How does one write science fiction while living in a perpetual future?
Teleportation, artificial intelligence, cloning and time travel are all either physically possible or expressed in cyberspace. They now resemble the quaint stuff of Jetsons cartoons. A city full of flying cars navigating invisible byways isn't so impressive when you're downloading MP3s and sending text messages from an airplane. In an era when the wonders of modern technology exceed our imaginations, Cory Doctorow understands that to write about the future, you have to write about the present.
Besides writing fiction and journalism, the L.A.-based Toronto native is co-editor of the seminal cyberpunk blog boingboing.net, which is concerned in part with copyright law and digital rights. Doctorow puts his money where his mouth is by releasing digital versions of his published fiction for free (you can download Overclocked at his personal blog, craphound.com), and the vagaries of intellectual property in the digital age inform the book. The brief opening story, "Printcrime," tersely evokes a world where 3-D printers can reproduce objects as if they were digital files, rendering traditional trademark law obsolete and setting a totalitarian state in motion. This technology reappears in "After the Siege," this time in a post-revolutionary city where government officials call each other "comrade." This aspect of Doctorow's writing is wholly political, and his thesis is clear—whenever dominant powers lose control of a populace's material wealth, they reinstate that control by more direct means.
But Doctorow's as idealistic as he is ideological, and even his bleakest scenarios have a thread of techno-utopian possibility. The buzz-cut, thick glasses and vaguely futuristic dinner jacket that he favors in press photos suggest a stylish young tech-geek prepared to abscond from Earth at the first available opportunity. Kneeling at the twin altars of Asimov and Bradbury, "I, Robot" and "I, Row-boat" explore the tensions between human and robotic intelligence. While the former is a detective story and the latter is somewhat inscrutable (pensive rowboats and insane coral reefs download their consciousnesses into human shells, and wandering acolytes of Asimovism counsel AI on the complexities of sentience), both stories plunge us into day-after-tomorrow scenarios where human corruption, not technology, is to blame for the conflicts the technology occasions.
Doctorow's prose is just passable, and his characters tend toward flatness—techies are slobbish and haughty; detectives are tough but have hearts of gold. So while his stories lack the depth of characterization necessary to make you forget their artifice, the ideas dazzle on their own, especially as they verge on reality. "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth" is a jargon-rich, behind-the-scenes peek at the men and women who operate the Internet, digitally battling e-mail worms and spammers in the ongoing infowar. Ever optimistic, Doctorow perceives the Internet as a democratic space threatened by regulation and opportunistic junk peddlers; in his post-apocalyptic scenario, when the surviving humans have to decide whether to rebuild the Internet or let the worms have it—well, I'll let you guess. And the best story here, "Anda's Game," is also the most factual—its concept of sweatshops where third-world children play online games, selling off the in-game resources they acquire to wealthy Western gamers, is based on a true story.
They say truth is stranger than fiction, but the increasing robustness of the virtual world makes it harder to tell the difference every day. Doctorow is dispatching from the front lines of this wild binary frontier, sorting it out for those of us who still aren't sure what "HTML" means. Until such a time as we can all just download Technology for Dummies right into our brains, he'll be performing a valuable service.
Cory Doctorow will appear Thursday, Feb. 22 at 2 p.m. at Wilson Library on UNC-CH campus to discuss copyright issues. Later that afternoon, at 5 p.m., he'll visit Love Auditorium in the Levine Science Research Center on Duke campus. He'll give a talk entitled "From MySpace to Homeland Security: Privacy and the Totalitarian Urge."