When I read Cory Doctorow’s collection Radicalized I felt a bit as if he was preaching to the choir. But, hey — there’s a reason the choir returns week after week, and maybe it’s to hear the sermon. Every so often it’s good to read stories that reflect and even expand your own views, especially if they’re written by someone who’s passionate and articulate and knows what he’s talking about. And these stories aren’t cheap propaganda — each of the four novellas is a good tale in its own right.
The first, “Unauthorized Bread,” follows a woman, Salima, who discovers that her toaster has stopped working. Not a catastrophe for most people, but the toaster is made by the corporation Boulangism and supplied by the owners of her apartment, and Boulangism has gone bankrupt. Since the apartment managers don’t allow her to use any other toaster (and she couldn’t afford one in any case), she’s in the strange position of having to hack her own appliance.
Her dishwasher goes out too, and she hacks that as well. Soon other people in the apartment building are asking her for help, and she recruits a group of kids — well, it’s more that they recruit her — who go door to door tampering with appliances. The problem is that the toaster, the dishwasher, even the kids’ schoolbooks are set up to take only products supplied by their respective companies, and when Boulangism is restructured they will be coming for their money, or to discover why they haven’t been getting any. Everyone with a hacked toaster could be going to jail.
Doctorow has built a fascinating world for his story, one that in some ways seems all too familiar. Every new residential building must set aside a number of apartments for low-income housing, which is how Salima manages to snag one. But there are no laws about what you can do with these poor people once they move in, and so the apartment owners mandate the kinds of furniture and appliances they can have and, of course, get kickbacks when these are used. My favorite evil plan by the owners involves the elevators, which will stop at all the “market-rate” floors before deigning to pick up anyone from the poor floors, so that Salima sometimes has to wait an hour or so before the doors open for her. The two groups inhabit the same building, but they never see each other.
Maybe it’s just the current climate, but I was never completely convinced that our government would care even this much about poor people. Conservatives are frequently overcome with horror when they learn that someone on a low income owns a refrigerator, let alone toaster or — gasp!— a dishwasher or television. A friend of Salima’s, Nadifa, has an income-indexed place, which means that she and her kids “would be able to afford to live there no matter what happened to them in the future.” At the risk of sounding like the most unhinged of conservatives, who is paying for all this? Who’s paying when Nadifa takes one of her kids to the dentist? Who paid for the refugee camp in Arizona where the two women met, where Salima had lived for five years? Putting all this aside though, which is easily done, “Unauthorized Bread” is a terrific story.
“Model Minority” shows what happens when the American Eagle, a superhero much like Superman, saves a black man from being beaten by cops. The Eagle has been idolized by the public up to that point, but this one act is enough to turn a good portion of them against him. It’s a pitch-perfect satire, one that makes you really think about the meaning of the words “truth, justice, and the American way” ... especially those last three.
Doctorow moves from a story leavened with humor to one that’s almost too painful to read. In “Radicalized” Joe’s wife Lacey has cancer, but the experimental treatments available have been denied by their health care providers. Joe desperately needs a way to unload his anger, and he finds a forum for people in the same position. But the posters there are pushing more and more radical actions, and at times you find yourself agreeing with them.
This is how Doctorow works: he shows you the real stories behind the statistics, people on the edge of despair, clinging by their fingertips. You feel their rage and frustration, and you wonder what you would feel, how you would act.
Martin, in “The Masque of the Red Death,” has built a bunker to hide in when the world collapses, and has invited thirty people to join him. At times he even seems to be looking forward to it; as a hedge-fund manager he thinks things like “The fact was that the world just didn’t need all these people anymore, and the market had revealed that fact…It was just like ‘gentrifying,’ but on a grand scale.”
Of course it all goes terribly wrong, but Martin is such an unpleasant jerk it’s kind of fun watching it happen. Then you remember that this is the End of the World, and you see some of the characters you like die. And here you are again, locked out of the bunker or the apartment or the hospital, locked away from the privileges of the rich. How would you feel? What would you do to save yourself, or a loved one?
Doctorow’s dedication and last sentence are nearly the same: “This isn’t the kind of fight we win, it’s the kind of fight we fight.” Preach it, brother.
I’ve seen the cover for my new book Ivory Apples, and it’s terrific! You’ll just have to take my word for it, though, because Tachyon wants to do a cover reveal on a bigger website that this one — and I can’t say I blame them. I’ll let you know when they post it.
Right now the book itself is scheduled for September 15.