Radicalized — A Book Review

Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow, Tor Books, 2019
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“The future’s a weirder place than we thought it would be when we were little kids.” — Cory Doctorow

Although that quote is not from Doctorow’s novellas — longer than short stories but not nearly novel length — in his recent book Radicalized, it captures a lot about them.

41tOeBojICL._SY346_Doctorow is a blogger and science fiction author much concerned about personal freedom in the midst of media and technological juggernauts.  His fiction tends to be of the very near future variety, taking on the coercive forces of government and corporations.

It falls into a genre I call “subversive fiction” for suggesting that freedom is more than a privilege bestowed by others.  Perhaps Doctorow’s most famous book may be Little Brother, nominated for a science-fiction Hugo award in 2009, which includes information on counteracting surveillance by authorities.

Unauthorized Bread

In the first story, “Unauthorized Bread,”  Salima, a recent immigrant, finally gets fed up with being forced to toast only authorized bread in her toaster. She hacks the toaster so that other bread can provide her morning toast.  Of course, such hacking is against copyright and other laws and carries severe penalties, even though the toaster corporation has gone bankrupt.

(If you think this is an exaggerated premise, then you should read about the John Deere corporation’s efforts to keep farmers from repairing their own machines.  John Deere claims farmers have no right to access the copyrighted software that controls every facet of today’s equipment, even to repair their own machines. Only an “authorized dealership” can do that.)

The story also explores the pressure of housing developers gaining concessions beyond usual zoning requirements by making some lower rent units available, and then screwing those in the low-rent units as diligently as possible.  If the renters complain or circumvent the humiliating measures, they will be evicted.

In the end, against all odds, the renters free their kitchen appliances and circumvent the landlords’ technological controls with a few tricks of their own.

Model Minority

The American Eagle is from another planet, in this second story.  He fights for truth, justice and the American way.  Unfortunately, and quite topically, he feels he must intervene in a racist police beating of a black man.

American Eagle fights against this injustice and is done in by the system, despite being a superhero.

As famous as he is, he offers to testify on behalf of the beating victim.  His efforts to see the right thing done end up making the situation worse.  Conspiracy theories mount about how foreign American Eagle is, and his supposed ties to the Chinese or Russians or other unAmerican entities.

A corporate billionaire vigilante named “Bruce” confronts American Eagle. Eventually our superhero, after other adventures, realizes America is only willing to tolerate certain things.

Radicalized

In “Radicalized,” the third story, the country is aflame and in chaos after people are fed up seeing their loved ones die unnecessarily in the medical system.  They begin to riot, build bombs and conduct mass executions in medical insurance offices.

The hero of the story is Joe, a white 36-year-old who works in a well-paid but pointless corporate job.  He has seen many of his colleagues leave:

“…to work for experimental divisions with self-driving forklift companies, or diving into cloud-based self-serve platforms for ecommerce dropshippers, or all that other stuff that helped people get their Squatty Pottys and strobing LED USB chargers delivered to their doors with five nines of reliability.”

Even with his top-of-line medical insurance through his company, when Joe’s wife develops cancer, the insurance company refuses to cover her treatment.

A frustrated Joe, seeking some way forward, starts cruising the dark web, and gets slowly involved with the violent element at large in the country taking revenge on the pharmaceutical, insurance and medical establishment.

Joe is arrested.  He is asked to give up the names of those he communicated with.  He refuses just as his wife’s cancer goes into remission.  She visits him in jail and lets him know that a comprehensive medical care act has been passed.  She tells Joe, “Who says violence doesn’t solve anything?”

The Masque of the Red Death

Along with its reference to the Edgar Allan Poe story, this is an ironic tale of survivalists and the apocalypse.

The main character, Martin, intends to ride out the coming apocalypse in his Arizona stronghold he calls The Fort, along with 30 well-chosen and privileged others.

And when The Event arrives, Martin congratulates himself for having thought of every contingency.  He welcomes disaster’s arrival which will prove his astuteness.

After some time, a gun store raid goes badly wrong when the gang there tears Martin’s people to pieces.  A plague of some kind kills more.  Martin gets very sick and can’t recover. In the end, Martin gets real tired of the apocalypse.

What to think?

Overall, I enjoy and admire the subversive quality of Doctorow’s stories.

My favorite of the four is the first, “Unauthorized Bread.”  To me it’s the most human and amusingly accurate of the stories about the kinds of things many people have to deal with right now.

It took me a little while to get what was going on in the story about the American Eagle.  I left comics and superheroes behind in my pre-teen years (although I enjoyed them a lot then), and the current obsession with superheroes in the movies leaves me cold.  So probably for a younger, more with-it reader, this might have more resonance.  Its point seems accurate, but the story itself is so-so.

The third story about health care and violence is thought provoking.  I’m not at ease with violence as a strategy about anything, except in unavoidable self-defence.  But unfortunately it does seem to get attention and perhaps action, although I would argue the more likely outcome is just more violence.  But there are situations when it may seem the only course to take.

The last story about the survivalist mentality and its likely consequences rings true.

I’ll leave this with a quote by Doctorow from an interview in the LA Times:

“I think that fiction is a superb way to put flesh on the dry, abstract bones of technical and policy debate — a fly-through of an architect’s rendering of the emotional lived-experience of the consequences of our policy choices.”

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