Posts Tagged ‘Cory Doctorow’


Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow front cover(Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow. Tor-Forge, 2019, 304 pp., $26.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Radicalized consists of three novellas and one longish short story — all described as “tales” on the dust jacket, probably in part to avoid quibbles over terminology. It’s highly entertaining and provides a good example of science fiction at its best; it shows just how relevant, how useful science fiction can be. It stands in stark contrast to the escapist, often scientifically illiterate space opera, big-dumb-object stories, coming-of-age tales, superhero juvenilia, and medievalist court-intrigue/sword-and-sorcery dreck that dominate the field.

Radicalized‘s four near-future stories deal in turn with the inhumane treatment of immigrants in the U.S. and potential nightmare scenarios due to the ever-spreading Internet of Things (which Boing Boing, Doctorow’s site, refers to as the Internet of Shit); systemic racism as seen through they eyes of a very familiar superhero (here dubbed “The American Eagle”); healthcare nightmares endemic to our for-profit healthcare system and a possible radical response to those nightmares; and an entitled, arrogant member of the super-rich who intends to ride out social breakdown in a fortified compound.

All four stories are well plotted, feature believable, sympathetic characters (but for the super-rich jerk in the final tale, who’s all too believable, but not sympathetic), Doctorow gets the science right, and there’s more on-the-nose social and political commentary in this slim volume than there is in a dozen average sci-fi novels combined.

Highly recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (large pdf sample here). He just finished translating Rodolfo Montes de Oca’s Venezuelan Anarchism: The History of a Movement, is currently working on the sequel to Free Radicals, a nonfiction book on the seamier sides of Christianity, two compilations, and an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover


84K cover(84K, by Claire North. Orbit. 2018, 452 pp., $15.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

As anyone who’s paying attention knows, the rich often get away with murder. In Claire North’s fine new dystopian novel, 84K, they always get away with it.

Why? Privatization: The takeover of state functions by corporations including, in 84K, the takeover of the legal and prison systems in the UK. As part of the revamping of those institutions, crimes, including murder, are no longer punishable by prison, but rather fines, unless the perpetrator can’t pay. So the rich get away with anything and everything, while the poor (“patties”) are thrown into private prison hell for paltry offenses, where they’re enslaved. (Not incidentally, enslavement of prisoners — the vast majority poor — in the U.S. is very common.)

In this laissez-faire nightmare of a society, human rights are nonexistent and money determines everything, including the value of a human life. Hence the title: 84K refers to the “indemnity” paid by the murderer of one of the book’s heroic characters.

That murder spurs the book’s primary character, “the man called Theo Miller,” into action after a lifetime of going along to get along, never standing up for himself or anything or anyone else. Theo is an “auditor” who assesses the fines, the  “indemnities,” for various crimes, based on the circumstances and the victims’ socio-economic status. Once he’s assigned to the “84K” murder and begins doing a more than perfunctory job, all hell breaks loose, sending him down a convoluted, dangerous path, which eventually leads to resistance to the ghastly social structures under which he lives, or rather exists.

84K has virtues aplenty. North does a fine job of showing the disastrous, degrading effects upon the poor of a privatized government (a fascist government in which political and corporate power are merged), and also the degrading effects upon the rich, who are callous, entitled, brutal, and who treat the poor as things to be bought and sold (literally) rather than as human beings. As well, North adeptly demolishes the standard bullshit talking points used to justify economic privilege and gross inequality, and to dehumanize those at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap.

The writing in 84K is skillful, with North adeptly shifting back and forth between past and present, and doing an unusually good job of portraying the primary character’s emotional and mental states. She does the latter in part through her use of idiosyncratic typography, something of which I’m most decidedly not a fan. But, strangely enough, for the most part it works, so I found it less bothersome than other instances of gimmicky typography I’ve seen over the years.

84K does, though, have problems. Theo is the only fully formed character, with most of the secondary characters being not much more than names attached to superficial physical descriptions. As well, it’s hard to buy some of the ways in which the poor vent their frustration in 84K, such as howling like dogs en masse for hours on end. The gratuitous, pointless violence North portrays as pervasive among the poor is also a bit of a stretch. And the resistance movement she sketchily describes is depressingly pedestrian, a standard authoritarian structure with, of all things, a “queen.”

If North had done a better job describing the forms a resistance movement could take, and the practices it could employ — see Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway for examples — 84K would have been a more useful book.

Still, there’s great value in pointing to the dangers of the screw-the-poor laissez-faire path down which both the USA and UK are plunging. So . . . . .

Highly recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, a Spanish-English translation, a nonfiction book, two compilations, and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 


Cory Doctorow

“Don’t research. Researching isn’t writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don’t. Don’t give in and look up the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, the population of Rhode Island, or the distance to the Sun. That way lies distraction — an endless click-trance that will turn your 20 minutes of composing into a half-day’s idyll through the web. Instead, do what journalists do: type ‘TK’ where your fact should go, as in ‘The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite.’ ‘TK’ appears in very few English words . . . so a quick search through your document for ‘TK’ will tell you whether you have any fact-checking to do afterwards.”

— “Cory Doctorow: Writing in the Age of Distraction


(Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow. Macmillan, 2017, 379 pp., $26.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

In Walkaway, Cory Doctorow takes on one of the most vexing matters of our time: Automation (more broadly, technological advances) is, at an accelerating rate, making human labor ever less necessary.

But what will it lead to?

A post-scarcity, egalitarian, “to each according to their wants” economy of abundance in which working is a matter of choice? Or to a version of the present artificial-scarcity economy in which there are an army of the poor and oppressed, and a few super-rich individuals who will resort to anything to retain their positions of power and privilege?

In Walkaway, the answer is both. In Doctorow’s medium-near future, there’s both a drastically more repressive version of current society — to alter the famous quotation from Lincoln Steffens, “I have seen the future, and it’s worse” — and a (small “l”) libertarian and egalitarian alternative built by those who “walk away” from the dominant “default” society, a “post-scarcity” alternative made possible by sweeping technological/productivity advances.

Therein lies the main virtue of Walkaway: Doctorow’s convincing, detailed, and attractive portrayal of that post-scarcity society and its workings.

To get a bit politically wonkish, what Doctorow describes, though he never uses the term, is an anarcho-communist society (in contrast to the other flavors of anarchism: individualist, mutualist, and syndicalist).

Other virtues include Doctorow’s insightful treatment of technological advances, notably in the liberatory and repressive possibilities they entail, and in the book’s humor, which mostly appears in its first 150 pages.

One of the main points Doctorow makes in support of a post-scarcity, egalitarian societal set-up is that meritocracy, in both authoritarian capitalist society and in libertarian alternatives, is a very bad idea, as the following dialogue between two of Doctorow’s characters, Gretyl and Iceweasel, illustrates:

“Your people are all fighting self-serving bullshit, the root of all evil. There’s no bullshit more self-serving than the idea that you’re a precious snowflake, irreplaceable and deserving . . .”

“I’ve heard all this. My dad used it to explain paying his workers as little as he could get away with, while taking as much pay as he could get away with. . . .”

“You’re assuming that because [the rich] talk about meritocracy, and because they’re full of shit, merit must be full of shit. It’s like astrology and astronomy: astrology talks about orbital mechanics and so does astronomy. But astronomers talk about orbital mechanics because they’ve systematically observed the sky, built falsifiable hypotheses from observations, and proceeded from there. Astrologers talk about orbital mechanics because it sounds sciencey and helps them kid the suckers.”

“You’re calling my dad an astrologer then?”

“That would be an insult to astrologers.”

Two other notable aspects of Walkaway are the full-spectrum sexual diversity of the characters, and that Doctorow includes two explicit, well written sex scenes. (This is in stark contrast to the usual, annoying avoidance of such scenes in the vast majority of science fiction novels, where disgustingly graphic depiction of violence is perfectly acceptable, but — horrors! — not graphic depiction of sex; the only other sci-fi authors I can think of who include explicit, fitting sex scenes in their work are Richard K. Morgan and Walter Mosley.)

As for the plot, it would give away too much to say more than that it revolves around the brutal repression of the walkaways, and their use of nonviolent resistance in response, after they develop a technology that the ultra-rich of “default” society find threatening.

The description of this conflict takes up more than two-thirds of the book, which is likely too much of it. In too many places, the latter portions of Walkaway drag. After reading the first 225 or so pages, I found myself wondering when it would ever end; I kept reading only because I wanted to see how Doctorow would resolve the conflict between the walkaways and “default.”

Anther problem with the book is that it seems disjointed at times. This is in part due to Doctorow’s using five p.o.v. characters. This isn’t necessarily a problem (see George Turner’s effective use of multiple [five] p.o.v.s in Drowning Towers), but it is here. Doctorow switches from one to another purely to advance the story, with the amount of time devoted to the different p.o.v.s varying considerably; and, as Walkaway progresses, it all but abandons the p.o.v. of what I originally thought was the primary p.o.v. character.

It doesn’t help that there’s little if any overlap — no differing views of the same things, a la Rashomon — in the events described from the different p.o.v.s, which aggravates the disjointedness problem.

Still, Walkaway‘s virtues — especially it’s detailed, attractive portrayal of a libertarian post-scarcity society — outweigh its faults.

Walkaway is quite probably the best fictional description of a post-scarcity society ever written.

Recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, and on an unrelated sci-fi novel, in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover


“[T]here aren’t any ‘jobs’ left. Just financial engineering and politics. I’m not qualified for either. For one thing, I can’t say ‘meritocracy’ with a straight face. . . . It’s the height of self-serving circular bullshit, isn’t it? We’re the best people we know, we’re on top, therefore we have a meritocracy. How do we know we’re the best? Because we’re on top. QED? The most amazing thing about ‘meritocracy’ is that so many brilliant captains of industry haven’t noticed that it’s made of such radioactive bullshit that you could spot it in orbit.”

–“Hubert, etc.” in Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway

(review coming soon)


hieroglyphHieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, Ed Finn & Kathryn Cramer, eds. (Wm. Morrow, 2014, 532 pp., $27.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

This collection of 16 short stories and one novella is largely a product of Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, of which Finn is the founding director.  The book’s back cover describes it as “a manifesto and a blueprint . . . a clarion call to people everywhere to reclaim our future from grieving over what once was to celebrating all that can be achieved.”

The book succeeds — in part. Some of the stories describe innovations that seem entirely possible and achievable in the short term. The standouts here are two stories that concern the liberatory possibilities of the Internet, “Degrees of Freedom, ” by Karl Schroeder, and “Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA,” by Lee Konstantinou. The Schroeder story particularly stands out, because of its entirely believable, rather unsympathetic protagonist, and the changes wrought in his outlook through interaction with the technologies Schroeder describes.

A number of the other stories are less inspiring. The first story in the collection, “Atmosphera Incognita,” by Neal Stephenson, falls  in this category, due to its being almost entirely exposition. It reads more like a very long outline for a novel than a short story.

Others that are lacking include Madeline Ashby’s “By the Time we Get to Arizona,” due to her obvious unfamiliarity with southern Arizona (where I’ve lived for decades) and northern Sonora, and “Periapsis,” by James L. Cambias, in that its social/political background is very hard to buy.

Gregory Benford’s “The Man Who Sold the Stars” stumbles right out of the blocks, with the description in its third paragraph of a biker picking up a Honda Hawk motorcycle and throwing it “all the way across the street” on top of a Kawasaki motorcycle. At that point, I went, “Yeah, right,” and stopped reading, as would anyone else even remotely familiar with motorcycles. A Honda Hawk weighs 393 pounds dry, 412 pounds (187 kilos) fueled and lubricated. (Yes, I did just look that up.)

There are, though, several good pieces in the collection beyond the Schroeder and Konstantinou stories, including Cory Doctorow’s amusing novella, “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” Vandana Singh’s “Entanglement,” and Rudy Rucker’s flat out hilarious “Quantum Telepathy.”

But the real standout in the collection is Charlie Jane Anders’ very funny “The Day It All Ended,” the next-to-last story in the book; it concerns methods of fighting global warming through carbon capture, and contains a hilarious putdown of what certainly appears to be Apple:

‘Your products are pure evil. You build these sleek little pieces of shit that are designed with all this excess capacity and redundant systems. . . . [I]t’s the ultimate glorification of form over function —  you’ve been able to convince everybody with disposable income to buy your crap, because people love anything that’s ostentatiously pointless. . . . You use glamour and marketing to convince people to fill their lives with empty crap instead of paying attention to the world and realizing how fragile and beautiful it really is. You’re the devil.’ . . .

‘You missed one, I think,’ Jethro said, ‘The one about overproliferation. That’s where we convince people to buy three different products that are almost exactly the same . . .’

Up to that point, I’d been mulling over whether or not to recommend Hieroglyph. Of the 16 stories and one novella, I enjoyed only the six pieces mentioned above, disliked about an equal number, and was indifferent to the rest.

“The Day It All Ended” tipped the scales.

Recommended — especially if you can find a used copy or can borrow one from the library.

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(Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)

Free Radicals front cover


Sharp and Pointed has been around for just over three years, and we’ve put up just over 1,000 posts —  this  is number 1,001 — in 37 categories. Coincidentally, we reached 30,000 hits yesterday.

Science fiction is probably our most popular category, and we’ve put up nearly 100 sci-fi posts. Here, in no particular order, are those we consider the best.

This is the first of our first-1,000 “best of” posts. We’ll shortly be putting up other “best ofs” in several other categories, including Addictions, Anarchism, Atheism, Economics, Humor, Interviews, Music, Politics, Religion, Science, and Skepticism.