Monday, August 10, 2015

SFF names #6: Buhle

From the Department of Caffeine & Overthinking: Cory Doctorow's "Chicken Little" is explicitly a response to Frederick Pohl, but I wonder if he ever read Larry Niven's short story "Convergent Series." Because the two tales are vibrating pretty hard in my head.

Then again, so is everything else.

"Convergent Series" is a breezy, no-frills story, built around its twist. Besides that twist, the most memorable thing about it is (another kind of twist) the rotation of appearing demons by 90 degrees. Pentagrams are supposed to be drawn on walls, not on the floor!
A pentagram was a prison for demons. Why? I'd thought of the five points of a pentagram, and the five points of a spread-eagled man ...

The Quadrillionaire

Cory Doctorow's "Chicken Little" is the story of an intrapreneur, Leon, who struggles to do business with a quadrillionaire person-in-a-vat, Buhle.  Buhle is practically immortal, and a special kind of stinking rich: the kind that starts to stink less like a person, more like a corporation, or like a state, or like money itself. What could Buhle possibly want that Leon has to give?

Well, that corpus of Buhle suspended in his vat (see note) is very suggestive of Niven's profane flesh affixed to the network nodes in "Convergent Series." Perhaps Leon could have progressed the deal more quickly, if he'd noticed that he was actually in a pact-with-the-devil story.

Buhle thirsts for Leon's soul or, in more properly Satanic fashion, he thirsts for everybody's souls. "I am Leon, for we are many." Yes, it's been Buhle seducing Leon all along: Buhle wants Leon's help with mass soul-ectomy, reprogramming humankind via a bioweapon to give us the narrow preference-realizing rationality of homo economicus.

One meaning of Buhle (in German) -- admittedly, probably not the meaning that is behind the surname, etymologically -- may be relevant here. Buhle can mean the paramour, the illicit lover, the one who does not publicly declare desire. "The Leon shall lie down with the goat": Buhle as devil-lover recalls one described in 17Cth France, whose penis "was of two parts, half of iron, half of flesh, and similarly his testicles" (De Lancre, Tableau de l'inconstance des mauvais anges et démons, 1612).

There are so many smart conceits in "Chicken Little," you could almost miss the one at the end where Leon and Ria outwit the devil. That's where the comparison with Niven's story really helps to clarify things.

Niven imagines some fairly arbitrary demonic bureaucracy to make his twist possible. The fiend grants a wish, vanishes back to Hell to get a stamp from his supervisor, then rematerializes inside the pentagram to scoop up the nameless narrator's soul. But Niven's narrator foxes his fiend by wishing to freeze time, and then re-inscribing the pentagram somewhere special:
A cheery bass voice spoke out of the air. "I knew you'd move the pentagram. Made it too small for me, didn't you? Tsk, tsk. Couldn't you guess I'd change my size?"
He was a small red star.
A buzzing red housefly.
Eventually he'd look down and see the pentagram. Part of it was in plain sight. But it wouldn't help him. Spread-eagled like that, he couldn't reach it to wipe it away. He was trapped for eternity, shrinking toward the infinitesimal but doomed never to reach it, forever trying to appear inside a pentagram which was forever too small. I had drawn it on his bulging belly.
"Chicken Little" apparently ends on a cliffhanger, but I think we get pretty heavy hints that Buhle will never roll out his brain-rewiring bioweapon. Buhle's comeuppance is of the same flavour as Niven's demon's: his spurious omnipotence can be defeated only by a kind of iterative move.

Buhle is persuaded to try a version of his own bioweapon on himself. Leon thereby inscribes the market logic in which Buhle is embedded into Buhle himself, and Buhle starts to shrink away to zilch. As Ria has already explained, homo economicus is not homo entreprenaurus:
“Evolutionarily, bad risk assessment is advantageous.”
Leon nodded slowly. “Okay, I’ll buy that. Makes you entrepreneurial—”
“Drives you to colonize new lands, to ask out the beautiful monkey in the next tree, to have a baby you can’t imagine how you’ll afford.”
Buhle has always been the quintessential entrepreneur, because he can stomach two contradictory ideas: that the market knows best, and that the thing to do with the market is to endlessly disrupt it.

Disrupt: no matter how many baby monkeys die in the process! Disrupt: no matter how many entrepreneurial monkeys following similar high-risk strategies have perished (along with all their genes)!

Why does Buhle agrees to reprogram himself as someone who will never want to reprogram anybody? Leon exploits his blind spot, his survivorship bias. We are all a little prone. But a quintessentially entrepreneurial monkey like Buhle can't help but attribute his repeated successes to something other than chance. He cannot believe that there are countless others who have taken similar stupid gambles, and that he just happens to be the tail end of the bell curve.

Or the 'Buhle curve.' Which brings us to the word that is behind the surname Buhle, etymologically speaking. The name Buhle. It probably signifies a rising of the land, a hill, butte or knoll. Like a belly. A demon's bulging belly.


Note: Or, like I suggested earlier, Buhle Inc. suspended in its VAT.

Elsewhere: Jeff Lint's belly fiction.

SFF names #5: Parva "Pen" Khan
SFF names #4: Beth Bradley
SFF names #3: Rumpelstiltskin
SFF names #2: Lucy
SFF names #1: Winnie

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