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This story appears in my collection Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present, 2007

Baen’s Universe, August 2006
The Rake, December 2006

Podcast: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth“>Full cast radio drama, QN Podcast

French fan-translation, courtesy of Zen le Renard (Text, HTML)

Spanish tranlsation (Axxon)

Italian Translation (Fantascienze, Dec 2007)

I started writing When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth on July 6th, 2005, while teaching Clarion. The next day, the London Underground and busses were bombed, including the bus I rode to work every morning (I was in Michigan, teaching Clarion, thankfully). These kinds of coincidences can be spooky when you’re a writer. I ended up putting the story away for some months.

When I returned to it, I was fired anew with the story of Felix and Van and their vainglorious struggle to keep the servers online as the world went offline. Once created, apocalyptic anxiety can’t be destroyed — the 1980s fear of nuclear annihilation I grew up with surfaces anew with each theoretical disaster: Y2K, climate change, und so weiter. There’s something primal about a story of the Earth’s impending doom.

I was a sysadmin at an earlier stage in my career and I have infinite respect for the field: sysadmins are the secret masters of the universe, and they keep your life running.

He piloted the car into the data-center lot, badging in and peeling up a bleary eyelid to let the retinal scanner get a good look at his sleep-depped eyeball.

He stopped at the machine to get himself a guarana/modafinil power-bar and a cup of lethal robot-coffee in a spill-proof clean-room sippy-cup. He wolfed down the bar and sipped the coffee, then let the inner door read his hand-geometry and size him up for a moment. It sighed open and gusted the airlock’s load of positively pressurized air over him as he passed finally to the inner sanctum.

It was bedlam. The cages were designed to let two or three sysadmins maneuver around them at a time. Every other inch of cubic space was given over to humming racks of servers and routers and drives. Jammed among them were no fewer than twenty other sysadmins. It was a regular convention of black tee-shirts with inexplicable slogans, bellies overlapping belts with phones and multitools.

Normally it was practically freezing in the cage, but all those bodies were overheating the small, enclosed space. Five or six looked up and grimaced when he came through. Two greeted him by name. He threaded his belly through the press and the cages, toward the Ardent racks in the back of the room.

7 Responses to “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth”

  1. WorldMaker

    Don’t kick me for nitpicking, but I believe it should be spelled “und so weiter” (but yes, pronounced with a z), and it works well abbreviated, although usw is a bit less common than etc (but nicer than the Endlish asf, and so forth).

    Interestingly enough, using the Google method of testing things half-remembered, “und so weiter” pulls up some German sites (such as a German title on IMDB) whereas “und zo weiter” picks up quite a few Cory Doctorow links… At least you appear to be consistent!

  2. Angela

    Unrelated comment…but thanks for the heads up on the FSOSS2006
    symposium…really helped me out with my research

  3. Barry

    Why publish this through a paid magazine instead of releasing it for public consumption as you have your previous works?

  4. CJ

    Looks like a great story, but I’m just not into podcasts… I really prefer reading text, then I can read at my own pace. I find my mind tends to drift while I’m listening to someone else read! Any chance you’ll release this as a CC licensed text like some of your others?

  5. Cory Doctorow

    Indeed I will — but it’ll be a while. It appears in a short story collection that’s being CC licensed and published in Jan.

  6. Josh Glover

    Mr. Doctorow,

    One of the members of the Tokyo Linux Users Group (http://tlug.jp/) is very interested in translating your excellent short story, “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth”, into Vietnamese. I think there is also interest on the list in translating it into at least Japanese (I am going to work on that, but I will need to recruit a native speaker to edit it) and quite possibly other languages spoken by our list members (Bulgarian, German, Finnish, French, Swedish, Icelandic, who knows?).

    According to this page, it appears that this story is covered by the CC Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial 1.0 (by the way, major props for using CC licences for your work!) licence, so that would mean that our translations are 100% OK, right?

    I just wanted to ask for your permission / let you know of our interest, to be sure you are cool with it.

    Our translation effort is based in our wiki, here:



  7. Cory Doctorow

    Absolutely right, Josh — can’t wait to see the translations!

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