There’s 22 days until the publication of Walkaway, my first novel for adults since 2009’s Makers (there’s still time to pre-order signed copies: USA, UK); to whet appetites, my US publisher Tor Books is releasing excerpts from the book; last month, it was chapter 1, "Communisty Party"; today, they’ve released chapter 2, "You All Meet in a Tavern."
Today’s installment contains one of my favorite parts of the book: a rumination on the social realities of designing software to help people work together to build non-commercial luxury hotels!
She helped build the Belt and Braces, scavenging badlands for the parts its drone outriders had identified for its construction. It was the project she’d found her walkaway with, the thing uppermost in her mind when she’d looked around the badlands, set down her pack, emptied her pockets of anything worth stealing, put extra underwear in a bag, and walked out onto the Niagara escarpment, past the invisible line that separated civilization from no-man’s-land, out of the world as it was and into the world as it could be.
The codebase originated with the UN High Commission on Refugees, had been field-trialled a lot. You told it the kind of building you wanted, gave it a scavenging range, and it directed its drones to inventory anything nearby, scanning multi-band, doing deep database scrapes against urban planning and building-code sources to identify usable blocks for whatever you were making. This turned into a scavenger hunt inventory, and the refugees or aid workers (or, in shameful incidents, the trafficked juvenile slaves) fanned out to retrieve the pieces the building needed to conjure itself into existence.
These flowed into the job site. The building tracked and configured them, a continuously refactored critical path for its build plan that factored in the skill levels of workers or robots on-site at any moment. The effect was something like magic and something like ritual humiliation. If you installed something wrong, the system tried to find a way to work around your stupid mistake. Failing that, the system buzzed your haptics with rising intensity. If you ignored them, it tried optical and even audible. If you squelched that, it started telling the other humans that something was amiss, instructed them to fix it. There’d been a lot of A/B splitting of this—it was there in the codebase and its unit-tests for anyone to review—and the most successful strategy the buildings had found for correcting humans was to pretend they didn’t exist.
If you planted a piece of structural steel in a way that the building really couldn’t work with and ignored the rising chorus of warnings, someone else would be told that there was a piece of “misaligned” material and tasked to it, with high urgency. It was the same error that the buildings generated if something slipped. The error didn’t assume that a human being had fucked up through malice or incompetence. The initial theory had been that an error without a responsible party would be more socially graceful. People doubled down on their mistakes, especially when embarrassed in front of peers. The name-and-shame alternate versions had shown hot-cheeked fierce denial was the biggest impediment to standing up a building.
So if you fucked up, soon someone would turn up with a mecha or a forklift or a screwdriver and a job ticket to unfuck the thing you were percussively maintaining into submission. You could pretend you were doing the same job as the new guy, part of the solution instead of the problem’s cause. This let you save face, so you wouldn’t insist you were doing it right and the building’s stupid instructions (and everything else in the universe) was wrong.
Reality was chewily weirder in a way that Limpopo loved. It turned out that if you were dispatched to defubar something and found someone who was obviously the source of the enfubarage, you could completely tell the structural steel wasn’t three degrees off true because of slippage: it was three degrees off true because some dipshit flubbed it. What’s more, Señor Dipshit knew that you knew he was at fault. But the fact that the ticket read URGENT RETRUE STRUCTURAL MEMBER-3’ AT 120° NNE not URGENT RETRUE STRUCTURAL MEMBER-3’ AT 120° NNE BECAUSE SOME DIPSHIT CAN’T FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS let both of you do this mannered kabuki in which you operated in the third person passive voice: “The beam has become off-true” not “You fucked up the beam.”