- Title: Radicalized
- Author: Cory Doctorow
- Genre: Fiction
- Publisher: Tor Books
- Pages: 304
I’ve spoken to Cory Doctorow several times about his technology and rights advocacy. This is the first time we’ve spoken explicitly about his fiction, which I will describe as a form of “ripped from the headlines” science fiction and futurism. Each of the four stories in his new book weld together some recent anxiety-making social trend with some form of existing or near-existent technological awfulness. Unauthorized Bread hammers the inhumane logic of proprietary tech with a story of algorithmic discrimination that deeply warps the society of the poor and marginalized (particularly refugees and asylum seekers). Model Minority imagines what would happen if a superhero took a stand against police violence and state surveillance. Radicalized imagines the U.S. health-insurance system ginning up suicide bombers. The final story, The Masque of the Red Death, reimagines the classic Poe tale through the eyes of a 1-per-center hedge-fund bro who finds his six sigma mind is no match for the end of organized society. In many ways, it’s a fitting product of our unsettling times.
In the first story in this collection you have a very sympathetic character, Salima, a brilliant refugee who follows all the rules to fit into America and who finds herself fighting against perverse digital rights management (DRM) that makes her hard life almost unbearable. You take direct aim at the absurdity of DRM legal doctrines that assert any attempt to bypass software controls on everyday objects is a violation of both the law and a company’s absolute right to control its digital property even after it leaves the store.
That was the one that kicked it all off, it’s the culmination of a bunch of little thought experiments that I’ve had in the past. I wrote an essay in The Guardian called If Dishwashers Were iPhones, which probably generated more hate mail than anything I’ve ever written. It took the form of an open letter from a CEO of a company called Disher explaining to their customers why they have to use only dishes from the Disher store in their dishwasher.
In the book, it’s not just the dishwasher: It’s the toaster, the elevator, the laundry machine … and the underlying companies go bankrupt, and the devices stop working, forcing Salima to jailbreak them to eat and clean. The whole story is about these almost tyrannical, bullying, money-grubbing systems.
They always have good reasons! It’s all the same arguments people make about iPhones when they explain why it should be a felony to get your iPhone fixed by a third party and why it should be a felony for you to choose to buy your software from someone other than Apple. For an ever-larger pool of people the constraints that DRM creates is that it puts us at risk of abuse from companies, hackers and criminals. The same mechanism that allows a company to override your device or figure out how it works also allows any criminal or any actor of an illegitimate state who gains access to your device to abuse you with impunity.
You probably could have gone on at even further length with the topic, so what can you do with a short story that you can’t do with a novel?
Short stories are like carry-on bags, a novel is a shipping container and a novella is a checked bag. You can put stuff in the novella you’re not sure you’re going to need when you get there, just 'cause it’s nice to have it around. It can be ornamental in a way you can’t really do in a short story. In the case of these stories, they all started out as a high concept-ish pitch … they all had a little strapline that came to me. The health-care one, Radicalized [which is also the title and theme of the collection], I thought: "Why do heavily armed, entitled white dudes watch their loved ones die from preventable illnesses because insurance companies won’t cover them? Why do they refrain from murdering health-care executives?” Because they sure as hell kill lots of other people who upset them. I tried to imagine my daughter going through that experience and I would just go berserk. I would be out of my mind.
Are these modern morality plays, or something more akin to revenge fantasies?
I tried to make these self-reflective revenge fantasies that play out to their natural conclusion. These novellas emerged out of an anxious time in all of our lives, post-2015, 2016 era, where you’ve got this string of elections of people who are very difficult to imagine as leaders of big countries and lots of stuff in the news. While a revenge fantasy is fun to entertain briefly when you’re really hurting … if you spend more than a few seconds contemplating it you very quickly understand that revenge is not going to get you anywhere, the fantasy is stupid; pure id, pure atavism.
On atavism, in Model Minority a character that bears a striking resemblance to Superman figures out he can’t punch out state-supported racism.
I wrote that after reading a really dynamite book by Matt Taibbi … he wrote a non-fiction book about the killing of Eric Garner [I Can’t Breathe]. I found myself having all these fantasies: If I were Superman, I would have intervened and told them to stop, this very childish, basic idea.
In the book, people turn against the super-man, even though he stopped an obvious injustice.
It seems to me that one of the lessons Superman never had to learn was how contingent his humanity, his whiteness, was … because he was always on the side of the power structure. People of Jewish descent of my age, as I am, are now finding this new awareness that the whiteness of Jews was also contingent. Jews were not white for a long time; they became white for a while and a lot of Jews in their privilege lost track of the natural allies, other people who are othered. I think there are a lot of Jews who woke up around Charlottesville and said, “Oh, it’s not hard to racialize Jewish people either.” When you look at the history of Superman, [creators] Siegel and Shuster are these two Jewish kids watching the rise of Nazism, writing wish fulfillment about superheroes punching out all the Nazis. However, all the stories in which we solve our problems by recruiting a strong man to come in and sort things out, those don’t turn out to be utopias – that’s Libya, that’s Iraq.
Populism does seem to always come paired with some othering and marginalizing.
One of the questions that a lot of people are asking is: Are all Trump voters racist? One of the most compelling answers I’ve heard to that is, no, there’s just a whole bunch of them who just don’t care if racists are empowered. That’s privilege. If you’re willing to let people endure harm, to put people to enormous risk, out of indifference to their plight? I don’t want to say it’s worse than bigotry, but it’s at least as bad.
Science fiction, and futurism, typically works through a lens of either dystopia or utopia. Where do you come down with these stories?
Both are grounded in the belief that the future will arrive no matter what we do. That’s fatalism. Where is the role of human agency? I’m more interested in the ability of people to alter the world by taking action. These are stories about people whose actions matter.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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