Cory Doctorow,
Stories of the Future Present

(Thunder's Mouth Press, 2006)

This is one of those rare occasions when I can say, I knew him when....

Cory Doctorow used to work at Bakka: The Science Fiction Book Store in Toronto. And, in the early 1990s, when I was heading up the wonderfully talented team that produced the television series Prisoners of Gravity, exploring the worlds of science fiction, fantasy, horror and comic books through interviews with authors and creators, Cory was an enthusiastic supporter of the series. Always ready to assist us in making the show as good as it could be through his knowledge of SF and his insights into where the world of the internet was headed, Cory was also busy preparing to enter the science fiction field as a author.

In 1992 he attended the Clarion writers' workshop and shortly thereafter began publishing adventurous, confident, post-cyberpunk fiction. I remember congratulating him when one of his early stories ("Resume") was listed among the honorable mentions at the back of The Year's Best Science Fiction: 12th Annual Collection.

Since then, Cory has gone on to grander acclaim, becoming the 21st century's first winner of the John W. Campbell Award for best new SF writer. His story "Anda's Game" was included in The Best American Short Stories 2005, an honor very few authors of science fiction manage. He's won the Locus Award and was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. And he now sits on the board of directors of the Clarion Foundation, helping to encourage a new generation of science fiction writers.

"Anda's Game" is one of the five novellas showcased in Cory's second short-fiction collection, Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present. Through the story he tries to "square up the age-old fight for rights for oppressed minorities in the rich world with the fight for the rights of the squalid, miserable majority in the developing world." The story borrows its name, sort of, from one of the most acclaimed science fiction books of the 1980s, Orson Scott Card's breakthrough novel, Ender's Game. There are plenty of echoes of Card's novel, including the story's gaming/real world interconnectedness and the use of an exceptional child protagonist.

Doctorow does a wonderful job of building his central character, an overweight teenage female who is a computer game enthusiast. Anda is struggling to define herself both in the male-dominated game world she loves and in a family and school environment unforgiving of her social awkwardness and obesity. Once Anda manages to gain a degree of acceptance and even respect in the game, she's faced with the difficult choice of breaking rank with her allies and her best friend, or of betraying her own sense of justice and fair play.

In a second instance of story title theft, Doctorow's "I, Robot" deals, appropriately enough, with issues of intellectual property. Stepping into a skewed version of the future that Isaac Asimov fashioned, Doctorow presents us with an all-too-human police detective helping to protect the UNATS Robotics monopoly over the technology that created the robot revolution. Arturo performs his job diligently despite his great distaste for how robots have redefined his world, his job and his life. Meanwhile he's kept busy attending to the demands of single-parenthood, his 12-year-old daughter a handful at the best of times.

For "I, Robot" alone I would recommend Overclocked. But there's more. "I, Row-boat" messes even further with the future according to Asimov and proves beyond a doubt that Doctorow is one strangely brilliant writer. In this tale Robbie, a self-aware rowboat, is pitted against a sentient coral reef in a battle for the life of a woman temporarily downloaded into the brain of a scuba diver under the boat's care. Doctorow's blending of Asimov's vision and his own distinct style and interests is masterful, but this isn't a case of concept over content; the story chugs along and one can't help but fall for the altruistic little boat at the center of the story.

And then there's "After the Siege," the story of a young girl whose world is thrown into chaos when war is launched against her city in order to halt the theft of proprietary technology. As first her father and then her mother are consumed by the war, Valentine must grow up in a hurry and decide for herself who is fighting on the side of "good" and who is "evil." "After the Siege" once again highlights Doctorow's ability to combine worldliness and naivete in his characters: "She took herself to the bathroom and let the shower wash her. There were some tears in her head somewhere but they couldn't find their way to her eyes. That was all right. It was a war, after all."

Overclocked is a very good book by a vibrant young author obviously enjoying himself in his fiction. As Bruce Sterling puts it, "He sparkles! He fizzes! He does backflips and breaks the furniture! Science fiction needs Cory Doctorow."

by Gregg Thurlbeck
10 March 2007

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