Speculative Fiction has a long history of using the tropes of the genre to comment on our world. Ursula K. Le Guin used The Left Hand of Darkness to examine cultural gender constructs. Using the original Star Trek television series, show creator Gene Roddenberry commented on issues like race relations and the Vietnam War. And in her novel Tooth and Claw, author Jo Walton illustrated the absurdity of Victorian rules of behavior by way of dragons. Sometimes the cultural criticism is playful and fun. Other times, it is subtle and sly, barely noticeable until the author wants you to realize what is being said. Another author will tackle the same subjects directly, ensuring the reader knows exactly where they stand on topics, whether political or cultural. This is the approach taken by Cory Doctorow in his new book, Radicalized. There is no question regarding Doctorow’s positions on the “hot topics” about which he writes in this collection, and he wants you to know it.
Radicalized is a collection of four novellas. The first is “Unauthorized Bread”, in which readers follow a refugee named Salima as she navigates the minefields of Citizenship bureaucracy and the cultural differences between her old home and new. As she establishes her new residence in Boston, she must tackle finding a place to live, figure out the type of work she is allowed to do and where she is allowed to work with her current immigration status, and how to overcome the fact that the company that operates her branded toaster has gone bankrupt causing it to refuse to make toast for her.
The second story is entitled “Model Minority”, in which a VERY Superman-like superhero decides to take a stand against a clear case of police brutality, and how the results are disastrous for everyone involved.
The third story provides the title for the collection: “Radicalized”. In it, a middle class man and his family discover exactly how dysfunctional and unfair the health care system is in the United States. When he seeks refuge in an online forum for “fathers whose wives were dying of breast cancer (there are enough people dying of enough cancer that the forums had become that specialized),” he discovers, and the insurance companies soon learn, that there is a limit to how many times you can sentence people to death by denying treatment before their families begin to fight back.
The final story, “The Masque of the Red Death," is a variation/updating of the classic tale by Edgar Allen Poe, set in a near future Arizona, where a rich financial trader has created a nearby bunker from which he plans, along with a small group of selected friends, to survive the end of the world as they know it.
As always, Doctorow’s writing is sharp and clear. He brings to the fore the absurdities that surround and infiltrate our lives (and predicts new ones waiting for us just around the corner). He explores that there are no easy answers to the situations he’s describing in these stories, because even if you discover a solution, it may only work for a short period of time before new developments in technology, or ever increasing levels of greed, will make it ineffective.
The one through line in all of these stories, and really throughout most of Doctorow’s work, is the bottom line that in amongst the monsters hiding behind human faces, are some truly exceptional human beings who will risk themselves to help others, whether it is those they love or complete strangers.
Radicalized is a compelling, thought provoking and macabrely funny read.