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Book Review

Book Cover

Radicalized (Hardback)


Author: Cory Doctorow
Publisher: Head of Zeus
298 pages
RRP: £18.99
ISBN: 978 1 78954 109 0
Publication Date: 19 March 2019

Cory Doctorow is a remarkable multi-award winning science fiction writer, probably most famous for his novels Little Brother (2008), Makers (2009) and especially, Walkaway (2017). His latest book is a set of four novellas set in the near future.

Radicalized (2018. 288 pages) offers up four stories of radicalisation, in all its many forms, of people who often are forced to live on the fringes of normalcy.

In Unauthorised Bread, we follow the story of Salima, who has fled her own country as a refugee. Having spent a long time in a camp and then temporary accommodation, she and her friend are offered a social flat in a new building. What seems like a dream come true, soon turns out to have darker overtones. The lifts give priority to the tenants who are wealthier, but more problematic is that all of her appliances are provided by the landlord.

This may not seem such a hardship, but then you don’t own a Boulangism toaster. The machine is more like a mini oven combined with a computer and is intelligent enough to know what type of bread you’re trying to put in it. The catch, of course, is that the toaster will only accept bread which has been approved by the makers and both they and the landlord get a cut from the overprice produce.

When the company goes bust, all of Salima’s appliances stop working. Desperate to change this situation Salima learns to jailbreak the entire set of appliances in her home. She then goes on to do the same for her neighbours.

At its heart it’s a story about whether you have any rights over the objects that you own. You see these insidious practices in real life, mostly around copyright law, which leaves the owner little more than a renter of their belongings with increasingly less and less rights.

In Model Minority the author takes us to America where a barely disguised Batman and Superman really exist.

The American Eagle, being an alien, has been around for many generations helping the States deal with major wars and disasters. One particular day he witnesses Wilbur Robinson being attacked by a group of cops, just because the colour of his skin is different. Indignant, the Eagle decides to intervene. This sets up a wholly unexpected chain of events.

Although the story deals with the question of race relations in America, it is more an exploration of the creation of identity, often something which is imposed on others. Humans tend to tribalism quicker than we would like to admit, it’s quite a strong, but lazy compulsion, which is why it is harder to explain the difficulties and complexities of life than it is to point at a group of people who do not look or sound like you and declare that everything is their fault.

For going out of his way to help this one black man, the Eagle’s own status as an acceptable white person is brought into question. In truth he is not really white and he is definitely not human. Nor does he get many thanks from Wilbur, who point out that white on black hate has been going on for decades and Eagle did nothing.

Radicalized is a particularly American story. I say this as it revolves around Joe Gorman whose wife discovers that she is dying of cancer. While their medical insurance will pay for the more brutal chemotherapy, which in any case will not save her life, they refuse to pay for an experimental treatment which would.

Incensed with the world, Joe joins an internet forum for partners of cancer suffers who otherwise might live if the insurance companies had agreed to pay up. It is an understandably bitter forum and away from the eyes of the world that bitterness feeds on itself.

Even when Joe’s wife goes into complete recovery he finds that he cannot leave the forum alone, going back every night, witness to the monster that is growing before his eyes.

I think that Doctorow makes a serious point about the toxicity of some parts of the internet. We have developed a strange symbiosis which blurs the lines between reality and fiction. It never amazes me the amount of people who will gamble online to a generated picture and some who think that this equates to anything other than a representation of reality. Likewise, chat rooms, twitter and the like, are a cesspool of the worst of human expression, the ability to hide behind a fake name offering up some form of protection. What this story explores is the consequences of this electronic world being played out for real.

Lastly, we have The Masque of the Red Death which is a modern retelling of the original Edgar Allan Poe story. The story follows Martin Mars, who is so convinced that the fall of civilisation is about to happen that he has constructed Fort Doom, an impressive bunker to ride out the end of the world. Into this he has invited thirty other people, chosen by him.

Overall, the story felt less original, partially because it is based on another story, so we all know what is going to happen to the survivors, but also because this road has already been well trod. I did like the portrayal of Martin as he struggles, becoming more tyrannical, just to survive, only to lose everything to his own lack of humanity.

Overall, a strong set for a set of novellas and even if the last one didn’t feel as fresh or original they have all been written to Doctorow’s high standard. You should find this collection both thought provoking and entertaining.


Charles Packer

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