By KB Spangler
Maker Space is the second Rachael Pen novel set in the universe of the web comic of A Girl and Her Fed. Luckily you don’t need to know anything about the web comic to enjoy the novels as the premise behind the books can be summed up pretty quickly. In the aftermath of 9/11, a wealthy industrialist, who interestingly enough became a Senator, donated a special kind of tech. An implant that allows whoever is implanted to access and exercise a level of control over all sorts of information technology. It also allows for instantaneous communication between people who are so implanted. Five hunred men and women from across the federal services were implanted, the idea being that this would allow for greater coordination between federal organizations. It didn’t go well and those men and women were left to quietly sink into madness. Until one agent found a way to control the implant and regained his life and then helped others regain theirs. Over a hundred agents died before that happened and some of them? They had help in dying. The agents quickly decided that going public was not just their moral responsibility but their best defense.
Racheal Peng, an American born Chinese gay woman and Army vet, in the wake of this revelation was assigned as liaison to the Washington DC Metro Police and was promptly ostracized by the cops as a fed-freak until she helped solve a murder case. That got her a promotion, a raise, the respect of her peers and co-workers, and a hell of a rep to live up to. In this story Peng learns that getting a reputation for success often means you have to live with the expectations that it brings. Which is that everyone expects you to keep secceeding. Even if everyone else is failing.
When the biggest terrorist strike since 9/11 happens right down the street killing an entire street full of people in broad daylight (seriously there’s only one survivor from the attack and he’s maimed for life), she’s going to have her hands full. Because there are no suspects, no motive and damn few clues that she can find in the rubble and ruins of way-to-many people’s lives. Worse, as the panic and anger builds, she has to deal with the fact that a lot of folks are thinking that this attack was an in-house job. By which I mean they think the attack was carried out by the US government. She needs to find those clues, figure out the motive, and catch the bombers before the concerned citizens of DC and perhaps the whole country decide that this was done to them by their own government and become a screaming mob. Worst of all, Agent Peng also has to deal with the fact that the technology to do this is commonplace, easy to find and can’t be controlled.
These two things are kind of at the heart of the novel. The increasing distrust (both for good and bad reasons) of the government mixed in with the fact that the information and technology to do incredibly bad things at increasingly large scales is becoming more and more commonplace as well as harder and harder to control. We the People find ourselves at the mercy of the most unbalanced among us, while dependent on the protection of a government that seems at time completely uninterested in actually protecting us and untrustworthy when it does. While I personally do not believe the situation is as bad as it seems (because believe it or not I believe that the government is still made up of people who are trying to help more than people looking to lord it over others) I can understand why people feel that way. All I can really do is point to the facts that tell us that violence is actually at a very low point in human history whether it be crime or warfare (There’s a book about this that I am actually going to review this year). I’ll admit that’s no assurance that it will stay that though.
All of that said this is not a bleak or despairing book, but a rather hopeful one all things considered. Part of that is our introduction to the Maker Community, a group of young (and not so young) nerds who are committed to making things that help rather than harm and have created a working code to ensure they stay in those bounds. It’s even better when you realize this group is based on real people across the entire country who live this ideal out to the best of their ability everyday. Part of it is the fact that the book shows us people trying to help one another even in the middle of a riot. While the novel gives us no easy solutions to the issues here, it also points out that if we continue to work together and remember that we are not enemies, then we can find a solution. It will take time, it will take effort but a solution will be found.
For that matter, this book is actually pretty bullish on technology, mostly in the person of Agent Peng who makes a valid if somewhat military centric counterpoint. Because of social media, enlisted men and women can talk and air concerns at a speed and over distances unconceivable in prior times. This means that the brass cannot simply ignore those concerns or bulldoze through the protests of the enlisted. I'm sure that someone will come along and blubber about military discipline but my rejoinder is that maintaining discipline is not an excuse for lies, cover ups, and the use of rank as a club to silence real concerns and doubts. As it is the enlisted men and women who do the actually fighting and work, not the politicians at home and not even the generals and other upper rank officers who lead them, they have every right to expect those concerns and criticisms to be meet in a thoughtful, honest and mature manner. If we are expected to fight, sweat, and bleed for a cause, we should after all have a right to a full accounting. Agent Peng frames this mostly in the context of crimes committed in the armed forces because she was a member of the military investigation branch (The Criminal Investigation Command, CID). I will note that one thing that isn't covered is the perverse negative incentive that unit commanders find themselves saddled with. See Officers and Senior NCOs get promoted if their unit does well and is generally clean. A unit where someone was murdered or raped by another member of that unit is not doing well and is not clean, regardless of the circumstances. So if CID finds one of your troops or god forbid one of your leaders is guilty, you can kiss your chances of promotion in many cases goodbye. Even if you had nothing to do with it. Now, there are a great many honest Captains, Gunnery Sgts and more who take the hit because it's the right thing to do or because it's their duty to their troops. They get punished. There are also those who work to block or slow investigations, if they are successful, they are rewarded. I think most of my readers are clever enough to figure out where this leads in many cases. The great strides in communication and recording technology has made covering things up harder. This is a benefit not only to people who have been victimized but to everyone.
The book also brought up the benefits that technology can bring through the makers and the agents. If the downside is the mass spread of often dangerous knowledge, that's also the upside as we are shown people using that knowledge to toil (often with little reward) for the betterment of their fellow human beings. They are not presented as saints, having their own odd quirks and hazing rituals, but as people trying to make good and beautiful things for others. This has the benefit of ringing a lot more truthful than an urban monastery of saintly tech wizards. I have had some limited experience with the maker community here in Phoenix myself and I can tell you on the main, they tend to be good people with a strong desire to create. So the book manages to convey a good experience on a small but driven and hopefully growing community. The villains are themselves not painted in black, but as real people pushed to extremes by events beyond their control and by reasons that are all too heartbreakingly human. Despite the fact that their actions were inexcusable and frankly mass murder... I found myself feeling sorry for the poor bastards. More than I ever thought I would anyways. Ms. Spangler seems to have a gift for showing us that even the people who do terrible things are still people.
I am glad that I picked up the second book in this series and I find myself being pulled to the 3rd (expect a review on that book to before too long at this rate. Ms. Spangler used her novel to paint a picture with a great many different shades of gray that manages to avoid becoming a depressing slog through grim darkness. That's a hard line to walk but she does it by reminding her reader that while there are always downsides to technology and changes, there are almost always upsides as well. She also reminds us that no matter the changes we go through, there will still be good people out there trying to use whatever they can to make things a little better. Maker Space by KB Spangler gets an A.