We live in
a present that is essentially unknowable. Every day brings changes on
such a scale, at such a speed that no single human can possibly hope
to keep track of them. We're thirty years past 'Future Shock'. We live
in a constant state of present shock. We're so overloaded that many of
us have trouble keeping up with the past. Technologies and modes of living
are outdated before we've even thoroughly learned about them or were
able to deploy them. Think of all the houses that were being wired at
great expense even as network technology was going wireless. It's a hidden
world that might even confuse the next family to buy the house. What
are those things doing in the walls?
Given our inability to understand the present, it's much easier to understand
why Cory Doctorow calls 'Overclocked' "Stories of the future present".
Yes, all of these stories are set in one future or another. But they
were all written in the very recent past. Doctorow's explorations of
imagined futures in the recent past prove to be very reliable predictors
of the present in which the readers will experience the stories. If that
sounds a bit convoluted then welcome to the future's past. A present
so damn complicated it overwhelms you.
'Overclocked' includes six stories that are widely available elsewhere
not least on Doctorow's own website. Exclusivity is not the object here.
The object is to collect in handy print form six stories that you can
take anywhere and enjoy without the aid of any additional technology
all while plunging into technological visions of the past, present and
future. 'Printcrime', which appeared originally as the final page of
an issue of Nature magazine, is a both a poignantly written tale of loss
and a clever bit of mathematical fiction that observes a future where
3-D printers -- that's what we're now calling the "replicators" of
Star Trek -- are both common and criminal. Note that here, not for the
first time and not for the last time, Doctorow writes from the point
of view of a pre-adolescent girl. It gives the tale a sense of innocence,
emotion and the sort of surly rebellion that just begins round this age.
That's an effective mechanism for creating a believable future.
'When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth' is no less than a post-apocalyptic vision
of network engineers in hardened data centers surviving an biowarfare
attack that decimates the rest of the world. I was a sysadmin for many
years, and can attest that Doctorow has the grimy-eyed, caffeinated feel
of those late-night emergency sessions down pat. His vision of the future
is eerie and emotionally affecting. Decisions made in a split second
of safety cut deeply.
"Anda's Game" contemplates the gold rush for virtual dollars
in online environments such as Second Life and World of Warcraft. Doctorow
smart enough to meld net veracity with emotional authenticity. It makes
for the sort of story that gets slotted into Michael Chabon's 'Best American
Short Stories of 2005'. It also begins a series of mashed-pastiches (sort
of) the Doctorow is writing which riff off of famous SF titles. "Anda's
Game" versus 'Ender's Game', geddit? In this vein we get the Hugo
nominated 'I, Robot' and 'I, Rowboat', wherein Asimov, Orwell and Australian
vacation tours get mix-mastered by a master. All fun, but Doctorow makes
sure to give each story a fairly powerful emotional understory.
The collection concludes with the longest, most cinematic and powerful
work, "After the Siege". Doctorow explains in the preface that
his grandmother was in the siege of Leningrad. Having read Graham Joyce's
hair-raising novella for PS Publishing 'Leningrad Nights', I did have
some idea what was implied by this story before I started. That said,
Doctorow really outdoes himself in another tale told by a young girl
set in a post 3-d printer world with a heavy emphasis on current and
past copyright laws. And zombies, which I have to say, are the rotting
flesh icing on a very complicated cake.
Doctorow's collection of stories is a fascinating print object for those
of us who desire such materials. Despite the fact that every story is
available elsewhere and online, the first printing is sold out as of
this review. Buy now or pay more later. It only goes to prove that the
old saw that short story collections don’t sell is a lie. They'll
sell if you give 'em a chance. If they’re smart, perceptive, emotionally
powerful and yet still funny in an offbeat manner. 'Overclocked' is a
reminder that we can't hope to keep up and shouldn’t bother. But
we do need to keep alert, to keep ourselves caffeinated, to run as fast
as we can – if we hope to stay in the same place. Getting ahead?
That's, alas, a thing of the past.