reviewed by Zeke Teflon
Charles Stross recently put up a post titled “On the lack of cultural estrangement in SF,” in which he decries the tendency of some sci-fi writers to place far-future stories in cultural settings indistinguishable from the present. (The two authors he cites as examples of this tendency are two that I’ve stopped reading precisely because of this.) Such use of mundane settings short changes the reader. One way mundane settings do this is that they’re simply implausible–just think about the changes in the condition and status of women and gay people over the last few decades, and the near-elimination of chattel slavery less than 150 years ago. The future will be different–and not just in terms of technology. Also, in any sci-fi story there will be at least one “gimme,” at least one implausibility such as faster-than-light travel. Wasting a “gimme” on use of the cultural present as backdrop (without critiquing it) is not only lazy, but it’s a means of lulling the reader to sleep; it’s a way to avoid challenging the reader.
The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow certainly doesn’t suffer from this problem. It’s not even set that far in the future–it seems to be set 50 to 100 years from now–but the society it portrays is almost unrecognizable. It’s a future transformed by runaway technological change and political fanaticism, a future in which primitivist zealots have repurposed “wumpusses”–machines designed to recycle toxic waste and abandoned industrial sites into healthy soil–to destroy cities, and preservationists (essentially keeping theme parks) have to resort to armed force to protect the remnants of the industrial past.
The protagonist of this story is Jimmy Yensid (reverse the spelling), a young “transhuman” boy, the son of a preservationist, who has been genetically altered to live almost forever, but whose alterations have the unfortunate side effect of keeping him in early adolescence for decades. Doctorow’s portrayal of Jimmy’s growing irritation over this is poignant. The tale traces Jimmy’s growing inner torment as he “progresses” from one externally produced disaster to another; its technological and social oddities include dog brains in bottles, “the pack,” controlling robot remotes, and a “wirehead” cult whose members have cranial implants that keep them in constant empathic contact with each other.
All this provides a rich background for what could be a several-hundred-page novel. Which is what makes The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow so frustrating. The novella ends before Doctorow has really explored the fascinating world he’s created. Worse, while the novella does conclude, the conclusion could have come several dozen pages prior to where it does without losing much if anything; and, late in the story, Doctorow introduces a strange, new, inadequately explained element to bring the story to a close–in other words, it leaves loose ends.
The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow could be a fine novel. As is, it’s a much-too short-novella. Let’s hope that Doctorow eventually decides to turn it into the novel it deserves to be.
The book also contains a slightly revised version of Doctorow’s address to the 2010 World Science Fiction Convention. Its topic is the evil and stupidity of DRM (Digital Rights Management), which is the placement of encryption software code in e-books. This was originally presented as an anti-piracy measure, but as Doctorow points out, this cannot work, and never has: if someone with any technical skill wants to “crack” a book (CD, DVD, whatever), they can do it, and then distribute it all over the ‘net within hours. As Doctorow and others (notably Charlie Stross), have pointed out, all that DRM does is restrict end users (people who buy e-books) to particular e-readers. You cannot, for instance read a Kindle file on an iPad. And since Amazon sells over 50% of e-books and treats publishers as a “cheetah” would “a wounded gazelle” (to use Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s words), publishers who employ DRM are cutting their own throats–they’re tying their readers to Amazon.
Fortunately, the trend in recent years has been toward DRM-free e-books. TOR was the first major sci-fi publisher to do this. Others who issue DRM-free e-books include smaller publishers such as PM Press and See Sharp Press. And this trend is gaining steam. This will ultimately bring greater flexcibility (in transferring files, in lending e-books) to e-book buyers, and will also tend to give them greater choice in e-book retailers.
Finally, in Terry Bisson’s interview with Doctorow which concludes the book, Doctorow makes a useful and unusual writing suggestion: write every until you’ve reached a prescribed number of words, and stop in the middle of a sentence, so that it will be easy to get started again the following day. That makes sense, but who wants to stop when you’re on a roll?
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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.