Radicalized, first published in 2019, is a collection of four novellas of a Black Mirror-ish cast, bringing as they do a dystopic twist to areas of modern concern. I hadn’t read any of Doctorow’s fiction before this, aside from I think one short story in a cyberpunk anthology, but have been listening to his podcast, where he reads his non-fiction pieces, mostly on matters concerning the social impact of big tech companies’ business practices. The first of the stories in Radicalized is a fictional take on one of these topics, but if that makes it sound dry, it isn’t.
The protagonist of “Unauthorized Bread” is Salima, a refugee immigrant to the US who, upon finally being allocated housing, finds herself in one of the quota of assisted-housing flats in a large, technologically modern tower block. This means certain aspects of the building’s tech infrastructure quietly but relentlessly discriminate against her, to ensure she can never forget she’s there on sufferance. The lifts, for instance, have two lobbies, one for the full-paying residents, one for the likes of her, and if a full-paying resident is in a lift, it won’t open its doors on Salima’s side, or stop at any of the assisted-housing floors. As Salima lives on the thirty-somethingth floor, she often has to wait forty-five minutes for a lift that will open its doors for her. Mostly, after a hard day’s work, she climbs the stairs.
Her apartment comes equipped with some modern appliances, too, including a Boulangism toaster. (Which I, as a UK reader, thought meant a pop-up toaster, but apparently means a “toaster oven”.) This marvel of modern tech will toast anything to perfection, as long as it’s in the manufacturer’s approved list. So, if you buy just any bread (i.e., cheap bread), the machine won’t even open up. You have to buy approved bread, made by bakers who have paid a subsidy to Boulangism. (In turn, Boulangism pay a cut of the profits to the landlords who install these appliances, which is how they can afford to rent a number of apartments to low-paying tenants: the tenants end up paying more than the difference in rent through having to buy more expensive consumables, the profits from which partly go into the landlords’ pockets.) And it’s not just the toaster that does this, but the dishwasher, the fridge, and so on.
Then Boulangism goes out of business, and the toaster refuses to toast anything. Salima goes online to work out what to do, and discovers a world of advice on how to jailbreak her toaster’s firmware so she can use it again. Once that’s done, she doesn’t see why she shouldn’t jailbreak her dishwasher and fridge, too. And then, perhaps, the lifts?
“Unauthorized Bread” feels like one of those SF stories that could be happening not just tomorrow but right now. The technology for a choosy toaster might not be quite there, but things like this are going on (printers only accepting manufacturer-approved inks, for instance). And, as Doctorow has pointed out in his non-fiction pieces, this isn’t just about high-end consumer appliances, it’s an aspect of tech business practice that covers things like pacemakers (if your pacemaker-maker goes out of business, it’s illegal to have someone concoct a firmware update for it to, for instance, protect it from security flaws) and farm equipment (not being able to sew non-approved seeds, for instance, thus locking farmers into one mega-corporation’s entire product range). This story feels, then, like the moment 80s cyberpunk gets so close to modern life it’s just not SF anymore.
“Radicalized” is another tale of modern tech’s effect on ordinary people’s daily lives (though this time specifically in the US). The protagonist is Joe Gorman, whose wife develops a life-threatening cancer. There’s a treatment available, but it’s experimental, and their medical insurance won’t pay for it. Joe starts checking in on a forum for people in a similar situation, where men, helpless and furious at a system that denies their loved ones the possibility of recovery (and therefore of life), vent their darkest thoughts. Inevitably, some of these are of revenge on the people behind it — the executives at the insurance companies, the politicians who’ve blocked universal healthcare, and so on. Then, perhaps just as inevitably, one of these men, driven to despair when his loved one finally dies, decides to act on these fantasies. He’s going to go into the offices of the insurer who denied payment for an expensive treatment and blow himself up. Because, as he reasons, no one’s going to expect a middle-aged white guy to be carrying a bomb. And when he goes ahead and does it, everyone associated with the forum — even Joe who tried to talk the guy out of it — become, in the eyes of the government, terrorists.
The only tale, here, to enter fantasy territory is “Model Minority”, about a superhero called the American Eagle who is, in all but name, Superman. (He has a fellow crime-fighter friend in a billionaire called Bruce, and has — or, rather, his secret identity has — a reporter-girlfriend called Lois.) One day he sees a group of cops relentlessly beating a black man, having stopped him on the flimsiest of pretexts. The American Eagle puts a stop to it, and decides to make sure the victim, Wilbur Robinson, receives the proper medical treatment and a fair trial. Suddenly he finds himself on the wrong side of an America that, previously, had pretty much worshipped him. His crime-fighting billionaire friend Bruce, even the victim Wilbur Robinson, tell the Eagle he’s bitten off more than he can chew, and he’s probably going to cause himself, and everyone else, more trouble than he’s preventing.
I’m not really sure what the take-away from this tale is, aside from flinging a lot of blame at a hero-figure (something the new series of Doctor Who did a lot, I felt), as in, where was the American Eagle at all the other high-points of racial tension in America? The trouble is, this turns the story into, in a way, a criticism of a fictional character (why didn’t the Superman comic take up these issues? — I have no idea if it ever did), rather than addressing the issue of racism. I wondered if the American Eagle wasn’t supposed to be taken as a sort of icon of America’s image of itself, but the story undermines that, by pointing out how this superhero is in fact an alien from another planet, and so, technically, a “minority” himself, and only tolerated as long as he serves the values of the country’s power structures. But the issues here are too complex to be dealt with by such a blunt instrument as a Superman-analogue, so this, for me, is one of the tales in the book that, despite having an excellent premise, ultimately fizzled out. (Perhaps this is just because “Unauthorized Bread”, right before “Model Minority”, was so much about solutions, and I expected this one to present a more optimistic ending than it did. To me, “Model Minority” was basically saying: there’s nothing you can do.)
Radicalized’s final novella, “The Masque of the Red Death”, is about one of America’s super-rich, Martin Mars, who, feeling that “the Event” is coming, has built what he’s called “Fort Doom” as a hideaway for himself and a select bunch of equally wealthy friends. “The Event” isn’t a specific thing, just a vague revolution/societal collapse he feels is bound to happen, an “adjustment period”, in the somewhat understated terminology of economists:
“The fact was the world just didn’t need all those people anymore, and the market had revealed that fact, squeezing them into tinier, more uncomfortable places… the world was heading to a state when the number of betas and gammas the alphas needed to keep the systems running would far exceed the demand…”
“Those people”, here, being the poor. It’s pretty obvious from the novella’s title which direction this tale is headed once Mars makes “the call” and summons his super-rich buddies to Fort Doom to begin sitting out this hiccup of civilisation (after which he, and they, all expect to emerge and resume their place at the top). But this novella didn’t quite have the moral inevitability I thought the reference to Poe’s tale implied. It does have a Poe-esque ending, but not one that quite hit the mark as the satire of super-rich survivalists I was expecting. It’s more about the idea that no one can buy out of the basic fact that plans go wrong.
My favourite novella of the four remains “Unauthorized Bread”, which not only kept its central situation evolving on a constant edge of suspense, but ended with a positive message about taking control of the tech that’s intent on controlling you. The others worked good as ideas more than they did as finished novellas, I felt, but were nevertheless worth reading. I’d certainly go for another collection of similar pieces from Doctorow.