Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2014 Evelyn C. Leeper.


"I, Robot" by Cory Doctorow:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/19/2006]

I guess this is the Year of the Robot. In the novella category we had "Identity Theft" by Robert J. Sawyer, and in the novelette category, we have "I, Robot" by Cory Doctorow (THE INFINITE MATRIX, Feb 15, 2005). Doctorow's story is set in Toronto, which is also where Sawyer lives, so maybe it's something in the air in Toronto. This is probably best described by Doctorow himself, who says, "Last spring, in the wake of Ray Bradbury pitching a tantrum over Michael Moore appropriating the title of FAHRENHEIT 451 to make FAHRENHEIT 9/11, I conceived of a plan to write a series of stories with the same titles as famous sf shorts, which would pick apart the totalitarian assumptions underpinning some of sf's classic narratives."


LITTLE BROTHER by Cory Doctorow:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/01/2009]

LITTLE BROTHER by Cory Doctorow (ISBN-13 978-0-7653-1985-2, ISBN-10 0-7653-1985-3) is a Hugo nominee. It has gotten a lot of good reviews. I thought it was awful.

First, the basic premise: Marcus is a sixteen-year-old hacker who gets caught up in a DHS sweep after a terrorist attack in San Francisco. After he is held incommunicado for a week and psychologically tortured, he is released, but becomes the leader of a movement to reverse the Orwellian tactics of the government. (It's no accident that his handle at the beginning is "w1nst0n" and that the novel is called "Little Brother".) Doctorow is in the forefront of the current "personal freedom" movement, and his agenda is showing--not just showing, in fact, but lit up with searchlights and announced with air raid sirens. I have in the past accused Heinlein of being unsubtle, but I realize now that there were whole new levels.

But there are other problems. I'm all in favor of a well-written, well-placed info-dump, but this book seems to be almost a third info-dump. (Someone claimed that Doctorow wrote this by stringing together a lot of his "Boing-Boing" columns with a minimal plot.) Most of the characters seem fairly thin--I realize that this is a YA novel, but even so....

The odd thing is that many of the things that I object to in LITTLE BROTHER I loved in Neal Stephenson's SNOW CRASH. I assume it must be the writing style. Stephenson tended to isolate his info-dumps via the character of the Librarian, rather than have the narrator pontificate, and his characters were more complex. It's odd, I suppose, that there should be so much similarity between two books that are at opposite ends of the spectrum for me, but there you have it. I really expected to like LITTLE BROTHER, but it was a massive disappointment.

To order Little Brother from amazon.com, click here.


THE RAPTURE OF THE NERDS by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/07/2014]

THE RAPTURE OF THE NERDS by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross (ISBN 978-0-765-32911-0) is full of in-jokes and references, including (but not limited to):

(The references are to "Star Trek", NEUROMANCER, THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, FUTURAMA, SNOW CRASH, "Dr. Who", and Nature's Path(?). I particularly like the NEUROMANCER, since it points out how readers under the age of thirty may end up completely misinterpreting the classic opening of William Gibson's novel.)

But there are plenty of ideas as well. For example, at one point a simulation of a character realizes/decides that she is feeling "less rage than /should/ be experiencing"--an oddly analytic perspective on what is considered a very instinctive feeling.

I would like to think there is deep meaning in his being "Instance 639,219", but I cannot find any.

When Jones is asked, "Ms. Jones, do you have a statement for this proceeding?" she responds: "I spent decades of realtime imprisoned in a meatsuit, which betrayed me at every turn. It hurt. It needed sleep. It was slow. It forgot things. It remembered things that didn't happen. And worst of all, it tricked me into thinking that I was nothing without it, that any attempt to escape it would be death. Brains are awful, cheating things. They have gamed the system so that they get all the blood and all the oxygen and all the best calories, and they've convinced us that they're absolutely essential to the enterprise of being an authentic human. But /of course/ they'd say that, wouldn't they? After all, once we take up and realize how fantastically /s**t/ they are, they'll be out of a job! Getting rid of my brain was the most important thing that ever happened to me. It was only once I was running on a more efficient substrate, once I could fork and vary myself and find the instances that made the best choices, once I could remember as much or as little as I cared to, look and feel however I wanted . . . only /then/ was I able to see and feel and /know/ what I'd been missing all those years."

"How can you know that you didn't spring up fully formed, all of these convictions stamped upon you?" could reference either the individual or the entire human race, especially when followed by "even if your little origin myth is true." In the novel, it seems primarily aimed at the individual, but the broader interpretation is known in the real world as "Last Tuesdayism." When creationists claim that when the world was created 6000 years ago, all the evidence that it is much older (fossils, etc.) was created along with it, the response is, "But that same argument can used to say that the world was created last Tuesday, along with all our memories and everything else."

"Helpfiles are traditionally outnumbered by no-help files, which superficially resemble a helpfile in form but not in content because they don't actually tell you anything you don't already know, or they answer every question except the one you're asking, or you open them and a giant animated paper clip leaps out and cheerfully asks where you want to go today." Well, they hit the nail on the head here.

"Every time I take action, it ripples out to all the people who area affected by it, and all the people they affect." If this sounds familiar, it is just re-phrasing the message of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

"The Authority" is an advanced species that "patrols the galaxy to ensure that any species that attempt transcendence are fit to join it. If it finds a species wanting, /pfft!/ It takes care of them before they get to be a problem." Klaatu barada nikto, anyone?

At one point, a character says, "I experience subjective continuity with that Huw, so I think I'm real. But if you're going to require physical continuity, no I'm not: I'm an upload. And even if I hadn't uploaded, if you want true physical continuity, /no/ human being can meet that requirement--never mind our cells, the atoms in our bodies turn over within months to years." This is clearly an on-going question in the philosophy of consciousness and identity. But even subjective continuity is not enough, since unconsciousness (or even sleeping) breaks that continuity. How do we know we are the same person who wakes up in the morning who went to sleep last night? *Are* we the same person who wakes up in the morning who went to sleep last night?

And there is also the artistic explanation of why hard science fiction is more interesting than (say) galactic empires: "Free jazz has its place, but it's interesting only in contrast to the rigid structure in which it is embedded."

To order The Rapture of the Nerds from amazon.com, click here.


Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/24/2007]

Our discussion book this month was RAGTIME by E. L. Doctorow (ISBN-13 978-0-812-97818-6, ISBN-10 0-812-97818-8). Re- reading it, I am struck by how little of the book made it into the movie: Houdini got only a few newsreel scenes, Emma Goldman was dropped altogether, and Younger Brother's role so trimmed as to make a lot of his actions seem far more arbitrary. And the plot has been simplified (e.g., the modification of Walker's demands and how that plays out is much changed in the movie). This is not to say that the movie is bad, but it simply does not capture the whole panorama of the book. (This is similar to my feeling about John Steinbeck's book THE GRAPES OF WRATH and the film made from in, as I wrote in the 04/13/07 issue of the MT VOID.)

One technique Doctorow uses is that of the fictional characters, the only ones with names are Coalhouse Walker (and his son), Sarah, and Willie Conklin. Everyone else with a name is a real historical personage. (This is not maintained in the film, when a few additional minor characters are given names.) The effect of this is that almost all the principal characters--Mother, Father, Younger Brother, Tateh, and so on--seem to represent not just a single character, but an entire type, an entire group of people. Tateh is all immigrants, Mother is all repressed women, and so on. (There are other theories on this, of course.)

Doctorow makes at least one error, though: the incident of Leo Frank and Mary Phagan was in 1915, yet in the book, that event precedes Diaz's overthrow in 1911 and Wilson's inauguration in 1913 (among other events). However, Doctorow may have wanted to mention the Frank incident in spite of its anachronism because of its parallels with Walker. (The movie also has problems with chronology, with events of 1914 seemingly happening only a few weeks or months after events of 1908.)

To order Ragtime from amazon.com, click here.


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