Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: science fiction, short stories
Published by Tor Books on March 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
From New York Times bestselling author Cory Doctorow, Radicalized is four urgent SF novellas of America's present and future within one book
Told through one of the most on-pulse genre voices of our generation, Radicalized is a timely novel comprised of four SF novellas connected by social, technological, and economic visions of today and what America could be in the near, near future. Unauthorized Bread is a tale of immigration, the toxicity of economic and technological stratification, and the young and downtrodden fighting against all odds to survive and prosper.
In Model Minority, a Superman-like figure attempts to rectifiy the corruption of the police forces he long erroneously thought protected the defenseless...only to find his efforts adversely affecting their victims.
Radicalized is a story of a darkweb-enforced violent uprising against insurance companies told from the perspective of a man desperate to secure funding for an experimental drug that could cure his wife's terminal cancer.
The fourth story, Masque of the Red Death, harkens back to Doctorow's Walkaway, taking on issues of survivalism versus community.
This is my first Cory Doctorow, and probably won’t be my last. I’ve seen his columns in Locus, where he predicts the future -sorta/kinda – but hadn’t read any of his books. When this popped up on my radar, it seemed like the time.
The advantage of collections is that the individual entries are generally shorter. I could always bail if it didn’t work for me. That didn’t happen – although I occasionally wanted to stop out of sheer terror.
The disadvantage of collections is that they are sometimes uneven. That didn’t happen here either. What did happen is that the stories get darker as they go. The first one isn’t exactly light-hearted, but does end with a glimmer of hope.
And that glimmer is the last light we see. The stories, and the futures that they posit, get progressively darker from there.
What this is is a collection of very-near-future dystopias. This is a future so close that we can see it from here. It seems to be mining a similar vein as If This Goes On, the recent collection edited by Cat Rambo – although these stories feel closer. A bit too close.
Unauthorized Bread is the first story in Radicalized, and it’s the one that ends in that glimmer of hope I mentioned. Not that there isn’t plenty of darkness in the middle. This story is about a lot of things, particularly the way that immigrants and others at the lower end of the socioeconomic lottery are marginalized and demonized. That message seemed fairly overt.
The less overt message, but still very much present, is the message about just how different “choice” looks from the perspective of people who have the societal privilege of being able to always choose between good, better and best, as opposed to those who are squeezed into the position of being forced to choose between terrible, awful and least bad.
But the plot is also a slightly terrifying extension of digital rights management – frequently a horror story all by itself – from the world of music, video and software to the world of appliances. We’ve seen the start of this, when Keurig introduced DRM into its line of coffee makers, allowing them to restrict use of the device that you own to pods that they authorize. Think about that, scale it up, and then shake in fear – and caffeine withdrawal.
The Model Minority is where the chill really sets in in this collection. But in the end, it ultimately felt sad. The future is posits is frightening, and all too plausible – even, perhaps likely. But this is one where I really felt for the character, and he ends up in a very sad place by the end. And so should we all.
The protagonist of this piece is a superhero who is meant to be Superman without ever naming him such. (DC would probably object – with lawyers). But he’s an alien whose current mundane identity is named Clark and whose girlfriend is a reporter named Lois. And he has a rich friend named Bruce who also has a secret identity. You connect the dots.
The story here is what happens when our hero is confronted with blatant racism. He witnesses a bunch of white cops pull a black man out of his own car and beat him nearly to death while putting on a show for their body cameras. Superhero steps into save the man being beaten, and attempts to get him proper medical treatment and a fair trial.
And it all goes pear-shaped, as we all expect it to. The system is designed to protect the cops and demonize the innocent black motorist. The media gins up, the way it does, to make it seem like the arrest and brutal beating are all the fault of the victim – because he’s black. The more our hero tries to help the man, the more trouble he causes, not only for the original victim, but also for himself.
Because when he threatens that fragile white majority with evidence of their own racism, they turn on him rather than look inside themselves. As they do. As we do.
The title story in this collection is a story about the weaponization of what is now the quiet desperation of families who are about to lose or have lost a beloved family member. Not because their condition is untreatable, but because their health insurance company refuses to pay for treatment.
Combine that with a big “what if?” What if those quietly desperate people treated health insurance company executives and employees exactly the same way that abortion providers are “treated” by the so-called right-to-life movement – with doxxing and harassment and terrorist attacks. This is purely my interpretation of the story, but it feels right. And ends up making the story about whether the ends justify the means – a contemplation that is itself frightening.
Last but not least, The Masque of the Red Death. On the surface, it’s the story of a prepper’s dream that turns into a prepper’s nightmare. A whole bunch of smug one-percenters are so certain that they’ve figured out how to survive the coming collapse of civilization – and that they will emerge from their hidden sanctuary fat and happy and ready to be back on top of the new civilization that they are just certain will be exactly like the old one, and that they’ll rule it.
Discovering that they have planned for everything except for their own humanity – and their hubris – takes this tale from chills to downright horror in quick steps. This is one of those cases where the road to hell is paved with bad and thoughtless intentions that the thinkers believe are good – at least for them.
Thinking about it, however, it strikes me that this story also ends in a glimmer of hope – just not for its initial protagonists.
Escape Rating A+: Science fiction in general, and this author in this collection in particular, is at its thought-provoking best when it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. These stories do much more of the latter than the former, and are all intensely well-done in ways that will make the reader think – and squirm.