by Bruce Sterling
The Kingdom of Magic Junk
I have the pleasure to introduce you to Cory Doctorow and his short story collection.
As a political activist, gizmo freak, junk collector, programmer, entrepreneur and all around Renaissance geek, Cory Doctorow is a science fiction writer who can really drill down.
Cory Doctorow wrote a non-fiction guide to publishing science fiction before he’d published his first science fiction book. Most people into science fiction wouldn’t look the business over with an engineer’s sobriety, number all its gears, jacks and pulleybelts, and then hop into the mess. That is scary, it’s like watching people make law and sausage. But Cory Doctorow also watches people make law. That’s his day-job. I don’t yet know what Cory does about sausage. I didn’t dare ask.
Many writers, especially gray, creaky, well-fed ones, have ambivalent feelings about copyrighted ink versus slithering electronica. Me, for instance: I wrote two novels on typewriters, so I still remember the Pleistocene. But Cory possesses an advanced mode of cyber-analysis. Paper versus pixels, that’s yesterday’s battle, an intriguing archaism for him. It provokes that nose-flaring delight that he takes in old industrial equipment and Howdy Doody dolls.
Cory was born in 1971 and was typing before he was six. I know many science fiction writers engaged in the cyber-world, but Cory Doctorow is a native. There are times when I suspect I’ve extrapolated Cory Doctorow. Consider Cory’s carefree, shoe-shuffling globalism, so typical of vintage 1980s cyberpunk novels. Canada, Mexico, San Francisco, Costa Rica, scuba in Cuba, no change of physical locale can register with the man. The money changes color, maybe. As long as the junk shops are open and Apple is still shipping hardware, Cory’s as happy as a clamshell laptop.
Not that he lacks heritage. On the contrary, these are a young man’s stories, an artist getting to grip with his regional roots (or, in Cory’s case, his aerials). There’s a nice introductory cycle of stories here about Earth, or rather Cory Doctorow’s Canada, being invaded and conquered by aliens called “bugouts.” Even though these super-aliens have technological dominance and have imposed their own weird notions of world peace, they don’t matter all that much. They are rich, distracted, inexplicable aliens. Very much like Americans, I’d be guessing.
Cory Doctorow is obsessed with the Disney corporation. Americans live way too close to the fire there. It takes a clever outsider to get it about just how peculiar, spooky and otherworldly that enterprise is. In “Return to Pleasure Island” he drags us into a leprous re-imagining of children’s commercial entertainment that, really, beggars description.
Cory is a genuine technical expert. He can do most every Mr Wizard move typical of hard-SF. But when he’s genuinely engaged, he dumps the conventional genre fripperies. Cory is very into the slice of life, into the moment, into the sentence. There are sentences here so farfetched that they can only arise from a passionate, deeply geekish, imaginative concentration. One gets the firm impression that both the characters and the author are hammered into the story with tiny steel finishing nails.
I particularly recommend to your attention two of Cory’s newest works, “0wnz0red” and “The Rebranding of Billy Bailey.” “The Rebranding of Billy Bailey” is pitiless, but it is also convulsively funny. It’s easy to do weird parodies, but to do social satire which is this arch, this plausible, and this aware of our darkest impulses… well, that’s a gift. It’s a fresh gift of hope for science fiction, really. I have high hopes for this writer.
There has been a chunk of science fiction influenced by Silicon Valley, but “0wnz0red” captures the disturbed inner world of the technically sociopathic. For years now I’ve been searching for a work of science fiction that could only have been written in the 21st century. “0wnz0red” has broken through. This story is fully realized, and it is sarcastic, abrasive, and mind-boggling in a truly novel way. Like Beat writing in its early period, “0wnz0red” has the dual virtues of being both really offensive and genuinely hard for normal people to understand. This work is therefore truly advanced. It deserves an epithet all its own: “Doctorovian.” We should all hope and trust that our culture has the guts and moxie to follow this guy. He’s got a lot to tell us.
As knowledgeable about computers as he is about flea markets, Doctorow uses science fiction as a kind of cultural WD-40, loosening hinges and dissolving adhesions to peer into some of society’s unlighted corners. His best known story, ”Craphound,” tells of a competitive friendship between two junk collectors, one human and one alien; what it says about the uses of the past is no more mysterious than the prices paid for a vintage Coke bottle or an early Barbie doll. Not every attempt to wrest truth from cliche works — but you won’t want to miss Doctorow’s satiric glance at co-opted dissent among the grade-school set or the insidious horror of his updated Pinocchio tale.
New York Times