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.