Damien Ober - Gore Vidal’s 'Burr' meets Neal Stephenson’s 'Snow Crash' in this blazingly original alt-history that weaves 21st century technology into a saddle-punk retelling of the American Revolution
Damien Ober, Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America, Equus Press, 2014.
1777. Colonial America. A year after uploading the Declaration of Independence, a mysterious internet plague has broken loose in the cloud, killing any user who accesses a networked device. Seven in ten Americans are dead. The internet is abandoned. The entire continental militia has vanished. Seizing the moment, the British take control of New York and Philadelphia, scattering what little remains of the rebellion.
Just when all seems lost, George Washington reappears from off-the-grid to pin the remnants of the British army at Yorktown. Independence is won, but with the countryside in ruins and internet commerce impossible, the former colonies teeter on the brink of collapse. Meeting in secret, a faction of the Signers of the Declaration code a new error-proof operating system, designed to stabilize the cloud and ensure ever-lasting American prosperity.
Believing the draconian regulations of the new OS a betrayal of the hard-fought revolution, Thomas Jefferson organizes a feisty, small-government opposition to fight the overreach of Washington’s Federalist administration. Their most valuable weapon in the struggle to “save the ideals of the Revolution” is Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America, a new open-source social networking portal which will revolutionize representative government, return power to the people, and make Congress and the Presidency irrelevant…
“Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America is as original as they come – an audacious, exuberantly imaginative novel about freedom and technology and the sacrifices each take from the other. Damien Ober is a writer to be reckoned with.” - Scott O’Connor
“Ober’s mix of heady ideas and gorgeous prose make this a uniquely compelling debut. Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America is nothing less than an alternate history of the birth of the United States that hints at our coming demise.” Jim Ruland
A work of fiction I recently read by a Scottish author who has made it commercially with a film under his belt, sported a blurb to the effect that the writer (of the blurb) had read all the mainstream novels of the last decade looking for innovation and this book was the only one that measured up. My immediate thought was that looking for innovation in the offerings of mainstream publishers of fiction is like searching for emeralds in landscaping gravel. Needless to say, the book in question was no emerald.
Damien Lincoln Ober's Doctor Franklin's Dream America, on the other hand, pivots on high innovation: to tell the history of the United States Revolutionary War through the deaths of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. However, the novel is based on implausible anachronisms, which is an old technique; for example, Johann Jakob Bodner gave Noah a telescope in his epic poem Der Noah, published in 1752. Here, the technology is computers, wireless communication devices, and the internet, long before the birth of James Clerk Maxwell, inventor of the partial differential equations describing the electromagnetic field which played the major role in the development of devices for generating electricity; also before the development of the electrical battery. Aliens play a role in Bodner's poem, just as aliens play a role in the novel. Nor is the device of creatures living within the internet new. Stanislaw Lem published a short story in the New Yorker in 1978, The Experiment, and though his software-based characters lived (were conscious) within a single computer, the internet is nothing more than a bunch of computers and storage devices linked by a communications network. Two things, devices and communications networks, though there is a superstition among technical illiterates that it somehow transcends this latest extension of the telephone. Perhaps some of this stems from a series of films starring Keanu Reeves (who seems not to have had a decent role since My Own Private Idaho (who can remember River Phoenix?) notwithstanding his work as Theodore "Ted" Logan) that pretentiously pretended to be deeply philosophical, instead succeeding only in being tedious, so much so that I have been unable to sit through any of them without being lulled into unconsciousness. Better than Seconal. The hype of cloud computing, another "new" innovation, is remembered by some of us who did work involving computers in the 70s as no more than an upgraded time-sharing operation.
There is one other bit of nonsense that the novel shares with contemporary confounding of the facility with gadgets for technical savvy, and that is the idea that coders (programmers) are somehow a driving force of technology. Those of us who worked in the research and development of high technology programs that implemented something more substantial than social networking sites, stuff like the Global Positioning System (GPS) or range safety or the variations of two-way radios known as cellular phones, know that coders are the ditch diggers of technology. In this novel, however, coders are magicians, sorcerers whose codes are incantations. For example, of the signer Francis Hopkinson who is a super sorcerer in this novel, a status I am not sure he merited with his historical accomplishments, John Hancock's internet presence says (Hancock and Hopkinson are both at this time dead in "the real," as it is called in the novel), "What he knows about the code, what he knows about programming it. Imagine a man back in the real who could bend reality with his mind." Or of Jefferson, as Robert Morris says, "But taking George Washington down out of the Cloud, that's a program not even Thomas Jefferson can code." This is mixed with expressions like "its in the math" or "doing equations" or "doing algorithms" which are shorthand for arithmetic, usually of a grade school level, though sometimes it is hard to fathom what is implied, as when Samuel Adams' "avatar" (a term I believe was used originally in the social networking sense on Orkut) says of its own disintegration, "There's no programming for dying, neither is there any code to prevent it. It's a part of you. It's in the math." All of this in keeping with the belief of most people that technology is a sort of magic.
The novel thereby portrays the basic confusion that Americans have regarding what is mathematics and what is its role in technology. (The same can be said of physics, which most Americans confuse with mathematics and which most Americans seem to believe has as a goal the development of technologies or accomplishment of tasks, confusing physics with engineering, or other sciences with medicine (a mixture of engineering and superstition), no surprise given the use of the oxymoron medical science; not that this is unusual among the educated of other nations, such as the philosopher Bruno Latour who cannot grasp the difference between science and engineering.) Mathematics has nothing to do with the class you might have taken in high school or college where you spent inordinate time learning to use an algorithm dating back to at least the 17th century to solve a quadratic equation, most of that time spent learning how to think sufficiently abstractly to jump the small gap to substituting a symbol for an unknown. Though called college algebra, it has nothing to do with algebra as practiced by mathematicians, nor is it usually taught in colleges and universities known for their mathematics departments.
So forgive me, but before continuing with a discussion of this novel, I need to clarify some distinctions, which I will begin with a bit of personal history. If you've already heard this story, skip the next few paragraphs.
In 1981 I went to work for a subcontractor to IBM at a remote site on Vandenberg Air Force Base who was operating the GPS Master Control System (MCS) which was being tested and debugged in preparation for the final system that IBM Federal Systems Division was developing, having won the contract out from under General Dynamics who had developed the initial R&D system. I was hired because I had the background to grasp the mathematics of the primary algorithm for estimating the state of the system, namely the satellite ephemerides and on-board atomic clock offsets from GPS time together with the offsets of the atomic clocks at the monitoring stations. (My graduate studies in mathematics had included stochastic differential equations in the sense of Wiener and Ito, which is the basis for the continuous-time state, discrete measurement Kalman filter, on which the MCS estimator was based; the interested reader can find an excellent, elementary but rigorous derivation of this algorithm from an engineering linear systems point of view in Peter S. Maybeck, Stochastic Models, Estimation, and Control, Volume 1, Academic Press, 1979.) I was the only person on the site who understood the algorithm, but there was a debate about hiring me given that I was a mathematician by training and many believed it was not necessary to have such knowledge or a creature possessing it.
My boss was second in command for the subcontractor and had been involved in the design and coding of the original system on a Xerox 550. He was an electrical engineer by education who understood the program and its implementation on the minicomputer thoroughly (this was the only place I ever experienced a Xerox computer and an IBM copier) though he did not understand the estimation algorithm. The program was large and complex, with a few hundred thousand lines of FORTRAN code and a few dozen volumes of documentation. The swapping of segments in and out of the minicomputer memory to meet real-time demand was my first experience of such an operating system. The programmers who worked for my boss were expected to modify code as necessary, but not to be familiar with the entire system.
Note that that there were two aspects to this computer program. The first was the algorithm that provided the final output, the vector estimate of the satellite and control station state obtained by processing measurements through the estimator. The second was the actual implementation of that algorithm on a computer. The programmers were grunts who implemented the ideas of others; they not only didn't understand the algorithm, but didn't understand the code and its workings and had to be supervised to make certain that modifications didn't disturb other segments of the program in their swapping in and out of memory. And though I had plenty of experience programming in languages including Fortran, Cobol, APL, assembly language on another minicomputer long since vanished (Four-Phase), I avoided it whenever possible and was not hired as a programmer. It was essential in my work as I had to read the code to isolate and fix errors and make other changes to the algorithm. When I did program, I tested computational algorithms I designed on high level languages like MATLAB or APL and then provided the coders of the final versions with numerically stable implementations, either in pseudocode or in actual code, generally in Fortran or, in later years, C.
This brings up issues that are seldom considered by programmers, such as the effects of finite word length on the performance of algorithms, especially iterative algorithms like the Kalman filter. It makes me want to ask Ober about the effects of finite word length on the incantations of his coders. In numerical applications, they are often devastating. Which is at the heart of this story.
To understand this and the duality of the animism that is at the heart of this novel and also of the belief system of most humans on the planet regarding their "high tech" toys, especially if it involves software and can be called "digital," it is important to understand something of the world view of mathematicians. When a mathematician proves a theorem that is the basis for an algorithm, like the Kalman filter, his numbers are precise. The square root of two and pi, for example, are not approximations but are the actual numbers with all their infinite digits of expansion. Such numbers do not exist in nature, given that all physical expansions are necessarily finite; they clearly do not exist on computers, which have only a finite number of bits for their representation (finite word length). So when an algorithm like the Kalman filter calls for a matrix inversion, that is a problem for implementation on a computer. One must be careful regarding the algorithm used to invert the matrix. Round off and truncation errors can cause serious problems, leading to the wrong answer or worse, failure of the algorithm. People who worry about this sort of thing and derive what are termed numerically stable algorithms for computation are called numerical analysts. It is a concern seldom considered by programmers or engineers. Cramer's rule for computing the inverse of a matrix is a way to prove that inverses exist for nonsingular matrices or perhaps for doing it by hand, but is not a viable algorithm for a computer (nor is the quadratic formula you might have learned in school a viable numerical algorithm).
There came a time at the Phase I GPS Master Control Station that the Xerox was to be replaced by an IBM 3033 (actually two of them, along with a room full of disk drives and a front end minicomputer akin to the Xerox for collecting the data in real-time which the IBM 3033, essentially a business machine, could not do). The Fortran code was ported from the Xerox to the IBM for testing, an end-around to compare results using the same exact initial conditions and other parameters and data. The IBM did not get close to the same answers as the Xerox. The two IBM managers on site wanted to attribute it to the greater accuracy of the IBM, but the Air Force management on site didn't like that answer. And in fact, it wasn't true.
My boss went to the IBM manuals and checked the method by which the IBM computed trigonometric functions. He found that their expansions of sine and cosine used fewer terms than did the Xerox. Because of that and similar problems with other irrational quantities, the IBM had to run those mathematical routines in double precision to get the same accuracy the Xerox got in single precision. My boss also made the mistake of pointing out that if IBM had used CDC equipment as had been proposed by General Dynamics, these problems would not have occurred. IBM management had him fired and later had his boss fired as well, thereby putting the project at risk (this was the same IBM management who, when asked if IBM was going to build personal computers, given that Bill Gates had just stolen the intellectual property of Gary Kildall and called it DOS in a deal with IBM, said "IBM doesn't build toys; we build real computers," a haunting refrain as those toys almost destroyed IBM, a much less significant company now than it was then. The story of the theft of DOS from Kildall is told by Harold Evans in his book They Made America, Little Brown, 2004, which has been independently verified in its story of Gates and Kildall through a libel suit brought against Evans by the "coder" who sold DOS to Microsoft, during which it was definitively demonstrated that Microsoft DOS was lifted almost verbatim from Kildall's CP/M).
Hopefully that little personal memoir will provide some feel for the way "coding" is actually done in developing technology. The process is far more complex than some guy writing a few lines of incantation in some unspecified language. It is clearly more complex than developing some HTML markups. And there is a distinction between system code, which involves the control of the computer operation (the basis of malware, which makes extensive use of so-called self-modifying code, which is misrepresented in the novel), and applications-specific programs such as the GPS state estimator, though as in the example there is a merging of the two when the program runs in real-time, where a standard OS like DOS or Windows or OS/VS must not control the machine. (This is necessary because operating systems like DOS and Windows interrupt time critical operations at random times, which leads to questioning Ober regarding how the people who are kept physically alive with code, or the creatures living within the systems, are affected when the OS interrupts their functions without warning.) With the Xerox code, the OS was designed from scratch to implement the real-time operation, a typical approach. The interaction becomes yet more critical in embedded real-time programs, such as on a fly-by-wire aircraft or a missile.
Ober superimposes onto the period from the Revolutionary War through the end of the original oligarchy of "founding fathers" and one of their progeny (John Quincy Adams) with the election of Andrew Jackson, standard horror motifs and magic in a virtual reality that becomes a form of mind-body dualism manipulated via "coding." Besides aliens ("off-worlders" in flying saucers), the internet as another place (in a quasi-material sense, with "creatures of the code" modifying themselves and killing their creators, once by hiring a hit man, other times in a sense reminiscent of H. P. Lovecraft, and with characters in the real going to live on in one or the other versions of the internet that come to exist, as illustrated with Samuel Huntington who not only dies physically but also wipes out his virtual existence as well: "And then he vanishes, Sam Huntington condensed back to meat only"), a vampire millipus (a Kraken with a lot more tentacles than usual who lives partly in the ocean and partly in one of the versions of the internet), witches (not coding sorcerers), invading internet creatures and disruptive internet creatures, a portal to the internet built as directed by creatures in the internet claiming to be Benjamin Franklin and Francis Hopkinson in a hot tub scene reminiscent of a 1940s Frankenstein movie, a brain formed in the internet of calcified code (really) that can foretell (not predict or forecast, but foretell) the future, and a plot on the part of the Federalist Party through the Society of Cincinnati (SOC) to take over the US which is in some part thwarted by Jefferson and his twins as well as Thomas McKean working for Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Party. There is a plague that comes from the internet, it seems from a worm that was uploaded by a dying Button Gwinnet to punish his killer, the sinister Federalist spy and assassin Lachlan McIntosh, supposedly working for George Washington and the SOC. At least that seems to be the source of the original plague (there are three or so of them). The plague is called The Death and it forms crystals within those who die that are good electronic storage devices. My apology if I missed anything here. The duality that underpins the novel reminds me of the old mattress commercial I used to see in the 80s, in which it was asked, If you ruin your body, what will you live in? To which I always thought, You are your body. But the novel seems to imply that there is some informational content of humans that can survive them, with their consciousness, a bit that is at best unintelligible from a technical or unnecessary from a magical point of view.
At any rate, the mixture of realism and magic of this novel is nothing like the so-called "magical realism" of Gabriel García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude, which has nothing to do with the "genre" of magical realism anyway, a ridiculous categorization by professors of literature and agents, editors and publishers who are clueless and can be dismissed out of hand as charlatans. The work of García Márquez has more realism and its magic is not superimposed by some external "technology" or duality of mind and body so much as it is an inherent characteristic of place. The external magic of this novel is more like what one would find in the writing of H. P. Lovecraft or even Stephen King, though the form is far more imaginative and less cut and dried than is the work of those two. Nor is Franklin's Dream America similar to any of these authors, certainly not in the sense of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, which shocked me with its borrowing of an entire plot line from Günter Grass' The Tin Drum, bordering in my opinion on plagiarism less than on genre, and with less power as well, though the remainder of the Danzig Trilogy is not so compelling either.
Given all these plot devices, if one were forced to provide this novel a generic tag it would likely be as a historical horror story. From time to time there are historical events that creep in, though they are often more interesting in actual history than in the novel.
For example, during the War of 1812 Lighthorse Harry Lee is set upon by a mob and torn limb from limb in the novel. In history, however, he was beaten and tortured by a mob while defending a friend, a fellow Federalist and publisher of a newspaper who was earlier beaten for writing an essay against the War of 1812 and derisive of President Madison. This was an attack on a publisher of a Federalist paper by a mob of Democratic-Republicans. So much for free press, though it appears then as now the press in the US is censored by pressure of "news consumers" on media (now via advertisers). At any rate, Lee (who was not a young man, having been a cavalry officer in the Revolutionary War) and some of his friends were defending the publisher against further attacks when they were set upon and fired on their attackers. They were taken to jail and from there liberated by a mob of Democratic-Republicans that beat and tortured them for several hours, an attack that caused Lee to lose his power of speech and may have hastened his death a year later.
Another example is with Jefferson, who is more a plot device than a character. During his final day in the real, he is seen puttering around his office while his mistress (and half-sister of his dead wife through Jefferson's father-in-law), the slave Sally Hemings, putters around him, putting things right and destroying evidence he tells her to destroy. It is a point at which certain plot elements are tidied up, tied into a neat package so to speak (though Adams throws a monkey wrench into some of this a chapter later as he dies) and everyone lives happily ever after. The historical reality is that as Jefferson lay dying, his estate was sold off around him, including his slaves. He was so deeply in debt and broke that he could not afford to free even his mistress. Such real historical horrors play no part in this novel.
Yet one more Jefferson example in the novel occurs during his Presidency, when he is busy thwarting Federalist plots to take over the country and dealing with aliens and other crises. But in history, a real crisis he faced was reminiscent of one Obama faces today: Jefferson had to deal with the Barbary Coast pirates who operated out of the coast of North Africa under the auspices of the Ottoman Empire. The pirates attacked the merchant ships of the newly formed United States with impunity; the nation paid them extortion to desist. The amount of the extortion was a significant proportion of the US income, and when Jefferson came into office they raised the tariff. Jefferson refused to pay, instead building a navy to fight the pirates in what is called the First Barbary War. In today's US, no matter who the President, this would be used for propaganda purposes to terrify the US citizens into accepting an already bloated and out of control "defense" budget with little to do with defense or the military and everything to do with corporate profits under a massive standing jobs program. Times change. They spent on a navy to fight; we spend on a "defense" budget to provide jobs and corporate profits, not to fight.
Prominently missing is racism. There is reference here and there to slavery, to Jefferson's slavocracy, for example, and to slaves without any hint of the horrors of that institution, but missing for the most part is the fact that the nation was racist, even the non-slave states who would have preferred the slaves freed and shipped out of the country or sold out of the country. Most prominently missing is Jefferson's racism, which is important given he wrote the Declaration of Independence (which has been modified in the novel, leaving out the word men in its most famous line, a significant alteration). That Jefferson's writings leave no doubt he considered blacks inferior, there is no question as to his racism, but there is some debate as to whether or not he considered blacks human. For an in-depth discussion and debate among some prominent historians, see http://www.newrepublic.com/article/books-and-arts/who-Lincoln-was/ .
Not that the US hasn't improved. Blacks, however, remain an underclass, with fewer rights in the judicial system at the least. But the country has regulated, and continues to regulate, what atrocities are allowed against blacks. There is likely nowhere in Texas where one can drag a black man behind a truck with a chain around his neck and, if caught, not be punished severely. The same might be true of Louisiana, though it isn't clear that there aren't regions of Louisiana where, as a former colleague in the Navy told me back in 1966, one might still "find niggers in the bayou who tried to steal more chain than they could swim with." He, I might add, had a career in the Louisiana State Police after he left the Navy. But the US has a President who had a black father from Africa and, though his mother was white, no one except in fits of racist or political pique calls him a mulatto. He is not a descendent of African Americans or of slaves, nor is he a product of US black culture, not from the intercity or the country. But then most white Americans are terrified of blacks from the intercity.
This brings up the notion of freedom, a word that has no well-defined meaning and yet is bandied about with the US push for what it calls Democracy, a form of government that has little to do in practice with freedom. That is clear in the Declaration of Independence, with the famous line, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." We need not quibble over the distinctions between liberty and freedom (or the notion of Creator among a group of plutocrats, most especially Jefferson, who were deists, not Christians), but instead focus on the real intent of this statement of mostly aristocratic property owners who were incensed about taxes and more generally the mercantile system run by Great Britain. John Witherspoon says it pretty clearly in the novel at the time of his death: "That's what we did with The Declaration. It's a masterpiece, the best slogan ever, the kind you can build eons' worth of civilization on." That captures the essence of The Declaration, a slogan, a propaganda piece by plutocrats, a statement of limited scope that applied to a handful of white men. That any civilization built on it would of necessity limit the individuals to whom its "self-evident truths" (whatever that might mean, given no truth (using the word truth in a well-defined sense, which might not be doable in any case, as pointed out by Alfred Tarski, for example) is self-evident) apply is clear given the circumstances under which it was written (blacks held as slaves) and the beliefs of its author, a white racist male and perhaps white supremacist.
As noted earlier, the pivotal horror element as well as the major device of the plot is the internet in its various incarnations. It eventually becomes a place where people live half within and half without, no longer having a "code" side, as Hopkinson calls it, and a real side. People can travel to other places from within the internet, even become other people, a wonderful plot device for a horror story not developed here. Maybe a sequel set during the US Civil War.
All of which brings me back full circle to my memoir about coding and GPS. This transcendent internet, eventually a social media that becomes its own reality and in fact intermingles and interconnects with the reality from whence it came, that is, the "real world" so to say, where code itself creates and maintains life and so on, seems to have no constraints due to finite word length, among other limitations (the operating system, as noted earlier, the actual language used for the code, which ought to be called perhaps MAGICK, and a host of other "real" side issues that are part and parcel of technology, including limited bandwidth, spotty coverage due to lack of repeater towers, etc.). And so it captures the view of reality of the US and perhaps the world where technology is magic, created by science which is a form of sorcery, a world where the tools of communication are suddenly alive, an animistic technological worldview. This idealism becomes more interesting with the advent of pseudo-science such as Psychology and Economics taken as sciences without an understanding of what is science, what part is played by mathematics in science (as mathematics is not a science, given mathematicians are not constrained by any sort of physical reality, only by a logic game, aesthetics, and their imaginations) and how the effect of this popular belief is a sort of religion that holds to an animistic reality as represented in this novel. The author presents a truthful vision of contemporary United States by superimposing it on a more rational, but no less partisan and perhaps more violent and racist, time.
The same sort of duality that underlies this novel is found in mathematics. We could call it the virtual (or ideal) versus the material. In the novel it is the split between what is called the real side and a virtual reality vis-a-vis the internet (the "code" side) that fuse in the novel to form a mixed reality. In mathematics it is a contrast between what can be considered an objective mathematical realm and what one takes to be necessarily dependent on some "self-evident truths," that is to say, axioms. What one considers to be an axiomatic truth in mathematics need have no relationship with the physical world, and there is the rub. For example, twentieth century mathematics accepts the existence of infinities of varying sizes, some larger than others. Some are so large that their existence cannot be proved from the standard axioms of set theory and postulating their existence has profound consequences in the mathematical realms they define.
To illustrate that duality, which has multiple levels, consider the statement that the square root of two is not a fraction. That statement can be proven without recourse to anything other than properties of the integers, which are natural to most people living in advanced societies, the definition of square root, fraction, and two. That is to say, it is an inherent fact contained within the meaning of two, integer, square root, and fraction. No external "higher" truths, that is to say axioms, self-evident or otherwise, are required. In essence, it is constructive and would be accepted as true in any logical realm, just as the square root of two would be considered a constructive entity since one can provide an algorithm to compute as many digits in any integral base expansion as one wishes. Of course, the square root of two is the number that when multiplied by itself equals two; no such number can be displayed in the realm of finite expansions. (We disregard here certain ideologically irrational humans like the ultra-finitists who are in the uncomfortable position of accepting the existence of a first integer that does not exist.)
The reason this esoterica makes a difference is because of the nature of certain so-called "social sciences," most especially Economics. Economics has become rigid in its beliefs to the extent that there is but one brand of it taught everywhere now, accepted as gospel by authorities in powerful policy-making positions all over the world. This is the neoliberal economic doctrine that the best of all possible worlds comes as a result of pure competition, an ideology of microeconomics. Economics claims to be science because it applies mathematics, never mind that the same claim can be made by astrology. The issue revolves around how mathematics is applied.
In physics, mathematics describes the structure of reality through theories that explain how things work. The key is that mathematics allows precise predictions that can be used to falsify; without such falsification, there is no theory. It is a necessary constituent of theory. Newton's inverse square law of gravitation describes the interaction between celestial bodies and is able to provide precise descriptions of that interaction with precise orbits of the planets around the sun in our solar system. Eventually it was determined from observations that the prediction of the orbit of Mercury was wrong. That problem was corrected by general relativity, not by building a kludged "theory" like that of the Ptolemaic system, but by solving other problems that arose with the incompatibility of Newtonian gravity and Maxwell's equations for the electromagnetic field, which led to special relativity. (A readable source for this can be found in the elementary textbook by David M. Bressoud, Second Year Calculus: From Celestial Mechanics to Special Relativity, Springer-Verlag, 1991.)
But in general, physicists famously distrust mathematical theorems, especially theorems that assert the existence of some object or solution to or stability of a system of equations without providing an algorithm for demonstrating such existence, even if it provides an infinite sequence such as the square root of two. Such existence theorems belong to a level of mathematical reality where the demonstrations of "truth" are not constructive. There have been famous mathematicians who also distrusted these demonstrations of existence at different levels, such as Leopold Kronecker, Henry Poincare, and L. E. J. Brouwer. It is not clear that they objected at the same level of acceptance, and Brouwer may have been the strictest in his beliefs, which were mystical regarding mathematics, while Kronecker and Poincare were more practical, with Kronecker wedded to providing algorithms to prove existence whereas Poincare seems to have been less rigid. An excellent (but advanced and difficult) discussion of these levels based on set theory can be found in the article by Peter Koellner, Large Cardinals and Determinacy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available online: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/large-cardinals-determinacy/
There is also work by Harvey Friedman and his band of merry mathematical logicians that precisely bounds some of these levels of mathematical reality. At the base is second order arithmetic, which allows constructive proofs of inherent facts like those discussed regarding the square root of two, but have no statements of axioms, of self-evident truths, beyond this. Friedman then builds levels of "truth" by adding axioms, from weaker to stronger, to determine what is derivable within the different levels. Friedman's work and Brouwer play a major role in what follows.
The use of mathematics in Economics is nothing like its use in physics. First of all, there are no theories in Economics, since nothing is ever falsified. Indeed, Economics is a cargo cult of physics, where instead of marching around in a jungle clearing with stick guns on their shoulders and coconut helmets on their heads hoping to coax the gods to send a giant bird with parachutes of cargo, economists use mathematics as a form of magic whereby they hope to coax the gods to give them successful predictions. To date, no such thing has happened. There are numerous examples of mathematics applied, such as the mathematical theory of stochastic differential equations based on Ito's integral to price derivatives, originally simple options (Black-Scholes Theory), that have been miserable failures. However, the failures have not led to falsification. Instead, economists blame the failures on problems with reality.
Secondly, and more important than falsification, is the way mathematics is used: in a religious sense, with belief in higher truths to support doctrines without hope of falsification. A good example is the application of the non-cooperative theory of games in Economics, which is supposed to model the real-world competition of firms and interaction with consumers. But the key religious article of faith is a belief in the existence of equilibrium solutions of every finite game, which is supplied by a famous theorem of John Nash for which he won the Nobel Prize in Economics. The theorem is not constructive. In fact, it is equivalent to the classic Brouwer fixed point theorem of topology, proven by L. E. J. Brouwer early in the 20th century which he went on to renounce since it was not constructive. Nash used Brouwer's theorem to prove existence of equilibrium and it was later shown that Nash's theorem can be used to prove Brouwer's theorem. And Friedman has shown that Brouwer's fixed point theorem cannot be proven at the base level, but requires a "higher truth" as an axiom to derive it. So when economists state that Nash's theorem proves that the neoliberal ideology of non-cooperative interaction provides the best system because of the equilibrium inherent in the games they believe model the social systems, they are making a leap of faith like accepting the Nicene Creed or voodoo. In essence, the Economics they teach as gospel is a form of religion. And one can pick as well on their use of nonsense like the existence of a utility function for consumers, or even for companies. The theorem of Gérard Debreu gives necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of a utility function, which necessary and sufficient conditions require strong beliefs regarding the behavior of humans, beliefs which are falsified constantly. For a patently religious statement regarding game theory as proof of the dogma of neoliberalism, take a look at the short essay by John Roberts, a former Stanford University professor of business, in the anthology The New Palgrave Game Theory, edited by John Eatwell, et al., published by W. W. Norton, 1989, entitled Large Economies. It is a list of "higher truths" in mathematics that have no relevance to physical reality and reads more like a list of buzzwords used to scare off other views.
This becomes of major significance in modern society wherein the ruling plutocrats of the early days of the United States, the founding fathers, have been replaced by giant corporations controlling the two major parties by exclusion, during the primary process, of those who would not support their goals, corporations that do not exist in a competitive system of free markets (which means that neither buyer nor seller can set prices), and corporations that control (directly and also by writing laws) the media, banking system, all of the so-called defense budgets (DOD, intelligence, homeland security), retirement accounts, health care, energy, and most everything else that matters. The ideology to support this as free enterprise is promulgated through the study of Economics, which in the US and most of the world has become the inculcation of a rigid religious dogma referred to as neoliberalism and that is sold in the name of freedom, which word becomes synonymous with "free markets."
This is where the novel falls flat. In playing with the internet as though it had anything to do with freedom, it misses the point of oppression in the 21st century. If one wants to read a cogent discussion of freedom and technology, one would do better to read Thorstein Veblen's Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution, first published in 1915. The idea of freedom is tied to the reality that humans must live in support groups of other humans called societies. Humans do not live in isolation. Living with other humans necessarily requires organization; the larger and more complex the social setting, the more organization is necessary; organization curtails individual freedom. The internet and the means of accessing it is a communications system, similar to the telephone, and therefore a tool of social organization. Nothing magic, though through it more tasks once performed by businesses or government are foisted off on citizens. As a tool for social organization, it maintains bounds of behavior and belief by imposing an ever more restrictive box of what is considered right, true, and salable in writing, music, and film, among other things, and becomes a means of social control via directed consumerism and outright propaganda. It is a means of enforcing conformity. It is a powerful propaganda tool. For those who pay attention, it is evident that the internet and especially social networking are the greatest control mechanisms ever designed by any society. They construct a box that becomes almost a place to live, where thoughts and ideas are controlled, where music and film and perhaps literature (which may be irrelevant) are judged by mass appeal and monetary success. The US has learned how to export its ideology to other nations, especially the illusion of freedom granted by democracy and its religious ideology of neoliberalism as the shining path to personal freedom, an ideology dominant now in all US educational institutions that has no basis as a science but is sold as, along with science, a form of modern religion. The dominant tool of this oppression is the internet, most especially social media.
Consider the case of Timothy Dexter, otherwise known as Timothy Treadwell. He believed he could cohabit freely in the society of bears in Alaska, but the bears had a different attitude. Living in a society in which corporations control social functions and write the laws and government budgets is a bit like living among bears. The catch is that when the internet becomes a tool controlled by those corporations, the citizens will not grow alarmed but will be lulled into blissful unawareness.
Ober's novel has nothing to do with freedom or technology, though it does have something to do with the perception of technology; how through that perception certain technologies can become formal, even necessary, parts of life. For example, the wheel. Is the automobile a freedom if you are forced to own one to exist within society? The inherent danger is that control can be brought to bear through technologies by their enhancement of social organization, particularly when the technologies are foisted on the society by large corporate interests for profit.
In essence, Ober has mapped the modern superstitious US onto the nations' beginnings complete with vituperative two-party system controlled by plutocrats (now corporations), history replaced by acceptable mythos (sometimes dependent on choice of party), and with modern communications systems providing impossible forms of social networking in which people live without having to experience reality first hand. As entertaining as this book might be, it has no serious message to deliver regarding freedom or technology; missed opportunity or resounding endorsement of the ridiculous notion of social networks as facilitators of democracy, whatever that word actually implies, who can say? I personally think this work would be more successful as a graphic novel; in graphic novel form it might become a standard undergraduate college history text.
I will close this with a quote from a forgotten American of this period. He was an astronomer and a maker of scientific instruments. He was as famous in his day as his fellow Philadelphian, Benjamin Franklin. His name was David Rittenhouse and the quote is taken from an address he gave the American Philosophical Society in 1775. The address goes by the title
"Happy people! and perhaps more happy still, that all communication with us is denied. We have neither corrupted you with our vices nor injured you by violence. None of your sons and daughters…have been doomed to endless slavery by us in America, merely because their bodies may be disposed to reflect or absorb the rays of light, in a way different from ours." - Jim Chaffee 2015 T his review first appeared in VLAK 5. http://www.thedrillpress.com/sad/2015-07-01/sad-2015-07-01-dream-jchaffee-01.shtml
Following a weird e-shorthand transcription (with @’s all over the place, “cre8d” for “created,” or “=” for “equal”) of the Jeffersonian all-are-created-equal maxim, is a list of all the signatories of The Declaration of Independence, each name accompanied by a date, and underneath that: “Fifty-six men signed The Declaration of Independence. This is the story of their deaths.” Immediately after the so-called “immortal declaration” comes the 56-fold death of its declarers that forms the backbone of the narrative of Damien Ober’s Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America, hot off the press with Equus (2014).
To base a book-length narrative solely on fifty-six death scenes, spanning over half a century, has the obvious advantage of keeping up a fast-paced pull: their protagonists keep changing, their action-oriented narrative can do without lengthy descriptive passages or the baggage of deep psychology, their “death-drive” provides them with both natural suspense and a clear, attractive denouement.
All this, however, provided one can solve the inherent difficulty of this structuring: how does one write fifty-six times about “the same,” without repeating oneself, without giving free rein to cozy shorthand or comfy formula, producing yet another Oulipian tema-con-variazioni exercise, whose algorithm might wind up being more interesting than the results? Damien Ober’s Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America keeps the best and forgets about the rest, managing to take full stock of the advantages of its procedural narrative while steering clear of its formidable risks. How does Ober manage that?
Firstly, by sheer gift of storytelling, fashioning each of the signatories (and their deaths) with some unique signature. Let’s take just the first few. John Morton dies lyrically, at his computer:
The glow of the laptop touches only the ceiling directly above, and only slightly, the most vague hint of a soft spot in the shell of this realm – a path out, maybe. (5)
Button Gwinnett dies mock-heroically, after losing a duel to Lachlan McIntosh, shouting out loud the name of his vanquisher: “One last memory of Button Gwinnett,” he mumbles. “The sound of his name in my voice… echoing forever” (8). The only tangible effect of this being, that he startles the nurse into dropping and smashing his porcelain chamber pot. Philip Livingston, so frail he’s wheeled around in a cart, simply vanishes into thin air (or into wi-fi signal?):
M’Kean turns back to the cart containing Philip Livingston, but there is no Philip Livingston. Instead of a man filled with wa- ter, there is only the water vacated, a dark pool spread out in blob around the cart, reflects Rush and M’Kean’s faces back at them looking down. (14)
John Hart dies in the midst of his gathered family, “a pain in his lower chest like having the wind knocked out […,] a taste like sand in his mouth”:
He manages to whisper, “Stick to the plan.” But he’s not sure who’s still there to hear him. The men who survive this, he thinks, they will be gods. And I’ll be one of the ones who died in the very first days. (17)
And so on. Still, Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America also succeeds as a novel in that it’s more than the sum of its 56 charming vignettes. The first unifying component is Ober’s style. Throughout, Ober serves a tasty cocktail blending original poetic lyricism (as when the mortal throes throw George Ross “into fits of abstract breakdancing on the floor” ) with absurd dialogue (“’Blind?’ Hopkins considers. ‘How’s that working out for him?’ A twin shrugs. Then the other. ‘Well, he can’t see.’” ), the occasional off-beat metaphor (“King George can slice through the colonies… like a red-hot lance up a well-worn whore.” ) with some hilarious profanity (“His wife smiled. ‘But, Thomas, do you know what sucked the biggest dick ever?’He looked at her blankly. ‘Martha Washington.’ ) and trivial, yet irresistible, punning, as in: “Most sites haven’t changed since the outbreak broke out. Pictures of the first dead ghost every abandoned splash page, breaking news left there breaking” (18). This style makes for a highly enjoyable, constantly surprising and, for lack of a less mindless label, thought-provoking read.
Also, Ober cleverly runs a few overarching or underlying narratives than run across and through the death-scenes. The customary review-genre reduction of the book to plot-level could look as follows.
Before John Morton becomes the first signatory to sign off, he uploads the Articles of the Confederation onto the Cloud, a pan-American computer network, becoming “the first man to type the new nation’s name into the Internet” (12). Make no mistake. The date still is April 1, 1777, and the setting is true to fact: people ride on horseback, live in mansions and when ailing, subject themselves to the cutting-edge medical treatment: bloodletting and leeches. And yet, at the same time, the Internet is not only America’s daily bread (the Revolution has its official fan page, “scoring 1,256 likes in the first hour alone”), it is already getting stale, worm-infested, and spawning a virus, some autonomous replicating selfware: The Death, “that faint tightening in the lower gut, something [George Ross] would have dismissed as gas before the outbreak” (18).
This faint tightening is caused by crystals growing in the stomach, somehow induced by exposure to Internet waves, and is 100% deadly: “Maybe the wi-fi signal or the refresh rate,” muses Doc Barlett, the crystal-discoverer, “is just a trigger for something that’s been waiting eons to happen” (43). This Death epidemic ends up wiping out sixty-five percent of the population (and claiming the lives of the first dozen or so signatories) before a panacea is finally discovered, and the entire nation goes offline. Joseph Hewes, its sixth victim, thinks of The Death as “something living […] a nightmare beast loose in the Cloud, reaching down to snatch up users, suck their souls right off the planet” (24), and he hits the nail on the head. The storm having blown over, the nation goes online again, this time into the “Newnet” – but only after contact with alien civilisation, the so-called “Off-Worlders,” whose flying saucers become steady part of the young nation’s landscape. In exchange for the continent’s supply of oil, the Off-Worlders offer the US gold and the cure for The Death (they also clear away all the crystals and clean up the infested corpses).
This contract smacks of the devil – and indeed, the Off-Worlders end up taking away way more than the contract stipulated. The increasingly pressing question becomes (asks Frank Lewis), “How long before Americans are the Off-Worlders, trolling the galaxy for the next littlest piece of room to expand into?” (164) Only much later, evidence suggests that, rather Matrix-like, all might be part of a diabolical plot:
the President… of the United States has been growing crystals inside cloned human stomachs and engaging in black market trade with alien invaders in order to secure technology to implant ten million computer programs into human bodies. (168)
And accordingly—mind you, we’re not in Soviet Russia—the initially liberating project of the Newnet turns into its very opposite: “Humans don’t run Newnet anymore. Newnet runs the humans” (197). Parallel with this mass-enslavement runs the project of liberation the eponymous Dream America, a social networking platform designed to fulfil the American dream of self-reliance and individual independence. After all, “Who needs a Congress, or a President for that matter, when each citizen can log on and represent himself?” (73)
The logic behind this is as impeccable as hilarious: If humans can die of computer viruses, why shouldn’t they live on as their online social profiles or avatars? Launched by Francis Hopkinson, The Dream becomes not only “the best chance to ensure the perpetual political involvement of the people” (84), but also a platform for the signatories—beginning with Hopkinson himself and his follower John Hancock—to exist posthumously, by way of their online avatars. From there, Hopkinson keeps the body- and liberty-snatching enterprise (led by Jefferson, M’Kean & Co.) in check, trying, and possibly managing, to “retake America, from the Dream side out” (221).
Ober spins this rather colourful yarn (also featuring the “Vampire Millipus,” assassin twins, thinking drones, an Indian Chief in contact with space aliens, and many other freakshows) beyond yet another what-if-dinosaurs-had-cellphones imagination exercise. As so often with the alternative-history genre, his story asks about the present more than the past: how far has America gone (or indeed strayed) from the times of its Founding Fathers, who still could wonder whether to speak of the States as a “them” or an “it” and could posit all men as being equal without some of them being more equal than others?
The Internet and electronic media serve as the vehicle of Ober’s underlying metaphor – just as with them, the American dream of personal freedom and social equality can easily turn into a nightmare of the opposite. Starting with the Cloud and the Dream where everyone can represent themselves, we end up in 3net, where everyone can be anyone else, “slip into other people’s lives” (243), where everyone can be represented by someone else. Sounds familiar?
One ends up wondering, together with Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress Sally, whether perhaps the Off-Worlders (whom Jefferson heroically defeats in an epic battle of evermore) didn’t have to take over the Earth by force, for they may have already done so: “Millipus, The Death, the Cloud all falling in. Maybe those are its weapons and we down here just too stupid to see they giving us whipping after whipping” (255) – for “Off-Worlders” read corporate capitalism, war against terror, freedom fries, what have you.
Those are all relevant questions and it is to his credit that Ober manages to raise and address them while eschewing a political allegory through which to preachify his political views. The issues are dealt with in and through his stories – not fictionalised thought, but rather thinking through fiction. To be sure, Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America is no political tract or history lesson or moralist dystopia or media analysis; or, rather, it is all of these and more – it is fiction writing at its best.
And what remains with this particular reader most vividly, after the excitement of the storyline and the provocation of the thinking have subsided, is the simple poignancy of the fifty-six death-scenes, all the more moving for their simplicity and matter-of-factness. As when William Williams thinks, “It was good, to spend a little time in this world, I guess” (205). It’s so good, to spend a little time in the world of this book. I’m sure. - David Vichnar https://equuspress.wordpress.com/2014/09/09/the-untold-deaths-of-the-immortal-declarers/