If you’re one of the millions of people who reads the ultra-popular weblog Boing Boing on a regular basis, you’re probably familiar with Cory Doctorow, the thirtysomething author and speaker who fights for fair intellectual property laws and electronic freedom. Doctorow’s latest anthology of short stories and novellas, Overclocked, explores the things he’s passionate about in real life by placing them in plausible future settings. You won’t find much in the way of green-skinned aliens, interstellar voyages or time travel here; the stories in this collection all explore stuff that computer geeks deal with on a day-to-day basis, but extrapolate them in such a way that the issues are highlighted and exaggerated to facilitate consideration of their many hidden facets.
Doctorow’s biggest beef is with the idea that information can be “owned.” Three of the six stories in Overclocked deal directly with the potential future consequences of this sort of mindset: when we’re more concerned about protecting the ability of big corporations to earn money from the information (such as inventions and algorithms) that they’ve claimed as their own instead of working to better the lives of as many people as possible using that information, where might we end up in ten, a hundred, or a thousand years? Will we start bloody, devastating wars with countries that don’t respect our patent laws and try to enhance the lives of their citizens using those technologies, like in the heartbreaking “After the Siege”? Will our insistence on following misguided legal rules and regulations leave us in a cultural dark age while the rest of the world moves on, as in the Hugo-nominated “I, Robot”?
The other stories in the collection don’t deal so specifically with intellectual property, but instead focus on other dilemmas that, in one form or another, face computer users and our society today. The novelette “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” explores the true importance of the internet in the grand scheme of things, and “I, Row-Boat” forces readers to consider the relationship and actual differences between creator and created as we continue to try to develop more and more sophisticated AI. And “Anda’s Game,” a completely plausible story exploring the social ramifications of MMOGs and gold-farming, is almost closer to a documentary than anything else: this sort of thing is going on in the real world, right now, and the events Doctorow posits are far too real to be dismissed as just fiction.
Doctorow has certainly proved himself one of the best new writers of recent years; his writing has earned him accolades and respect from his peers and the public, and it’s widely acknowledged that his work is on the cutting edge when it comes to exploring the current technological pop culture. The fact that multiple stories in Overclocked have been nominated for and even won awards and have been included in “Best Of…” collections serves to show just how accurate this acknowledgment is. Overall, the book serves to make you think a little harder about current trends and ideas in science and technology and law, and, while a fast-moving, easy read, leaves you with both a sense of wonder and a tinge of worry for the future.
Reviewer’s note: If you are a writer or publisher of hard science fiction or popular-science nonfiction and would like your book reviewed on UberReview, please email ryan at uberreview dot com.