Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dave's Latest Effort: World Enough and Time

In Dave's latest effort, World Enough and Time, scientists announce the invention of a time machine.  It is a limited-purpose time machine—it can't transport people or most physical objects through time.  But it is extremely efficient at moving money forward and backward in time.

The way the machine works is that an individual who wants to spend money, but who doesn't currently have enough, can use the machine to transport money back in time from himself in the future.  There's a catch:  the time-machine can't transport the money unless the customer finds a "sponsor" who is willing to collateralize the transaction.  So for instance, someone who wants to buy a car might find a bank willing to put up an amount of cash equal to the price of the car.  The sponsor's money goes into the "collateral chamber" in the time machine, and then the money appears in the "time-travel chamber," where it has come from the future.  Over time, the customer regularly deposits money into the time-travel chamber so that it can be transported back to himself in the past.  As these payments are made, the sponsor is permitted to withdraw identical amounts of money from the collateral chamber.  The sponsor typically charges an additional "money time-travel fee," which is a percentage of the amount of money sent back through time—generally it is a function of the overall economic conditions, the trustworthiness of the time-travel customer, etc.  (If the time traveler fails to put money into the machine when required, as occasionally happens, the sponsor must remove money from the collateral chamber and deposit it into the time-travel chamber so that it can be sent back in time.)

The time machine proves hugely popular, enabling all kinds of economic activity that would otherwise be impossible.  But then a rogue group of dissident scientists and economists (!) claims that time travel isn't possible after all:  the entire setup is a trick!  Really the money is not traveling through time.  Rather, the collateral posted by the sponsor is handed over to the customer, who gradually repays it to the sponsor.  The time machine is totally extraneous, and in fact all the scientists have done is reproduce the credit market under another name.  It is all a hoax.

Congress immediately demands an investigation into whether the "collateral chamber" and the "time-travel chamber" are truly isolated from each other.  But then the author drops a bomb intended to blow the reader's mind:  it doesn't matter whether the time machine works or not!  Maybe the collateral chamber is physically walled off from the time travel chamber, maybe it isn't.  But the effect on the world is the same.  We've had time machines capable of moving money across time since the invention of credit!  All that is needed to take advantage of this futuristic technology is for the government to get out of the way and let the free market work.  Taxes and regulations can be seen as not just anti-free-market, but anti-technology and anti-future, since they effectively shut down time-travel machines.

If this sounds much more crude and on-the-nose that Dave's previous work, that's because it is.  What I've just described is the plot of a book-within-a-book written by Lawrence Strong, the hapless protagonist of World Enough and Time.  Strong (barely) makes a living churning out libertarian screeds while living in a ratty apartment in New Jersey, frustrated by what he sees as a society increasingly dominated by central planning and the slow but inexorable extinguishment of liberty.

It emerges that Strong is being taken advantage of by his publisher (which is essentially stealing his royalties), but when this comes to light and prosecutors offer to help Strong recover his money, he hesitates.  Of course Strong believes that the government should protect property rights, but on the other hand he believes market actors like the publisher should be constrained by reputational forces, not raw coercion.  His family and his girlfriend are aghast as he considers passing up his opportunity to regain his stolen money.

I won't say more about the plot, except to note that Dave, normally not virtuosic in matters of form, has crafted a book that is technically perfect, starting out broad and engaging, and then slowly narrowing to a vortex of action and recrimination.  This is an "idea" book, in a way, but the focus is squarely on the human desire to impose order and intellectual coherence on a world that rarely makes room for either.


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