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Lyle Zapato

Review: METAtropolis: CASCADIA

Lyle Zapato | 2011-02-09.5489 LMT | Cascadia | Cephalopods | Entertainment | Anarchy

METAtropolis: CASCADIA (2010) is an audiobook collection of six related stories set in Cascadia in the 2070s. The stories are: "The Bull Dancers" by Jay Lake, "Water to Wine" by Mary Robinette Kowal, "Byways" by Tobias S. Buckell, "The Confessor" by Elizabeth Bear, "Deodand" by Karl Schroeder, and "A Symmetry of Serpents and Doves" by Ken Scholes. Each is read by a different Star Trek actor. Run time is almost 13 ABT hours.

It's a sequel to the original METAtropolis (2008) which worldbuilt around the post-industrial, post-national collapse of the early 21st century. That collection included the story "In the Forests of the Night" by Jay Lake that introduced the setting of Cascadiopolis, an experimental green city hidden in the forests of Mt. Hood, Oregon (it's available for free).

CASCADIA picks up that story 40 years later in the opening "The Bull Dancers" (read by René Auberjonois), which explores the conspiracy behind the city's destruction by orbital missiles; the true identity of the mysterious Tyger Tyger and his connection to an ancient Minoan secret society; and how Cascadiopolis' daughter cities have, despite or perhaps because of the missile attack, gone on to thrive -- rewilding the land and building a new eco-anarchist way of life. This serves as an intro to greater Cascadia, as the following stories portray a changed and changing region in slow recovery.

The post-collapse Cascadia is a transnational entity, a type of virtual overlay, composed of local economies and city-states that have gained various levels of autonomy due to a weakened US and Canada, but have to deal with complex legal issues arising from the many conflicting and overlapping jurisdictions involved (an open-source expert-system called Thicket helps navigate the mess). Government is more local, with policing done by Law Enforcement Collectives (LECs) and private law agencies under contract, particularly one called Edgewater, although older international agencies like Interpol are also active.

The older cities -- Portland, Seattle, Vancouver -- are still around. Their populations are denser now that oil is scarce and no one can afford to commute. The old suburbs are being rewilded, their roads and mcmansions chewed up for resources by giant, centipede-like mobile hoppers manned by deconstruction crews hired by city planners with green ideologies. Meanwhile, new places -- like Ciudad St. Helens, one of the Cascadiopolis daughters, or Heddlebrook, a high-tech city closed to outsiders -- are increasing in influence.

Different Cascadians hold different passports allowing travel to different regions (Shanghai and Hong Kong are somehow aligned with Vancouver and their citizens can travel between them). Citizenship is more often at the city level. The rural areas are home to anarchists and Luddites. Visitors without sponsorship are required to wear Nexus glasses -- augmented reality devices that tap into the Internet to overlay information on the wearer's surroundings or block views of areas they're not allowed to enter. Illegal immigrants come from Kentucky and failed Rust Belt cities looking for work.

Those who have dropped out of traditional economies -- not an underclass but a parallel-class -- make their own goods with basement fabricators and use local money such as the Wino, a time-sensitive currency backed by locally produced wine (the US and Canadian Dollars are all but worthless; Euros and Yuans are the favored global currencies). Reconstructionists dream of a return to the glory days of Reagan and Palin. Both transnational corporations and green collectives live side-by-side in some sort of uneasy equilibrium.

These themes and details are what unite the stories even if the plots and characters differ, although the last one, "A Symmetry of Serpents and Doves" (read by LeVar Burton), reprises the first with the character of Bashar and his book on the life of Tyger Tyger. There are two stories in particular that I want to mention, starting with the one that resulted in my learning about the collection (and that I may have influenced):

"Confessor" (read by Gates McFadden) is about an investigation into a murder that leads to the discovery of an animal smuggling operation on Mt. Rainier, only instead of selling real endangered Cascadian animals to foreign collectors, they're selling genetically engineered counterfeits -- including a Pacific Tree Octopus. (If you ever want to hear Dr. Crusher talk about tree octopuses, now's your chance.)

The tree octopus only makes a cameo, really, with the bulk of the story actually being about a Cascadia LEC agent's complex relationship with her former partner/husband and with an Interpol agent investigating the smugglers. Also there are two kids who are not what they seem. But the tree octopus gets the last laugh.

"Deodand" (read by Jonathan Frakes) is about what happens when nature is given it's own Internet access. The birds tweet... figuratively! Originally created for research and resource tracking by a powerful Cascadian company called Museworks (think Microsoft, only with exoskeletons instead of Xboxes), the wildlife-to-Internet interface of Cascadia is made up of billions of cheap, omnipresent, smartdust sensors spread all over the place that track the position and state of pretty much everything.

All that raw data is fed to the Internet, digested by cloud computing, and excreted online in meaningful form, allowing you to subscribe to a forest's RSS feed and learn if it has pine beetles or have your Nexus glasses show you the location of any nearby bears while hiking. Museworks also makes more interactive wildlife interfaces for higher organisms, such as special touch-screens that allow ravens to know the garbage truck delivery routes and blog their disapproval of construction sites.

Raven bloggers aside, most of the individual plants, animals, and landscapes are unable to communicate with people directly, but their collective hopes, desires, and opinions start to be expressed through the data they produce. Eventually, thanks to the unintended consequences of granting personhood to corporations and constitutional rights to wildlife populations, the nature around Vancouver incorporates itself under the name Lions Gate Actant. The Actant becomes wealthy because of the value of the carbon-offsets created by sea otters via the coastal regeneration they cause and uses this wealth to buy out Museworks, thus taking control of its own ability to communicate and exert its will in the sphere of human affairs.

This story isn't as far from the present truth as one might think. For a while now ZPi's Hominoidnet project has been providing Sasquatch with free Internet access via convenient forest kiosks. As I have learned, other wildlife have been getting into the kiosks and mucking about online. One tree octopus has even managed to post to this very blog using the kiosks' interspecies translating facilities to express her discontent about various issues important to octopuses (and no doubt using information on the Sasquatch howlboards to avoid being eaten).

This raises some questions: Should dedicated Internet terminals be placed in the dwindling tree octopus habitats for them to use? Would this allow tree octopuses to become their own advocates, influencing human political debates that affect them through means both conspicuous and subtle, or perhaps, as Schroeder suggests, someday allowing them to incorporate themselves and buy out the various interests that are threatening their extinction? Or would it all just degrade into trolling Sasquatch and lolcrabs?

End of post.