CORY DOCTOROW launching Eastern Standard Tribe at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction (239 College, third floor), tonight (Thursday, March 18), 7 pm. Free. 416-393-7748.
cory doctorow signing books, March 27 at Bakka Books (598 Yonge), 3 to 5 pm. 416-963-9993.
Google cyber sci-fi writer and tech visionary Cory Doctorow and you have to go through pages of sites before you get info about him that's written by anyone but himself. That's not an ego thing, though he does have plenty of that - he openly reveals that he's always been considered the best writer in any of his classes or workshops. It's that he writes phenomenally good fiction, keeps his very blabby boing-boing weblog ( www.boingboing.net ) updated and works a full-time job championing Internet freedoms. Oh, yeah, he eats and sleeps, too.
The guy is a true geek. He doesn't drink, doesn't like live music. He's Net-positive in every way, so interactively oriented that's he's solved his writing compulsion by composing exactly one page every day and posting it online to get feedback.
It's paid off. Doctorow (a distant cousin, he says, of E. L.) published his first book, Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom - which made Entertainment Weekly's top 10 of 2003 - under a Creative Commons licence that gives the broadest possible permissions for use online. He's made his follow-up, Eastern Standard Tribe, instantly downloadable as well.
He's not worried about that getting in the way of sales.
"Ebooks are intensely complementary to the ownership of the physical book," he says, sipping water in his temporary office near Markham and Bathurst. He's making a pit stop in hometown T.O. to launch his new book tonight (Thursday, March 18) before he moves from San Francisco to London, England.
Doctorow's a very smooth talker. During our exchange his answers to questions come out in perfect paragraphs. No, chapters, actually. He comes across as super-engaging though not necessarily interested in an exchange. It's as if he's more wired to the technology than he is to people.
In fact, he rejects the theory that readers can never bond with a computer screen.
"People read more words on the screen than ever. So to say people don't read off the screen is untrue on its face. The world's reading 18 hours a day. They're going blind because they're reading too much."
His first novel, Magic Kingdom, features ambitious scientists messing with Disney World's ancient technologies. The animatronics, now glorious antiques that once brought the presidents to life, are about to be supplanted by new "rides" that put you inside the actual minds of the American presidents.
In the new world, when you die you can just reboot your mechanism and come back to life, sans any memories. Or you can deadhead if you feel like it, just put yourself to sleep for a couple of years and wake up to a changed landscape. The deadhead reference is typical of the sly pop-culture allusions that fleck Doctorow's fiction.
In the follow-up, Eastern Standard Tribe (see review this page), his hero is a member of an underground cadre of über-techies who, regardless of where they live in the world, operate on Eastern Standard Time.
Drugs figure prominently in both books; Doctorow believes the introduction of any new pharmaceutical causes intense social convulsions. Magic Kingdom, for example, imagines the ready availability of decaf crack.
"Living at speed and on speed is characteristic of the future. I had to choose a drug that was up. I don't say what decaf crack really is, so you get to decide which part of crack you'd decaffeinate.
"The light bulb is a kind of drug," he says, referring to his tribe members, who have to be wide awake the moment their phones go off. "We lost our minds and still haven't found them. The fact that without depending on natural light we can artificially choose our work rhythms - we've never really adjusted to that."
Doctorow is gifted in the truest sense. His steel-trap mind was fed by his parents, both T.O. intellectuals with roots in the political activist community. (He's staying on their couch during his current stay.) His father, a math prof and one of the first people in the entire city to own a computer, made sure son Cory got in on technology's ground floor.
"We had a terminal connected to OISE," says Doctorow. "The computer was at St. George and Bloor but the terminal was in our kitchen with a roll of paper coming out of it, and we got an Apple II Plus as early as 1979. I learned to type before I learned to write cursively."
He dropped out of four universities, the last when his thesis topic, on copyright issues - which he proposed to work on in hypertext and deliver digitally in informal prose the way people talk to each other on the Internet - was turned down.
"They wanted me to give it to them linearly on 81/2-by-11. I went and got a job advertising CD-ROMs."
And then he got offered a job in San Francisco, a city he doesn't love. "It's expensive, dirty and provincial. And you can never get a fucking cab.
"But the people are amazing. All the major computer developments - the mouse, the pull-down menu - have been developed within living memory, and all the people who created them are still alive and lived an hour from my house."
When not composing his riveting cyber-sensitive novels, Doctorow works full-time at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit group fighting to maintain the Net's open culture.
He's one of the org's most eloquent and prolific mouthpieces. Get him going on the music downloading issue and look out.
"Copying is not dirty," he says. "A song that's never copied is a song that lives in its creator's head.
"The idea of copyright is a non-absolute. Twenty years ago cable TV operators went to the broadcasters and said, 'We have a wire underground. It delivers way better resolution than your rabbit ears and will put you out of business. Do we have permission to retransmit broadcast television?' And the broadcasters said no. The conflict was solved by compensating the networks."
Make the same offer to music rights holders, he says, and get downloaders to pay up - but not too much.
"I say let the downloaders pay $3 to $5 a month and get the right to share all the music they can find."
He says you don't need computers to count up every file.
"Actuarial tables are good enough to run the entire insurance industry and every casino in the world. They're good enough to run this tiny little $60-million fund."
He cites the story of The Grey Album, DJ Danger Mouse's mash-up of the Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's Black Album, as typical of the way rights holders are going overboard.
"The Beatles' publishers went ape. I say, 'What's the harm? Is it going to sell one less copy of The White Album? Is it gonna cost them one friggin' cent? Is it gonna make dj Danger Mouse any money?
"The Beatles took the sound of skiffle, they took the sound of R&B, they took the old stuff and made something new out of it. All creative contribution starts by stealing something and mixing it up in some new way.
"The idea that we can promote expression by stifling it is completely backwards."
EASTERN STANDARD TRIBE by Cory Doctorow (Tor/H.B. Fenn), 221 pages, $33.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Cory Doctorow writes fast and furiously, the words gushing out of him in a stream of metaphor and imagery that keeps you glued to his futurist tales. In his new novel, Eastern Standard Tribe, Art - a man born to argue - is a member of an underground cyber-sect of techie fixers who operate worldwide to subvert techno-developments in Europe and make mass sums of money of their own.
His girlfriend, Linda - whom he met when he almost ran her over - and his business partner, Fede, have concocted a scheme to direct payments from music downloaders to artists via a cyber-solution deployed on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Betrayal and corruption ensue, landing Art in a Massachusetts mental health facility. There he ponders whether he'd rather be smart or happy, while his attempts to get out feel like they're right out of Catch-22.
The novel moves back and forth in time to set up Art's situation in the loony bin, but Doctorow keeps total control over the narrative, filling it up with speculation on what's to come in the area of communications systems (phones will rule), police procedures (hellishly bureaucratic) and cyber-wars (vicious, of course). He also plunders pop culture in ways that give pure pleasure.
But with all of that bravura, Doctorow offers characters that are absolutely human. There are no robots here - these people are sexed up and emotionally charged.
You're going to hear a lot more from this guy.