Introducing Cory Doctorow

Recently I introduced a reading by Cory Doctorow, as follows:

I'd like to read you a passage from Cory Doctorow's recent novel, Eastern Standard Tribes. The only thing you need to know is that the book takes place in a near future in which the "comm," a small mobile phone/PDA combo, has fulfilled its promise of taking over all the functions we now rely on desktop and laptop computers for.

There was a cheap Malaysian comm that he'd once bought because of its hyped up de-hibernate feature -- its ability to go from its deepest power-saving sleepmode to full waking glory without the customary thirty seconds of drive-churning housekeeping as it reestablished its network connection, verified its file system and memory, and pinged its buddy-list for state and presence info. This Malaysian comm, the Crackler, had the uncanny ability to go into suspended animation indefinitely, and yet throw your workspace back on its display in a hot instant.

When Art actually laid hands on it, after it meandered its way across the world by slow boat, corrupt GMT+8 Posts and Telegraphs authorities, over-engineered courier services and Revenue Canada's Customs agents, he was enchanted by this feature. He could put the device into deep sleep, close it up, and pop its cover open and poof! there were his windows. It took him three days and an interesting crash to notice that even though he was seeing his workspace, he wasn't able to interact with it for thirty seconds. The auspicious crash revealed the presence of a screenshot of his pre-hibernation workspace on the drive, and he realized that the machine was tricking him, displaying the screenshot -- the illusion of wakefulness -- when he woke it up, relying on the illusion to endure while it performed its housekeeping tasks in the background. A little stopwatch work proved that this chicanery actually added three seconds to the overall wake-time, and taught him his first important user-experience lesson: perception of functionality trumps the actual function.

This passage exemplifies what I love about Cory Doctorow's fiction: the geek obsessiveness, the richness of detail, and above all the sly humor. Doctorow understands our culture's technophilia from both the inside and the outside. He participates in it as much as anybody — in fact, I've learned some cool tips from him about customizing my Mac, and securing my data when I go wireless — and at the same time, he views it with a cool ironic eye. He knows how appearances are deceiving, how often vaporware never materializes, and how large the gap is between the fantastic hopes we project upon our machines, and the all-too-human limitations we carry along with us into the brave new world of high tech and the (so-called) Singularity. And most of all, Doctorow knows how our high tech culture feels: he evokes it through the wry, low-affect tone of his characters and narrators.

As a writer, Doctorow thrives on contradiction, or on dissonance. He always manages to seamlessly combine incompatible moods and themes. Page for page, he is largely a writer of comedy; yet both of his novels are really about betrayal. Indeed, rather alarmingly, they both feature a male protagonist whose best friend and girlfriend have an affair behind his back, and set him up to be imprisoned, murdered, or worse.

Doctorow’s books also meld high concepts with unabashed entertainment. His first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, is a meditation on the idea of utopia -- an idea that has obsessed Western culture at least since Plato. Doctorow asks the question: what would a society based on abundance, instead of scarcity, be like? But as its title implies, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is also a novel that’s set in Disneyland, and that proposes Disneyland as its model of the good life — it's "the happiest place on earth," after all — with all the strange baggage that implies.

Similarly, "To Market, To Market," a short story from Doctorow's volume A Place So Foreign, is about the "rebranding" of 11-year-old kids in the schoolyard, as they compete for the most lucrative corporate endorsements. The story is at once a scathing satire on postmodern capitalism, a surreal fantasy, and a warm and fuzzy depiction of childhood.

In addition to being a science fiction writer, Cory Doctorow is one of the four co-authors of Boing Boing, a popular blog that collects all sorts of wacky and entertaining (and sometimes usefully informative) stuff. And in his day job with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, he has worked for online free speech, fair use, open standards, and more reasonable copyright laws. He has even made his own writing available for free download under a Creative Commons license (something I wish my own publisher would allow me to do).

Please join me in welcoming Cory Doctorow.