Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present
by Cory Doctorow
Review by Ernest Lilley
Thunder's Mouth Press Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 1560259817
Date: 28 January, 2007 List Price $15.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Overclocked, which you probably recognize as a computer term for running a processor faster than the clock rate it's rated for, generally courting some sort of meltdown, is a fantastic collection of stories about people living with technology for better or worse and you should feel free to stop reading here and just go buy the book. At least if there's a drop of geekazoid blood anywhere in your veins, which there is or you wouldn't be here.
Still while you're here, I'll tell you a bit about the stories.
First off there's a short short that CD whipped up for the science journal Nature about the logical extension of the intellectual property law nonsense applied to 3D printers, which we'll all have someday, unless lawyers manage to prevent it. The story does what Cory manages so well, putting a human face on a technological dilemma.
Then comes a touching and truthful tribute to sys admins. With which the SF readership is rife. I've been one, and there's no doubt in my mind but that this vision of geeks holed up in a data center while the outside world falls apart and all they can do is try to keep the internet going is dead on. Like Heinlein's heroes in "The Roads Must Roll", we'll go to the mat to keep the wide world of the web from failing.
Then, "ripped from today's headlines" as he puts it, in order to predict the present, comes "Anda's Game" in which a girl gamer comes face to face with the realities of life in the midst of the virtual world. Again, it's all about giving human dimension to technology. In this case it's about the clash of classes between first world school children and third world sweatshop workers, and it's got some fine insights in it. If you haven't encountered Cory's naming riff before, you should note that "Anda's Game" is loosely a homonym for "Ender's Game" and it's part of a quest the author has set himself on to write stories with the same names as SF classics. Titles, you see, can't be copyrighted.
Following his re-imaging of classic titles comes a natural: "I Robot". These riffs on the original themes are really good and interesting, and I'd love to see a collection that paired the original with the new. In this one we see, not for the first time, the strain between US Conservatism and Techno-Progressivism, though there is a sense that it's not a question of which is more useful in the long run, just that the old will ultimately lose out to the new and we might as well get used to it.
One of the very best stories in here is "I Row-Boat" and yes, he threatens more mutations on the title, possibly writing a story about a sentient cheese sandwich ("I Rarebit"). There are lots of good comments on intelligence, consciousness and the meaning of life, all presented as an engaging theological argument between an AI row boat and a jumped up coral reef. To say nothing about the human. I'm sending the blog/podcast link off to a friend of mine, a presbyterian minister who reads SF, just to mess with his head.
In the last story, "After the Siege," Cory channels his grandmothers recollections of surviving Hitler's siege of Leningrad. He'd once thought, "how dramatic is that", but came to understand that she was right when she had told him that he could never imagine the horrors she'd lived through. He uses it as a platform for another assault on the evils of intellectual property rights keeping poor nations from uplifting their populations by manufacturing the drugs and goods they need regardless of who owns the rights to them. He cites the US's first hundred years as an example of a pirate state that bootstrapped itself by doing much the same and now seeking to keep anyone else from doing it again. I'm sure he's right on both counts, but this isn't then, and in today's global economy it's not like those countries would be content to make just enough for themselves and not compete with others. I'm certain that Cory knows all that, and accepts it, but he's not trying to tell us what will actually happen next...just what's happening now in future-ific terms. He calls this the "future present" and he's got it exactly right.
Some gifted short story writers get seduced by publishers that want them to write novels, preferably in groups of three. Quite often they're not as good at novels as they were at short stories, but that's where the money is, and we never see them again. Fortunately for us, Cory Doctorow breaks this mold, but then doing the unexpected is nothing more or less than what we expect from him.
Which is not to say I don't like his novels. They're quite good, sometimes even very good...but his short stories deliver a much more concentrated does of mind expanding conception with just the right amount of humanity and drama to make sure we're sucked in, and it's where he shines.
The hard part of all this is that every one of these stories deserves consideration for a Hugo and I'd hate to see him split his own vote as a result. Not that it matters. What matters is that this is a collection really worth reading, sharing, downloading and generally infecting others with. Overclocked is SF info-warfare ammunition of the highest caliber. Load up, move out, and remember, take no prisoners...let Asimov sort em out.