Warning - Spoilers for The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross ahead. You have been warned
Charles Stross' The Annihilation Score can be considered a superhero story. Certainly not a typical superhero story - it takes place in the grimdark Laundryverse, a world in which computers are literally magic (if you know how to use em) and overuse opens holes in the fabric of reality that all manner of monsters can walk through. In The Annihilation Score these are not soul draining demons but rather superempowered individuals with varying degrees of ability, ranging from a mild gifts to demigod abilities. The protagonist Dominique O Brien, a "combat epistemologist" with a demonic violin who initially works at the Laundry, a top-secret organization within the British government dedicated to fighting back otherworldly horrors and magic users and then at an inter-departmental agency coordinating between the Laundry and the federal police of UK to manage the recent explosion of superhuman individuals.
The irony here is that Stross is detailing how an actual police department would react to it's citizens suddenly gaining superhuman powers. While not a truly "hard" detective novel, Stross is writing a story that is considerably more realistic then most superhero stories. In fact the realism he injects with how the police deal with the development underlines one of the central conflicts in the novel, how the police deal with the radical change. In the final chapter of the book we have an exchange between Dominique and a high ranking member of the London Police that highlights the difference in outlook between the two philosophies:
"Well, we consider the outbreak of three- to five-sigma superpowers to be a critical problem. An out of context problem for practice of policing, if you're familiar with the term. ... We have to take preventative action to stop it from turning into a tidal wave of lawlessness. And we have to do it as soon as possible before disasters like the EDL march in Oldham become daily occurrences. Your constructive role model for our superpowered youth-it's just going to be the butt of their jokes. Don't think it hasn't been tried before any number of times, during various panics over juvenile delinquency. We're facing Armageddon, Dr. O'Brien; we've got to head it off before it happens. A nightmare of lawless rioting lumpenproletariat with superpowers is just around the concern. You may be concerned with the defense of the realm, but I'm concerned with ensuring there's a realm left to defend.
The solution, in the eyes of the police is to effectively cast a spell over the British population that will make them more obedient to the state. Dominique protests but her solution is hardly better, more community involvement by the police.
It is here that, despite having shades of parody, that Stross outlines a particular current that we in society are dealing with today. Popular superheroes have always reflected underlying drives in society - Superman being a icon of multiculturalism and justice born of Jewish immigrants, the Fantastic Four reflecting the changing dynamics of the nuclear family and the optimism future that those growing up in the 60s felt was possible, the X-Men reflecting the bigotry and racism that the civil rights movement looked to overcome. Charles Stross' superheroes are merely characters for our time that reflect the nature of our technological world. The fear the authorities feel about individuals unexpectedly gaining superpowers without being able to detect them is of course mirrored in our actual authorities who are terrified of individuals gaining access to information through the internet. The more benign cases of this are individuals gaining information that goes counter to beliefs they were raised in that turned out to be wrong, which can be devestating to an authoritarian regime. However information and technology can be used to seriously disrupt an established order. The recent Parkland school shooting was a case in which a single individual managed to kill 17 other people within a matter of minutes. The individual superempowerment granted by a gun enabled this action. At the same time however we also saw those who became advocates for gun control after the shooting who were attacked by far-right trolls. However unlike previous times this far-right new media attacked individuals in the spotlight, the teenagers had a far superior grasp of how the new media environment worked. A story by Charlie Warzel describes the difference:
In the case of the Parkland students, however, the mold doesn’t fit. A look at the Twitter feeds of students like David Hogg shows that they are a remarkable foil for the pro-Trump media’s trolling tactics. Like the pro-Trump media, they, too, are an insurgent political force that’s native to the internet. And while they use legacy platforms like cable news to build awareness of their names and of their causes, much of the real work happens online.
They use platforms like Twitter to call out and put pressure on politicians. They address prominent critics like Bill O’Reilly not with bland, carefully written statements, but by dunking on them, and they respond to misinformation in real-time with their own viral, emoji-laden posts. Rather than take the bait on the crisis actor narrative, they opted to have fun with the conspiracy theories by mocking them. “I’m thankful that there are people out there finding my doppelgangers for me. I’ve always wanted to have a party with a room full of people who look like me,” Emma Gonzalez, a Parkland student, told BuzzFeed News. By dismissing the conspiracies for what they are — a tired, rather boring page in the Infowars playbook — Gonzalez and her classmates have stripped them of their power. Before the pro-Trump media can finish its line of attack, the students, unfazed, have moved on, staying one step ahead of their political enemies and owning the story.
The power of technology enabling individuals and disrupting the standard operating procedure for how things are done was highlighted by the military theorist John Robb. In the first few pages of Brave New War he describes the new reality we found ourselves in with regards to conflict.
The rise of superempowered groups is part of a larger historical trend. This trend is in the process of putting ever-more-powerful technological tools and the knowledge of how to use them into an ever-increasing number of hands. Economically, this is fantastic news. This transfer of technological leverage means faster productivity growth and improvements in incomes. Within the context of war, however, this is dire news, because this trend dictates that technology will leverage the ability of individuals and small groups to wage war with equal alacrity.
Within this larger context, the conflict we are currently engaged in is merely a waypoint on this trend line. The threshold necessary for small groups to conduct warfare has finally been breached, and we are only starting to feel its effects. Over time, perhaps in as little as twenty years, and as the leverage provided by technology increases, this threshold will finally reach its culmination—with the ability of one man to declare war on the world and win.
This description of the technological reality that underlines society means that Stross' version of superheroes reflects how states see the threats posed by technology. The nature of networks and encryption means that anyone can access powerful hacking tools or instructions for how to build explosives, then use information available to the public to find where they can attack for maximum damage or minimum risk to the attacker.
In this sense the liberal approach to policing that Dominique apouses in the novel is insufficient to the new reality. The authoritarian approach is at least fesiable, even if it comes with the tremendous consequence of stripping individuals of their free will.
Of course Stross, perhaps due to being a democratic transhumanist, only presents these two arguments for how to manage superempowered individuals in society. But there of course exists another way. The anarcho-transhumanist William Gillis describes how the politics of anarchism are the only way of maintaining non-coercive social order in such an environment.
What does a world look like in which we have the capacity to stop people from printing AR-15s? Forget the fuzzy-wuzzy associations of “democracy”, even “direct democracy”. Ask yourself what actually needs to be done to control gene therapy? Single facilities of government overseen use of high technologies? Massive backdoors in everyone’s devices that aggressively monitor and limit use? Totalitarian control of every communication on the planet? Aggressive raids against all hackers and tinkerers? Systematic accounting of every fabrication machinery in existence? Constant surveillance of anyone with knowledge of how these things work? Complete control of all resource allocation on the planet?
This is the ONLY outcome for the logic of “social democracy” when applied to transhuman aspirations.
We cannot control advanced technology without an authoritarianism so complete it would make Hitler and Stalin salivate in their graves.
So what can we do?
At a prior conference here there was a talk on the superhero narrative and I brought up a line from the third X-Men movie in which the president states: “What hope does democracy have when people can move cities with their minds?”
The inevitable response was: “Well we need an ethical awakening, a singularity of empathy that clarifies and refines our values.”
What does that look like? How do you get there? And what are the mechanisms by which such a world can function? How are disagreements settled?
Thankfully we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There’s a longstanding movement that has been tackling these social and ethical issues, and developing answers and analysis in depth for the last two centuries.
“Anarchism” as a term was launched by the French journalist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon — a wildly popular reporter and columnist comparable to our Glenn Greenwald today. It was adopted as a way of highlighting and ripping apart the Orwellian use of “anarchy” to signify both maximal freedom — the absence of rulership or of power relations — AND to also simultaneously mean chaotic violence, the presences of competing would-be rulers and fractious power relations.
Stross fails to include anarchism as a solution to the problem of superempowered individuals in his book. Certainly he makes it so the odds are stacked against those who'd call for anarchism, the nature of magic use inevitably leads to madness in the Laundryverse which makes giving everyone access a much more difficult proposition. Nevertheless the idea of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN - the apocalyptic event in which the stars align and the Lovecraftian monsters emerge would probably be dealt with more efficiently if everyone had access to the technology and knowledge of the secret organizations and could self-organize. Stross gives little information into how these otherworldly monsters minds operate so asymmetric warfare may not be as effective as it is against human opponents but having a decentralized organization that can react to changes in the environment without permission from authority while also being more resilient to attacks through having less critical personal or infrastructure.
The Annihiliation Score presents us with two choices for governing society that are really the same choice - authoritarianism be it by democratic rule or by an unanswerable sovereign. But we can do better.
The Annihilation Score, Charles Stross, pg 371 ↩︎
Brave New War (ePub), John Robb, Chapter 1 ↩︎