Friday, February 03, 2012

Salamander and Central Planning

The central planning fallacy is the plausible, but mistaken, idea that if only all the resources of a society were under the control of some sensible person, wonderful things could be done. It is mistaken for at least three reasons:

1. All those resources are already being used by their owners for their purposes. There is no obvious reason to think that shifting them to the planner's purposes would be an improvement, and some reason to suspect the opposite.

2. Figuring out how to best use the resources of a society is a much harder problem than it seems at first glance—perhaps an insoluble problem. This was the point of the winning side of the calculation controversy, the early 20th century dispute between socialist and anti-socialist economists.

3. Once the mechanisms for central control of resources are set up, there is no reason to believe that the people who end up in control of them will use them for benevolent purposes instead of for their own benefit.

[Spoiler Warning: If you plan to read Salamander, you might want to stop here until you do.]

My original idea for Salamander was a fantasy version of that fallacy. In my imagined world, magic exists but is weak, a frustrating situation for a mage who finds that most of the things he would like to do require more power than he has to do them with. Coelus, one of my protagonists and a brilliant theorist, comes up with a solution, a magical procedure that funnels the power of a large number of mages through one mage who can then use it to do things that no single mage could do before.

The first problem is pointed out by Ellen, his equally brilliant student, when he tries to enlist her in the project of developing the Cascade. She refuses, on the grounds that he will be seizing the power of  mages without their consent.
He looked at the girl in astonishment, felt for words to explain. "You don't understand. There is so much to be done, so little power to do it with. A river floods. With enough magery in the hands of a water mage with proper skills, we could divert the water to where it would be harmless. A plague kills hundreds, mothers and fathers"—his voice faltered—"leaving behind orphaned children. Enough power in the hands of a healer could see the plague when it first struck, cure everyone before the sickness spread farther. So much to do, and we are so weak.

"You are young, sheltered. If you had seen … . I cannot make you aid me. But consider the needless deaths and misery that might happen if you do not."

She shook her head. "My mother is a healer; I have seen sickness enough. Men with gaping wounds that she has closed. When you have seized her power to shift a flood, on whose hands will be the blood of those she cannot heal?"
The second point is never made explicitly, but I hint at it earlier in the same conversation when Coelus, explaining his idea, says:
"Think how much we could do with the pooled talent of fifty mages and five hundred, or five thousand, or fifty thousand ordinary people, each adding his trifle of talent to the pool, pouring it through a trained mage. Almost unlimited power to end a plague, to heal even someone at the point of death, to build a road or monument, to do things that no single mage, whatever his talent, could do before.
The key word is "monument." Along with achieving things that are arguably more important than what mages are currently using their power for, he includes one that might be impressive but is pretty clearly less important. The point is suggested again a little later, when Coelus repeats Ellen's argument to Maridon, the one colleague who knows about his project and supports it. Maridon's reply:
"So they stop killing off bedbugs for rich innkeepers, or healing sick cattle. You know as well as I do that most mages outside the College aren’t doing anything that really matters—not to mention those inside. With this pooled power, we can do things that do matter.  
The arrogance of "things that do matter," meaning things that matter to Maridon, suggests the problem. When Coelus attempts the first full scale trial of the spell, Maridon seizes control of it—demonstrating the third point. Fortunately for Coelus and the world he lives in, something unexpected goes wrong. The Cascade taps an enormous source of fire of whose existence he is unaware, and Maridon burns up.

Coelus' experiments come to the ears of Prince Kieron, the royal official in charge of dealing with magery—himself a mage, as well as the brother and heir of the king. He sees the dangers in what Coelus has invented, both the fact that a mage, using it, might be able to kill the king and seize the throne, and the danger of its use by an enemy army. He concludes that it might be better if the spell had never been invented, but the knowledge at this point will be hard to keep secret, so best to perfect it under royal authority and keep it available just in case it is ever needed. 

By this time, however, Coelus has been convinced, by Ellen's arguments and Maridon's betrayal, that inventing the Cascade was a mistake. He refuses to cooperate in perfecting it. That sets up a conflict between the Prince on one side and Coelus and Ellen on the other. At this point the plot is reflecting a different set of issues, having to do with the dangers of scientific progress; it is not entirely accidental that the Cascade itself involves a sort of chain reaction. 

The Prince's concern, and his conclusion, are not unreasonable ones. That sets up a theme that had not occurred to me when I started writing the book, the question of to what degree the ends justify the means. In some sense, they must—with enough at stake, a reasonable person will be willing to use means that under other circumstances would be considered unacceptable. Kieron, who is fundamentally an honest man, makes that point explicitly in a conversation with Ellen's friend Mari, at a point when he is looking for Ellen as part of his attempt to keep word of the Cascade from getting out.
"If you could get a message to her, asking her to come here and assuring her of safety, would she believe you?"

"Perhaps. Would it be true?"

Another long silence, again ended by the Prince. "No. She sounds an admirable person, and one who might in time prove useful to the Kingdom; I would prefer to do her no harm. But I have obligations to my brother and to the kingdom he rules. If it turns out that the only way of keeping our enemies from learning magery that could be our ruin is to kill a charming young lady, or two, or three, I will do it."
And he makes a similar point to Ellen herself later in the story. Later still, he uses quite unscrupulous means to try to force Ellen and Coelus to cooperate in perfecting the Cascade, in order that it can be used without again killing the mage who is the focus.

The Prince is an antagonist but not a villain, a good person who finds himself trapped in a situation where he honestly believes that he is obligated to do bad things to prevent much worse things. His mistake is being too willing to take it for granted that his judgement of what needs to be done is better than that of Coelus and Ellen, even though he knows that they know more about the subject, at least the magical end of it, than he does. Arrogance not wickedness. As Ellen remarks later: "I do not think Kieron is a bad man, but he is too used to having his way."

One  side issue in the story  is related, not exactly to economics, but to my legal interests. There are traditional bounds on what mages should or should not do with their power—love potions, for instance, more generally compulsion spells of any sort, are banned. 

The traditional enforcement mechanism is a decentralized one. A mage convicted of violating the bounds by a jury of all the mages locally available is banned from the use of magic; if he violates the ban any mage may kill him. This mechanism is in the process of being gradually replaced by a centralized system under royal control, with court trials. 

One of the mages working for the Prince is caught by Ellen using a compulsion spell on her, and charged with violation of the bounds. He assumes that, since the Prince is the one in charge of enforcement under the newer system, he will be let off. The Prince explains to him that the gradual replacement of the old system by the new depends on the mages respecting the verdicts of his courts, and so having no reason to try to apply the traditional approach instead, hence he will be tried and, in all probability, convicted and banned.

At one level, the theme of the book is progress and its perils. The Cascade is made possible by a scientific breakthrough some forty years earlier that represented the first step in converting magery from a craft to a science. The shift from decentralized to centralized enforcement of the bounds is another sort of progress, possibly desirable, possibly not, probably, in the long run, inevitable. The kingdom where it is all set is post-feudal, but with feudal remnants.

One question. I have a map of the College, which is where much of book is set. Would people who have read the book like me to web it?


sconzey said...

By reason of that very intellectual depth, Salamander remains one of my favorite fantasy books. :D

jcast said...

Please do post the map of the college.

PoliteEdward said...

Yes, please do put a picture of the map on the web. I would be interested to see it.

All this talk of Salamander is making me keen to read it again...

Charley Knox said...

I always enjoy a map to go with a world I am visiting. I enjoyed reading "Salamander", one of the first works of fiction I read on my Kindle.

CWC said...

I liked Ellen's point about consent, but had not related it to central planning. Yet another reason to love this book!

While I'm here: the way that Kieron is an antagonist but not a villain makes this fantasy more realistic than many contemporary thrillers.

And yes, please post that map.

Nightrunner said...

Sigh. The whole optimal/non-optimal resources thing is just so silly and immature. When the enemy is at the gates the issue is not about whether a particular blacksmith will find it more optimal to spend his time making manacles to sell it to invaders once the town falls so they can take his townies as slaves. Its you make swords for the defenders or we throw you off the wall.