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An Interview with Cory Doctorow

by Richard Koman
03/04/2005

As an evangelist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Cory Doctorow is a familiar voice on these pages. Currently the European Affairs Coordinator for EFF, he spends two to three weeks a month travelling and keeping an eye on European patent and copyright developments. But he's also a co-editor of Boing Boing, the super-popular blog, and a renowned science fiction writer whose first book, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, was recently picked as a finalist in the prestigious Nebula Awards. His newest book, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, due to be released May 1, 2005, is an ambitious work mixing Wi-Fi, sci-fi, and fantasy.

The topic of his upcoming session at O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference is intriguing: "All Complex Ecosystems Have Parasites." There he takes aim at those who would "fix" the Internet. All of those bugs that utopians hate about the Net--file sharing, pornography, spam, unreliability--are actually features, he argues. As the session description says, "Doctorow runs down the state of the union in thinking across business, regulators, treaty organizations, lawmakers, lobbyists, technologists, and science fiction writers who are working to envision a 'better' Internet, and, you know, makes fun of them."

For this interview, we wanted to let Cory let down his creative hair and talk about his work as a serious science fiction writer.

Richard Koman: So you're a finalist for a Nebula Award. That's a pretty big deal.

Cory Doctorow: Well, it's pretty exciting. It's the award that writers give to writers. The accolade of your peers is very exciting, always. There's lots of good stuff on the ballot. There's a book I blurbed on the ballot by Sean Stewart. And there's a book by Gene Wolfe on the ballot, and Gene just wrote me a blurb, so it's a slightly incestuous affair here, but at the same time it would be quite an amazing feat for my first book to win one of the top two accolades in the field.

The other thing that just happened is one of my short stories called "Anda's Game" was picked up by Michael Chabon for the Best of American Short Stories anthology, which is really one of the big, tony anthologies and not the sort of thing that features a lot of science fiction, but I guess there's quite a bit of science fiction this time around. But it's still very exciting.

RK: Tell me about "Anda's Game."

Excerpt from "Anda's Game," by Cory Doctorow

"So these people in Mexico or wherever, what are they doing? They're earning their living by exploiting the game. You and me, we would never trade cash for gold, or buy a character or a weapon on eBay--it's cheating. You get gold and weapons through hard work and hard play. But those Mexicans spend all day, every day, crafting stuff to turn into gold to sell off on the exchange. That's where it comes from--that's where the crappy players get their gold from! That's how rich noobs can buy their way into the game that we had to play hard to get into."

"So we burn them out. If we keep burning the factories down, they'll shut them down and those kids'll find something else to do for a living and the game will be better. If no one does that, our work will just get cheaper and cheaper: the game will get less and less fun, too."

"These people don't care about the game. To them, it's just a place to suck a buck out of. They're not players, they're leeches, here to suck all the fun out."

They had come upon the cottage now, the fourth one, having exterminated four different sniper-nests on the way.

"Are you in, Anda? Are you here to play, or are you so worried about these leeches on the other side of the world that you want out?"

"I'm in, Sarge," Anda said. She armed the BFGs and pointed them at the cottage.

"Boo-yah!" Lucy said. Her character notched an arrow.

From "Anda's Game," by Cory Doctorow

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

CD: It's part of a cycle of stories I'm writing where I deconstruct classic science fiction. In this case it's a deconstruction of Ender's Game. It's a story of little girls who are pressed into working in sweat shops in games, who spend all day doing repetitive grinding tasks like making shirts, which are then converted into gold and sold on eBay. It's about the first union organizer who goes into cyberspace to organize these little girls.

RK: So is it a deconstruction or a parody?

CD: There's a little of both, I think. My feelings towards Scott Card are pretty mixed. Politically, he and I are pretty far apart. He's a copyright maximalist who believes in the war in Iraq. His work I find to be very uneven. But at the same time, Ender's Game was a novel that was very important to me when I was younger, and I wanted to get at the core of how that worked for me. The other one I did was "I, Robot." I take apart Isaac Asimov's Robots world. Asmiov was a good old FDR crypto socialist, who believed that technology regulation was good for society provided that it was undertaken by grand old men in white robes who really knew what they were talking about and, you know, I understand the point of an engineer's technocratic utopia, I just don't agree with it.

It's hard not to like Asimov; he's a really likable guy. But at the same time, the philosophical, technological underpinnings of the Robot books are in my view really odious and I really wanted to take a crack at them and see what they looked when you laid bare their assumptions.

RK: A few years back I interviewed the chief scientist for the Army's simulation command and he explicitly mentioned Ender's Game as the novel that many military people read and said, "That's me!"

CD: Yeah, it's part of a tradition of military science fiction like Starship Troopers and so on that kind of glorify the military training process and what it means to become a military man and go through that process.

Heinlein and lots of other writers have written these stories where nerdy but very intelligent people try to find a way to make their outsides match their insides by going away and joining the military and becoming physically strong and proving themselves by engaging in military bravery. There's certainly a strong thread of that running through Ender's Game; it's really about someone who becomes strong in body and mind and becomes a kind of ascetic--it's got its pluses and minuses but I thought it was worth talking about a different way that children find themselves used in online worlds and what it means to have a truly global online world.

In Ender's Game there's a kind of One World government, where you have these people from all over the world gathered together to defend humanity and so on, and he kind of glosses over what it means to have people who come from great economic disparity all join together in a virtual environment in the same system of governance. And I thought it would be worth taking a couple of pokes at that anthill and see what comes up.

RK: But as you compare the "nets" of that world to our Internet, the siblings of Ender write these essays that persuade government leaders and other powerful people. It's almost amusing the idea that any one writer's voice would be that much louder than all the others.

CD: But they do turn out to be 14 years old, which was a real on-the-Internet-no-one-knows-you're-a-dog kind of moment. And pretty cool. The thing that Scott Card missed was the fragmentation theme. So he got the kind of ease- of-access theme, the means by which fame would be democratized. I think it was David Weinberger who said, "On the Internet everyone will be famous to 15 people."

(Card) still has this idea that all of humanity will follow en masse these one or two voices that are more compelling that any others, and of course the reason these people are supposed to be so compelling is that they've been eugenically bred to be as compelling as possible. I think that this misses out on some of the interesting narrative realities, which is that it actually doesn't work very well, that eliminating diversity is actually a really good way to make a species and its individuals less robust.

RK: So the new book.

CD: Yes, I have a new book, it's coming out May 1. It's called Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. It's pretty different from the stuff I've written before--it's a fantasy novel. I've done short stories that were fantasies but never a novel. But it is about Wi-Fi. It's a fantasy novel about Wi-Fi. It's a novel about a serial entrepreneur living in a bohemian neighborhood in Toronto who falls in with a gang of crypto punk, semi-street people who make their living dumpster diving and who've embarked on a program to defeat the Man by putting open Wi-Fi all across the city. That's the straight-ahead science fictiony bit of it--the fantasy part is that the point-of-view character is the son of a mountain and a washing machine whose brothers are variously a member of the living dead, a clairvoyant, a trio of nesting dolls, and an island. And the girl next door turns out to have wings. So it's a contemporary fantasy. And I guess if it were not written by a North American they would call it magical realism ...

RK: What's your favorite part of this book?

CD: Well, I don't know. It's long, it's longer than both of the other books put together, so it's more ambitious. I think I get under the skin of the people a lot more than in the other books. It's weirder and more surprising than the other books. I think there are more places where it's just more reality bending, deliberately so. I think it's a lot more emotionally raw.

The first really substantial piece of criticism I got when I first started writing was from a writer named James Patrick Kelly, Jim Kelly, who is really one of the greats in this field and was teaching at the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop where I was a student in 1992, and where I'll be going back this summer as a teacher. He read through my piece and he said, "This is really, really good but basically you're an asshole because all you've done is to convince 17 people that this is a work with literary merit when all it really is, is a bunch of clever writing without any emotional depth at all. It's pretty much vacuous and you need to learn to sit down at a keyboard and open a vein." And I think I've done that in all my writing ever since, but this is the book where I think I've opened the most veins.

RK: How do you work at EFF, contribute to Boing Boing regularly, and write novels and short stories?

CD: As a technical matter, I write for 20-30 minutes every day. I do it at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. in the morning. I write 250 words, about one page. At that rate, I do a little over a novel a year and that's not a bad clip to go at. Novels for me are how I find out what's going on in my own head. And so that's a really useful and indeed critical thing to do when you do as many of these other things as I do. It's a great way to interrogate my subconscious. I just sit down and the page just comes out and I look at it and the elements that appear on that page have a lot to do with what's going on in my life.

I had this really great amazing thing happen where I almost finished the book and I really needed to come up with an ending and I decided to go back and re-read the book and see if I could come up with an ending. I came up with my ending and I said, "OK, now I'm going to have to go back and rewrite the book and add elements to make this ending work." And as I re-read the book, I realized that I already had written a book that led inexorably to that ending and I didn't need to do that rewrite. Because I had known before I knew I had known what that ending was going to be. That's pretty exciting--it's, you know, real exciting.

RK: What if someone gave you a one million dollar advance for your next book, and you could do this full time?

O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference.

CD: Well, I'd take the million bucks. But I don't think I could ever stop doing the other stuff because it's how I get the raw material, you know. But I'd probably do more short stories. And I'm thinking about a big ambitious nonfiction project. I want to do a book about DRM and I'd probably take that on if I had more time--but right now I don't have the time.

RK: What memes in the technology world are really interesting to you?

CD: The thing that I'm really interested in now is the near-instantaneous commodification of everything and what that means for being on the technological vanguard. So I think that the orderly function of a marketplace is that I invent something and because I'm the only one who knows how to make it, I get to charge a nice fat margin on it and then someone else figures how to make it until all that's on the table is the cost of goods and you're essentially manufacturing machine screws.

And it seems that technology makes that happen really fast, and I think that between 3D printers and free software and the ability for software to be reverse engineered and interop products to be manufactured, that we really live in an era where the shelf life of an innovation is about 30 days, although it takes a lot longer to peter out overall.

I think we're going to reach a point where the fact that you understand and are deeply involved in a technological revolution as fundamental as the dot-com one will mean that you'll be out of work and irrelevant in about a year. So you'll have to reinvent yourself every year. And that's going to be an amazing and strange world to live in.

Richard Koman is a freelancer writer and editor based in Sonoma County, California. He works on SiliconValleyWatcher, ZDNet blogs, and is a regular contributor to the O'Reilly Network.


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