Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

WalkawayThere’s a saying that he who dies with the most toys, still dies. In Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway, he/she/they who dies with no toys, gets to live forever. What is a walkaway? In this story, someone who abandons normal, or default, society and literally walks away. With nothing. And subsists not in a sharing economy, but within a gifting economy – everything freely given and nothing required in return. A communist utopia where you expect nothing in return for your efforts.

We’re in a climate-change ravaged near future and the rich are richer and more powerful than ever. Hubert, Etc and his friend Seth meet Natalie at a Communist party – where the disaffected young party all night and pour scorn on society’s sheep they see on the morning commute. Except Natalie is the daughter of the very powerful ultra-rich and over-protective Jacob. They decide to walk away, and they meet Limpopo; a natural leader but one who rejects hierarchy. In this extrapolated future, everything (food, clothes, tools, even medicine) can be 3D printed and society is tolerating these walkaway communities. Just about. Life can exist because everyone acts altruistically. Which is anathema to the ultra-rich elite. And Jacob wants his daughter back. Meanwhile, at a walkaway university, researchers and mathematicians have been able to download the consciousness of a dead colleague into a computer. Is this immortality in a utopian society?

Cory Doctorow knows what his subject is and who is readership are. The writing is excellent, if occasionally incomprehensible. This is because he writes in techno-hacker counter-culture lingo. Which is fine if you’re aware of the rules of the game. You need to understand who infowar researchers are and what it means when an infotech goon pwns everything! I imagine that someone less aware wouldn’t have much inkling of what he is talking about. There is plenty of wit and comic satire if you can dig beneath the jargon. It is pretty much on the button too, with even the term ‘snowflake’ included. There is plenty of darkness explored, especially in the relationship between Natalie and her father, but there is always hope that everything will work out, despite the repetition of attacks on our heroes, especially once the post-humans have been stabilised.

The story itself is fine, although is a tad repetitive: sitting around talking about political and ethical philosophy (from what is ownership and property to the intricacies of neurobiology and what life is) followed by a violent attack, someone dies and is put in the computer, move on; and repeat. About half a dozen times. The characters are all interesting with multiple motivations. The good guys are all about love and tenderness and equality – there is gender and sexuality fluidity and every leftist and liberal ideology discussed. And there is an awful lot of discussion. Pages and pages; sometimes in the storytelling, sometimes in character discussions. There is so much detail it almost blows the mind. Doctorow demonstrates what appears to be an immense intellect. Meanwhile, the bad guys are shades of grey. Jacob is motivated by both greed for his power and some misguided emotion for his daughter. Another non-walkaway turns out to be not all she seems. And now those with nothing have created immortality, and the rich aren’t happy.

Proper science fiction this, from Doctorow. A warning of our times. An investigation of what it means to be a human today and where the future might take us. What immortality might look like and how it affects the psyche. A look at the science of today and of tomorrow. And in the vein of many a classic science fiction novel, can a utopia ever work? A few tweaks with the plot would have made me happier. Slightly less discussion and more of the tender human moments such as when Tam listens to Seth putting his slippers on. Those who follow Doctorow’s sharing/hacking/fluid cultural ideologies will get a great deal from this book. Those not familiar, I imagine, will struggle. Not for everyone, but spot on for the few.

I received an ARC from the publisher. Quotation was not allowed.

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End of term report: 2013, or The books I read in an arbituary time period.

Good year, I think. In that I was quite disappointed by most of what I read in the first part of 2013, but I’ve read some cracking books since.

So, what words have reflected light into my eyes this year?

Non-fiction up first, and not much read, I’m annoyed to say. I’ve been so engrossed in fiction and reviews, I’ve let the non-fic slip a bit (in no particular order):The Storytelling Animal

  • Heretics by Will Stor
  • The storytelling animal by Jonathan Gottschall
  • Nightmare movies by Kim Newman
  • The science of monsters by Matt Kaplan
  • Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre
  • Peter Cushing: a life in film by David Miller
  • How mumbo-jumbo conquered the world by Francis Ween
  • Monkeys with typewriters by Scarlet Thomas

8. Sheesh! Mind you, it took ages to read Nightmare Movies. I also read and reviewed the coffee table book Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions which was a study of the works of Guillermo del Toro. Plus I read a whole bunch of comics and graphic novels…

Since the summer, I’ve also not read any more short stories. So this year only saw The Peacock Cloak and The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself, as mentioned in my half-term report. Shocker!

So, now for fiction and here are my top 5 books that I read in 2013:

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce

17976979I found the writing so evocative and the story so enthralling, that I wanted it to be much longer. I also loved the ambiguity. Is it a ghost story? I remember the summer of ’76 (just) and so for me, this was a wonderful tale full of reminiscences and potential.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining GirlsI kept wanting to read this long after I’d finished it, which highlights just how good the writing is. The story of Kirby is so utterly engaging, and Beukes is such a good storyteller. I loved how the time-travel elements were never explicit. I often find books that bring in new characters every few chapters to be very annoying, but Beukes’ writing to appealing to me, I lapped the new characters up.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil GaimanA magical adventure with darkness and light and Gaiman’s awesome ability to scare and delight and awaken the child within. Can we have  longer book next time though, Neil?

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

The AdjacentSuch an intriguing work of imagination and deliberate uncertainness. What this book is, what it is about and what it all means against Priest’s earlier work is open to much debate and interpretation. But in the end, it is the characters and his writing that keeps you wanting to read more and more.

Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconA book about words and their power. Genius. Some great writing and interesting characters. I loved how the clues in the different timelines eventually came together in the reveal, and I’m pleased that Barry never gave away the bareword.

What I loved in particular about these five books is something I think genre fiction has been guilty of shying away from: breaking the rules. Beukes is writing a time-travel story that’s not science fiction. Joyce has produced a historical fiction that may or may not be a ghost story. I’m not sure what I tag Lexicon with. Urban fantasy? Supernatural? Certainly not science fiction. And while The Adjacent is SF, it’s not like anything you’ll have read (his other work outstanding). Only Gaiman’s work can be said to be traditional genre fiction, and even that could be seen as being about telling stories and hence a bit meta. These books that have defied genre and categorisation. These books that have teased and suggested they might be one thing before turning out to be something else. These books (and some others, see below) have surprised me. Thanks, books.

So, next 5 in my list are:

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson
  • The Method by Juli Zeh
  • The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough

With the exceptions of Heller’s novel, which is pure post-apocalyptic fiction, along the lines of The Road, and The Method, which is classic dystopia, these other books mess with genre convention to some degree or other. Pinborough writes police procedural as urban fantasy. Wilson blends eastern mythology and science fiction. I’m not sure what Strange Bodies is. Victorian mad scientist and eastern European crime combined with literary detective. Whatever. Books I thoroughly enjoyed.

I also read two of my favourite books again this year: Vurt by Jeff Noon, and while lying on a beach, American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Ok, so now we’re onto some honourable mentions just outside my top 10:

  • Hang Wire by Adam Christopher – another surprising genre-defying novelJasper Fforde
  • Beauty by Sarah Pinborough – great fun, alongside Poison
  • The Woman Who Died Alot by Jasper Fforde – a return to form!
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod – consistently great sf
  • NOS4R2 by Joe Hill – his best work yet, reminiscent of his Dad’s early work.
  • Dark Eden by Chris Becket – decent sf
  • Poison by Sarah Pinborough
  • The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough – more crime based urban fantasy
  • The Good Fairies of New York by Mark Millar – Millar’s work is always fun, and this is no exception

And so to the rest, and in no particular order now, oh all right, from best of the rest to the worst:

At first glance, it looks like I’ve read a lot from female authors this year. However, Sarah Pinborough features heavily (as she’s only a recent discovery) and only 1 of my top 5 are women authors. I looked into all the books I’ve read, and only 30% of my favourite authors are women, which is annoying. On the other hand, I’m not going to just like an author because of their gender designation.

Putting the fiction I’ve read in the broadest possible categories then, this year has consisted of 14 science fiction novels, 2 horror and 22 fantasy. A closer look, however, shows clearly that the best books I’ve read this year defy specific characterisation. And I love that!

Half Term Report 2013

I’ve read some books. I tend to do that. Let’s look at what I’ve read in the first 6 months of 2013, which by the way, is not enough. Probably.

12875162I’ve read a bunch of comics and graphic novels. Which is not a surprise but not the point of this post.

I’ve read a few bits of none fiction:

David Miller – Peter Cushing, Will Stor – Heretics, Francis Ween – How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, Scarlett Thomas – Monkeys with Typewriters, Ben Goldacre – Bad Pharma. One book on writing which was great. I even did the exercises. One book on an actor who lived where I live and would have been 100 years old this year. And some books on various aspects of culture. All good, none great.

One collection of short stories crossed my path, and I read an individual short story: Chris Beckett’s collection, The Peacock Cloak, was interesting and enjoyable. Ian Sales’ The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself was refreshing.

16 bits of fiction in 6 months. I’d read 19 in the first six months of 2012. Not good enough? Well, 2 in particular took ages because I found them dull. Really dull. Disappointing. So, in some kind of order:

  • Mary Shelley – The Last Man 1.5/5Angelmaker
  • Benedict Jacka – Fated 2/5
  • Geoff Ryman – The Child Garden 2/5
  • Clifford Beal – Gideon’s Angel 3/5
  • Paul Cornell – London Calling – 3/5
  • Tom Holt – Doughnut 3/5
  • Cory Doctorow – Pirate Cinema 3/5
  • Nick Harkaway – Angelmaker 3.5/5
  • Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross  – The Rapture of the Nerds 3.5/5
  • Chris Beckett – Dark Eden – 3.5/5
  • Sarah Pinborough – Poison 4/516094514
  • Martin Millar – The Good Fairies of New York 4/5
  • Sarah Pinborough – The Shadow of the Soul 4/5
  • G Willow Wilson – Alif the Unseen 4/5
  • Juli Zeh – The Method 4/5
  • Jeff Noon – Vurt 5/5

17401136Which I think is a bit disappointing. The best book I’ve read so far this year is one of my all time favourites which was the third time I’d read it. Generally disappointed by the books that had been hyped up, especially the Cornell, the Harkaway (but then I wasn’t overly keen on his debut either) and the Jacka. I was massively disappointed by The Child Garden and The Last Man. In fact, the latter put me off my SF challenge, although I hope to get back on the horse soon. Also less than totally impressed by Doctorow’s entries. On the other hand, couple of good Sarah Pinboroughs. The Wilson and the Zeh were enjoyable and the most satisfying reads so far. Out of the 16, only 6 really enjoyable reads. So maybe my choices have been poor? I’m influenced by the books I’m asked to review, reviews in SFX and other places, and books on shortlists for awards. I’m thinking about knocking the whole awards-influenced reading on the head.

Quick look at the breaksdown: 8 science fiction, 5 urban fantasy, 2 fantasy and 1 comic fantasy. No horror. No none-genre.  Meh.

Let’s hope that the next 6 months do me more favours. I have a number of books on the ‘to read’ pile which I have high hopes for:

  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
  • The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce
  • The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod

 I also hope to pick up the new Lauren Beukes and Neil Gaimen. I also plan to re-read American Gods. I will try to get a hold of Adam Robert’s Jack Glass and Blackout by Mira Grant.

So here’s to the second half of 2013.

Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

Meet Trent. He lives in the near future, in Bradford. He likes to remix old films, but in order to do this, he needs to download them. Illegally. Meet Cory. He writes books and although comes from Canada, lives in London. He likes people who remix his books, and lets people do it from his website. Legally. And so the scene is set.

Pirate Cinema is a Young Adult novel by Cory Doctorow. Or more accurately, it is a call-to-arms. It is a manifesto and I imagine Cory hopes every teenager reads it 16089131for its political messages. But what of its story? So Trent’s hobby ends up with his family having their internet connection cut meaning his Dad can’t work, his ill Mum can’t claim her benefits and his younger sister starts suffering at school. He runs away to London where adventure – pirate adventure – awaits. Trent finds himself squatting in an old pub and making remix films under the name Cecil B. DeVil. He meets a girl called 26 and his gang – who includes Chester, Rabid Dog and Jem – is called the Jammie Dodgers. Trent’s mission – and that of the reader – is to learn about copyright law and how the big corporations and the government use it to make the rich richer and put the poor in prison. Trent’s adventures include creating a literal underground cinema, dealing with his runaway sister, being filled a lawsuit and pulling off his greatest stunt while trying to get a law repealed.

There are some nice touches of science fiction that take the plot a little further into the future than just tomorrow, such as hats that zap mosquitoes with mini-lasers (which perform a useful function later in the book). Doctorow has an excellent knack of taking today and extrapolating it forward a few years.

Doctorow’s greatest talent, however, is creating stories about potentially dull politics stuff – internet piracy and copyright law in this case, and making an eminently readable book. Pirate Cinema has loads going on and is the very definition of a page-turner. The characters are all interesting and different and you quickly care for them. He knows how to tell a story. He knows how to make technical stuff fun to learn about. He knows how to make his point. Which is one of two issues with this novel that need highlighting.

The first is that this is a polemic. Doctorow is known for his liberal views on internet piracy and copyright. Odds are, if you’ve read his books or his blogs before, you’ll already know his politics and this won’t be anything new or surprising. If you disagree with his point of view (and this reviewer doesn’t), you might find that you quickly tire of being lectured to. There is of course, nothing wrong with a shouty, preachy, science fiction book. Many of the best ones are. But they are also subtle or nuanced. This ain’t. The problem with Pirate Cinema is that everything comes too easy to Trent.

Which is the second issue. Ok, so he’s a genius, but when this story begins he is an underage runaway who arrives in London with no knowledge and no friends. But everything comes easy. Within a short time of arriving in London he finds himself in a gang of equally talented, cool, smart friends. They dine on the best free food and spend all day perfecting coffee. He meets his dream girl and they quickly fall in love. When he needs something, such as a new bit of technology, or a way to avoid being kicked out of the squat, someone turns up at the most opportune moment with his solution. Whenever he screws up, everyone forgives him. At one point, he gets nervous and leaves a meeting just before its raided, so he doesn’t get arrested, but all his friends do. And it’s fine. They all get out of jail quickly and no-one minds he didn’t share their troubles. Whenever you expect 26 to berate him or point out his flaws, she just kisses him. There’s a lot of sexuality in the story and for a young adult book, again, it all comes too easy for Trent. He gets his first kiss with 26 and then they have sex, and soon after he discovers two of his friends are gay and that plot thread ends with everything just fine, and there is no toll. There is no struggle, especially considering most of the characters are homeless and misfits. Drugs are fine. Not having money is fine. Nothing he does ends badly. There is no sense of peril or real difficulty, so you know that in the end, despite all the barriers that Doctorow throws at him, he will succeed.

There is, to be fair, a bit of a downer coda, but even that, you feel, will work out ok in the end.

Despite all that, I thoroughly enjoyed Pirate Cinema. It was fun. As I was reading it I knew its flaws and failings and I knew it would end well. I expect a lot of disenfranchised teens will enjoy it too, as well as existing fans of Doctorow. I doubt, however, it will appeal to anyone else. Nothing is genuinely earned by the characters and there is no honest counter-balance to the story.

First posted on Geek Syndicate

This is what I did in 2011

This is my end of year review. This is not the top 10 books released in 2011. Mostly because I suspect I have yet to read some of the better books released last year. I tend to not read hardbacks where possible and I always seem to be playing catch up, as I read older novels and a lot of non-fiction too. This, then, is a roundup of the best fiction I read in 2011, regardless of when they were released.

So, in no particular order…

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is the story of a group of teenagers in San Francisco who are caught up in a terrorist attack. The city is turned into a police state and the protagonists are embroiled in civil liberties, online networks based on Xbox and Linex and, of course, teen love. Doctorow’s usual themes of creative license (indeed the novel is available free on his website under a Creative Commons license), collaboration and community are all on show, but I think this is his best work. It is tight, well plotted and with interesting characters with genuine motivations. It speaks to me, even though I’m 20 years older than the lead characters.

You can read what I think about Hyperion by Dan Simmons, The Islanders by Christopher Priest, Neon Court by Kate Griffin, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, Dervish House by Ian McDonald and Generosity by Richard Powers elsewhere. Of the bunch, Beukes’ Arthur C Clarke Award winner was the most original piece I’ve read this year. Super Sad True Love Story is a story that rings very true with modern society, or rather where it’s heading. I actually enjoyed Hyperion the most, in terms of not wanting to put it down, closely followed by the third title of Griffin’s Matthew Swift series. In my opinion (with the caveat that I have lived in London), Neon Court and its predecessors are the best examples of urban fantasy I’ve read. I admire the depth of Dervish House, the imagination of The Islanders and concept of Generosity.

The last two books on my list for 2011 are both very different types of zombie novel. Of course, zombies are the new vampires, blah blah blah, but both these are excellent variations on the standard tale. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion is the only romantic zombie novel I’ve read, and the only one from the zombie’s perspective. It features a zombie who, after biting into the brains of a young man, begins to have very un-zombie-like feelings towards Julie, the man’s girlfriend. There is plenty of zombie apocalypse action and gives an excellent rational for the zombie attraction to human brains. It is a very ‘warm’ piece of fiction. Mira Grant’s Deadline is less of a zombie novel and more of a science fiction tale of how media has changed and of government control. The second book in the Newsflesh trilogy follows Shaun Mason, who is the reluctant head of a news blogging organisation following the death of his sister, Georgia, in the previous episode. However, a CDC researcher fakes her own death and with the zombie apocalypse seemingly in its second wave, Shaun suddenly has reasons to lead his team again, despite the odd relationship he has with Georgia. The back story of why zombie’s are prowling around is intricately detailed and thoroughly believable. The writing is eminently readable. The whole novel is simply great.

I’ve read some great books this year and fortunately, not many stinkers. Mostly because there are some great books around and I’ve not got time or inclination to read anything that hasn’t had a decent review somewhere. So, some honourable mentions include The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (one of the few genre titles to make a Booker Long List in recent years), The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod (it was a shame I guessed the ending early on), The Silent Land by Graham Joyce and Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite (old school vampire story). I was most disappointed my Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter (meh) and Thomas More’s Utopia (less of a story, more of a rant).

Under the same argument, but without any detail, the graphic novels I’ve most enjoyed this year are Walking Dead 1, 1985, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Hellboy. Conqueror worm, The dead boy detectives, Arkham Asylum : a serious house on serious earth, The Authority : relentless, Marvels, Bloody carnations, Akira 6. I liked them. Isn’t that enough? I also thoroughly enjoyed The Strange Talent of Luthor Strode and managed to completely avoid DC’s New52.

In the spirit of the season, although technically outside the remit of this blog, the films I’ve particularly enjoyed this year include Splice, Rec 2, Captain America, Last Night, Thor, Summer Wars, Paul, Wake Wood, Les aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec, The Troll Hunter, Frailty, Toy Story 3, Source Code, Hanna, Black Swan, Attack the Block, Super 8, X Men First Class and Never Let Me Go. I think I enjoyed The Troll Hunter, X-Men, and Never Let Me Go the most. I also thoroughly enjoyed BBC3’s The Fades. I was mostly disappointed with this year’s Dr Who, although I did love Neil Gaimen’s The Doctor’s Wife.

So, what am I looking forward to in 2012. Don’t know. I like to see what reveals itself as and when. Clearly, there are some great superhero films coming out this year. I’m looking forward to visiting a couple of conventions too. As for books: Mieville’s Embassytown, Ready Player One by Cline, By Light Alone by Roberts, The Radleys by Haig, Allison Hewitt Is Trapped by Roux and Zone One by Whitehead. I will of course, read the Clarke award shortlist titles if I haven’t already, whatever they may be.

 

Makers by Cory Doctorow

It’s odd. I read Makers towards the end of 2010, and I’ve read 10 novels (including another of Doctorow’s) and half a dozen non-fiction since, and yet Makers is still on my mind. This is a novel of imagination and depth, and it stays with you. It is quite extraordinary.

Having recently read the novel before Makers, called Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, I felt compelled to record my thoughts. And yet, I’m not sure what they are, or where that compulsion comes from. Makers is far from the best book I’ve ever read. At the time, I enjoyed it, although I do recall drifting at times, perhaps due to its complexity. At the time I thought that, as this was the first Doctorow novel I’d read, that this was an author I could really get into. Turns out he’s published another one since, but since the library didn’t have a copy, I’d failed to realise. And his new one is released in May this year. It appears that I’m under some kind of Doctorow inspired dizziness.

Which I can only describe as a good thing. Exhilarating, even.

So, just what is this Makers about? Collaboration and freedom. Simple. Ah, the plot? Ok, I see. Here we go:

The main protagonists are Perry and Lester. They invent things. They are the makers. But what they make is a little bit different. Seashell robots that make toast, Boogie Woogie Elmo dolls that drive cars. They also make an entirely new economic and social housing system based on the ideas of collaboration, sharing and non-profit enterprise. They co-opt the homeless, fanboys and like-minded workers. Journalist Suzanne starts to document this new way of working and living, just as the US economy turns sour. But things don’t work out, so they return to an earlier version of themselves, just making stuff. Until they develop a 3D printer and a cure for obesity. At this point a rogue Disney exec gets involved in a very dark plot against them.

This is a story of brilliant hackers who must fight to remain the people they were that led them to success in the first place, while being seduced by the very organisations and philosophies they originally railed against. It is the story of ideas. Of Big Ideas. Of we are stronger working with each other than against each other. Of platonic and romantic love.

The characters are all very well realised, and despite all the social commentary, the political ideas, the corporation bashing and technophilia, it is the interactions between the characters that are the heart of this novel. It is the relationship between Perry and Lester, their love for each other and the pain they go through that stays with me. It is how Suzanne goes from a curious journalist trying to carve a name for herself, to becoming part of collective and an integral part of the inventors’ lives. It is how the other characters live and breathe, love and suffer and hover over various shades of grey. There is good and bad in all of them. The motivations are genuine and when things go bad, you kind of forgive them, because you understand them. I think I would have done the same.

Doctorow’s writing is as vibrant as it is inventive. While the plot does drift on occasion, the prose is confident and full. Even when I think it could have been a bit tighter, I was eager to find out what more trials awaited our heroes.

On further investigation, I find all of Doctorow’s novels are available under a Creative Commons Licence. Makers is free to download at http://craphound.com/makers/. As are his others from http://craphound.com. The author has a strong and clear voice, and is obviously passionate about sharing, collaborating and the promotion of talent, and this philosophy shines through his novel.