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by Rick Klaw

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To discuss this column or other things Klaw...
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Anarchy and Science Fiction
Charles Babbage
The Difference Engine
Libertarian socialism
Joseph Déjacques
Charles Fourier
Prometheus Award
Open Source
Red Hat
?Open Source Everyware?, Wired, July 2004
Open Office
Kit O'Connell
In The Beginning... Was the Command Line
Internet history
And special thanks to Wikipedia, the open-content encyclopedia, for information used in this essay.

Computer Emancipation

I've been invited to Linucon, a Linux/science fiction convention. While at first glance, this may seem an unusual pairing, computers, anarchism, and science fiction have had an often intertwined history.

Surprisingly computers and science fiction do not have a long history together. Charles Babbage's early attempts to create a mechanical brain may have inspired late 20th century steampunk works such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine, but offered little stimulus to the 19th century literary imagination.

Karl Capek's R.U.R. robot Arguably, the earliest use of a mechanical brain was in Edward Page Mitchell's "The Ablest Man in the World" in 1879. By the 20s with the rise of the pulp magazines, artificial brains (usually in the guise of robots1) became commonplace. With a few exceptions,2 computers were portrayed as massive unwieldy devices3 and/or as humanoid robots until the late 60s and 70s when writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Samuel R. Delany began to use computers as we understand them as elements in their stories.

In 1981, Vernor Vinge introduced the concept of cyberspace.4 in his proto-cyberpunk tale "True Names." In 1985, William Gibson's cyberpunk opus Neuromancer won all three major science fiction awards (Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick). By the mid-80s computers were commonplace in science fiction.

Writers used anarchism5, often in the form of libertarianism6, in fantastic fiction since before the beginning of SF. Proto-science fiction works such as Johnathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), Daniel Defoe's7 A General History of Pyrates (1724-1728) (although the book is mostly non-fiction, Defoe's account of Libertatia, a pirate colony in Madagascar run along socialist libertarian lines8, is most likely fiction), Joseph Déjacques' L'Humanisphère: utopie anarchique (The Humanisphere: An Anarchistic Utopia) (1858-61; first unexpurgated edition 1971), Gabriel de Foigny's A New Discovery of Terra Incognita Australis; or, The Southern World (1676), George Griffith's The Angel of the Revolution: A Tale of the Coming Terror (1893) and many others heralded the fiction to come. Even philosopher Charles Fourier (1772-1837), one of the early proponents of libertarian socialism, littered fantastical elements throughout his works.

The Dispossessed The plethora of libertarian science fiction from writers such as L. Neil Smith, Robert Heinlein, Ken MacLeod, Poul Anderson and others led to the establishment of the Prometheus Award. Given annually since 19829, the award is for the novel that best promotes libertarian ideals. Many of the genre's major works feature anarchist ideals including The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, Iain M. Banks' Culture Series, The Entropy Tango by Michael Moorcock, Software by Rudy Rucker, The World of Null-A by A.E. Van Vogt, and many other books and short stories.

So what does anarchy have to do with Linux? Linux is an open source software. Generally, open source is any computer software source code that is in the public domain. In other words, it can be freely distributed and copied. If a friend wants a copy of Linux, I can just burn them a set of CDs without breaking any laws or fear of repercussion. Because of this freedom, Linux has become a viable alternative to Microsoft.

Linux logo Linux, first developed in 1991 by Linus Torvalds10, is an open source operating system. Thanks to its reliability, security, and low cost, 19% of the world's servers (including AOL)11 use a version of Linux.

After a nearly twenty year relationship, I severed most of my ties with Microsoft about eight months ago. I converted to Linux. My home PC runs Red Hat12 Linux 7.3 with a small Windows 98 partition for the very few applications that won't work under Linux (For example, Palm has yet to support Linux). I use open source software for word processing (Open Office), web browsing (Mozilla), and just about everything else. The programs are equal or superior to their proprietary cousins.

The World of Null-A I considered the conversion for some time, but several events propelled me to action. Windows XP was unveiled. At the time, I was operating a Pentium 133 with Windows 98. I started to notice that software was passing me by. I had the gotten the computer as payment for an editing gig back in 1996. The eight-year-old machine, needing only minor repairs, ran just fine until I retired it. I could probably take it out of the closet and boot it up now.

There was no way XP would work on the 133. Besides, I couldn't afford it. Until the arrival of XP, you could buy older versions of Windows software cheaply. Windows 98 would cost you $40 or so, 2000 for $60. A new version of XP is in the $200 dollar range (according to Wired, it takes the average American thirteen hours of work to afford XP. In China 390 hours. Malawi is a whopping 1,658!). You get the idea. Even worse, XP is not only assigned to the person but also the particular machine on which it was installed. In other words, if you buy a new PC, you have to buy a new version of XP as well. What a ripoff! Then I found out that a lot of older hardware and software won't work with it anyway. I have three monitors (don't ask) with the newest being at least five years old. My printer is over three years old. I was using WordPerfect 8 and no intention of changing. Besides, who the hell does Bill Gates think he is? Why should I have to buy new hardware and software just because Microsoft upgraded their operating system? To further infuriate me, the bigwigs at Microsoft decided to go after businesses that sold used copies of out of print software. So even though Microsoft no longer produces or supports Windows 95, Windows 98, older versions of Office and the like, they threatened lawsuits, etc. against the people reselling the outdated software. Many people cannot afford the latest machines, so they need that old software. Microsoft's decision has had a ripple affect. Several resale companies are now afraid to sell old Macintosh software for fear of litigation.

Software Linux is free and operates on new and old machines.

Poet/reviewer Kit O'Connell was the first Linux user that I knew well. We're both geeks with an interest in science fiction, horror, comic books, and computers. Under his guidance, I converted first my 133 machine then my current 900 MHZ machine.

Linux is not for everyone. While the current versions are certainly more user-friendly than described in Neal Stephenson's excellent In The Beginning... Was the Command Line (1999), some understanding of how operating systems work helps. I am no computer guru, but I have been using PCs since the dark days of DOS. I also learned a little UNIX during the pre-World Wide Web internet. A stubborn streak and willingness to tinker allows me to decipher a lot of arcane data. For those things I just can't figure out, there are literally millions of users out there who are willing and eager to help. Also, large corporations such as IBM, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard (HP) now have entire Linux divisions.

One of Linux's strengths is perhaps its greatest weakness. No two users configure their Linux the same. Hell, no two users on the same machine do. Linux allows and encourages individual logins for each user. My wife and I both have radically different desktops as they are each suited to our own interests and needs. Some problems can be hard to trace.

A computer nerd once told my wife when they discussed Linux that "If you use Linux on a fast enough machine there is no difference between it and Windows XP, so you might as well use XP." He completely missed the point. While Linux is not perfect (what operating system is?), it can function as well as anything that Apple or Microsoft are producing, and it's free. I'd rather be the one to decide when it's time to upgrade. It's a matter of controlling my own computer destiny.

1 The word "robot" was first used in Karl Capek's play R.U.R. (1921).

2 Foundation (1950) by Isaac Asimov and "The Martian Shop" (1959) by Howard Fast.

3 References in E.E."Doc" Smith's Lensman Saga and many others.

4 But not the term. Gibson coined the word in Neuromancer.

5 Anarchism is a generic term describing various political philosophies and social movements that advocate the elimination of the state. These philosophies use anarchy to mean a society based on voluntary cooperation of free individuals. Philosophical anarchist thought does not intend to advocate chaos or anomie -- "anarchy" refers to a manner of human relations that is intentionally established and maintained. Rather than imposed by law or force.

6 Libertarianism is a political philosophy which advocates individual rights and a severely limited government. Libertarians believe that individuals should be free to do anything they want, so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others.

7 Writing as Captain Charles Johnson.

8 Libertarian socialism is a political philosophy dedicated to opposing coercive forms of authority and social hierarchy, most famously the institutions of government and capitalism. Libertarian socialists believe in the abolition of privately held means of production and abolition of the state as an unnecessary and harmful institution. These ideals are featured prominently in the works of H.G. Wells (especially his later works) and Olaf Stapledon.

9 The award was actually first given in 1979. Due to financial costs, the award was not presented again until 1982.

10 Torvalds was inspired by the simplicity of Minix to create a version of Unix that could run on his home PC.

11 Wired, June, 2004.

12 Linux is produced in distribution packages. Red Hat is one of many.

Copyright © 2004 Rick Klaw

Not content with just being a regular columnist for SF Site, Rick Klaw decided to collect his columns, essays, reviews, and other things Klaw in Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century (currently available from Monkey Brains, Inc). As a freelance editor, former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experience with most aspects of the book business. All this anarchy talk makes Rick uncomfortable. Power to the people!

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