Canada Reads, Canadian, Fiction, Novella, Pandemic, Science Fiction

Canada Reads Along 2020: Radicalized

Cover image for Radicalized by Cory Doctorowby Cory Doctorow

ISBN 978-1-250-22858-1

Content Warnings: Racism, xenophobia, medical horror, police brutality.

 “They’re kids. If they understood risks, they wouldn’t join uprisings and march in the streets and the world would be a simpler place. Not a better one, of course. But simpler.”

Radicalized is a collection of four novellas by author, editor, and technology activist Cory Doctorow, a Canadian-born writer who lives in the United States. His fiction is typically set in the U.S. and deals with issues through an American lens, but with nods and references to Canada. The featured works deal with issues including the circumvention of copyright controls, racial bias in predictive policing software, healthcare insurance loopholes, and survivalist billionaires with more money than they know what to do with. That last story takes on a particular new resonance in the age of COVID-19.

The first novella, “Unauthorized Bread” is an Internet-of-Things horror story about a young immigrant who finds herself on the wrong side of copyright law after jailbreaking her internet-connected toaster, which will only toast bread made by authorized bakeries. This story can be read online for free at Ars Technica if you want to get a taste of Radicalized, and is currently under development as both a graphic novel and a television show. It is a story about the small inconveniences and humiliations of poverty, and being controlled by the technology we supposedly own.

Although these are works of fiction, Doctorow’s subjects generally find their inspiration in real life. The most speculative of the stories is “Model Minority,” a sort of Superman fan fiction about a super hero known as the American Eagle. He has a billionaire playboy defense contractor frenemy named Bruce, and an investigative reporter paramour named Lois. However, the story gets very real when the American Eagle decides to take a stand against a group of racist cops who give a Black man a paralyzing beating, enabled by the justification of predictive policing software. An alien among humans, the Eagle is forced to confront human xenophobia, and consider what price he is willing to pay if he draws this line in the sand.

The darkest story in the collection might be the titular Radicalized, which follows a career man named Joe who learns that his wife is dying of cancer on his 36th birthday. He becomes angry and sullen, especially when their insurance refuses to pay for a treatment the company deems too experimental. Soon he finds an internet message board full of other angry men who have lost wives and children despite being insured. Doctorow’s stories typically feature citizens using privacy technologies to empower themselves against overreaching corporations and governments, but this story follows a plotline whereby the Tor privacy browser and the dark web enable aggrieved citizens to plan acts of terrorism under the cloak of anonymity.

The collection closes with “The Masque of the Red Death,” a post-apocalyptic dystopian short about a billionaire who builds a doomsday bunker in the wilds of Arizona for his chosen few. The central character is Martin, a decidedly unlikeable protagonist who comes to hold the power of life and death over the people he has taken under his dubious protection when a pandemic strikes. Unwilling to contribute to rebuilding, Martin instead focuses on hoarding and protecting resources, fancying that this makes him a good leader. When I read this story in early February, I had little idea how relevant it would soon feel. The tagline of the collection, “Dystopia is now” could hardly be more accurate.

Overall, the stories are less than subtle, and often fairly didactic. For example, in “Unauthorized Bread,” Wye gives Salima an impromptu two page tutorial on public-key cryptography while the two women are riding the train. This is a pet issue of Doctorow’s that also feature prominently in his YA novel Little Brother, and if you want to contact him securely, you can find his public key in his Twitter bio.  In “Model Minority,” Lois delivers a two and a half page diatribe about racial bias in predictive policing, which the author even has her acknowledge as such in the text. The only justification for this is that, while didactic, there are certainly people who will find it more palatable to learn these concepts via fiction, which they might not otherwise seek out or consider. However, many science fiction fans will already be thinking about these issues.

After being postponed in March due to COVID-19, the Canada Reads debates began today in a near-empty Toronto studio with host Ali Hassan and defenders Akil Augustine, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel on-site, while George Canyon and Alayna Fender joined via video link from their homes in Calgary and Vancouver respectively. Radicalized was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by host and producer Akil Augustine, who is known for his work with the Toronto Raptors.

Radicalized was unique at the table in being a collection of novellas, facing off against two memoirs and two novels. Augustine seemed to anticipate that this might be an issue for his book, arguing in his opening statement that one singular story cannot tie together all the many necessary perspectives in the way that a collection can. However, this did not prove to be the focus of his opponent’s arguments. Actor Amanda Brugel brought the first critique, pointing out that three of the four stories in Radicalized were told through the perspectives of angry men, while the one woman of colour protagonist seemed less central to her own story than the toaster (see “Unauthorized Bread”). Indeed, the issue of gender became a flashpoint in the debate, with Augustine arguing that the men in Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club were not well-written and felt flat to him.

The theme for Canada Reads 2020 is “One book to bring Canada into focus,” and host Ali Hassan’s Day One questions focused on asking the defenders how well their books exemplified that theme, and which book at the table was least successful in their opinion. Once again, the debate quickly homed in on Radicalized and Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, while the other three books were much less the center of discussion. Skating under the radar on Day One and avoiding an early elimination can be just as critical as a successful defense. Unsurprisingly, the question of whether Radicalized was sufficiently Canadian came up, a common critique in past Canada Reads debates. While Augustine argued that his book helped us to see how the issues we are facing in Canada are part of broader global issues to which we are connected in the modern world, both Alayna Fender and Kaniehtiio Horn argued that the book was not successful at bringing Canada into focus.

When the time came to cast the ballots, the panel split along gender lines, with Akil Augustine and George Canyon voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, while Alayna Fender, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel voted together against Radicalized, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020. Akil Augustine remains at the table as this year’s first free agent. 

Fiction, Graphic Novel, Young Adult

In Real Life

Cover image for In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen WangIn Real Life

by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

ISBN 978-1-59643-658-9

“Don’t just think because its video games people can’t get hurt.”

Anda is a geek girl, studying programing in high school, and playing tabletop games in the Science Fiction Club after school. When a pioneering female gamer makes a presentation to the class, and offers the girls a chance to join a top clan in a popular MMO game on the condition that they also play female characters, Anda jumps at the chance. Anda’s mother has reservations about online gaming, but Anda promises that is for school, and that she will only talk to other girls her age. Playing as a warrior, Anda finds she has a talent, and quickly levels up doing missions and raids with her clan. But when Sarge, a fellow gamer girl, invites Anda to join her for a paid mission, Anda finds herself over her head in the murky world of killing gold farmers for pay. It seems fair enough to eliminate cheaters from the game, but after talking to Raymond, a Chinese gold farmer who supports himself by working twelve hour days as gold farmer, things suddenly don’t seem quite so clear cut.

In the introduction, Cory Doctorow describes In Real Life as a book about how games are more than “mere amusements.” The graphic novel is an apt and interesting choice for telling that story, since it is a form which is also often regarded as being insufficiently serious, but In Real Life makes good use of the medium. It is difficult to render video game play interesting in writing, but Wang’s watercolours bring Coarsegold Online vibrantly to life. In the real life sections, Wang utilizes a muted, muddy colour palette to convey the dreariness and mundanity of Anda’s day to day existence. Brighter, richer colours suffuse the panels depicting the game world, and we get a nod to body image issues when Anda transforms into a thin, red-headed warrior in distinct contrast to her pudgier, plainer reality. However, while In Real Life encourages young female gamers, it doesn’t really examine the reason why women might be reluctant to play online in female avatars, or otherwise reveal themselves to be female in real life. Liza, the Coarsegold Online recruiter, references the problems female gamers face obliquely in the opening pages of the book, but the subject is never returned to.

In Real Life has an ambitious mission, as laid out in Cory Doctorow’s six page introduction, dealing with the unexpected connection of virtual economies to the real world, and labour practices in the developing world. At less than two hundred pages, the book has to move extremely quickly to cover all that ground. Continuity suffers somewhat, but more importantly, the complex issues the story grapples with are reduced and over-simplified. Telling the story from Anda’s perspective is probably a narrative choice intended to make the story more relatable for young Western readers, but it a decision that comes with problematic baggage when Anda tries to ride to Raymond’s rescue. Her actions do have consequences, but Doctorow’s desire to write an ending that speaks positively to the power of activism and organizing ends up undermining the message that people in the developed world may not fully understand the economic implications of their choices on people in developing countries. Many other readers have suggested Doctorow’s For the Win, a novel told from the perspective of gold farmers, as a more in-depth examination of the issues that are barely touched upon in In Real Life, leaving it feeling half-finished.


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