Book Review of Overclocked by Cory Doctorow

by JoHarrington

Combine science fiction and geek culture with simply great writing and you have the very talented Cory Doctorow. I didn't rest until I'd finished his collection of short stories.

Cory Doctorow is a man who knows his technology, yet uses that only as a spice to sprinkle over his tales for a richer flavor.

He also knows his politics and social issues, particularly when they affect the internet. He's able to extrapolate along current real world cyber news to work out where the digital world may be heading.

The result is this collection of 'stories of the future present'. You don't have to be a geek to enjoy the amazing story-telling on offer.

Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present by Cory Doctorow

Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present

Cory Doctorow's Overclocked Cyber-Politics

He's an author with a big message about the state of the digital world; and he has the experience and know-how to back it all up.

Cory Doctorow has some very strong views about copyright violation.  They are not those shared by your average movie or record company executive.

His take on the matter is that we've lost the 'rights' part out of the whole notion of 'copyright'.  Instead of being used in its original context - to open up creativity and the free sharing of all that we can do - it's instead being wielded as a weapon to protect profits.

We're back into the realms of medieval feudalism; and the majority of the general public haven't even noticed.

Only music locked into a recording contract is deemed good enough for public consumption.  Only books and stories sanctioned by a publishing house should be read.  Only movies financed by the same tired conglomerate of film companies should be shown on the silver screen.

But this is the 21st century and we have the internet.  Suddenly the sphere is open wide and those protecting their profits are panicking.  Ordinary people shouldn't be allowed to be creative without license, should they?

Hence a whole history of court cases designed to close down YouTube (they failed); or BitTorrents (they failed); or to impose censorship on the web (they spectacularly failed). The litigation goes on, flogging the same dead horses, instead of working together to adapt to the new reality.

Cory Doctorow's politics run like a seam of black gold through his stories.  He also puts his money where his mouth is.  You've seen Overclocked, the physical book, as sold by Amazon above.  Here is every one of the short stories contained within it.  Free of charge.  Just click and read.

Overclocked : Printcrime - Cory Doctorow
Overclocked : When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth - Cory Doctorow
Overclocked : Anda's Game - Cory Doctorow
Overclocked : I, Robot - Cory Doctorow
Overclocked : I, Row-Boat - Cory Doctorow
Overclocked : After the Siege - Cory Doctorow

They are everywhere on the internet.  Cory Doctorow has ensured it. He wrote them and he gets to call the shots.  All I did was did a search and plonked the first URL I found (at the helm of hundreds more), as the hyperlink for each story.  Don't like the format? Do your own search and choose a different URL instead.

These are stories that are very worth reading, if only to gain a perspective on the InfoWar battles, which you're unlikely to get in the real world newspapers.

[email protected]: Cory Doctorow

The author himself lectures on the issues covered in his short story collection 'Overclocked', then takes questions from the floor.

Overclocked: Printcrime

Z-Printers can copy 3D items as easily as we photocopy a document. Naturally they've been banned with brutal suppression and long stretches in prison.

Need a new washing machine?  In this future world, you can simply print one out in your Z-Printer, just as long as you have enough 'gunk'. 

The same goes for clothing, medicine, furniture, food and anything else that your mind or need can conceive.  This is piracy on a global scale, as it must exist in the nightmares of corporation CEOs everywhere.

In a world where everyone could conceivably have everything, the result is jack-boots in the kitchen and blood on the floor.  No market capitalist will give up their right to be rich, even if the alternative is no-one ever wanting for even basic sustenance again.

Printcrime is a very short story, which plunges us straight into the action.  While the moral issues fueling it are nothing new, the way it's realized is.  It took me a few paragraphs to align my world vision to encompass one where kitchen appliances can be printed into being.  By then, the story was practically over!

It does set the reader up nicely for the climatic story After the Siege though.  Issues of copyright and corporate greed, at the expense of human rights, run through both and use the medium of Z-Printers to underline them.

I was mostly confused when I first read Printcrime, but by the second reading, I not only had it but thought it was genius.  Having grasped the concept, I was now able to approach the rest of the Sci-Fi techno tales with full immersion.

Overclocked : When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth

In the event of Armageddon, please contact your system administrator to ensure that the internet is kept online. Sounds legit.

This was one of the three really high points of a great collection for me.  It all sounded so feasible!

When the Apocalypse came, the first sign - the first thing to be targeted - were the computer systems. It kept people from knowing what was going on and getting organized.

Automated alerts woke system administrators (sysadmins) from their beds, or disturbed them in their offices.  They met, en masse, in the reinforced bunkers holding the industrial sized routers.  These were the important ones - processors which channeled the traffic for whole sections of the country.

While this may look like a geek fest, the important words there were 'reinforced bunkers'.  They were designed to protect the technology, but they also served their technicians well enough. While the rest of the world dissolved under a blitz of poison gas, blanket bombing and other destructive measures of global proportions, the sysadmins were still oblivious to all but their blinking lights and coding.

Which meant that they were the only survivors.  This gripping and jaw-dropping story tells us what happens next.

My one criticism is that it ended too soon.  When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth was too epic to be a short story.  There was a whole novel in this, if not a series of them.  When the finale came, it felt too premature and therefore contrived. 

Doctorow should have let the story play out.  It patently wanted to. 

Overclocked : Anda's Game

A young girl makes some pocket money by playing the online game that she'd be playing anyway. Happy days? Not for everyone. For some, it's downright deadly.

I'm a gamer, in full knowledge of the on-line and off-line issues underpinning this story. 

You don't have to be.  All that you need to know is out-lined as the narrative flows on. But it meant that I really became hooked into Anda's Game.

As a result, it was my definite highlight of the collection, though I recognized that When Sysadmins Ruled the World and After the Siege were the better stories.

When Anda is invited to join a prestigious in-game clan, she views it as the pinnacle of her gaming achievement.  Moreover, it's a strike for Feminism, in a world where female players are often disparaged (or their whole existence is denied).

Her new connections bring her unexpected benefits too, particularly when one clan member tells her how to turn her gaming skill into real world riches.

It's like a dream come true!  All she has to do is play on in the ordinary way, just with her targets directed by an anonymous benefactor.  She assumes it's some rich kid playing a prank on his friends.  She's wrong.

The whole truth begins to trickle out when one of her targets begs for his pixel life.  The things he says make no sense and seem over-dramatic for the context.  Then she learns the context.

I have nothing bad to say about Anda's Game.  It was brilliant.  It combined my two passions of MMORPG playing and human rights issues.  I loved it unconditionally.

Further Reading

Some of the issues raised by 'Anda's Game' are currently being discussed in the comments of one of my other articles.
The items were just pixels in an on-line game, but a court in the Netherlands has ruled that stealing them was real world crime.

Overclocked : I, Robot

Fan fiction at its finest! Cory Doctorow exploits a plot-hole in Isaac Asimov's universe to make a point about stifling innovation.

I'm about to lose my geek credentials and the respect of half of my friends. 

I have a confession to make.  I've never read anything by Isaac Asimov.

That means that I probably lost a lot of references and in-jokes scattered about this story, but that didn't detract from the plot. In fact, I couldn't even spot where they were!

Society has moved on a few years now; and the world has split into two mega-continents.  Not physically.  We're not talking landmass here. We're looking at culture and innovation.

In the old USA, copyright patents spiraled out of control.  Only one major corporation is allowed to make anything; and it will send the law after any who try to break its monopoly.  This largely involves technology and electronics, especially the eponymous robots.

Meanwhile, out in the big, wide world, inventions have moved on at such a pace as to leave the US looking like technological cavemen.

Fundamentally, this is a story about a father and daughter relationship.  He's a police officer, called off murders and the like to arrest people pirating copyrighted goods; she's a rebellious tween wanting to get her hands on the very tech. that her father is crushing.

Privacy is a thing of the past.  When he realizes that his daughter is rushing into dangerous acquisitions, the police officer sends a robot after her.  The consequences shake his world.

I did enjoy I, Robot, as a rip-roaring Cyberpunk yarn. But it didn't tick all of the boxes in the way that Anda's Game did.  I guess I'm not as into AI, as I am MMORPGs! 

That said, I thought that the ending was delicious.  It's the first Cory Doctorow story that's made me want to start writing too.  I could carry this plot on.  I would love to explore what happened next.

If you can't live with America looking like the barbarians, then you'll hate this story.  I've read commentators who have awarded it one star solely on that fact alone.  Which kind of reinforced the point made within the story about US arrogance and paranoia. Just saying.

Overclocked : I, Row-Boat

A sentient rowing boat ferries 'meat puppets' from an ocean liner to a coral reef. It's all about robots left behind, when all of the humans have gone.

A nice touch of humor was started right in the introduction.  Cory Doctorow wrote that his next story will be about sentient cheese on toast.  It will be called I, Rarebit.  I giggled.

Laughter is totally the correct way of approaching this story.  There are serious elements to be sure, but the whole package is comedy.  I have to say that, because I've read people taking it far too literally and seriously.

Or perhaps you have to approach it with British humor?  I'm sure that I read somewhere that Doctorow's mother is British, so he may have inherited a strand of surreality from her. 

I, Row-Boat is surreal.  It's about boats with artificial intelligence, a human race which has uploaded its consciousness into a digital Cloud, and a coral reef which becomes self-aware and declares war. 

You wouldn't be too far amiss, if you approached it with the same frame of mind as you do a Monty Python sketch.

But there are serious underlying issues too.  There's the vague hint about global warming, which led to that mass stellar/cyber emigration of humanity in the first place. Then there are philosophical musings about what makes a sentient being.

Mostly though, the story is fun.  I read it in that sense.  It was good and it was amusing. But it wasn't the best tale in the whole collection.

Overclocked : After the Siege

Morphing the themes of 'Printcrime' with the historical reality of the Siege of Leningrad, this story makes its point on an epic scale.

For many readers, After the Siege is the tale for which Overclocked is known; and with good reason. It is Cory Doctorow in fine form.

It is difficult to recall many moments in history as horrific and destructive as the Siege of Leningrad. It was the world's most prolonged siege ever, and around 4.5 million people died.

Most of them starved to death.

Amongst the lucky survivors was Cory Doctorow's own grandmother.  The stories that she told him have found their channel in his re-imagining of a similar situation in the digital age. The horrors are underpinned in their poignancy by knowing that so much of this was real.

The people in this futuristic St Petersburg cannot afford the licenses on all those wonderful appliances and inventions marketed in the West. But they have industrial sized Z-printers (see Printcrime). 

Overnight whole hospitals, universities, cinemas and flying vehicles can be copied into reality. Life is good.  No-one does without and everyone is fed, sheltered, educated, entertained and cared for, whatever their social or physical condition.

Until armies arrive demanding that they tear everything down and hand over the Z-printers. The patent holders would rather a genocide than copyright infringement.  The people of St Petersburg say no. Even at the cost of everything and everyone, they defend their streets.

I don't know where to even begin with this story.  It was one of the most original and startling tales that I've had the pleasure to read in a long time.  Tiny details triggered an explosion of implications in my imagination. 

If you were to read only one story from Overclocked, it should be this one.  Which, I guess, renders me joining the hordes saying precisely the same thing.  It's that good.

More Books by Cory Doctorow

They are all brilliant. Just pick one and curl up for a good read, because I haven't found a dud one yet!

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Updated: 11/17/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 10/13/2012

I do thoroughly recommend them. Try out the free reads on-line, then migrate to actual books when you realize how wonderful a writer he is. That's what I've been doing. :D

BrendaReeves on 10/13/2012

You've convinced me to read these stories, Jo.

JoHarrington on 10/13/2012

It really was. I ended up lying awake until about 4am just to finish 'After the Siege'. I'd gone to bed tired at 3am, planning to just start another story. Yeah, right...

Sheri_Oz on 10/13/2012

Amazing review, Jo. Seems like an amazing book.

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