Two days ago, my sweetie and I went to the City (in the Haight, in fact), to see SF writer Cory Doctorow at the Booksmith. He was near the beginning of a book tour for his new book Homeland. This was my third time meeting him, and her second; and, as usual, he did not disappoint.
Doctorow is an interesting writer, not because he has a firm grasp of the essentials of science fiction storytelling (although he does), nor because he’s outrageously talented (although he is), but because he’s the only example I can come up with offhand of a writer using science fiction as a tool for political activism. Doctorow is a major voice in online civil liberties–copyright reform, Internet censorship, user privacy, and the like–and for years now, he’s been using his fiction to educate the public about these issues.
Example: Little Brother, probably his most famous book, tells the story of a teenage hacker and his friends who, after a terrorist attack in San Francisco, are mistakenly detained and accused of being involved, and after their release, use new and emerging technologies to counter the government’s increasing attacks on civil liberties. The book contains a variety of details about the workings of darknets, cryptography, countersurveillance, and other Things The Government Doesn’t Want You To Do–all set against a well-crafted coming-of-age story. And the kicker is, it’s a Young-Adult book, explicitly aimed at those who most need to see how our society works, and how they can preserve their rights as they enter it.
Needless to say, Little Brother is highly subversive–possibly the most provocative YA book I’ve ever encountered. I’m honestly surprised that there hasn’t been more of an outcry against it. My best guess is that the powers-that-be just don’t pay much attention to SF or YA literature, and so they haven’t noticed. (Hell, there’s a sex scene in it, and even that hasn’t sparked a backlash. It’s not particularly explicit, but still.)
Doctorow has written other books along these lines, of course. For example, Pirate Cinema deals with the media, particularly the increasingly frantic efforts of big media companies to lock down their “content” from those who might want to share it with family and friends. Makers looks at the Maker movement and its possible impact on the economy, as DIY tools–3D printing in particular–do for traditional industries what file-sharing has done for music. And For the Win is about economics and labor organizing within online multiplayer games.
Doctorow has written a number of nonpolitical works, and those are mostly excellent. But his activist science fiction has the potential to be literally revolutionary.
Which brings us to his new book, Homeland. This is the sequel to Little Brother, in which the protagonist finds himself trying to navigate the explosive world of 21st-century American politics–and, in particular, trying to balance his underground values with a newly acquired mainstream respectability. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Interestingly, the appearance turned out to be rather different than we had expected it to be. We were expecting your basic author reading. What we didn’t consider was Doctorow’s importance in these various civil-liberties subcultures. Quite a few prominent figures from these groups were there, and there even appeared to be some unofficial sponsorship from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. So, instead of a reading, we ended up getting a talk and discussion of these issues. Doctorow recounted the history of these struggles; talked about current legislation and litigation in these areas, and the impact they may have; and gave a moving tribute to his friend, the recently deceased activist Aaron Swartz. The Q&A afterward was lively and stimulating, with excellent questions from even the youngest people in the crowd.
So, all in all, it was an excellent gathering, and much more than just a reading. (My sweetie and I had actually voted for a reading at the start, but we appeared to be the only ones. That was okay, though; what we got was far more important.) It was a pleasure to see Cory again, and to be involved in a public discussion of these kinds of issues.
Not to mention visiting the Booksmith for the first time–wonderful store–and getting to visit the Haight again for the first time in years. So, a splendid time was had by all. Now, all I need to do is find time to read the books I got.
Thanks, Cory. See you next time.