing their debts and locations to bounty hunters.

Sura, the heroine of Stealing Worlds, is barely clinging to survival when her father — an activist doing mysterious research in Peru — is assassinated in an attack made to look like an accident. His friends warn Sura to go underground, to use the synthetic identity her paranoid father created and nurtured for her. His paranoia is finally vindicated — but proves to be insufficient, as Sura is quickly snatched by an armed skip-tracer who hauls her off to be turned over to her father's killers, who have used her massive debts as a pretense for kidnapping her.

Sura escapes captivity and learns to go deeper underground, thanks to help from a clan of live-action role-players whose LARPs use the same blockchain infrastructure, cryptographically secured private mesh networks, and mixed-reality goggles to overlay fantastic worlds atop the world that Sura has been living in. These LARPs are more than just games: the open-source worlds that Sura dives into are becoming a fully parallel demi-monde, one in which favor-trading, quests, and real world logistics are creating a post-market-based form of cryptographically secured fully automated luxury communism (of a sort) right under the noses of the white supremacists, griefers, ICE agents, debt collectors and Ayn Rand-poisoned cultists who control the "real world."

The deeper Sura gets into the games, the more we learn about them, about their relationship to fully automated algorithmic corporations that earn money (of several kinds) by shorting polluters and wreckers, or by promoting collective responsibility. The mixed-reality world of the games is populated by inanimate objects that chatter with players, directing themselves to where they can do the most good, constantly solving and re-solving questions of efficient allocation without markets, in a world where they are at constant risk of arrests and violent retalitation from the forces of market reality.

It's simultaneously the weirdest and most plausible futuristic vision I've encountered in years, building on the world of Bruce Sterling's classic "Maneki Neko," Madeline Ashby's "Company Town," Charlie Stross's "Neptune's Brood," and my own novels like "Eastern Standard Tribe, "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" and "Walkaway" (attentive readers will find the book full of sly references to a wide range of novels that influenced Schroeder's thinking — and of course, it's mutual, as I've been writing with Karl since I was a teenager).

Schroeder is also engaging with cutting-edge ideas from technology and economics: smart contracts and post-market allocation, making stunning new contributions to vital debates that have raged for more than a century.

Add to all that: this is a fucking great novel, full of amazing characters racing around fascinating settlings, doing battle, parkouring through surveillance grids, falling in love, betraying each other, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. It's everything you could want from a Karl Schroeder novel, and it's the best Karl Schroeder novel ever (so far).

Stealing Worlds [Karl Schroeder/Tor]