My last two books both came from the same list, GQ’s The 31 Best Beach Reads, According to Your Favorite Writers. Both were solid recommendations.
The Municipalists – Seth Fried
Drew Magary suggested this novel, which he described as “…a sci-fi novel that reads like flawlessly researched nonfiction.” That’s a pretty good take.
The book is set in the not-so-distant future, in a time when much of the rural world has been wiped out in favor of hyper-planned mega cities. Our protagonist, Henry, is a boring, joyless planner who is hated by his coworkers because of his dedication to his job of making urban areas more efficient. Henry is selected to seek out a rogue coworker who may be behind a growing terrorist threat to the existing order. Henry’s partner is an AI projection of his organization’s central computing system, called OWEN. OWEN is funny as hell as he attempts to understand human interactions and find ways of making his projection seem like a normal human. For example, OWEN writes a few lines of code that cause his systems to perform somewhat erratically when he “drinks” from a flask to make him appear drunk. Or when faced with a large force of armed soldiers, OWEN unleashes a series of increasingly ridiculous images to try to drive the soldiers away. Included are crazy clowns and dinosaurs. Seriously, the OWEN stuff is funny.
Henry and OWEN save the day, but they are also left wondering if what they have saved is worth it, and if those who were fighting against the status quo weren’t on to something.
The Municipalists is a funny, smart, thought-provoking, well-crafted novel.
Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline – Darrel Bricker and John Ibbitson
I followed up with this book, recommended by Chuck Klosterman. In it Bricker and Ibbitson, two Canadians, argue that the world is on the verge of an astounding change in population. Because of urbanization; greater education, empowerment, and freedom for women; and shifting societal norms, the birth rate around the globe is dropping rapidly. Much of the western, developed world has already dropped well below the 2.1 children per family threshold that is considered “replacement” level reproduction. Even areas that we think of as having astronomical birthrates – China and India the two biggest examples – are seeing their birthrates drop dramatically. In fact, Bricker and Ibbitson postulate that China’s population could be roughly half its current number by the end of this century.
While most of the book is spent showing why this is happening and testing the theory across different countries and regions, they also get into the implications of these drops. At first, as smaller generations are forced to pay for the extended years of the larger generations in front of them, the dropping population will be a drag on economic growth. As there are fewer people to buy things, manufacturing of all stripes will suffer, too. But, they also point out, after the world population reaches a maximum of about 9 billion, it will rapidly decrease, which should in turn begin to solve many of our pollution, resource, and climate change issues.
They also suggest that the US is particularly well situated to take advantage of these changes. As Russia and China’s populations decrease rapidly, the US’ population is expected to continue to grow. Why? Immigration. The United States’ traditional immigration policies have filled holes left by the falling US birth rate. Russia and China, meanwhile, allow almost no immigrants to enter their countries, meaning they will continue to get smaller, and weaker, as the US keeps growing.
Ahhh, but there is a rub. And that is the dramatic shift in our immigration policies over the past two years. Remember, our Idiot in Chief has been nearly as aggressive at stopping legal immigration has he has fighting to build his wall. Should his policies continue, the authors argue, the US will be kicking away a built-in advantage they have over every other world power.
It’s an interesting take. The numbers and ideas behind those numbers seem to make sense. But it flies so counter into what we’ve been led to believe that it’s hard to know if the are on to something, or if they’re just making shit up to sell books. I mean, China is just going to keep getting bigger, right? Maybe not.