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Radicalized by Cory Doctorow (book review).

December 26, 2019 | By | Reply More

Don’t you hate it when technology tells you what to do? My car keeps telling me what gear to change into. It’s so annoying! If I wanted my car to tell me what gear to change into I’d have bought an automatic! I know how to drive a car without being told what gear to change into! Every time I close down the Instant Messenger app on my computer at work, it gives me a little popup saying ‘I’m not actually closed, just minimised, ready for you to use.’ I know! You tell me every day! I actually want to close you down because I’m packing up for the day and logging off everything! Whether you’re closed down or minimised, it makes no difference to me! I can open you up with the same icon whether you’re closed down or minimised and the response time is exactly the same! Why don’t you just do as you’re told?!

So, as you’ll see, I was completely caught up in the first of Cory Doctorow’s novellas that make up the volume ‘Radicalized’. That first story, ‘Unauthorised Bread’ starts with a toaster/microwave which only allows you to cook authorised products, so that Salima’s culinary life is controlled by her appliance rather than the other way around.

This is bad enough, but when the manufacturer of the toaster goes bankrupt and no more officially-sanctioned food is available, this causes big problems for Salima and the other inhabitants of the subsidised ‘poor floors’ of a tower block that is run by an all-controlling management company. Salima’s life gets more and more complicated as she tries to break free of a life kept in check by her dishwasher, aircon, toaster and the building’s lifts. Scarily plausible, humorous and wonderfully touching, this story is a masterpiece of near-future fiction.

‘Model Minority’ features super-hero American Eagle, who has defended truth, justice and the American Way for decades, in a thinly-guised imitation of Superman. When he intervenes in a brutal beating of an innocent man by corrupt New York cops, he is soon drawn into a quagmire of racism, corruption and bigotry in which his own ideals and motivations are called into question.

As he fights against the system and tries to put things right, he starts to realise that his own status as an alien puts him on shaky ground with the fickle, social-media-driven public. While the American Eagle is a deliberate pastiche of Superman, I didn’t really see the need for this to be made so blatantly obvious: his girlfriend could just as easily have not been called Lois. This is a powerful insight into the definition of justice and the motivations of even those we call heroes.

‘Radicalized’ is the story of a man named Joe, who becomes furious at the world when his wife is diagnosed with terminal cancer, a fury which only increases when his health insurance refuses to pay for what they consider to be ‘experimental’ treatment. When Joe discovers an on-line forum of similarly aggrieved men, the chance to rage and vent is initially a release for him.

As some forum members start to take things in a much darker direction, the distinction between those who allow others to die and those who set out to kill starts to become blurred. Another uncompromising critique of the flaws of society, this story again demonstrates Cory Doctorows’s ability to cut to the heart of matters and tell a story that shines a light on a heart-wrenching problem. There’s nothing that particularly would brand this story as Science Fiction or even speculative fiction, but that only adds to its power.

In ‘The Masque Of The Red Death’, wealthy businessman Martin establishes a survival shelter to house 30 people in preparation for the end of civilisation. The breakdown in law and order, followed by pandemics of disease and armed militia are the standard fair that you might expect from a post-apocalyptic tale, but Cory Doctorow concentrates on Martin’s endeavours to prove himself a worthy leader, a visionary, someone whose solution is far superior to the poor unfortunates struggling to survive on the outside. Things don’t go as planned, however, and the struggle to survive on the inside is just as gripping.

I met Cory Doctorow at the London WorldCon in 2014 where I talked briefly to him about his collection ‘With A Little Help’ that I had previously reviewed. Those stories were also mainly set in the near future and provided gritty and immediate glimpses of humanity. Given the extra room to breathe and develop the stories in this volume at novella length has given rise to a memorable collection of fascinating characters doing their best to survive an increasingly hostile world against the pressures of a civilisation that seems to be spiralling out of control. This is a highly recommended book from me.

Gareth D Jones

December 2019

(pub: Head Of Zeus, 2019. 288 page small hardback. Price: £18.99. ISBN: 978-1-78954-109-0)

check out website: www.headofzeus.com

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Category: Books, Scifi

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