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The Craphound Diaries
profile by Alasdair Stuart
Accepted wisdom is that you sell a book, not give it away for free before it's published.
Accepted wisdom is that author and reader remain largely separated, not that the author hosts different formats of his work on his website, constructed by readers and again free.
Accepted wisdom is that by and large science fiction is the sole province of spacecraft, aliens, cooler-than-thou killers, and angst-ridden ex-military commanders given one last shot at redemption. It's not, by and large, home to a utopian society running Disney World, the political struggles between members of an internet 'tribe' or aliens who love our pop culture more than we do.
photo © Bart Nagel
Accepted wisdom and Cory Doctorow don't speak very much. Which makes for fascinating reading. As does Doctorow's background... The son of trotskyist Canadian schoolteachers, he co-founded the open source P2P software company OpenCola, worked for an ad agency and a documentary film house, and is known as a journalist and lobbyist as well as a writer. Specifically, Doctorow has been incredibly vocal about his support for the Creative Commons system, an approach to sharing of content that informs his work and which bears some discussion. Simply put, a CC licence is attached to the front of any form of media by the creator, in Doctorow's case, fiction. The licence allows the user to distribute the item themselves provided that:
CC licences come in various forms with various degrees of freedom but the overall effect is the same. The creator is giving something away for free, taking all the risk out of trying something new.
The Creative Commons movement itself forms part of a larger debate that has been raging in America and, to a lesser extent, Europe for several years now. The increasingly draconian copyright laws of both continents have been the subject of furious intellectual debate, which Doctorow remains at the forefront of. The co-founder of an open source software company as well as a technology lecturer and journalist, he practices what he preaches, neatly summarising the reasons below:
All my books are available on the web as free, Creative Commons-licensed, downloads. This means that I'm voluntarily throwing out some of the copyright that I get automatically just by writing stuff down. I do that for political and economic reasons: I think that the increased scope and duration of copyright are strangling free expression, privacy and innovation, and I think that enabling my fans to trade my words makes me more money. So I get to do the right thing and get paid, which is good.
This idea, of creative freedom is the dynamo behind almost all of Doctorow's works, in particular his first novel Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom. Here it's combined with an idea (put forward by author Vernor Vinge) that at some point in the future, a technological 'singularity' would be reached where technology would accelerate at such a colossal rate that it would cause a seismic shift, for the better, in global society. In the 'Magic Kingdom', it's led to a utopian world where people live as long as they want to, society has abandoned money in favour of 'whuffie'; the economy of status and respect and everyone is perpetually hardwired into the world computer network. Interesting as these ideas are what really makes them sing is the setting, one of Doctorow's other obsessions; Disney World.
In Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, the world consists of largely self-governed communities who trade with one another as needed. Our hero finds himself at Disney World, now a utopian society and still very much an amusement park and finds himself caught up in the power struggles over the Haunted Mansion ride.
It's a strange course for the book to take but it's hugely effective. Doctorow uses the conflict over the ride as a means of exploring both mortality and the differences between childhood and adulthood, a common theme in his work. The debate over whether to convert the ride using modern technologies or to keep its vintage status not only forces the main character to accept his own fears of change in a society where nothing is concrete but also manages to neatly encompass the debate that has crippled Disney for the last few years. Do they press on with hi-tech renovations or foster the culture of ingenuity and 'imagineering' that makes the company unique?
This constant return to the conflict between adult and child, hi-tech and lo-tech and, to a lesser extent, copy protected and copy free is at the heart of the book and is neatly embodied in the main character; Jules. As the novel progresses, Jules becomes completely isolated in a society where it's almost impossible for that to happen. Off the global computer network and alienated from his best friend and girlfriend, Jules becomes everything society has left behind. He's a paranoid, isolated Luddite, terrified of change in a world where it's become the cornerstone of society.
This exploration of exactly how far someone can fall in a perfect society neatly turns the conventions of the genre on their head, including the overall tone. Where previously Jules' plight would have played out as a near-tragedy, Doctorow's relaxed, personable prose keeps both the reader and the novel grounded. Instead of seeing one-man fall from grace, we see one man have an epiphany and finally find his place in the world whilst those around him wait patiently for him to figure out what they already know. Ultimately, this makes Down And Out... a hopeful, strangely inspiring novel. Here, the transition from childhood to adulthood is complete and Jules becomes a stronger, better person, for all the terrible things that happen to him.
Eastern Standard Tribe (EST), Doctorow's second novel continues his fascination with alternative societies. Here, instead of the ad-hocracy of Down And Out he explores a community united by consciousness and networking. Art, the main character is isolated from the people he lives around and closer to his online friends, united as they are only by being awake at the same time.
This is a far more down to Earth idea than the trans-humanist societies of Down And Out and EST is in many ways a more pragmatic book. It's set in a recognisably near, comfortingly familiar near future where computers are astonishingly powerful and, if anything, the concerns of the day are much the same as they are now. Art's dilemma is two steps away from the relentless, increasingly tedious shouting matches that clog so much of the internet and the dreadful situation his 'friends' put him in is arguably an unusually well-organised flash mob. It's also worth noting that one of the ideas explored, of creating transient pirate radio stations based around cars has recently been carried out. There's at least one radio station that consists of nothing more than an ipod in the owner's car, it's transmission footprint covering the four cars around it.
This is where Doctorow feels most comfortable, a period that Max Headroom referred to as "20 minutes into the future." His work is at it's best here, combining established technology with new ideas to create something simultaneously new and yet strangely familiar. This combination of familiar and alien lies at the heart of most of Doctorow's fiction, nine examples of which are collected in A Place So Foreign And Eight More.
Doctorow is a self-confessed craphound, a man who once lived in a warehouse crammed to the rafters with wonderful collections of objects discarded by society but which could still be put to use. It's a compelling image, and one that echoes down through every aspect of Doctorow's work from the renovation of the Haunted Mansion in Down And Out to the quixotic attempt to unwire Ontario and grant it free internet access in Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town, his most recent novel. Throughout his work, the message remains clear; crap is important too.
It's rarely clearer than in Craphound, Doctorow's first published work. The story of a friendship between a junk collector and an alien it's superficially one of Doctorow's first pieces of traditional science fiction, dealing with a first contact situation. However, even here there's a hint of Doctorow's delightfully skewed worldview. The aliens in question refuse to give us the traditional help to get to the stars and whilst humanity grumbles about how they should be thrown out of the Solar system, the aliens begin trading with humans for apparently worthless items.
This fascination with junk brings one, nicknamed Craphound, to form a friendship with a professional junk dealer and the two end up going to yard sales together. The story deals with the strange friendship the two share, their falling out and how, on the night that the aliens leave forever it finally becomes clear what they're here for. The ending is both unexpected and really moving, perfectly capturing the one-two punch of happiness and regret that nostalgia, in the form of junk, brings.
This theme is explored throughout the other stories and becomes interwoven with Doctorow's other fascinations. Return To Pleasure Island is a far, far darker and more European take on Disney World, combining a story of golem exploitation with magic realism and capitalism to create something the Brothers Grimm would probably have produced had they lived in the 20th century.
A Place So Foreign sees Doctorow return to the struggle to leave childhood behind in a heady combination of Jack London adventure story and out and out science fiction. James Nicholson is the son of an ambassador who leaves his home in 1875 America to take up residence with his father at the embassy. When his father disappears and James is forced to return home, he finds it all but impossible to fit in, the struggle with adolescence, the loss of a father and two culture shocks becoming almost impossible to take.
The twist here is that James' father was an ambassador to 1975. Specifically, a 1975 filled with intelligent buildings, robots and jetpacks. Doctorow uses this unusual combination of historical and faux historical settings to great effect and avoids any of the easy answers other authors may have resorted to. James' father remains lost and his attempt to escape the world of 1875 leads not to a tearful reunion but a final separation from his past. It's a uniquely brave thing to attempt, a coming of age story set in the past and in a false future but Doctorow manages it superbly, even throwing in a subplot involving how the future is contaminating the past and the ambassadors are largely prepared to stand by and let it happen. It's an unusual, levelheaded piece falling somewhere between Twain and Asimov that remains one of his best works. However, the truly impressive material in A Place So Foreign deals with one of the newer staples of science fiction; the ascension of humanity into a galactic power.
Instead of the traditional god-like aliens offering starry wisdom, Doctorow's race - the Bugouts, are genuinely alien and never actually seen. They remain a casual, indifferent force in the world, something that affects everyone but very few get to see. In a sense, the Bugouts become part of the background the moment they arrive.
Doctorow uses this anonymity to create not only a sense of the alien but to highlight one of his favourite themes, the ascension into adulthood, on a global scale. This is most obvious in Shadow Of The Mothaship, a story dealing with the aftermath not only of the Bugouts' arrival, but their departure. Having been attracted to Earth by the politically correct, and strikingly banal, teachings of a psychology near-cult, the Bugouts leave with the leaders of the movement and with no hint of when they'll return. Those left behind assume that they're never coming back, have been abandoned and the world descends into the sort of casual, strangely distant anarchy that is far more plausible than most post-apocalyptic settings.
Into all this is thrown Maxes, the son of the leader of the movement. Intelligent, articulate and enraged not only at his father's movement but at his abandonment Maxes is a directionless art-punk, striking out at anything that reminds him of his life and keeping his identity, wherever possible, tightly under wraps. The story follows him as he begins to rebuild his life and what happens when the last possible thing he was expecting takes place.
Without giving the ending away, it blends tragedy and comedy to great effect and closes in a very unusual way. Where most of Doctorow's protagonists choose to move on with their lives, Maxes chooses to regress in a way, which is both funny and defiant. Even Maxes' problems pale in comparison to those of Chet, the hero of Home Again, Home Again. By this stage, the Bugouts have housed anyone they consider as having a 'problem' in the 'Bathouse', effectively a 150-storey tall asylum where anyone considered not socially worthy is housed and counselled.
This casual judgement has a devastating effect on Chet's family, causing his mother to stop talking and his father to become increasingly angry. Surrounded by people who are disturbed at best and insane at worst, Chet finds his only two friends are his alien counsellor and a man on the 125th floor who claims to be Nikola Tesla.
This is Doctorow in full flow, throwing ideas at the page with incredible speed. The horrific concept of the Bathouse is balanced with a surprisingly tender relationship between Chet and his counsellor, one that once again allows Doctorow to explore the path to adulthood or maturity. Ranged against this is Tesla, a figure who remains otherworldly and strangely sinister throughout. By the time the story closes, Chet has been offered two escapes from the Bathouse, one by his counsellor and one by Tesla and the choice he makes, for all three of them, makes for fascinating reading. The closing image, of the death of the Bathouse is equal parts House Of Usher and Earth Vs The Flying Saucers, a heady cocktail of hopeful and horrific, the past and the future.
A Place So Foreign... is an unusual anthology because what defines it is it's humanity rather than it's ideas. Little people dealing with big problems fascinate Doctorow, and each one of these stories explores that idea from numerous angles. This isn't just an author talking about maturity, it's an author maturing and for a first time collection, this is incredibly strong work.
Finally, Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town is Doctorow's first foray into magic realism, albeit with a hi-tech twist. The hero, Alan, returns to Toronto with a group of info-anarchists who are using recycled technology to free as much of the city as possible from wire-based internet access and allow it to go completely wi-fi. This is complicated by the fact that Alan killed his older brother when he was younger with the assistance of the rest of his siblings. And now his brother may have come back from the dead...
What makes Someone Comes To Town... unique is the nature of Alan and his family. The son of a mountain and a washing machine, his siblings include a group who nest like Russian dolls, an island and a demonic savage, the one who he killed when he was younger. This surreal collection of characters allows Doctorow to play with his favourite themes in a very unusual way. Here, the magical nature of the setting actually throws the technological aspect into even sharper relief and the end result is somewhere between cyberpunk fiction and metaphorical fantasy. By far Doctorow's strangest book to date, it's also been one of the most popular, with one reader already pod-casting chapters of it and another producing beautiful illustrations, both of which Doctorow of course links to from his website.
Ultimately, Cory Doctorow is that rarest of things in contemporary science fiction, a unique voice. His love of cutting edge technology and passion for creative freedom allows him to approach the traditional elements of the genre in a fresh and very different way. His work is intelligent, funny and thought provoking and with his latest novella, Themepunks, being serialised on www.salon.com becoming ever more successful. His books are unusual, intelligent and free. He deserves your attention.
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