Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

Gautham Shenoy May 12, 2019 6 min

When an Indian company headquartered in Pune goes bankrupt, it’s up to a resourceful refugee in Boston to figure our alternative, unauthorised methods to toast bread. When a man of steel finally decides to take a stand against the system, he finds that he isn’t quite the invincible superhero he thought he was. When people who’ve lost their loved ones to cancer because their insurance doesn’t cover certain treatments decide to some drastic action, one man finds itself at the centre of it all, with his life, career and marriage on the line. When a successful stockbroker decides to wait out the coming apocalypse in a bunker of his own, he thinks he’s covered all bases and nothing can go wrong until it does.

Author, activist and editor of Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow has always been a keen commentator of our increasingly techno-centric times, and his previous novels have explored the intersection of government, technology, economics and culture to great effect. Radicalized, his latest book continues this tradition, but instead of a novel, it’s is a collection of four novellas each of which looks at a pressing social issue through a science fictional lens.

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Cory Doctorow, author of Radicalized (Portrait by Jonathan Worth; jonathanworth.com)

Perhaps the best story that represents Doctorow’s own beliefs in technogeek activism and community effort driven by crowdsourced hacks is the opening tale, ‘Unauthorised Bread’, set in a world where appliances have authorised third-party suppliers without which the appliance will not work. So to toast bread, you have to use only the brand of bread that the toaster company has partnered with. Dishwashers don’t wash unauthorised dishes. Into this world comes a young refugee, Salima, who’s been allotted a subsidised housing unit in a building where the poor have to wait inordinately for elevators that prioritise the rich people (‘paying customers’) first. Once her toaster stops working, she finds herself with no option left but to hack it which sets in motion a chain of events that involves jailbreaking other appliances and perhaps the elevator system of the building itself as the hacks spread from home to home, each family now free to toast what it wants and wash dishes of their desire, until it comes to the attention to the landlords and the corporations. Then, it’s time for Salima to revaluate what she’s done and turn tack to protect herself and the community from prison time and fines.
Moving on from human to super humans, the second story in the collection, ‘Model Minority’, is centred around a super hero, American Eagle in the context of race relations and police corruption. Having stood for truth, justice and the American way and loved & lauded by the people for decades now, American Eagle soon finds that the ‘system’ is far more effective at neutralising his formidable alien superpowers than any kryptonite. When he decides to stand by an African American who has been the victim of police brutality which he’s witnessed, Eagle learns a thing or two about contingent privilege and that that his ‘white-ness’, which he’d taken for granted can just as easily be taken away from him. With his assistance harming the case than helping it, “You can be right, or you can be effective”, advises his fellow superhero who goes by the civilian name of Bruce, and so American Eagle has to decide: Does he continue to do the right thing? Or does he choose instead, to be effective?

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“Cory Doctorow is one of our most important science fiction writers, because…he brings the news and explains it”, says the blurb by Kim Stanley Robinson on the cover of Radicalized.

‘Radicalized’, the title story of the collection turns our attention to healthcare and all the things that can go wrong when health insurance companies prioritise profits and play with human lives. We follow a distraught husband – whose wife has just been diagnosed with cancer – trying to come to grips with the unfairness of insurance companies and who happens to stumble upon a forum that’s not just filled with people like him, but also filled with righteous anger against companies and their employees that some forum members see as nothing short of murderers for having denied their family members life-saving treatments. This anger soon spirals into violence and the protagonist becomes a proxy for the reader as he finds it increasingly difficult to choose sides as his own life spirals out of control just as much as the bombings do.

The last story, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is an original take on Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story of the same name. A young stock broker prepares to ride out the duration of the inevitable and upcoming socio-economic collapse (“adjustment period” as the economists call it) by sequestering himself and a few fellow one-percenters, chosen carefully to include young, single women in a well-stocked desert bunker. He hopes to be among the few still left standing, leading them even, when it’s time to pick up the pieces, and given his careful planning nothing could possibly go wrong. But little did Martin, for that is his name, bargain for all the things to come, for no plan survives contact with the enemy, and so neither does his.

The cover describes the four novellas as ‘four tales of our present moment’ and indeed they are, with the underlying theme that runs across all stories being that of people taking drastic measures in desperate times. While set in America and concerning itself with the issues its people face, there is a certain universality to these stories because people are the same everywhere and so are the multinational corporations with technology – and its uses and abuses thereof – being the common thread that connects all.

Doctorow deftly captures the complexity of the issues that stake in each of the stories, but doesn’t offer any easy or convenient answers. The world-building is impeccable, and the characters that populate them are well fleshed-out and very human in all of their complex mix of hopes, desires, despair, fear and uncertainty. Doctorow merges the keen insight into the socio-economic implications of technology that he’s known for with easy prose that is as hilarious in parts as its disturbing in others, while being smart throughout. The back cover of Radicalized says in bold letters, ‘Dystopia is now’, but to treat this collection as yet another manifestation of dystopian literature would be to do it disservice.

As the late great Ursula K. Le Guin once said, ”Every dystopia contains a utopia”, and it is this kernel of hope that Doctorow offers to the people in his stories. Not all stories are overtly hopeful, some downright dark, but dystopias being what we make of them, of letting flawed systems take over until one fine day they break and spiral down, the human spirit to seek out the utopia-within-the-dystopia is what enlivens these stories. As Doctorow writes in the dedication of Radicalized, “This isn’t the kind of fight we win, it’s the kind of fight we fight.” A fine example of all the things that contemporary science fiction is capable of, a good feat of extrapolative storytelling and a great introduction to Cory Doctorow for readers who may not have read his previous works, Radicalized is an essential read that will leave you thinking long after its last page has been turned.