Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

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.

Cory Doctorow, photo by Jonathan Worth (http://jonathanworth.com), Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

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.


Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer first HBRe-reading Neuromancer, I still feel the excitement of the first time I read it — the whole surprising, new-thing-ness of it — though it always makes me wonder if someone coming to it for the first time might wonder what the fuss is about. Its major impact comes from ideas that have been so subsumed into the culture, they’re almost invisible as ideas — much in the way the artificial intelligence Wintermute ends the novel breaking free of its bonds as an AI to expand and in some way become one with the whole matrix of cyberspace itself, “the sum total of the works, the whole show.” Gibson’s conception of cyberspace came just in time both to prepare us, imaginatively and conceptually, for the rise into daily life of computers and (some time after) the internet, and to give us a constant reminder of how naff what we actually ended up with is, compared to what he imagined (by combining the way kids got totally immersed in the low-res graphics of arcade video games, and the way the then-new Sony Walkman provided an immersive, portable otherworld you could plug yourself into): the “consensual hallucination” and “graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system” (full quote here), data and software you could experience sensually, directly. The strange thing is how much of Neuromancer is so rooted in old culture: how it’s basically a hard-boiled noir take on SF (just as is Blade Runner — seeing which while writing Neuromancer almost made Gibson give up on the novel), and a re-imagining of Faerie/the land of the dead as a TRON-like world of bright, primary-coloured geometric shapes: “Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…” But then again, this seems to be true of all the great, game-changing works of imaginative fiction — the way they can be seen, on the one hand, as incredibly new, but on the other as “why didn’t I think of that?” recombinations of what went before.

Cyberspace, from 1995's Johnny Mnemonic

Cyberspace, from 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic

What always feels so life-affirming, to me, about Gibson’s works, even though (particularly with the Sprawl trilogy of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive) they’re so mired in the relentlessly downbeat, rusted-with-cynicism worldview of noir, is how his human beings are always finding ways of asserting their individuality not just in the face of a highly technologised world, but thanks to it. Case, Neuromancer‘s protagonist, would arguably be a nobody at any date prior to the invention of the technologies that allow him to jack into cyberspace and manipulate what he finds there with a seat-of-the-pants, intuitive skill; and where would Molly Millions be without her surgically implanted mirror shades and razorgirl claws? New technology, in Gibson’s world, becomes one more way of expressing essential human individuality. He’s interested in how people take up a new thing and use it not for its intended purpose. (From Count Zero: “The street tries to find its own uses for things, Mr Turner.”) But his is also a very dark, very 1980s world with a huge divide between those who have and those who don’t — and in this case the “have” refers not so much to money as power, and a specific type of power at that: “Power, in Case’s world, meant corporate power.” It is power, not technology, that is the chief dehumanising factor in this world:

“Case had always taken it for granted that the real bosses, the kingpins in a given industry, would be both more and less than people… He’d always imagined it as a gradual and willing accommodation of the machine, the system, the parent organism…”

Or, from the followup novel, Count Zero:

“…she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.”

So here’s a theory. In the 1970s, technology was perceived as part of the structure of power. They had the cabinet-sized mainframes with their whirling, eye-like pairs of tape reels, just as they had the nuclear weapons. Look at all those wonderful seventies dystopias and you’ll find that, if technology isn’t implicitly inimical to humankind (as in Westworld and Futureworld and 1980’s Saturn 3), then it is certainly inseparable from the oppressive, controlling state (Logan’s Run, THX1138, Rollerball). In the 1980s, though, technology — the computer part of it, not the nuclear weapons — became cheaper, and suddenly everyone could have a home video recorder, an electronic calculator, a digital watch, even their very own computer. And so technology, available to everyone, became part of popular culture, where it was thoroughly explored for its use in entertainment and self-expression, and no longer seen as a symbol of oppression. (You could even say that 1983’s WarGames, which is for me the archetypal home-computer revolution movie, is the point at which everything turns, as we see our hero teach a computer not to start a nuclear war.) Neuromancer was part of the reclamation of technology for the masses. And to me, this aspect of the novel — that humankind can endlessly take on board new technologies and make them (sometimes literally) part of itself while expanding, not narrowing, the bounds of what it means to be human — still feels new.

Neuromancer PBThis isn’t to say Neuromancer denies the dangers of technological dehumanisation. Rather, it acknowledges dehumanisation as an ever-present threat — just one of those things people do to themselves — with technology merely one of its means. As the novel opens, Case is deadened to his own feelings, to the extent that he’s goading the lowlifes of Chiba City into completing his unconscious suicide. When he finally manages to feel, it’s at the crucial halfway point of the novel, and even the unpleasant feeling of rage is like a “new thing”, a “treasure” compared to the emotional paralysis that went before:

“He’d been numb a long time, years… But now he’d found this warm thing, this chip of murder. Meat, some part of him said. It’s the meat talking, ignore it.”

“Meat” is the cyber-cowboy’s disparaging term for the body, and technology is certainly one of the ways that the divorce of mind and body can occur. But so are, in the novel, drug addiction and cynicism. And this is exactly the thing that feels so old-school in Neuromancer — it’s the same atmosphere that pervades Raymond Chandler‘s fiction. (Though Gibson, apparently, dislikes Chandler, preferring Dashiell Hammett — see this excellent Paris Review interview, for instance.) The hero, whether Philip Marlowe or Henry Dorsett Case, is battered to numbness by an unfeeling, dehumanised world, but makes the breakthrough back to feeling, back to an ideal or a recovered morality. The return to full humanity is the first, vital step to becoming a hero.

In the end, it’s power that dehumanises the most. And the powerful can be dehumanised by power alone, without any need for technology. (Though it does, of course, help. I particularly like Gibson’s description of the Tessier-Ashpool clan’s approximation to immortality through cryogenics as “a series of warm blinks strung along a chain of winter.” Plus, they can afford their very own vat-grown ninja…)

Neuromancer PB2Gibson’s protagonists use tech with such style. This — so much more than its current use with “steam” — justifies the “punk” in cyberpunk. These really are people with the hi-tech equivalent of a safety pin stuck through their nose; crude conglomerations of tech and flesh, welded together with hi-end surgery and micopore tape, brushing up against the massive data structures of zaibatsu megacorporations then bedding down in a cheap, run-down coffin hotel.

Reading Neuromancer is all about dipping into a writer’s sensibility and pool of ideas, his way of looking at the world and thinking about how it might become. Our world still might become like this. And though I’m not sure I’d elect to live in Gibson’s world, I’d certainly be happy to do so if I could take Neuromancer with me, and use it as a how-to guide.