Burn-In

I know for regular readers of this blog it seems to have turned into a blog about William Hope Hodgson – and it largely has been for over a year.

There will be more Hodgson related stuff, but we’re entering a long spell without it, and, by coincidence, I have a brand new release to review.

I heard good things about the authors’ first novel, Ghost Fleet, with its depiction of a future war with China, on The Dead Prussian Podcast. However, I never got around to reading it. So, when Amazon had review copies of their second novel available, I asked for it.

Review: Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution, P. W. Singer and August Cole, 2020.

BurnIn
Cover by Albert Tang

In the America of ten or twenty years in the future, a large portion of the populace is under or unemployed due to increased automation.

The country still has a terrorist problem and not just with the Sons of Aleppo but with another movement that is determined to throw sand into the workings of society. They resent the automation software and hardware that society has become dependent on.

Special Agent Keegan of the FBI arrests a member of that plot and, in the interrogation, TAMS is introduced. It’s a Tactical Autonomous Mobility System robot. Its humanoid frame has impressive physical abilities, but its real benefit is its ability to access and correlate a lot of disparate information.

Political pressure has been brought to bear to test TAMS robots out for law enforcement, and Keegan gets ambiguous instructions from the FBI’s Deputy Director to do the right thing by the Bureau. Is that to ok the program or kill it with a bad report? There’s also a creepy tech billionaire, Shaw, who takes an interest in the project and who is very connected to the White House.

The first half of the novel is largely Keegan putting TAMs through its paces to see if it can be a real partner in investigations. The second half is the investigation and pursuit of a wide-ranging terrorist plot to discredit automation through various ingenious and lethal events. One plot twist was entirely predictable, but the authors pulled out a genuine surprise towards the end.

The leader of the terrorist plot is an interesting character whose actions can’t automatically be morally dismissed. A personal tragedy has turned him into being a bitter enemy of the technology he used to promote. However, his target selection has a cliched serial-killer element about it.

The authors describe their book as “useful fiction” rather than science fiction. A lot of the hardware and software describe in this book already exists or is in prototype. The rest is plausible. The authors document everything with footnotes in ghostly type so as not to distract the reader. I knew the book had footnotes but didn’t notice them until number five. Sometimes they are overkill like footnoting Disney song lyrics.

The details of the world already here or aborning are the book’s best part. Among other things, we see all the many counter-surveillance options citizens in this world employ, a robot sex club where the destruction of robots is a fetish, and how wealthy neighborhoods keep automated traffic control systems from funneling cars through their neighborhood. Keegan’s husband is Yale lawyer whose job was rendered surplus to requirements, and he now picks up money checking up and chatting with, via remote virtual reality gear, wealthy clients in nursing homes.

The value of this book is not in the plot’s resolution or the political solution reached at the end. It’s in the questions asked.

And that solution is not convincing.

Interestingly, I couldn’t decide whether the authors were being deeply ironical in their depiction of the FBI and Shaw or exhibit the naivete of Washington DC insiders trapped in a cultural bubble and whom simply accept the cultural values of the elite. But, given the last page and a couple of incidental bones thrown to progressive causes in the book, I opted for the naivete. And that brought my rating down from four to three stars.

Still, it’s a quick read, genuinely suspenseful at the end, and gives one plenty to contemplate.

Additional Thoughts with a Lot of Spoilers

 If Cole and Singer wanted us to view version of the FBI has a largely good organization working in a political environment, they failed.

When Agent Keegan is tasked with putting TAMS through its burn-in phase, FBI Deputy Director Bosch says she was chosen not only for her Marine Corps experience with robots and record as an agent but also because he knows she will do what is right for the Bureau. He then launches into a creepy story about some FBI agents covering up a scandal involving J. Edgar Hoover which again puts forth the notion Hoover was a closeted homosexual, an allegation with little evidence.

When the first terrorist Keegan arrests in the book is killed in jail, she wonders if it was another inmate or the FBI calling in favors behind bars.

When Keegan goes with the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team on a raid into a white supremacist compound as part of the terrorist investigation, some of the agents are killed. Local law enforcement isn’t informed because they have sympathies with the compound. A footnote alludes to the Clive Bundy affair, but what actually comes to mind are the infamous Rudy Ridge and Waco where the FBI was murderously high-handed and where there are questions as to whether federal agents were victims or perpetrators. People showing up armed on your property without a warrant, and no warrant is presented when the firefight breaks out in the book though Keegan has one, rightly calls up an armed response. But, since Keegan is to be our sympathetic heroine, that goes uncommented on. In fairness, one could argue that the people in the compound knew who the HRT was.

On page 284, Bosch self-righteously says the Bureau is “the finest law enforcement organization any country has ever produced”. Then he mentions the bogus allegation of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. The Mueller Report is even footnoted. The same report that found the whole charge baseless and from the same Special Counsel who couldn’t defend his charge against a Russian firm when they unexpectedly wanted their day in court. Since the footnotes seem to hint at the authors handing in their book in October or November 2019, I’ll give the authors a pass on that and also recent discoveries that many FISA applications of the FBI’s were found to be defective. They couldn’t even do the paperwork right to spy on American citizens. And, as I write this, it seems somewhat likely that several high-level FBI administrators are guilty of entrapment and altering evidence in the matter of former US National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

Yet, the authors persist in alluding to use the myth of Russian Collusion. Towards the end of the book (p.343), the FBI agent Keegan reports to regarding TAMS’ burn-in is revealed to be a CIA agent. It turns out that, ever since “American elections were rocked by . . . our Russian and then Gulf friends”, the CIA has agents inside the FBI and electronically monitors them.

Keegan, in irritation at TAMS repeating some conspiracy theory it found on social media, says “Don’t go all Deep State on me now” (p. 129). Yet, the Deep State is hardly the myth Keegan seems to think it is. Senator Chuck Schumer blithely hinted at its existence. The former head of the CIA even triumphantly said, “Thank God for the Deep State.”

Shaw, in his meetings with Keegan, explicitly compares his efforts to understand his fellow humans to TAMS learning the same thing.

And he turns out to have been wildly successful at it.

That Senator Jacobs, the political face of the opposition to the sort of technology Shaw profits from, was actually colluding with the terrorists was hardly a surprise. But that Shaw funded the terrorist movement, in a successful attempt to discredit the opposition – helpfully aided by the publicity of TAMS’s and Keegan’s actions – was a genuine surprise. Shaw successfully uses the terrorist plot and its suppression to push through the idea of a universal basic income and blunt political opposition to his business. (Besides the social and psychological objections to UBI, there is the economic one that, after everyone is provided a guaranteed income to everyone, sellers will simply raise prices accordingly.)

In the novel’s climactic chapters, Shaw provides Keegan covert assistance that includes access to all the information he has. It’s a service he normally charges $3.5 million a minute for, but Keegan and TAMS get it for free.

Among other things, it reveals Shaw knows Keegan was involved in an unsolved homicide in her college days. Besides constant messages from him that hint he’s been monitoring her throughout the book, it’s also mutual blackmail to keep her quite about his involvement in terrorism.

Given all this, why do I think the authors aren’t being ironical? That, despite the surface presentation, we aren’t to conclude the FBI and Shaw aren’t obvious heroes?

Because of the progressive bones the authors threw out to satisfy conventional progressive morality (or the editors).

There’s reference to the first female Ranger. There may be female Rangers now. It is, however, very questionable whether they are as effective as their male counterparts and not the result of standards lowered under political pressure.

We suddenly learn that, after Keegan’s friend in the Hostage Rescue Team is killed, that he’s a homosexual.

We hear constant references to Nazis and white supremacists. That such groups would, in the future, become more common, better organized, and not infiltrated by informers and federal agents is very debatable. As of today, they are social misfits who have trouble forming alliances, small in number, and of no political consequence.

Keegan sneeringly remarks that Americans wouldn’t have worked at the agricultural jobs replaced by automation anyway. On what evidence? The law of supply and demand hasn’t been revoked in agriculture. Higher wages will result in more native workers. American agribusiness already resists automation in favor of immigrants – immigrants supported by public assistance.

And, finally, the “problem” of robots using stereotypes is mentioned, ostensibly they are infected by programmer bias. Of course, there is the alternate explanation that many stereotypes are based on patterns in the real world and are useful. A self-learning bit of software is going to perceive those same patterns and hasn’t been socially conditioned into thinking its breaking a taboo.

At novel’s end, Keegan learns to love the machine as embodied in TAMS. Her doubts about the costs and benefits of this world gone. If she had many in the first place. Apart from her underemployed husband, she doesn’t seem to have much problem with automation and surveillance, accepts it as inevitable. It seems we just have to accept Shaw’s vision of how the world should be. Keegan’s final thought in the book is ”Fuck it. It was a risk she’d just have to take.”

Singer and Cole give reasons to be wary of that world, one we are constructing every time we trade autonomy and privacy for convenience and security. Even if they do seem to mouth, with an unknown amount of sincerity, the claims of the elite.

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