Saturday, 27 December 2014

Review: Children of Arkadia

Children of Arkadia
Children of Arkadia by M. Darusha Wehm

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Utopias stop working right around the time you add the people.

I know Darusha Wehm slightly on social media, since we're both Podiobooks authors and members of SpecFicNZ. She sent me a copy of this book directly when I mentioned to her that the version on Netgalley was protected by DRM and I couldn't get it on my Kindle.

I previously listened to part of Darusha's [b:Self Made|7726126|Self Made (Andersson Dexter, #1)|M. Darusha Wehm||10489905] on Podiobooks, but gave it up because it was moving too slowly for my taste, and the protagonist wasn't engaging to me. I'm glad I gave her work another chance with this one.

This still doesn't set out to be a fast-moving, plot-driven thrill ride, certainly - it's more of a novel of ideas, though the outright lecturing is kept to a minimum and done in a way that isn't infodumpy or dull. I found it enjoyable, and had no difficulty staying until the end. It's the story of a utopian experiment, set in a space habitat orbiting Jupiter, one of several set up by a trust to provide refuge for political activists and dissidents from what sounds like an increasingly dystopian and authoritarian Earth.

Rather than a single protagonist and a single through-line, it consists of overlapping plot arcs from a number of different points of view. The number of POVs, to me, came close to the line of being too many, but didn't cross it.

Through several generations, the story follows the society as it evolves to deal with the realities of its situation, and as those in power make compromises and mistakes which impact everyone. Among the themes are overt and covert power, keeping secrets from people "for their own good", requiring people to have children for the good of society, how a non-capitalist society might work (the politics of the refugees who form the centre of the colony are more or less those of the Occupy movement), and how a society deals with recognising people as citizens who have previously been regarded as subhuman (the artificial intelligences who help to run the colony).

I read Jo Walton's [b:The Just City|22055276|The Just City|Jo Walton||39841651] immediately afterwards, which happens to have many of the same themes and a similar setup, so I can't help but compare the two. To me, Walton writes a more successful book, because there's nothing extraneous in it, the themes are clearer, the conflicts stronger, and I didn't find myself falling out of suspension of disbelief at any point. That's not to say that Wehm's book is bad; it very much is not. However, it does have a couple of minor issues.

Mainly, the interlocking plot threads sometimes peter out without true resolution, or the conflicts resolve too easily. Early on, for example, there's a "free rider" problem. There's a technical issue preventing the production of as many bots as are needed to do all the work of setting up the colony, and so human volunteers are needed to help. However, part of the colony's idealistic charter is that nobody will be forced to work or directly compensated for doing so (no capitalists, corporatists or conservatives need apply); it's a Universal Basic Income scenario, in which everyone's basic needs are met without anything being required of them in return. The problem is that a lot of the political activists and "thinkers" in the colony don't feel any social obligation to help out even with pressing practical problems; that's not their area.

This is a conflict, and then the conflict goes away and is never mentioned again. Partly this is because bot production steps up, but I would have thought there would still be "free rider" issues that could be explored. More than that, within a few years the attitude to coerced contribution seems to have changed; even though the intent was that there wouldn't be any universal laws and each community would regulate itself, now there's a proposal that all women be required to bear children, because the population needs to grow, and this proposal passes - with opposition, but without, apparently, effective opposition. I had difficulty suspending my disbelief about that, mainly because reproductive choice is such a strong part of the beliefs of most people who would hold the kind of sentiments depicted as being so prevalent among the colonists, and because we've shifted so quickly from an anarchist utopia to a central government (however minimalist).

Setting aside such issues, though, I felt that the strength of this book was in linking personal relationships to political and social issues. A key plot point is resolved because a character can't bring himself to pursue his ideals at the expense of a member of his family; later, another member of his family is on the other end of quite a different decision by the AIs. (I felt this could have been strengthened if the second family member had been a direct descendant of the first.)

Competently written, exploring important themes of how we build our societies and interact with each other and with our technologies, this is a worthwhile book and an enjoyable read.

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