Cory Doctorow on In Real Life at NYCC

NYCC’s spotlight on Cory Doctorow wasn’t really an interview, or even a discussion, per se—it was more Doctorow letting loose his usual free associative ideas about copyright, DRM, and science fiction’s role in the universe. I’m pretty sure that Doctorow would be just as vociferous and entertaining if someone approached him at a bar, waiting for a bus, or in line for Space Mountain.

Cory began the talk by announcing that we could all record at will. Then he swung straight into a description of his new book, a graphic novel called In Real Life. Doctorow collaborated with illustrator Jen Wang on the project for First Second books—only after working on In Real Life together did he realize that Wang had written Koko Be Good, which was one of his favorite books of 2010.

Doctorow first heard about the concept of “gold farming,” the practice of acquiring in-game currency and then selling it to gamers for real-world profit, as a rumor at a gaming convention. Fascinated, but still doubting that could be real phenomenon, he wrote about it in a short story called “Anda’s Game.” Later, as he learned that gold farming was very real, he wanted to explore the socioeconomic conditions behind it, so he continued Anda’s story in IRL. Anda, realizing that her lucrative new job is actually a contract to kill gold farmers, finds common cause with workers, and attempts to change the unfair system of the game, while also working to change her life. Doctorow told us that “writing about things that are already happening as though they’re about to happen is a great scifi trick!”

Doctorow went to China to see the lives of gold farmers firsthand, and spent some time playing World of Warcraft for a few hours a day. More of his inspiration, however, came from his wife, who was the first woman to play Quake on the international team, and went on to become a pro gamer and journalist. He describes himself as a WOW widower, “My wife’s a hardcore raider, I’d sit around between 6:00 and 11:00 o’clock reading or something while she screamed into a headset.”

But really, the best way to write about this panel is to throw the topics up, and then get out of Doctorow’s way.

On upcoming projects:

In a month, Doctorow will have yet another book out. Information Doesn’t Want to be Free, a non-fiction guide to the ways creativity and the Internet interact today, features an introduction co-written by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer. Doctorow is primarily concerned that people are thinking of the internet incorrectly—it isn’t a repository for static information, or cat videos, or even porn. Instead, “the internet is the nervous system of the 21st century,” and the creative industry needs to change accordingly to take advantage of it.

He’s also working on Utopia, his first solo novel for adults since Makers. “It’s a thought experiment, about a time one hundred years before the events of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. It’s the inverse of Atlas Shrugged, about a world being rescued by people being generous and kind.”

On writing about body issues and… gut flora?

Doctorow related writing Anda’s lack of self-confidence to his own health and body issues: “[Anda] has issues with her gender and gaming, and issues with her body and gaming. I struggle with my weight, my family are all Ashkenazi who are apple-shaped and die of heart failure…”

He went on to talk about the state of human health in general, citing studies about the changes in human gut flora in the last century—“We’re essentially cars that bacteria drive.” Doctorow believes that more research into the flora of skinny vs. fat rats will lead to revelations about the way bacteria are changing human health and behavior. And, in a segue pirouette that should earn a 10 from even the harshest Russian judge, he ended by saying: “We’re the gut flora of corporations! Mostly corporations see us as replaceable elements of their bodies, that can be swapped out as need be.”

On our education and political systems operating too much like a corporation:

“Everything gets talked about in these fiduciary terms: schools get talked about like factories, whose product is educated kids, whose factory workers are the teachers, and whose shareholders are the public. You’re promised a good quarter, and you’re supposed to look for the [test] numbers going up. I was raised by two teachers, and I don’t recognize that as having any nexus with education. We talk about our President like he’s a CEO, about our government as a business, like this one tool that organizes one corner of our world, should be used to organize our entire world! And that is just insane to me.”

On the need for accountability:

“A woman walked around Warcraft [Azeroth] with a sign advertising an LGBTQ guild she belonged to. She was then told by mods that ‘it violates our policy, in order to protect players from homophobic slurs, you can’t tell anyone about your orientation if it isn’t heterosexual.’ It was only when the press blew up, and this story went viral, that this policy was changed. Imagine if the only recourse we had access to was the public embarrassment of powerful people? And there must have been a million incidents that didn’t go viral, so how do those get fixed?”

On parenting and technology:

“People asked Mizuko Ito, who worked on the MacArthur Digital Youth Project, what effect iPads would have on young brains. And her response was that we’ll have to wait 10 years to assess that, but the one thing we can know is that there won’t be iPads in 10 years…. so this is obviously evolving. The one question I ask myself is “How can I supervise Poesy [Doctorow’s 6-year-old daughter] well?” So when bad things cross her transom, she can know how to process it. I’m trying to fail well, so if she sees something beyond her maturity level she’ll know she can talk to me about it.”

On being a disciplined writer:

“I don’t have a social life and I hardly sleep. I learned to write when circumstances weren’t ideal. If you can learn that, you’ll always be able to write. If you make a perfect writing environment a prerequisite, the thing that makes you whole and sane will be forever out of your control.”

“I started with 250 words a day. Now, I’m shooting for 1000 words a day, five days a week. I stop in the middle of a sentence when I stop for the day. I never revise while I’m writing, because revising before something’s done is like…when the coyote looks down after he runs off the cliff? You have to keep running. Learn to write when you’re miserable. Write every day. If you can do one page a day, you’ll have a novel and a bit every year.”

On Imagineering:

“I’m a fan of built environments, and Disney Imagineering takes them more seriously than anyone. I worked with them on a project last year, actually, but, since its Disney I’m not allowed to talk about any of it yet. My attitude with them is that I love the sin, hate the sinner. And obviously, they’re good at reusing public domain, but every pirate dreams of being an admiral…”

On airport security:

“I was stopped at Gatwick airport because I had a little Phillips screwdriver in my belt buckle. I was told, ‘No tools are allowed on the plane!’ So I said, ‘What about language, language is a tool!’ ‘No professional tools!’ ‘… I’m a writer.’”

On Edward Snowden:

The documentary is coming out, so I can talk about this now: they have a scene in the film where Snowden is reading Homeland and talking about how much it affected him! So I’m now taking credit for that whole affair.

On exciting Sci-Fi:

“William Gibson’s next book, Peripheral, is his first work of futuristic sci-fi in the 21st Century, and it’s so goddamn good words fail me. Jo Walton’s new book, The Just City, is also so good!”

On Neal Stephenson’s worlds:

“They’re amazing thought experiments, but I don’t know if I’d want to live in any of them. I guess, Anathem… thinking about how your decision will affect people 1,000 years in future… our fiduciary environment only lets us think as far ahead as the next quarter, but a millennial thought process is much better.”

On the Long Now Project:

“Ask yourself: what kind of ancestors are we being for our descendants???”

On science fiction’s role in the world:

“First, it’s an art form, so it must make you feel something that is numinous and irreducible. The point is to take an emotion that exists in my mind and put it in your mind as best as possible. And we have this roundabout way to do it, that involves believing in fictional people. The other role: science fiction’s special trick is the philosophical inquiry into how technology affects us. Science fiction’s big trick is talking about now, and making it look like the future, like a thought experiment to help us navigate the present.”


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