Book review: Fresh spin on the modern world in Radicalized

RADICALIZED By Cory Doctorow
RADICALIZED By Cory Doctorow

FICTION

RADICALIZED

By Cory Doctorow

Head of Zeus/Paperback/ 289 pages/$29.95/ Books Kinokuniya/

4 stars


Long before Black Mirror began enthralling television audiences with its dark, often-unsettling visions of the future, there was Cory Doctorow.

Time and again, the Canadian-British author of more than 10 novels has shown that he has his finger on the pulse of the modern world and his latest collection of four novellas is no exception.

In each, Doctorow takes something that his readers may be familiar with - digital-rights management, police violence, terrorism and doomsday preppers - and gives it a twist so they look at the issue through new eyes.

The protagonist in Unauthorised Bread despairs over what to do when her toaster, which accepts only one brand of bread, breaks down.

In Model Minority, the American Eagle - a thinly disguised version of Superman, who is also named Clark - struggles to fight crime and uphold justice in a world far more complex than that in which the original Clark Kent was born.

In Radicalized, Doctorow explores how the failures of the American healthcare system could create a new breed of terrorists.

In The Masque Of The Red Death - a modern take on the classic short story by Edgar Allen Poe - a wealthy banker finds out what happens when he and a handpicked few barricade themselves in a fort to ride out the downfall of civilisation.

Many science-fiction writers choose to set their stories decades in the future, after plague or warfare has decimated civilisation as we know it. But this is not Doctorow's style.

His characters grapple with problems of the not-too-distant future, in which readers see a distorted reflection of their current reality or the outcome of current events taken to their extreme logical conclusion.

Take the premise of Unauthorised Bread: the failure of a toaster oven that toasts only "licensed bread"; dishwashers that accept only "recognised dishes".

It all sounds absurd until one realises that similar examples abound in the real world.

Until recently, Apple's iPhones and iPads all used non-standard, proprietary charging ports, while Nespresso has fought to get customers to use only the coffee pods produced to go with its coffee machines.

It is this resonance with the world we live in that imparts Doctorow's stories a chilling quality and a sense of immediacy.

If you like this, read: Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow (Tor Books, 2003, $26.20, Books Kinokuniya), set in 22nd-century Disneyland. True to Doctorow's belief in copyright liberalisation, the full novel is also available on his website free of charge.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2019, with the headline 'Fresh spin on the modern world'. Print Edition | Subscribe