If I discover one truly excellent science fiction author per year, I’m pretty much a happy man. In 2010 I discovered Paolo Bacigalupi. In 2011 I discovered Cory Doctorow.
Doctorow is best known as the editor of the venerable and yet still-cutting-edge blog BoingBoing, which he writes from a hot air balloon while wearing a red cape and goggles. But sci-fi fans also know him as a prolific author of some of the most wildly original books and short stories of the 3rd millennium B.C.E. So far I’ve only read three of his books (Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Little Brother, and Makers) and one of his short story collections (Overclocked), but that situation is of course changing as fast as I can spare time from writing my dissertation. Being himself a crusading anti-copyright activist, Doctorow has made all his books available for free download, which, perversely enough, is why I buy them new. Perhaps his business model is based on the existence of perverse individuals like me. If so, I kind of admire that.
Anyway, on to what I like so much about these books. I gave The Social Network a lot of crap for misrepresenting geek culture…well, Cory Doctorow books are the exact opposite of that. Doctorow protagonists – makers, hackers, gamers, bloggers, and fanboys – aren’t in it for the money, the status, or the bathroom blowjobs (though they wouldn’t necessarily turn those things down). They are in it for the love. They tinker and invent because they get an intellectual thrill and a surge of personal pride from the act of creation, and they share their for the sense of community and the respect that they receive.
To someone who hasn’t lived that life, this sounds like some kind of silly socialist utopia – the dream of a return to the village, the barter economy, the age of the solitary craftsman. But it’s not that. It’s simply a reflection of the fact that we live in a rich country, and we’ve climbed up Maslow’s Hierarchy to the point where love, esteem, and self-actualization are the things we need most urgently.
But that’s only one of the things Doctorow gets right about geeks. He throws in a thousand little details that are all too familiar: egos tempered and suppressed by complex personal morality, masculinity and femininity wounded by a world of dumb aggression. These geeks are men and women. They want the things that normal men and women want, and for much of their youth they were told they couldn’t have it, because they were different, because they were a little too smart…but then they grow up and they can have it all, and in fact they have an advantage in getting it, and they find that they don’t quite know what to do with it.
If you think that I failed to capture the geek experience in that four-sentence paragraph, well, you’re right. It takes at least several hundred pages to begin capture the geek experience. So go read Cory Doctorow.
As for the tech side of Doctorow’s books, this stuff is every bit as wild and visionary as anything ever dreamed up by Gibson, Stephenson, Sterling or Stross. But the style is something very new. Doctorow doesn’t need to carpet-bomb you with jargon in order to future-shock your socks off – he tells a calm, quiet story, and every once in a while you notice that the story you’re reading is set in a high-tech wonderland. An added bonus is that much of the gee-whiz gizmos in the books are actually real stuff, or very close to it; Doctorow knows his tech like few other writers. Little Brother might be the first cyberpunk novel written with zero fictional science.
Ironically, when people (who shall remain unlinked) criticize Doctorow, they tend to fixate on this fact. “The ideas are amazing,” they say, “but the characters are just vehicles for the ideas.” Poppycock, rubbish, and 出鱈目. What that reflects is how difficult it is for said people to appreciate subtle characterization.
I learned to write in college short-story-writing classes. That means I was a student of the Raymond Carver/Alice Munro/George Saunders school, where a character can be defined by looking out a window at some dust blowing down the street. I learned to focus on those subtle touches that can say so much more than big, dramatic actions. This is basically the technique that Doctorow is using; you learn more about his geeks from their reactions (or lack of reactions) to situations that are routine and pedestrian in their own lives than from the dramatic speeches and bold actions common in a lot of pulp stuff. (Note that this does not mean that Doctorow books aren’t fun, fast reads.)
Anyway, I think I’ll stop ranting now, but I want to say one more thing. Cory Doctorow is one of the only sci-fi authors (the other is Lois McMaster Bujold) who has actually made me change the way I live…to be more like an alpha-geek, of course. Since reading his books, I have altered my approach to technology – I’m much more likely than before to open things up and look under the hood, tinker with them, try to get them to do things that aren’t in the manual. I am beginning to trust the manual less, in fact. I feel like I’m just beginning to have the same kind of swaggering, “I can handle this” attitude toward engineering that I always had when taking tests back in school. I feel like that attitude germinated when I read Little Brother and Makers.
OK, now it’s time to stop ranting for real. Did I mention you should go read Cory Doctorow?