Sometimes things are broken, and sometimes the only way to fix them is to break them even more.
Furious, funny, and smart, Cory Doctorow’s Radicalized is a quick, cracking read, full of the brave ideas and humanistic optimism that have marked Doctorow as one of our best writers and activists. The four novellas in Radicalized grow from a fundamental truth: That things in 2019 America are horrifyingly broken. And the four novellas in Radicalized show that Doctorow wants to break them even further.
The only thing he might want to do more is fix them.
Radicalized’s razor-sharp stories are up-to-the-second relevant and gleefully, unashamedly political. The first, Unauthorized Bread, follows Salima, a haunted refugee who navigates the cruel bureaucracy of the near future—only to run head-on into an American corporatocracy that continues to let those who have everything exploit those who have nothing. That includes toast: Unauthorized Bread takes its title from networked toasters that refuse to toast certain brands of bread, just as networked dishwashers won’t wash the wrong kind of dishes, and just as the speed of the elevators in high-rises is determined by how much rent tenants can afford to pay.
Unauthorized Bread is heartfelt and clever, but it’s also unexpectedly thrilling for a story about… uh, toasters? Next up is Model Minority, a story that would be callous and ridiculous if Doctorow didn’t pull it off. (He does.) A cleverly reimagined superhero tale, Model Minority uses the concept of an all-powerful alien guardian to clearly, coldly examine the emptiness behind “truth, justice, and the American way.” Here, Superman—sorry, “the American Eagle”—exists in our world, where police officers are allowed and encouraged to brutalize and execute minorities without meaningful consequence. Would it even matter, Doctorow asks, if someone better and stronger than us stood up to say that Black lives matter? Would America even change, Doctorow asks, if someone smarter and stronger fought against our system? For obvious reasons, Model Minority is clearly unauthorized by DC Comics—yet, like the American Eagle, it hits with a powerfully righteous punch.
So does Radicalized, a story that will affect any American who’s ever battled with the nation’s corrupt failure of a healthcare system. (So… all Americans, I guess?) In Radicalized, the country reels as those who have watched their loved ones die at the hands of insurance companies decide to take action—action like building bombs, walking into insurance companies’ headquarters, and killing as many people as they can. This time, Doctorow asks a different question: How many deaths will it take until a terrorized nation admits healthcare is a human right?
Then there’s The Masque of the Red Death, which snags its title and an idea or two from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 story, with a one-percenter finance bro meticulously and arrogantly building the ultimate post-apocalyptic shelter—only to discover that, despite all his prepping, the end of the world still has one or two surprises. What’s Ian Malcolm’s quote about life always finding a way? Yeah, that! Except instead of life, it’s death.
I promise, this is all funnier than I’m making it sound. It’s also smarter than I’m making it sound, with Doctorow digging deep into these concepts, threats, and possibilities. For all of these stories’ sci-fi sheen, the cruel realities of contemporary America hover just beneath the surface, and Doctorow is fearless in exploring their real-world ramifications. Radicalized will be categorized as science-fiction, but there’s only enough fiction here to make the book a quick, slick read. As the words click and roll by, the non-fiction beneath burns like acid.
But here’s the thing about Doctorow: While few people see the dark, modern world as clearly as he does, even fewer see what follows as brightly as he does. As was the case in his 2017 novel Walkaway, Doctorow beholds dystopia—but he sees it as fuel for the bold, innovative, and open-source future we can build. Yes, corporations will feast on the poor. Yes, our climate will sear. And yes, our systems will need to be reset—but then they can be programmed anew.
“Her experience with the dishwasher and the toaster changed her, though she couldn’t quite say how at first,” Doctorow writes in Unauthorized Bread, after Salima hacks the proprietary code inside her appliances, enabling her to—gasp—toast all her bread and wash all her dishes. “Leaving the apartment the next day, she’d found herself eyeing up the elevator bank, looking at the fire-department override plate under the call screen, thinking about the fact that the tenants on the subsidized floors had to wait three times as long for an elevator because they were only eligible to ride in the cars that had rear-opening doors that exited into the back lobby with its poor-doors.”
Guess what Salima does next.
Guess what we can all do next.
Radicalized is available from Tor Books.
Listen to an audiobook excerpt from Unauthorized Bread here.
Cory Doctorow will be on tour in March-April 2019.
A writer, editor, and male model, Erik Henriksen lives in Portland, Oregon. He’s written for the Portland Mercury, The Stranger, io9.com, Wired.com, and Tor.com. (Hey! That’s this site!) Learn all you ever wanted to know and more at henriksenactual.com.