Canada Reads author Cory Doctorow answered your questions — here's what he had to say
The author of Radicalized answered fan questions in a special Facebook Q&A
Due to the ongoing developments with COVID-19 and the related travel concerns, Canada Reads made the difficult decision to postpone the debates until we can convene our stellar panel of advocates in front of a live audience.
You can read the transcript of the Q&A with Cory Doctorow, author of Radicalized below. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Radicalized is a collection of four novellas that explore the quandaries — social, economic and technological — of contemporary America. Cory Doctorow's characters deal with issues around immigration, corrupt police forces, dark web uprisings and more.
Hey there! It's Cory, whose responses are being relayed by the good folks at the CBC. I'm a committed zuckervegan, and I firmly believe you should delete your Facebook account... after this chat!
How did this book come together? Was it always conceived as four connected stories?
Not at all! These are my "Trump Derangement Syndrome" stories. I wrote them as stress-relief while working on Attack Surface (the third Little Brother book, out in October 2020), but while incredibly anxious about the flurry of headlines that kept launching themselves into my line of sight as Trump used his "defuse a scandal with an even bigger scandal" technique and media orgs repackaged yesterday's stories with new headlines to see which ones would get the most engagement. I find peace by turning chaos into narratives.
I wrote Unauthorized Bread first and sold it as a standalone novella that was going to be published in its own set of covers. Then I showed my editor Model Minority and he proposed publishing it the next month, the same way. Then came Radicalized, and he said, "Wait, how many of these do you have?" and I said "four" and he suggested we publish them in one volume, packaged and marketed like a novel (that's why we call it a "science fiction book" rather than, say, a "science fiction collection").
I love, love, love the social commentary in this book. All of the stories hit home from the corporatization of poverty, the marginalization of immigrants, the short sighted, egocentrism of both the wealthy (Red Masque of Death) and insurance companies (Radicalized). What do you feel the advantages are of using fiction vs. an essay format to address these issues? Or put another way, why did you choose story over essay for this book?
Well, I do both! I write a LOT of nonfiction, both essay and book-length. Fiction has the advantage of conveying the visceral, lived experience of an argument's thesis — This is how the thing I'm worried about *feels* — while nonfiction is a good way to get into the weeds about the arguments and counterarguments, the nuance and the explicit agenda. You can get some of that into fiction (I've been accused of getting too much of it in mine, but that's the fiction I like to read AND write, so...::shrug::), but not in the same way that you can with nonfiction.
But fiction plays the trick on your consciousness of making you care about imaginary, hypothetical situations as if they were real. Fiction makes us cheer and cry and laugh and fret over imaginary people, whom we know to be imaginary. It's a consensus hallucination in which readers allow writers to play games with their heads, directing their empathic response the same way that musicians direct the fine hairs in their eardrums or painters manipulate the rods and cones in their eyes.
It's a powerful way to think about the arguments, the empathic, atavistic way — it makes for an excellent complement to explicit argument.
Has there been anything that you've seen to date with the current pandemic that mirrors the final story in Radicalized?
I wrote Masque of the Red Death because of the news articles I'd read about the luxury bunker industry, marketing a fantasy of self-sufficiency to the super-rich. Now, a bunch of those rich people are heading to those bunkers, so there are some obvious parallels.
I wrote Masque of the Red Death because of the news articles I'd read about the luxury bunker industry, marketing a fantasy of self-sufficiency to the super-rich.
I was raised on my grandmother's stories of the Siege of Leningrad, which she lived through as a young girl who was inducted into the city's civil defence corps. Those stories featured lots of privation and horror — starvation and cannibalism — but more than anything, they were about disease: cholera.
It was obvious to me from the start that humans have a shared microbial destiny. Public health has an obvious leftist bias in that it acknowledges that a society that allows poor people to sicken is a society where everyone will eventually be sick, and thus is rebuts the fairy tale of "individual responsibility" and the irrelevance of public services, which can be replaced by rugged individuals who look out after their own interests.
Margaret Thatcher declared "there is no such thing as society." Microbes — which have killed more humans than any other force on Earth and may render us extinct yet — beg to differ.
What were the toughest chapters/moments in the book to write? Why?
Any of the scenes where kids are hurt or endangered (the kids in Salima's building, Emmett Till's story in Model Minority, etc). Ever since I became a father 12 years ago, that stuff just skewers me. I didn't write ANY of it for years, but now it's starting to creep back in, but it's never just for effect.
Have you considered a new story for this pandemic?
I had already outlined a novel — The Lost Cause, a post-Green New Deal novel — before the crisis hit. It had a bunch of pandemics and other crises in it (the protagonist, a Canadian-born teen who lives with his grandfather in Burbank, California, was orphaned at eight when a zoonotic pandemic called "rabbit flu" killed his parents in Toronto). But living through the pandemic is allowing me to approach these elements of the story with much higher fidelity.
Did you have your idea for this book for a long time, was it something you worked on for years or thought about for years or more of a sit down and write it all in a shorter period. Thanks!
I wrote it over about six months — as I said above, I wrote it while working on a novel, doing 500 words/day on each novella while writing 500 words/day on the novel.
What other authors tackle technology and our relationship with it in a way you admire?
Ada Palmer, Wendy Liu, Karl Schroeder, Naomi Kritzer, Amal al-Mohtar, Tochi Onyebuchi, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Peter Watts, Nalo Hopkinson, etc. etc. etc!
What are your thoughts on Akil? What was your first impression and how did that change as you got to know him? What advice do you have for him if the debates ever happen?
Akil and I definitely bring complementary skills to the table. I am not very good at being competitive — I was raised at hippie summer camps where we played co-operative volleyball! — while he definitely has that sportsman's killer instinct and is so in it to win it. That makes me very, very happy.
Akil and I definitely bring complementary skills to the table.
If the debates reconvene, I think the emphasis should be on how all the speculative issues my book raises (right to repair, technological autonomy, surveillance, structural racism, shared microbial destiny, the countersurvival nature of survivalism, the importance of a functioning public health system) brings "Canada into focus" in a way that is spookily and regrettably timely.
Did you have specific inspirations for each of these stories? What was the original germ for each?
They all represent the convergence of many different events and influences. That said:
Unauthorized Bread: John Deere's insistence that tractors can never be owned by farmers because they only license the IP in the tractors' software; HP's release of a fake security update they tricked users into installing, which actually blocked third-party ink; real "poor doors" and "poor floors" in London, LA, NYC, etc; the rise of "tethered" IoT gadgets like Juicero and K-Cup.
Model Minority: Matt Taibbi's amazing history of Eric Garner's murder by the NYPD, I Can't Breathe.
Radicalized: An interview with the Canadian, queer woman who coined the term "incel" and founded the first incel community, but was horrified by what the movement came to stand for; my experiences with the US health care system since moving here in 2015.
Masque of the Red Death: Edgar Allan Poe (obviously); stories about preppers building luxury bunkers in NZ and elsewhere; writing my novel Walkaway; Rebecca Solnit's book A Paradise Built in Hell.
Are you still in Los Angeles? How has the response to the pandemic in the U.S./California compare to Canada? Are you paying attention to Canada? What are all governments missing in their response you'd like to see added?
I live in Burbank, which is in Los Angeles County, but is its own city, separate from Los Angeles (like North York and Toronto were, pre-amalgamation — I can see the Los Angeles city line from my house).
We're getting a front-row seat for a stress-test of the limits and power of the US system of federalism.
We're getting a front-row seat for a stress-test of the limits and power of the U.S. system of federalism, with California asserting a wide latitude of autonomy from the federal authorities (the federal response, needless to say, has been a catastrophic failure that may yet bring the country down) — and moreover, California is joining forces with other states in the region to form a single block. That's really weird, as is the reversal of the left and right's position on "state's rights" with Trump asserting that states have NO right to assert independence in the face of federal authority, and the left insisting that states have broad latitude to act (normally it's the other way around with the right asserting that states can engage in racially or gender-based discriminatory conduct, ban abortion, etc).
What will be really wild is what may come of this after the next federal election, in which the new Democratic president could use the strong federal powers that Trump could get the Supreme Court to agree to to enact gun control, abortion rights and antidiscrimination rules that overrule state governments.
I have been paying attention to Canada as well. It's certainly more functional than the U.S.
The thing that both Canada and the U.S. are getting wrong, most of all, is being too timid with stimulus. They are sovereign currency issuers whose debts are denominated in their own currencies. They should be conjuring up TRILLIONS more, and nationalising the payroll of every struggling business, keeping those workers employed so they can return to work when the crisis ends. This should come with conditions for employers (good conduct orders that ban discriminatory conduct, structured bankruptcies, dividends, stock buybacks, etc), and should be capped at a sum sufficient for payroll employees to pay rent/mortgages and buy groceries and other necessities. The inflationary risk is minimal: it won't raise the cost of labour, nor will it put more dollars into circulation to bid up the price of goods — it will simply replace the dollars that have ceased to circulate in order to pay for goods that are still being produced and debts/liabilities (mortgages/rents) that are still owed.
Thanks all of you, for such great questions! I hope you're staying healthy and solvent, and taking care of one another.
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