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Interview With an Author: Cory Doctorow

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Cory Doctorow and his novel Radicalized

Cory Doctorow is a co-editor of Boing Boing (an award-winning zine, blog, and directory of mostly wonderful things), a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an MIT Media Lab Research Associate and a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University. His award-winning novel Little Brother and its sequel Homeland were New York Times bestsellers. His other novels include Walkaway, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Eastern Standard Tribe, and Makers. Cory was born and raised in Canada and currently lives in Los Angeles. His latest book is Radicalized and he recently agreed to talk about with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Radicalized as a collection?

I call this my "Trump derangement syndrome therapy book." I didn't intend to write ANY of these—they got blurted out while I was working on another book—the third Little Brother book, working title Crypto Wars, which I turned in just before Xmas.

We've spent 2+ years having Trump headlines nonconsensually crammed into our eyeballs by a media ecosystem dominated by "engagement" metrics—meaning that the longer you hang in there, the bigger the bonuses of the execs, engineers and designers behind the product. That's why Google added "trending searches" to the search bar in Android. No one EVER went to a search bar to find out what other people are searching for. People search to find out the answers to specific questions! But if a Google engineer can hijack your attempt to find out what's in an unfamiliar sauce on a restaurant menu by showing you a list reading "imminent nuclear armageddon/more kids in cages/trump supports torture" then you might actually do SEVERAL searches instead of the one you set out to do. Nevermind that this means dinner is ruined—the engineer who came up with that gimmick will get a great bonus for increasing "engagement" with their product.

The upshot of this is a kind of narrative incoherence. The headlines come so fast and furious that it feels like we're being buffeted, and there's no way to make sense of them.

When that happens, my writerly instinct is to make narratives by any means possible. That's where these stories came from, as best as I can work out.

Why did you choose to tell the stories in Radicalized as novellas rather than novels?

Novels are mysterious oceans with unknown territory on the other side. You never know where the currents and the winds will take you until you've finished the crossing. Novellas are the largest, most complex stories that can be held in your head all at once, something that can be entirely premeditated instead of something you discover.

Or put another way: a short story is like traveling with a carry-on bag, it can only contain your essentials. A novel is like hiring movers to load your whole life into a shipping container. A novella is like checking a bag or two, with enough room for some optional comfort items you're not sure you'll need but which you'll be glad to have.

Were there any specific occurrences or people, either in the news or in your personal life, which inspired the stories or characters in Radicalized?

Each of the stories had different proximate causes.

  • Unauthorized Bread was the result of my work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to reform the laws that make it illegal to modify, repair, or perform security analysis on your own property, like Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. These laws are a form of moral hazard, inviting companies to design products so that you have to use them in ways that maximize benefit to their shareholders, at your own expense. And since we beta-test our worst technologies on people whose complaints go unheeded—prisoners, kids, mental patients, people on welfare, refugees—making a story about the metastasis of this awful trend happening to refugees first was a natural.
  • Model Minority came out of my reading of Matt Taibbi's excellent nonfiction book I Can't Breathe, an account of the murder of Eric Garner by the NYPD. Reading it, I was filled with the atavistic urge to find a hero who could interpose his body between this corrupt police death squad and the people they victimized, and that got me thinking about Superman's (true) origin story: dreamed up by Jewish kids in New York who were horrified by the spread of Naziism across the Atlantic, who dreamed up an unstoppable golem to go and punch Nazis. Obviously, the answer to Nazis wasn't individual action, but collective action—and after 40+ years of neoliberal consensus that all our problems are individual, with individual solution, I thought it would be productive to explore the limits of punching racism as a way of addressing systemic problems.
  • Radicalized is the confluence of two influences: the first is an old Boston University psych professor's case histories of suicide bombers in the Occupied Territories, which revealed that the biggest predictor of a suicide bomber wasn't an ideological commitment to the cause, but suicidal depression brought on by trauma. In other words, we treat radicalization as though it is caused by contagion: by bad people saying convincing things to everyday people, turning them into radicals. But really radicalization is the result of trauma, which makes normal people vulnerable to the bad suggestions of bad people.

    The other factor was an interview I heard with the person who coined the term "incel." It was coined by a queer Canadian woman, and she started the first support board for people who suffered because of their loneliness and identified as "involuntary celibates." But she left when she realized that her message board had gone toxic, because everyone who figured out how to find love left, so the people with the most seniority and social capital on the system were the most toxic and irredeemable. This is in contrast to support boards for, say, ex-alcoholics, where the elder statespeople have been sober for a long time, and are able to reassure those who are struggling that things get better—on incel boards, the longest-tenured participants are there to tell you that things get WORSE.

    Combine these two facts with the travesty of American health care (as a Canadian living in LA, I'm very aware of this!), and you have to start wondering: how is it that traumatized, privileged, respectable white guys find it so easy to shoot their ex-girlfriends and brown people at mosques, but never seem to murder the health insurance execs who doom the people they love the most to lingering, awful deaths by denying them coverage? After that, the story basically wrote itself.
  • Finally, there's Masque of the Red Death, inspired by Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell, the same book that inspired me to write Walkway, my 2017 novel. Solnit's book describes how in times of crisis and disaster, most people pull together in ways shine a light on the best parts of humanity's generosity and solidarity—but rich people are so convinced the poors are coming to eat them that all they can see is potential looters, not volunteers digging their neighbors out of the rubble.

    It's not pessimistic to imagine things breaking down—everything breaks eventually, it's just entropy. It's pessimistic to imagine that once things break down, we won't be able to jumpstart them again—to imagine that the same feats that our ancestors accomplished are denied to us because we have fallen from grace.

    Preppers cowering in luxury bunkers wetting their beds and waiting for someone else to get civilization going again are not part of the solution—they can't be. When things go bad, the solution comes from people who bug IN, towards their neighbors. The people who bug OUT are, at best, spectators.

    One foundational way in which this is true: our shared microbial destiny. When other people get sick, you will get sick. Fixing sanitation and water and public health is a collective responsibility because you can't shoot germs. The only way to stay healthy is to take care of your neighbors so they can take care of you.

Did you always know you were going to tell these four stories? Were there story ideas that you explored but didn’t make it into the collection?

In general, I knew where they were heading. Like I say, novellas are the largest, most complex structures I can hold in my head, and I plotted these out to a reasonably complete degree while swimming (I have a bad back and I swim for an hour every day in my local public pool in Burbank—it's where I get my best thinking done).

The back of Radicalized’s dust jacket states “Dystopia is now”. Do you believe we are currently living in a dystopia? If so, when did we move into dystopia territory?

I think we have moved a lot of dystopian furniture onto the set. Whether we enact a dystopia around it is up to us. I believe that the future is up for grabs, that prediction is impossible and the pretense of prediction is a cynical and wicked act, because if the future is predictable then it doesn't change based on what we do.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I'm reading Jo Walton's Lent and Andy Greenberg's Sandworm, both of which I'm planning to review when they come out later this year.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I had so many! I was a book-a-day kid. People who only have one favorite book can't be trusted: generally, that book turns out to be Mein Kampf, Dianetics, Atlas Shrugged or Jonathan Livingston Seagull (or the Turner Diaries). The first book I ever read to myself was Alice in Wonderland (and now I'm married to a woman named Alice, make of that what you will!). I was profoundly influenced by the books of Daniel Pinkwater, and loved The Borribles. But there are SO. MANY. OF. THEM.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

No, my parents were incredibly permissive and supportive of my reading. My dad—a Trotskyist—used to tell me half-remembered Conan stories with Conan replaced by a trio called "Harry, Larry and Mary," who would depose the evil sorcerer-emperors and establish dictatorships of the proletariat in their place.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

No way! There are WAAAAAY too many. Some writers I adore: Kathe Koja, Jo Walton, Chaim Potok, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Octavia Butler, Terry Pratchett, Neal Stephenson, NK Jemisin, Ada Palmer, Neil Gaiman, Rudy Rucker, look I could do this all day, seriously, Judith Merrill, oh yeah, Richard Kadrey, Kim Stanley Robinson, Lauren Beukes, Laurie Penny, Steven Brust...

What is a book you've faked reading?

Never. Why bother? I've never read Zelazny's Amber books, despite wanting to forever. I just found Speaking Volumes's audio editions, READ BY ZELAZNY HIMSELF! and bought the whole set to listen to on my underwater MP3 player. Up until now when people said, "Have you read Amber?" I'd say "No, but I hope to someday!" And in a month or two, I'll be able to say, "Yes, finally, and MAN they're good!"

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

PUNCH: Harper's Weekly Gazette. I dote on these things. I could spend all day reading squibs like "An American gentleman has invented a 'type-writing' machines that will set down words faster than you can think of them. No more will we have to suffer with the indignity of bad tavern-nibs."

Is there a book that changed your life?

Daniel Pinkwater's Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars. Made me the happy mutant I am today when I read it at the age of 12 or 13.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

There are a pair of underrated election masterpieces that are SO illuminating in our current electoral chaos: Neal Stephenson's Interface (written with his uncle under their joint "Stephen Bury" pseudonym; and Bruce Sterling's Distraction. Both are brilliant comic novels and both are incredibly smart about politics and manipulation.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Not really. I like re-reading books—I get a lot of pleasure out of figuring out how they work, even more pleasure than I get from enjoying them as art.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

A day in a remote place (a country house, a cottage, whatever) with a large group of friends, excellent whiskey, and cooking outrageous meals.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

  • Q. "Will you please accept the Nobel Prize in Literature?"
  • A. "Well, if you insist, I suppose it would be rude to turn you down."

What are you working on now?

I just turned in the second set of rewrites on the third Little Brother books but I think I want to take another hack at it. I'm writing a very long—possibly short-book-length!—response to Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which is right about many things, but in my opinion very wrong about others, which is exactly the kind of book that elicits long responses from me.

Book cover for Radicalized
Doctorow, Cory

Book Review: Radicalized