I have enjoyed Charles Platt's articles in Wired magazine, so I had hopes that I would also enjoy his new book Protektor. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
The future described in Protektor is one where people are biologically immortal. Interstellar travel is freely available, so there are limitless frontiers. Every person has a right to a basic allotment of resources, allowing them to live a life of luxury and pleasure. Government is no longer oppressive, since it is run by huge computer systems which are programmed to be benevolent. These semi-intelligent computer systems, in partnership with their human helpers, are referred to as the Protektorate. Dispite this eden of almost limitless resources, people are still unhappy. Some people resent the power of the Protektorate and the constant benevolent watchfulness that it exerts on their lives. One of these people introduces a computer virus that starts to destroy the operation of the computer systems on the pleasure planet Agorima. If these computer systems fail, all the infrastructure on the planet will fail with them and there will be millions of deaths. Tom McCray, a Protektor, is sent to Agorima to avert this disaster. Protektors are troubleshooters, sent out by the "OverMains", the huge computer systems that run the Protektorate.
Protektor is flawed on several levels. Tom McCray is a stock hero out of central casting. He does what is needed to get the job done, in an unemotional way. But deep down he is lonely, waiting for the right woman to come along and love him. Although Platt makes some attempt to explain McCray's motivations, we still never get much more than a two dimensional character.
Protektor also contains a great deal of technological speculation, which seems poorly thought out. For example, technological progress has been halted for hundreds of years. But with limitless frountiers, I find it difficult to believe that a group of wealthy people would not establish an outpost where they could persue scientific and technological development. Since the Protektorate is unable, by design, to apply coersive force, there would be nothing to stop such a group from amassing power through their technological advantage. This would eventually destroy the Protektorate.
The "OverMains" themselves are also poorly conceived. They are huge massively parallel computer systems, which are only semi-intelligent. They are not true artifical intelligences, which can modify their own programming and create new, more powerful, versions of themselves. By doing this Platt keeps the OverMains benign. Perhaps Platt views the OverMains as some kind of extremely sophisticated expert system. But such systems would be incapable of adapting to new situations and would be far too inflexible to run a vast human society. Nor does it seem likely that the human race would be willingly ruled by machines, no matter how benign.
Platt does have a couple of interesting ideas. Even though humans live in paradise, they still manage to screw it up. And the way the "bad guys" are punished at the end of the book is elegant. But most of Platt's ideas are unoriginal. His writing is workman like and his characters are shallow. I always have a large stack of books that I want to read and not enough time to read them. In retrospect, Protektor was a waste of time.
Ian Kaplan - 3/96
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