I've been following Cory Doctorow's copyright discussions and blogs. The descent from high minded ideals down into personal attacks and mud slinging has been very entertaining. Once any group has defined its ideology as unequivocally right and the opposing viewpoint as wrong, reasoned debate is thrown out the window and vilification is embraced. Whether this is about global warming, liberal/right wing politics, Baptist preaching or copywrite is moot. But that's the subject of another time when I'll write about it with the freedom that only a complete absence of readership brings.
Following the discussion did make me curious about Cory Doctorow's actual writing, the subject of the debate. So I downloaded PDF's of several works. So far I've made it through Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (SCTT), Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (D&O), and After the Siege (ATS). In that order. I'll be working through the rest by an by.
The first thing that I found is that CD is an absolutely stunning prosist. The sheer physicality of the language is very impressive. I was reminded of Norman Mailer and, of course, Harlan Ellison. The comparison is more than skin deep but more on that in a moment.
However, I found SCTT largely inconsequential as most of the beginning of the novel involves a fairly smarmy individual trying to involve himself in the people around him. Since the depiction of what is going internally is fairly spare, beautiful prose notwithstanding, the reader is left to piece together the motivations of the main character by what he does: managing various fringe businesses, making the market area near where he lives interconnect wirelessly, determining the various states of mindfulness of his neighbors.
In the hands of a true master, like Mailer or Joyce Carol Oates, this would be riveting since we would actually be looking deep into the characters involved. But CD is not a master in this work. The characters are superficially drawn and there is a glaring false mystery veiling the true mystery of the main character's past: he's born of the union of a mountain and a washing machine. He fell in love with a normal human woman at a young age who was murdered by his unkillable younger brother. That was pretty interesting stuff-- except for the washing machine. You can't call it failure of nerve. But you can call it failure of metaphor.
Something similar happened in Down and Out. Now this was a book recommended to me by people whose opinion I value. But reading it was really, really difficult. Again, the beautiful prose. This time the metaphorical failure was not so glaring-- popularity replacing money as a token of worth in a world driven almost solely by entertainment and other forms of self-gratification plays pretty well in my book. I didn't completely buy the premise that in the absence of physical need only popularity remained. But I could live with it-- though calling the result the "Bitchun Society" and popularity "whuffie" seemed a failure of language more in tune with the token technoexcresence of Star Trek than anything else. But that's a small thing.
The big problem with D&O was the idiot plot. It only worked because the characters were idiots.
For example, we have the main character, Jules, get murdered and restored from backup early on in the novel. A mystery, right? Somebody has killed you and you've risen from the dead-- serious metaphorical meat. But, of course, this is so incredibly common that nobody really seems to give a damn. People are restored from the dead so often that it's become mundane. Everybody backs up regularly, right? Anybody that didn't would be considered pretty strange, right?
Well, no, actually. After he's been shot, Jules continues to work, do bad things, then worse things, knowing he might be shot again. He's cut off from the electronic world-- something so incredibly unknown that half his senses and his own physiological well being is affected. Does he go and get repaired? No. He shrugs it off. Does anyone else notice? No.
I've been working in software engineering for nearly all my adult life. If I lose email or web access, I get ripshit. I tear a new one in my provider until it's fixed. If I disappear off the net for a few days, people notice. So: the members of the Bitchun Society can't seem to match the savvy of PC's and the internet? It was like watching one of those really, really bad SF or horror movies where a character does something completely contrary to their own survival that you just know they're going to be chopped into hamburger in the next forty seconds.
One possible interpretation of the book is with the loss of personal stakes in the world life ultimately becomes trivial. Those that make the trivial the reason for their existence become idiots. Perhaps. But many times Jules would do something stupid, or the people around him would do something stupid, and I would put down the book. If it hadn't been so highly recommended I wouldn't have picked it back up.
D&O was such an unpleasant experience that I was reluctant to read After the Siege. I was glad I overcame it. Here was CD using his powers for Good rather than Evil.
ATS is the story of a post revolutionary society where the revolution was technological: cheap nanotech makes life better. There's a strong overtone of Euro-socialism in it which I liked. Cultural memes don't come to life without history. It makes perfect sense to me that a technological revolution would be reinterpreted by the culture that adopts it. In America, the same revolution might be interpreted as the triumph of the Free Market. In both cases, the culture interprets the revolution in its own terms.
But this is my interpretation of the style of the work. Unlike the SCTT and D&O, there is no rhetoric nor does there need to be. ATS is the story of Valentina beginning when she is a young girl in love with the new toys of the revolution. Her world comes apart when the revolution becomes a casualty of an ever escalating war. This is not a story for those who like the blare of the trumpet or the steely gaze of a muscular hero. This is a war more like siege of Stalingrad than anything else. Valentina's growth from child to young adult in wartime is beautifully constructed. There is no misstep of character or voice and the prose is controlled and sophisticated.
So: three works, two of which aren't so great but are extremely popular. One that I only found by chance without ever hearing about it at all. Is it me?
Well, yes. Probably. Clearly I'm out of step with the culture. So it goes.
Still, while I was reacting to these works I kept being haunted by the familiarity of these feelings. Then, I remembered Harlan Ellison.
I was a big fan of Ellison until I was about 30. Sometime around then, I just wandered away from him. I was no longer interested in his work or, for that matter, in him. A good friend of mine said it this way. A writer is supposed to walk up to the edge of the abyss and look over, then tell you what he sees. And what is in the abyss is not only the pain and suffering of the human condition-- Bhudda showed us that a couple of thousand years ago. The writer shows us the meaning of what he sees in the abyss. Ellison walks up to the edge of the abyss and then continues walking, on air, to the other side without ever looking down.
Ellison has also created a persona that cannot be separated from his work. He went from writing Ellison stories to writing Ellison stories.
Doctorow is not, I think, at the point of having his authorial persona subsume his body of work. But in D&O and SCTT, he's guilty of the same Ellisonian problem of being so in love with the metaphorical mechanics of the story that the deeper human meaning is lost. This is certainly true of D&O. The interesting arc of the novel lies in the relationships between the two male characters, Dan and Jules. Dan betrays Jules more than once but Jules has no deep reaction. Jules himself grows as he continues without backup or electronic enhancement. His previous persona grows ever more stale. As this happens, an interesting relationship develops between his current self (changing and growing older) and his younger, stored, backup self that begins to resemble a father's connection to an absent son. This is dynamite stuff but it is given short shrift. The clunky society and plot overwhelm the human connections.
As I said, it's possible the book itself is a comment on the trivialization of human experience when the goals become trivial. However, any discovery mitigating the problems that might support this point of view come too little and too late in the book to be useful.
What we can say about CD is that, as shown by ATS, he is certainly capable of more significant work. ATS does not suffer from cute ideas and tricky plot trivializing the character relationships. It has all of the heart and spirit that D&O and SCTT lack.
This discussion may be moot. Clearly, the marketplace has decided the issues I have with D&O and SCTT are not significant. Problems of character in current fiction in general and genre fiction in specific have been noted before. Lots of popular fiction is filled with cardboard cutouts in lieu of people-- the best seller list is filled with them.
But often when you look at the work of these successful authors over a few books, you can see that they have either made a deliberate choice to use stereotyped characters and character relationships or they are incapable of doing anything better.
This is precisely why these three novels of CD are so interesting. Both D&O and SCTT would have been much, much stronger with better characters. Did CD choose to thin his characters out? Certainly, as we can see in ATS, it's not a matter of capability.
And if he had, would the market have still embraced them?