Tag Archives: Cory Doctorow

For the Win, Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2010, 475 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-2216-6

Trying to summarize Cory Doctorow’s latest novel For the Win in a few words is an exercise in frustration, because with every “didactic” comes along a “fascinating”.  It’s a logical extension to Doctorow’s bibliography so far… except that it sometimes appears to flip over the libertarian ideology of Makers.  It’s perhaps Doctorow’s least pleasant reading experience so far… except that when it stops telling a story, it can be really good.

For the Win is Doctorow’s second novel for the Young Adult market, and like Little Brother it’s using that readership to indulge in some blatant speech-making.  It can’t help but try to explain how the world works, and those interludes are often far more interesting than the plotting surrounding them.

Briefly summarized, For the Win is about online multiplayer games and the strange economic phenomenon surrounding them.  The uninitiated may find this a trivial subject for discussion, but there’s a lot more under the surface that it may appear at first.  Consider that the target audience for those games are often first-world gamers with more money than time.  Combine that with gaming mechanics that are designed to keep players coming back to “grind” their way up in search of infrequent payoffs and you already have the raw elements for global exploitation, via the use of third-world workers (often children) who have a lot more time than money… and none of the protections afforded to employees in developed countries.  Could it be time to unionize?  Mix well, and you’ve got the elements of Doctorow’s uniquely contemporary thriller.

Does it work?  In many ways, For the Win is so admirable that it doesn’t really matter if it does.  Take, for instance, that none of the main teenage characters in the novel are purely American –the only one who hails from California is such a Sinophile that he adopts a Chinese name throughout.  The rest of the characters are largely from developing countries, lending a pleasantly globalized feeling to the entire novel.  Not that it could have been otherwise, given the networked nature of its plot devices and the globetrotting scope of the narrative.  For the Win inhabits the world of the present, not some fading refraction of yesterday’s futures.

It gets even better once Doctorow starts making links between the nature of gaming, the illusion of modern economic derivatives, the inadvertent exploitation of third-world teens by clueless first-world gamers, and the opportunities that well-connected youth have in bettering their lot in life.  Politically, I couldn’t help but be struck by the way For the Win espouses a leftish drive for unionization and tries really hard to make it fit with the increasingly swim-or-sink nature of Doctorow’s latest Makers.  There may not necessarily be a conflict once you can reconcile information-network libertarianism with worker’s right regulation, but it amounts to a complex multi-book political exploration for Doctorow, one that recalls (gasp) Heinlein’s ability to argue several points of views in successive novels –and one that also follows in Heinlein’s didactic footsteps.

Snappy exposition aside, For the Win‘s highlights also includes a number of showcase sequences that stick in mind not for their narrative content, but for their geek wish-fulfillment power.  For instance, Doctorow lavishly imagines what it would be like to engineer your own transpacific trip via a shipping container custom-modified to act as a long-haul dwelling… complete with high-speed Internet access.  It’s the kind of bravura sequence that doesn’t really need a story, which is just as well given the lessened interest that much of the book’s plot can hold for some readers.  For the Win is full of fascinating bits, but the structure holding them together is more interesting for what it allows than the way it bolts it all together.

But does it matter?  Doctorow’s fans are unlikely to be put off given how closely For the Win follows on the footsteps of his previous works.  Reviewers are unlikely to give the novel less than good notices for everything it does right, even though much of the story itself may lack narrative excitement.  Meanwhile, critics will jump on it and delight at whatever meaning they can tease from its chapters and links with other up-to-the-moment fiction like William Gibson’s Zero History.  Oh, and teenagers will love it.  Given all of those wins, why hold on to old-fashioned narrative values?

Makers, Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2009, 416 pages, C$31.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1279-2

I wish I could praise Cory Doctorow’s latest novel Makers without reservations.  I’ve been a Doctorow fan since Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, read Boingboing for just as long, met him a few times and have reviewed all of his books with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  Makers is his most ambitious work for adults yet; a big book tackling an upcoming technological revolution and its aftermath.  It weighs in at a page count that alludes to Toronto’s phone area code and also marks Doctorow’s first full-sized hardcover.  The cover tagline is nothing less than “A Novel of the Whirlwind Changes to Come.” Published months after his Hugo nomination for Little Brother, there’s little doubt that Makers is a big novel and a significant publication of the year in Science Fiction and techno-nerd circles.

For a while, the book seems to deliver on its promises.  Taking place in a future not too far away, it begins by telling us about a radical shift in American Business.  “New Work” is about repurposing existing technologies, assembling it in ways unexpected by its original makers and creating something new out of available pieces.  It’s also a way of working that upsets the corporate hierarchies, seeks modest profits from continuous innovations and has little use for the traditional ways of business.  The chronicler of this era is one Suzanne Church, tech-journalist turned blogger as her print publisher downsizes.  Fortunately, she knows just the right people: Perry and Lester, two garage engineers who love to make new stuff and so become the poster-boys of “New Work”.  Various hacks and tech demos later, they look poised to make the world go kablooie with exciting new technologies.  It doesn’t last.  By the time the first third of the novel passes by, the “New Work” boom has turned to bomb, and when the second section picks up years later, all that’s left is a wikified theme park.

In some ways, this first section sets expectations that the rest of the book can’t match.  The first section had ideas bubbling in my mind; about techno-fascism and what happens to those who like stability, about worker’s rights in “New Work”, about the way Doctorow was recapitulating lessons from the dot-com years and applying them to a more physical sphere of innovation.  But as Makers advances, it becomes weirder, more specific, more personal and also less interesting.  The point of the novel, we eventually realize, is what happens when everyone has given up; it’s about how real innovators establish movements whatever the circumstances.  It’s not about the inevitable singularity, but about the cultural give-and-take of innovation.

At times, Makers feels like a mashup of popular Boingboing tags:  Here’s a little bit of Disney, here’s a big of copyfighting; here’s a bit of civil right anger; here’s a lot of Maker magazine (obviously a major influence on the novel) and so on.  The problems start occurring when Doctorow’s pet obsessions quietly run away from readers’ own preoccupations.  A good chunk of the book’s second half, for instance, depends directly on the idea of massively popular theme parks recapturing the instant-nostalgia of “New Work”.  I have no perceptible interest or affection for theme parks, and couldn’t actually be bothered to figure out why these theme parks would be popular, or actually mattered.  At the same time, my interest for the characters evaporated, to a point where I didn’t care all that much about how, where and why they were arguing, sleeping together or fighting the forces of Disney.  That’s pretty much the textbook definition of a novel that “doesn’t work for me”, and so you can understand why I’m left unable to muster more than a tepid opinion about the book.

Which is really too bad, because Makers is more current than much of what I’ve read this year, and I suspect that the novel’s failure to take off in my mind is more due to personal idiosyncrasies than major problems with the book itself.  There’s an essay to be written about the ways Makers is an antonym to Users and how that ties into both Doctorow’s tapestry of work (including the abandoned /usr/bin/god) and current notions of civic involvement, but I really can’t be bothered right now.  Disappointed, I would rather wait for Doctorow’s next novel and hope for the best again.

Content, Cory Doctorow

Tachyon, 2007, 213 pages, C$14.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-892391-81-0

Cory Doctorow’s non-fiction collection Content is both essential and redundant.

It’s hard to imagine that there’s someone out there who knows Cory Doctorow but isn’t aware of his stance regarding intellectual property. Doctorow’s an Internet celebrity, and everything he does seems influenced by his copyfighting, from editing Boingboing.net to writing novels celebrating open-sourced resistance to working for various organizations as a political/technology activist. He has written extensively about those issues on-line, and a book collecting those essays hardly seems like something worth much more than a passing note.

What’s more, copyfighting seems so native to the Internet that the idea of a paper book about it has a quaint mustiness. Nearly every piece printed in Content already lives on the web, where they can be linked, discussed and annotated as times goes by. Since the debate around intellectual property seems to evolve on a weekly basis, is it useful to time-bind Doctorow’s essays in a permanent format even as the context around the book keeps evolving?

And yet that’s a fairly narrow view of things. It may be hip to dismiss those paper-ink-glue devices from the virtual pulpit of a web site, but there’s no denying that by virtue of their collection in Content, Doctorow’s non-fiction pieces become something grander than what they are at the moment. Because, as strange an idea as it may seem to plugged-in cyber-nerds, not everyone is so taken with ideas circulated on the Internet. There is still a place for paper-set arguments, for respectable books that take actual space on a desk, on shelves or in briefcases.

In short, there’s still a physical life out there for Internet-native advocacy pieces. The nebulous notion of “Cory Doctorow’s ideas on intellectual property” gets an actual rectangular shape with Content, with the non-inconsiderable benefit that the object can be sold, bought, lent or cited. Content becomes something from which others can book conferences or consulting gigs.

Then there’s the old-fashioned entertainment aspect. While Doctorow’s non-fiction pieces are usually read on-screen between two (or two hundred) other things, Content can be read at leisure, with a good bookmark. It’s a pleasure to read in more ways than one: Not only are the ideas interesting, but the style in which they are expressed is vivid and argumentative, with plenty of examples and extrapolations.

There’s a flip side, of course, one that becomes nearly inevitable when putting together a number of similar essays: repetition. Cory Doctorow’s advocacy tends to revolve around a few common themes, and the examples can be very familiar. Many will note that Content doesn’t package all of Doctorow’s non-fiction between 2001 and 2007: It picks a few more famous earlier pieces (such as his 2004 DRM talk to Microsoft), then skips ahead to a more diverse selection of his 2006-2007 pieces, including a number of columns for Locus and Information Week. Readers may want to let some time elapse in-between essays, or risk quite a bit of deja lu.

The other nagging issue about this book is how instantly dated it was. For every timeless piece like his ever-relevant 2001 essay on the illusion of the semantic web, other essays are already creaking under dated references and shifting goalposts. Content may be as fresh as 2007, but 2009 is already a different world from two years ago: Many of Doctorow’s points have already been conceded by industries that have come to terms with economic realities: Both the RIAA and MPAA are far less aggressive about intellectual copyright than they once were (losing a number of court challenges hasn’t helped), and “DRM-free” has become an actual selling point for no less a former enemy than iTunes. Meanwhile, TV networks are voluntarily putting freely-downloadable material on the web. Finally, Cory Doctorow himself is not the Cory Doctorow of 2007: He’s now a proud father, a husband and a New York Times best-selling author thanks to the runaway success of Little Brother —a book that widened open-computing principles to include not only copyfighting, but civil disobedience in the face of eroded freedoms.

So it is that “a science fiction writer” (a description that never totally quite fit Doctorow’s full-bandwidth activism) is well on his way to becoming no less than An Authority. A book like Content can be invaluable in the process: it can be placed on reading lists, passed around firewalls and content filters, cited in major newspapers (even if they’re moving to the web themselves) and bought by the crate-load whenever Doctorow’s speaking at conferences. It’s a neat bit of irony that most of this review has been spend arguing in favor of a real book: in some ways, Content is its own best demonstration.

Little Brother, Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2008, 382 pages, C$19.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1985-2

As a mild-mannered reviewer, I try to avoid throwing around terms like “importance”. But reading Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, it’s hard to avoid thinking that of all the books I’ve read recently, this one has the best chances of carving its own little place in history.

If it does become an important book, it won’t be by accident: Doctorow has deliberately set out to write something controversial with this book, and even the broadest-minded readers may experience twinges of discomfort at some points.

It begins with a group of high-school friends skipping school to play an alternate-reality game in downtown San Francisco. But the game is soon interrupted by a terrible terrorist attack, and soon our narrator Marcus (otherwise named W1n5t0n) is apprehended on suspicions of terrorism. Roughly interrogated by authorities, he’s eventually released… but not all of his friends are, and San Francisco is soon overrun by police forces intent on maintaining an excess of peace and order. What’s a teenager to do? Rebel against the overreaching authorities, of course.

Little Brother is literally written to rouse the young ones. A tale of hip high-tech resistance, this is a novel made to be put on the YA shelves of your local bookstore, read by disaffected teenagers and passed around in impromptu book clubs as the coolest thing ever. It makes Science Fiction (or at least techno-thrillers) look good, and serves as yet another reminder to adults that the hottest, most vibrant corner of SF is now written for young adults. Unlike past attempts at SF-for-teens, this doesn’t take place in a far deep-space future, but within the next five years, and tackles issues that are of vital interest to everyone right now.

Best of all, it’s shamelessly, almost aggressively didactic. Marcus is pissed at the system, and his narrative is filled with tips and tricks on how to defeat it. Confound sensors, detect cameras, burn out RFIDs and hack the Internet using the how-to tutorials in this book. If Doctorow’s learned one thing about the Heinlein juveniles, it’s that there’s nothing wrong with a lot of exposition as long as it’s entertaining, and so Little Brother partly becomes an instruction manual on how to live in today’s world using today’s technology.

This novel, more than many other “forward-looking” works of SF, lives in the now. It’s not a 9/11 novel as much as it’s a post-9/11 story that deals with our response to those events. Beyond the hacking tricks, this is also a novel of social engineering, one that ties together digital activism with the fight for civil liberties. In Little Brother, Doctorow finds the ultimate fictional expression so far of the mindset he espouses daily on the wildly popular blog Boing Boing. What looks like “digital rights management” to some actually becomes “civil rights restrictions” to others, and it’s difficult to separate one threat from another in the big cauldron of issues.

So difficult, in fact, that chunks of Little Brother feel both reasonable and seditious at the same time: As Marcus fights the system that has unjustly harmed him, he espouses notions that are uncomfortably close to an anarchic strain of libertarianism. If there’s a serious political objection to make against Doctorow’s novel, it’s that Marcus’ rebellion is flashy and cool, but the other side of the revolution –the steady pressure from the less-radical masses —is given short thrift as an agent of change.

But that wouldn’t be nearly so cool, and the novel does nod in the direction of mass opinion as Marcus finds himself too close to the middle of a movement that has escaped him. Doctorow’s techno-utopianism has a big bad enemy, but has no use for the little anonymous jokers who would use the very same tools to make trouble simply for the lulz.

But we’re getting deep in considerations that would be wasted on lesser novels. As it stands, Little Brother is not just a joy to read, it’s a wonder to discuss. Its emphasis on civil rights is unusual no matter which segment of the population it’s marketed to, and its modern vitality is a welcome breath of fresh air in a field that seems content on paying homage to the past. As a part of Doctorow’s bibliography, it eclipses his previous books to become his masterpiece so far: I may like Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom a lot, but it doesn’t compare to the anger of Little Brother, and the intensity of Doctorow’s preoccupations match that of Overclocked as a faithful representation of the author’s defining themes.

Young or old, conservative or liberal, SF fan or not, Little Brother is a novel of the here and now, carefully attuned to the era’s pet psychosis and designed to make us question what we take for granted. It’s the rare novel that tries to create better citizens. Time will tell whether its impact will survive its own print run, but it’s already making waves and creating discussion.

[August 2008: Huh, look at that: there a quasi-Orwellian “1985” encoded in the ISBN of the book. Happy accident?]

Overclocked, Cory Doctorow

Thunder’s Mouth, 2007, 285 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 1-56025-981-7

This is Cory Doctorow’s second short story collection, but there’s a big difference between the Doctorow who wrote the stories in 2004’s A Foreign Place and 8 More and the one who wrote the stories in 2007’s Overclocked. In retrospect, the earlier Doctorow seems more scattered than the newer one: his early stories range from comic surrealism to nerdcore hard-SF, with a diversity of theme and effect that brings to mind a young writer still finding his true calling.

Things are different with Overclocked. As the title suggests, it’s an all-nerdcore collection. Following on the footsteps of “Ownzored”, Doctorow has spent the latest period of his writing career giving his fiction a thematic unity with an activist edge. Doctorow’s real-life work has turned him into political lobbyist, arguing in favour of free culture against interests that would seek to monetize or restrict it. In this light, it’s almost natural that Doctorow’s fiction output would match the set of issues for which he has become an Internet celebrity.

The six stories in Overclocked, all published between 2005-2007 (though specific publication credits regrettably aren’t included in the collection) all relate in some way or another to free culture. This isn’t a mere question of being allowed a few free music downloads: Doctorow makes it clear that he’s arguing for nothing less than civil liberties at a time where the expression of thoughts is becoming currency.

“Printcrime” may be one of those Nature short-short stories that fits in three pages (four, if you include the introduction), but it’s a quietly angry shot at whoever would think about restricting civil rights in the name of making an extra dollar buck. It may not be long, but it delivers Doctorow’s thesis in its distilled essence.

“Anda’s Game” is likely to become one of the centrepiece stories in any of Doctorow’s future career retrospectives, not because it’s a particularly fine story (It struck me as obvious the first time I read it, and only slightly better the second time), but because it’s been re-anthologized a number of time, even in non-SF venues. Most of all, it exemplifies one of Doctorow’s central themes, which is how SF is uniquely placed to comment upon the present by re-casting it in the future: The story discusses the very real phenomenon of virtual game gold-farming, with a few tweaks and gadgets to make it feel five minutes in the future. It’s no accident if the entire collection is subtitled “Stories of the future present”.

“I, Robot” got a similar amount of attention within the SF community (earning Doctorow a Hugo nomination), but feels even more ham-fisted. Questions Isaac Asimov’s assumptions is interesting, Doctorow’s point feels obvious and trite given the length of the tale. At short story lengths, it might have worked better. As it is now, we just wait too long before hearing the other shoe falling. At least it’s readable enough: few Doctorow stories are anything less than crystal-clear in their prose.

“I, Row-Boat” takes the concept even farther and manages to one-up its predecessor, in some ways confirming my doubts about Doctorow’s sledgehammer subtlety. The story is somewhat more unusual than Doctorow’s typical settings, and the unlikely characters are quite unlike anything seen so far. It takes Doctorow’s reflexion on sentience on non-obvious tangents, and satirizes the obvious rhetoric. It may not be as immediately accessible as the other stories in the collection, but it’s more effective at engaging the reader. Which, considering the place of the human characters in the story, is not an obvious conclusion at all.

“After the Siege” almost feels like a return to sledgehammer rhetorics with a tale of copyright-driven warfare, but Doctorow mitigates that feeling with a powerful depiction of a population under siege. The old-fashioned feel of the story is intentionally derived from the horror of WW2 Leningrad. For all of the future gadgets and fancy justification, it’s the atmosphere of war that lingers on after the story is over.

But for atmosphere, it’s hard to beat “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth”, a post-apocalyptic story that imagines the reaction of Internet system administrators locked inside a data centre during and after a major civilization-ending event. Though the event itself is hazily described, the end-of-the-world feeling is terrific, bringing to mind a number of classic British cozy catastrophes. As someone neck-deep in the IT industry, I ended up unexpectedly moved by the story and its characters. The laconic last few lines are a killer: “Tomorrow, he’d go back and fix another computer and fight off entropy again. And why not? It was what he did. He was a sysadmin.” Beautiful.

And in some ways, that resonance explains why, despite my hesitations and problems with Doctorow’s stories, he remains one of the SF writers who most closely track my own conception of Science-Fiction, what it’s good for and who it speaks to. Doctorow’s the bull geek of SF, and Overclocked shows us why he’s important.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2005, 315 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31278-6

(Also freely available online at craphound.com/someone)

While his reputation in Science Fiction fandom is that of a die-hard tech-head, Cory Doctorow heads in a slightly different direction for his third novel: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is a self-consciously weird urban fantasy involving, to quote the jacket blurb, “secrets, lies, magic —and Internet connectivity.”

It begins as the amiable “A” moves into one of Toronto’s bohemian neighbourhoods, renovates a house and sets out to write a story. But “A” is no ordinary guy: Son of a mountain and a washing machine, his brothers are (in chronological order), a clairvoyant, an island, a psychopath and a set of three nestled men (like Russian dolls). What’s more, he hasn’t yet met the neighbours…

Oh yes, there’s little doubt that Doctorow is going for weird in his third novel. No one will be blamed for thinking, early on, that he’s laying on the strange paste a bit too thick: For the first few pages, one wonders if this novel is ever going to have internal coherency, or if this is just a random word salad.

What becomes clearer is that if the basics of Someone may have been random free-association, Doctorow spends so much time describing and explaining the mechanics of how, say, a mountain and a washing machine can raise children, that it almost ends up making sense. Somehow. In fact, it doesn’t take much time for more impatient readers to say “enough! Too much useless information!” Doctorow never knows when to stop, and things that are perfectly clear in the present-day storyline are nevertheless re-explained in detail through flashbacks.

Then there is the imperfect integration of the modern-day techno-thriller. This being a Doctorow novel, it doesn’t take a lot of time for protagonist “A” to become fascinated by the possibility of blanketing Toronto with wireless points of Internet access. It becomes a major subplot of the book, complete with pages of exposition on how neat this is all going to be. Not uninteresting, but seriously out of whack with the rest of the novel: Part of it feels like a bone thrown to Doctorow’s usual audience to keep them interested in the other stuff. The brute-force lectures may be fun to read, but do they mean anything in the context of the novel?

The “other stuff”, as it happens, is hit-and-miss. Doctorow’s basic ability to write readable prose remains unchanged, but even clear writing can’t mitigate the growing sentiment of exasperation as the story spends too much time in its own back-story, and not enough in advancing the plot. Once that is finished, however, things become a little bit more interesting, and the last third of the book is somewhat more user-friendly than the rest.

On the other hand, the ending crashes down like an after-thought. Stuff happens, fulfilling the basic requirements of “an ending”, but elements of the conclusion end up raising thornier issues than they resolve. A very important plot thread is displaced, and then flees without further news. The protagonist retreats, and that’s the end of that. The rest just goes up in flame. That may be an ending of sorts, but that’s not a conclusion. It certainly leave the reader with an unfulfilled yearning: this is a weird story, yes, but what is the point of it?

Part of the problem is that Someone is at least twice the size of Doctorow’s previous novels. Those extra words don’t necessarily add up to extra depth. There doesn’t seem to be any interaction between the subplots, no deeper meaning to the metaphors and not much of a metaphorical value to the fantasy elements.

I had too much fun reading the book to call it a failure. But it’s certainly Doctorow’s weakest novel yet, and taken with the deficiencies of Doctorow’s first two novels, it suggests a number of things to fix if his next novels are to improve. It’s not simply because Someone dares to be unusual that it’s any better. At this point, his best work remains Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which also had a pleasantly high quotient of weirdness.

Eastern Standard Tribe, Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2004, 221 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30759-6

By now, everyone connected to the SF field should be aware that Cory Doctorow is rushing on the scene like a demented man. His second novel, Eastern Standard Tribe, will only add to his reputation. A jumped-up mix of fallible characters and five-minutes-from-now speculation, this is the kind of book you read in a single sitting and then browse over for choice quotes.

What if, on this ubi-connected globe, one feels more kinship to people living in another time zone? What if it’s just more practical to live online than offline, eschewing physical days for virtual ones set on the rhythms of your chosen “tribe”? In some fashion, the idea sort-of works: One can imagine Indian technological workers synced to their Californian managers (or vice-versa). Otakus can live “on Tokyo time” given broadband Internet access and plenty of Japanese friends. You can tie it with the “Global Village” concept without too much trouble. Where it fails the real-world test is when you assume that those “tribes” can start playing seriously dirty tricks on each other, or are anything more than arrangements of convenience. Then there are literal objections to the concept of “Eastern Standard Tribe”, as if everyone in that particular slice of time, from Abitibi to Bogota, was part of a homogeneous group. But that’s a lame objection, especially given that Doctorow adopts a satiric approach to the whole thing. Here, minor crime reporting to the London police will result in about half a day of inconveniences. Sony rentacops will tear-gas you without much of a due process. Legal advice can be obtained through an IRC channel. And so on. This isn’t real: Like many of his contemporaries, Doctorow reacts to the increasing strangeness of our reality by laughing at it.

Other objections are more serious: Eastern Standard Tribe is a very short novel, and leaving aside the cost/benefit ratio, the book suffers from a few dramatic shortcuts: Here, awfully convenient freak meetings drive the plot forward, with sometimes-annoying results. The ungraceful ending feels compressed in about half a dozen pages, with scarcely any place for resolutions. Is also feels like a more scattered novel than Doctorow’s debut Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Maybe it is time for him to start working on bigger things with tighter plots and stronger endings.

Still, this is far from being a disappointing novel: The structure of the book, as it alternates between a third-person flashback and a first-person “present” narration, is initially quite dazzling. (Unfortunately, it falters at the end, when the “present” is explained and the “past” starts being repetitive; we can figure out some plot points ourselves, thanks.) For techno-geeks such as myself, the type of nerd-core prose used by Doctorow feels natural, maybe even a natural extension of what we read on the net every day. There’s a strong identification to that particular brand of fiction… but some of the more specialized passages may very well be incomprehensible to the mundane masses.

Still, it’s hard to be mad at a novel that clocks in at nearly 200 pages per hour in a single sitting. The brisk style, amusing vignettes, take-no-prisoners approach to the future are all in good fun. While I’m not as floored by this novel as I was with Doctorow’s first, it’s still likely to end up as one of my top choices for 2004. Of course, it’s already making me look forward for his next novel.

A Place So Foreign And 8 More, Cory Doctorow

Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003, 243 pages, C$20.95 tpb, ISBN 1-56858-286-2

Cory Doctorow landed on the Science Fiction scene with a splash in 2000, winning the Campbell award for best new writer only a few months before publishing his first book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction. Audacious? Not as much as his acceptance speech, which ended with a URL. Doctorow is one of the new SF writers who has grown up along with the Internet, and his approach to fiction reflects that both in content (where he can sling the jargon like the worst IT consultants) and in presentation (don’t be surprised if just about every story of the volume has been made available on-line for free)

A Place So Foreign And 8 More hardly collects all of Doctorow’s short-fiction output since his beginnings in 1990, but it’s a good start, and a great overview of what he’s capable of producing. On the heel of his excellent first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, it’s also a good indication that Doctorow has what it takes to have a sustained career in the SF field.

The collection starts with a bang (even before Doctorow’s first story) with Bruce Sterling’s laudatory introduction, almost a passing of the torch from a top SF writer to another. “There are times when I suspect I’ve extrapolated Cory Doctorow” writes Sterling, and no more is required to understand where Doctorow is coming from, or where he’s going.

Then there are the stories. Nine tales published in between 1998 and 2002, five years spanning two millenniums, a dot-com boom and bust and Doctorow’s emergence as a hot writer with a Campbell award on his (mobile) mantelpiece. Nine stories oscillating between comedy and drama, soft and hard SF, satire or nostalgia. There’s even a mini-cycle of three stories set in the same universe, with very different atmospheres. But most of all, nine markers telling you to pay attention to this particular author.

There is a publishing tradition that makes anthology editors shuffle the content of short story collections so that the first and last stories of the book are the best ones. A Place So Foreign And 8 More is no exception, with “Craphound” occupying the pole position and “0wnz0red” closing the march. I’ll have more to say about “0wnz0red” in a moment, but “Craphound” has deservedly become Doctorow’s best-known story so far: a hypnotically readable look at the life of a professional nostalgic, the code of conducts between those “craphounds” and what happens when an alien breaks the rules. Great stuff, especially for those who like to spend too much time at rummage sales.

It’s a bit uneven after that: I wasn’t particularly taken by the title story (something about the lack of development and plausibility of the imagined universe) and “All Day Sucker” is succinctly spoiled by its introduction, but they’re followed up by “To Market, to Market: The Re-Branding of Billy Bailey”, an excellent satiric look at the business of personality. I really didn’t go for “Return to Pleasure Island”: I’m not nearly as fascinated by Disney as Doctorow is —but then again few people are.

The following three stories are part of a cycle in which Earth has been invaded by curiously apathetic aliens. All three stories cover very different emotional registers and the result is… curious. “Shadow of the Mothaship” seems too long and unfocused, but I must say that “Home Again, Home Again” gets better every time I read it. “The Super Man and the Bugout”, though, is immediately likable: What if Superman had stayed in Canada?

But the real jewel of the collection is “0wnz0red”, a simple SF tale of personal rapture wrapped in diamond-hard geek-speak. I’m a geek, so it was almost like reading something in my own language. Hilarious, compulsively readable and meanly effective too. (Less technical readers may not find it so amusing or accessible.)

All in all, a collection with the expected lulls and heights. But they certainly do place Doctorow as one of the brightest, most audacious new SF writers. The emphasis on computer technology also speaks volumes, I think about SF’s new direction… but that’s just one elements in an ongoing process for the entire genre. We’ll have to see more to judge, and it just so happens that Doctorow’s going to be writing a number of those new data points.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow

Tor, 2003, 208 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30436-8

Finally. Someone is getting it.

The late nineties were a time of unprecedented social change as driven by new technology. The Internet barged in, people reacted, adapted, lived on. Textbook techno-revolution as defined by Science Fiction. You would have thought that SF would have thrived, expanded, crowed a little, gained new respect and built on the wave.

Pfah. Insert sounds of crickets. SF stood still, closed its eyes and hoped no one noticed it was still recycling its own past glories. Meanwhile, I was going nuts trying to find The Good Stuff, the real cutting-edge SF that went past First SF’s increasingly creaky futures. Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson and Greg Egan rock my world at every new book. But they alone can’t sustain an avid reader like myself. Where are the other new SF writers? Why can’t anyone else do something as simple as consider the lessons of the Internet boom and apply them to the coming spintronic, biotech and nanotech revolutions? Why is it that “Wired” is more interesting than “Asimov’s”?

With his first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow vault onto the stage as an amazingly confident SF writer, someone born of both SF fandom and the pressure-cooker of high technology. With his book, he bitch-slaps most of the sleepy SF mid-list, teaches the genre a new trick or two and (in passing) reaffirms my belief in Science Fiction as a literature with a future.

Reading the most optimistic speculations of the digerati, it would often seems as if humanity is doomed to utopia. What with nanotech ending material scarcity, biotech leading the way toward immortality and computers linking us all while putting libraries of libraries at our fingertips, you will have to work hard at being physically needy in the none-too-distant future. Throw in space exploration, personality uploads/downloads, cryogenics plus a reputation economy based on “whuffies” and you’ve fulfilled Wired’s checklist for the future. When people are free to live long enough to compose symphonies, learn dozen of languages, get multiple post-graduate degree and do pretty much what they want without fear of death as more than an inconvenience, what is the difference between such a society and paradise as defined by the Internet revolution?

That’s where Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom begins. It’s no accident if the cover blurbs are from luminaries from the infotech and SF field: Sterling, Rushkoff, O’Reilly, Kapor, Lessig and Rucker all provide tantalizing praise about the novel and it actually does live up to its advance reputation: This is prime twenty-first century Science-Fiction, staking a claim to our new futures rather than the recycled day-dreams of the old SF. As our protagonist Julius navigates the chaotic (but functional) ad-hocracies of the Bitchun Society and sees his whuffie level fluctuate along with his attempts to preserve Disney World in its original TwenCen glory, the electric newness of Doctorow’s prose becomes contagious. You do not read it as much as it infects you.

Though it may be only 208 pages long, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is one heck of a book crammed with an overdose of ideas. Written in a compulsively absorbing style that combines the eyeball kicks and the irreverence of the latest prose punks (Palahniuk, Stephenson, Sterling… you know: the good ones), Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom flattens the competition and delivers on the promises of Science Fiction. You do not merely want to live in this future; you want to create it.

But, perhaps more importantly for genre readers, this is a novel that finally takes the extrapolation crown from the socio-technological crowd and brings it back (if only for a book) in science-fiction. This is what SF should have transformed itself into, rather than keep on refining the same old shtick over and over again. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is not a complicated book (the ending is even a curious let-down), but it has a vitality of its own. Reading it is a breath of fresh air after so many dull stories that all feel the same. Doctorow manages, with this novel, to land at once on my “to buy!” list of authors: He, like few others, represents the future of SF.

You can see for yourself at http://craphound.com/down/ where the whole novel is freely available on-line for your reading pleasure… Read the thing, forward the URL, pre-order the paperback for your paper library and wait for his next book… if you can.