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.

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