The science fiction novella is an especially challenging short-form story type, even for the most gifted of genre writers. Push things too quickly, and there’s the risk of a story that feels forced, its narrative driven by a quick-fix plot offering little in the way of context or character. Take too long to get going, and there’s the danger of spending too many words worldbuilding and filling out relatable protagonists leaving too little space for incident and events.
Writer Cory Doctorow navigates such pitfalls with an assuredness that sees him craft believable near-future worlds and hard sci-fi tales, all with relatable characters at their core. Radicalized is a set of four superb, distinctive short stories, each of which offer a different take on a shared theme: that of the relationship between human beings trapped in perilous conditions and the justification (or otherwise) of ‘extreme’ responses.
These are tales intimately concerned with themes of social justice, community and identity and the role of technology as an oppressor as well as an enabler. At the core of Doctorow's writing is a fascination with the locus of power in society.
Unauthorised Bread offers a highly original blend of ideas drawn from today’s headlines about immigration, class and the so-called ‘refugee crisis’. These themes are joined to some well-informed speculation about how the emerging ‘Internet of things’ might evolve to the detriment of the poor and the urban ‘precariat’. But this is not a depressing tale of the plight of the downtrodden, but a story of resistance, rebellion and of survival populated by resourceful dissenters.
Second story Model Minority is an interesting new take on the angst and self-doubt of a troubled superhero. While that is a familiar theme in genre fiction, the new perspective here is to explore how the hero’s disaffection from state authorities politicises their mission statement. It also examines how selfless acts of heroism can sometimes stoke hostility and resentment rather than adulation.
Things take a grim turn in titular tale Radicalized, which presents a caustic view of the immorality of the profit-driven health insurance industry in the US. It blends this commentary with an account of how the dark web can provide a network for toxic ideas to percolate and take hold in the minds of the alienated and disaffected. When insurance companies begin to deny coverage to families suffering life-threatening illnesses, outrage and grief mixes to explosive effect. As firms are targeted in terrorist outrages, one sufferer tries to prevent himself and others from being pulled into a vortex of violence and retribution.
The Masque of the Red Death pushes past the dystopian red line to explore the full-on collapse of American society, anticipated by the forward planning of at least one super-rich ‘prepper’. His citadel in the mountains is perfectly crafted to maximise the potential for the survival of his pre-selected chosen few. But the imperatives of secrecy and the pressures of isolation begin to take their toll on the residents of the bunker, and soon threaten the viability of his unrealistic hopes. It’s an unflinching tale of selfishness and short-sightedness that ends the collection with a tone in sharp contrast to the uplifting sense of human resilience that permeates the opening story.
Doctorow’s prose is punchy and direct, but he succeeds in conjuring the most vivid and plausible of situations with an impressive economy of words. While he is adept at intertwining questions of contemporary technology, culture and politics into his work, it is the calibre of his flawed but recognisable characters that ultimately brings these vivid short stories to life.
RADICALIZED / AUTHOR: CORY DOCTOROW / PUBLISHER: TOR BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW