Author: Cory Doctorow
My rating: ☆☆☆☆☆
Release date: Re-release on Amazon, Feb. 12, 2018; original publication date Oct. 25, 2016, Blackstone Publishing
What we have in “Overclocked” is a passionate, smart collection of shorts and novellas that plies the territory of speculative sci-fi with an absurdist, cyberpunk edge. It reminds one of the Netflix series “Black Mirror,” a sci-fi anthology that explores a twisted high-tech near future—except in “Overclocked” a ray of hope often pierces the darkness.
Some of these stories are vintage, dating back to 2005-2007 when the Web was still a gangly teenager, while other tales are more recent, but all take on a special resonance in today’s grim, chaotic online environment.
With the death last week of John Perry Barlow, the role of Internet freedom torchbearer has been passed to Doctorow, who mines the intersection of cyberspace and the physical world not through provocative manifestos but with stories of loss, dislocation and occasional redemption.
Sci-fi fans will recognize the knowing tributes to the genre’s masters, including Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Orson Scott Card (can you tell which ones by the titles?).
• “Printcrime” gives us a snappy takedown of the copyright cartel’s sometimes thuggish behavior. Are 3-D printers mankind’s last best hope to democratize technology?
• In “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth,” you’ll find IRC chat rooms, Usenet newsgroups, Trojan bots, zombie computers, and blogs teeming with “millions of posts from scared survivors huddling together for electronic warmth” after an unnamed enemy unleashes a bioweapon pathogen that sends civilization reeling. While surviving techno-geeks debate whether to shut down the Internet or keep it running, Felix, our protagonist, doesn’t want to rebuild the old world. He wants a new one.
• “Anda’s Game” offers a take on cyber sweatshops where the schoolgirl Anda and other low-wage online gamers are exploited to generate in-game and real-world wealth.
• “I, Robot” transports us to a techno-totalitarian era when robots are at war and only one mega-corporation is allowed to produce anything and wields the power of the state, including a police officer sent to arrest anyone who pirates copyrighted goods. His daughter, a rebellious teen, takes up the cyberpunk mantle. Bad things happen.
• “I, Rowboat” takes a more fanciful approach, featuring a sentient rowboat with free will that heads out and disturbs a self-aware coral reef. The story explores the question: What is the nature of consciousness when all the people are gone?
• “After the Siege” is a reimagining and updating of the real-life struggles of the author’s Russian grandmother during the siege of Leningrad, though I’m guessing zombies weren’t as big a problem back then. It’s a bleak, powerful story where the horrors of war become fodder for a documentary crew’s infotainment.
• “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” a heartfelt riff on Heinlein’s 1950-51 novella of the same name, is updated for the age of Burning Man, where geeks and Burners ultimately come together to put a solar-powered 3D printing robot on the moon to convert sand into habitable structures. This one won the 2015 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best short science fiction.
• “Petard” features a young, personable hacktivist who fights shortsighted school administrators and corrupt corporations in an effort to return power to the people.
Bravo! Whether you’re a geek or not, prepare to be entertained and let Internet freedom ring with “Overclocked.”
At top is a photo I took of science fiction author and EFF European affairs coordinator at the “Emerging Democracy” workshop is 2004.