Sunday, June 03, 2007

A Really Late Review: "Overclocked"

And here’s yet another really, really , really late book review. I’m trying not to make a habit of this. This time it’s for Cory Doctorow’s latest offering: “Overclocked – Stories of the Future Present”, a collection of six short stories.
Now some of you might point out that any review of the contents of this collection would be about as outdated as William Shatner’s toupee in “The Wrath of Khan” since Doctorow released the individual stories for free on his website long in advance of the hardcopy version hitting the bookstore shelves. And you’d be right.
But I’m kind of old fashioned that way – I like to feel a book in my hands, smell the paper and watch the lamplight caress the words on the pages. So, rather than download the individual stories and read them off my computer screen (‘cause I do enough reading off of the computer on a daily basis at work) or run-down the ink cartridge on my printer putting it into hard copy myself, I waited for the book to be released. And boy did I have to wait… When the print release date finally rolled around, I happily trotted over to White Dwarf Books (my local SF bookstore) to grab a copy, but shockingly, there wasn’t a single volume to be found. Stunning, since these guys carry everything, even old stuff that’s been out of print for years. When I asked what was going on, they sighed and said that since the stories had been released online for free, it was unlikely that many people (besides me) would bother paying for a copy and thus they hadn’t ordered any. Needless to say, I was somewhat floored. I’ve done my best to stay out of the free online distribution vs. paid print edition debate, but this was the first time its ramifications had jumped into the practical world, grabbed me by the collar and given me a good shake. Now, to be fair, the nice people at White Dwarf did offer to order me a copy, but I figured I’d let them stick to their principles on this one, and because I wanted the book right away, I decided to go corporate. I tried one of the local outlets of Chapters – Canada’s big box book retailer. Now when it comes to their SF stock, Chapters is known for loading up on lots of cheesy role-playing-game-based books and making populist and otherwise odd choices for the rest of its merchandise, and never keeping more than a pittance of classics on hand at a given time. I’m not completely opposed to Chapters, I’d just rather give my business to the little guy who has lots of the good stuff on hand and actually knows what he’s talking about when you ask him a question. At any rate, I got lucky – the big box actually did have “Overclocked” on hand.
Which was great, because I’d been looking forward to it since Doctorow first let it be known this collection was in the works. I’ve always been a fan of Doctorow’s fiction. Not only is he a great writer, he’s also a Canadian (though currently an ex-pat) who happily sets a number of his tales in his country of origin (Toronto, generally, but those of us who live outside the centre of the universe will forgive him that). Stylistically, I’ve always seen him as the bastard child of William Gibson and Douglas Coupland – he dances through modern and just-over-the-horizon technological issues with the greatest of ease while presenting well-flushed-out characters with heart.
And “Overclocked” didn’t disappoint.
I won’t say that every story within is a gem. They’re not. Only a couple are memorable. But they are all solid and enjoyable in the moment. Of note are “After the Siege”, “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” and “I, Row-Boat”.
To be fair, I think the main reason why “After the Siege” sticks out in my mind is because of Doctorow’s preface where he talks about why the story is so personal to him. The tale of a girl struggling to survive while her home city is under a prolonged siege is based on the experiences of Doctorow’s grandmother, who lived through the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. The story itself does a capable job of illustrating how in such an environment, horrors are commonplace and the day-to-day efforts to survive are as great as the efforts to resist the enemy.
“When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” is the tale of computer systems administrators around the world who survive a massive terrorist attack/war involving multiple types of weapons of mass destruction, and their efforts to rebuild society using their technological know-how and political idealism. It’s a SF-fan’s fantasy of a post-apocalyptic world where the geeks are on top instead of the tough guys – as though Brain were the bad-ass in “Escape from New York” instead of Snake Plissken or The Duke. Most importantly, it’s a story of people who really try to hold things together, to stave off entropy, despite overwhelming odds.
My favourite of the bunch though was “I, Row-Boat”. It’s the story of a dingy that possesses artificial intelligence, working with an automated pleasure diving expedition yacht in the Coral Sea to help post-human tourists who download themselves into bodies for vacations. Robbie the Row-boat’s routine of ferrying tourists and contemplating Asimovian-3-Laws philosophy is interrupted one day when a meddling post-human decides to “uplift” a coral reef by giving it intelligence and self-awareness, and the newly-awakened reef is cranky at the thought of intruders near-by. It’s a funny story, but I think what gives “I, Row-Boat” its punch is the fact that among all the characters (post-human, AI, uplifted reef), the post-humans are the least human. They’ve lost quite a bit in leaving their bodies behind to exist as vast intelligences residing in computer systems in the cold spaces between the planets. They engage in weird experiments like giving awareness to a coral reef without considering or caring about the consequences of their actions. The AI’s, struggling to find meaning in the world, are more human than their creators. The story is an existential masterpiece.
Is “Overclocked” Doctorow’s greatest book? No. As short story collections go, “A Place So Foreign and 8 More” is stronger and I think his most interesting and touching narrative is the novel “Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town”. That being said, “Overclocked” is a solid collection and worth owning – whether you’ve downloaded it for free or packed home the hardcopy.
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