It’s time for my final review for Sci-Fi Month (though not my final post – one more Music Monday yet folks). This week, I’m reviewing Radicalized, a collection of four novellas by activist and writer Cory Doctorow. It’s published by Head of Zeus, and came out last year.
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In Radicalized, Cory Doctorow presents four unique visions of the US, each novella set two minutes into one of its many potential futures. Tackling issues surrounding immigration, race, society and community, he doesn’t shy away from some of the most divisive and controversial topics of the moment. Opening novella Unauthorized Bread sees hero Salima, an immigrant, taking on digital rights management in an attempt to free her and her neighbours from economic purgatory. In Model Minority, our Superman style main character takes on a corrupt justice system and attempts to tackle racism, while in title tale Radicalized it’s health insurers being held to account. Lastly, The Masque of the Red Death apes the premise of the Poe original, as a wealthy investment banker builds a fortress in which he and his handpicked elite can wait out the end of the world.
It would be accurate to say that this is not escapist fare. Doctorow is tackling up to the minute issues here, peering only slightly ahead of where things are at the moment in a kind of grim futurism. This isn’t to say that this collection is without hope; far from it, in fact. But those who don’t enjoy their science fiction with a big helping of social commentary might well find themselves put off by some of the themes here. For the rest of us though, well, we’re in for a treat.
There is a real urgency to much of Radicalized. Not only because of the intensely relevant issues being discussed, but also the form chosen. Discussed over the length of a novella, the ideas here have the potency of thought experiments, challenging existing ways of thinking and tired systems in a way that feels lean and direct. To have extended any of these allegorical tales to the length of a novel would have lessened their impact and immediacy. The novella is a perfect choice of form, with Doctorow breaking down these massive issues in a way that makes them enlightening and easily digestible.
The prose itself is also approachable, which is a mercy when some of the more complex ideas around digital rights management in Unauthorized Bread are discussed. What could be a series of rather dry explanations are thankfully breezed over fairly speedily, with only the odd sticking point. The actual ins and outs of hacking and jailbreaking are difficult subjects to make entertaining or especially exciting, but they’re broken down simply enough that a lack of understanding shouldn’t present a barrier to enjoyment.
Crucially, Doctorow doesn’t lose sight of the people at the centre of each story, with a clear “It could happen to you” feeling to much of the trials and anguish they face. This is particularly true of the title story, as main character Joe Gorman’s wife is diagnosed with cancer, driving him to an online support group with dark undercurrents. This is undoubtedly the darkest of the four novellas, perhaps because it’s the most grounded in our reality. It’s fair to say that it isn’t speculative fiction at all, in fact, featuring none of the technology, superheroes or apocalyptic scenarios of the other three. There’s still a strong technological theme to it – it wouldn’t be Cory Doctorow without it – but it’s something that feels like it could happen in our world rather than tomorrow’s.
On occasion, Doctorow does perhaps stray a little further into didacticism than feels strictly natural in certain situations; one or two characters feel inclined to give lectures or history lessons slightly out of the blue. Given the subjects that are being discussed though, it’s difficult to see how the facts they’re recounting could be delivered otherwise. A few more pauses and interjections in some of the longer speeches wouldn’t go amiss, but there is always the risk that this might undercut their potency. Crucially, they come across as more polemics than rants, often referring to real events or policies as supporting material. These are practically guaranteed to shock those unaware of them already, with some accusations positively demanding to be researched (whether out of morbid curiosity or solidarity with the oppressed).
Acting as a rallying cry for those sympathetic to its causes, and a helpful primer for anyone who has ever felt particularly moved by any of the issues raised, Radicalized is not always an easy read. But it is a necessary one. It’s unlikely to change the minds of those opposed to Doctorow’s general way of thinking, but it’s certainly enlightening for anyone who might consider themselves his ally.
Radicalized is available now, published by Head of Zeus. You can order your copy here through this affiliate link, which earns me a small commission and allows you to support independent bookshops. Even if you don’t follow the link here and don’t fancy buying this particular book, please check them out – they’re a lifeline for indies right now.