I've just gotten around to reading Overclocked, Cory Doctorow's latest collection of short fiction. Doctorow, you will recall, is digital rights activist, fellow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, bane of DRM implementers everywhere, and co-proprietor of the world's most popular blog. He is also a well-regarded science fiction author, who is noted for giving his books away electronically, thus putting his author's royalty money where his activist mouth is.
Overclocked is an excellent if slightly uneven (have you ever read a story collection that isn't?) fistful of cyberpunk-esque yarns that I'm guessing will be liked by people who like my stuff: it's fast-moving, forward-looking, geeky, and ultimately good-hearted. He says the secret to his success is predicting, "with rigor and absolute accuracy", the present. He does (like the best speculative fictionists) shine a great deal of light on our current affairs, while making the future seem like a very familiar place. (*) (In "I, Rowboat", for instance, most humans have abandoned their physical bodies and uploaded their consciousness to the noosphere but when you need reliable information on coral reefs, the first place you turn is still Wikipedia.) His writing is unostentatious, even plain at times; but he can very plainly write. (This is undeniable if only, though not only, because he makes you care, and care deeply, about a sentient rowboat. Fer Crissakes.)
"When Sysadmins Rule the Earth", one of the two hands-down standouts (the other is "Anda's Game"), is a cri di couer from the "steam tunnels of the information age". A "type-one" sysadmin (flabby with a beard; type twos are tall and thin with ponytails) leaves his wife and young son in the middle of the night to bring up some crashed routers at which time a series of devastating physical, digital, and biological attacks brings the real and virtual worlds to their respective knees. Locked into their data center, behind sealed doors and microparticulate air filters, his band of hard-core admins struggles to keep their Internet backbone up and humming, in the face of barrages of worm and trojan attacks, while the world goes to hell outside.
The group gets to work, keeping in touch with their beleaguered compatriots around the world including the indominitable Queen Kong, who run's Google's data centres and struggling to head off internal dissension and desertion. They labour valiantly but without hope, waiting for their food and generator power to run out, holding worldwide elections for the new, post-apocalyptic digital regime, and watching as more of the real world turns cold and black.
It's loaded with apposite geeky references Doctorow has worked as a sysadmin himself, and it shows which will be greatly appreciated by those who appreciate these kinds of things, and a bit less so by those who don't. But the characters are also very human, which is a tougher trick to pull off. And when the last hold-outs are finally forced to abandon their digital redoubt, and go out into a shattered world, you know these are just the kinds of guys you'd want to have helping rebuild it.
"Anda's Game", which received the conspicuous honour of being included in Best American Short Stories 2005, is at least as strong, nearly as fun, and loaded with an even more timely (and touching) message. Anda, a podgy and insecure adolescent, is recruited by a clan of online gamers for girls only. They encourage them to play openly as girl avatars, and band them into one of the most formidable and feared tribes in any number of games.
It isn't long before Anda is being recruited into missions that pay in real money (via PayPal) rather than in online gold. She finds herself going out on assault/assassination gigs in which her job is to infiltrate heavily-guarded buildings, and kill everyone inside. Her curiosity is piqued when she discovers the avatars inside whom she is slaughtering are engaged in menial in-game tasks (like shirt-making) for small payments of gold.
Soon it transpires that these avatars are part of virtual sweatshops where impoverished girls in developing countries sit in 14-hour shifts earning online gold, and building up characters, both of which are sold on eBay for real money. Science fiction? Hardly this is huge business in many parts of the world, and the real value of virtual economies is staggering, and growing fast.
After much moral agonizing about stealing wages from girls who may otherwise have to work as prostitutes, and about who is actually doing it for love of the game and who for money, Anda (and her clan) switch sides continuing their ass-kicking exploits, but this time on the side of the workers (and their labour organiser). This is an illuminating look at what terrors and wonders the present holds and an enormously fun ride along the way. (With its confluence and confusion of real and virtual life and combat, it also has an uncanny relevance to my new book in progress.)
Doctorow has a talent for steering his stories to a satisfying, even inspiring, conclusion but then turning around and ending another one ambiguously, or even disturbingly. But with either flavour, you'll probably tear through these pieces especially if you're a fan of Snow Crash, or Blade Runner, or my stuff as they're cracking good reads in any tense.