Online Edition: Winter 2003/2004

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A Place So Foreign

And Eight More

Cory Doctorow

Four Walls Eight Windows ($13.95)

by Doug Pond

Stripped of the superfluous detail typically found in science fiction, the stories in Cory Doctorow's new collection, A Place So Foreign and Eight More, nevertheless move through worlds that are well fleshed out. Take "0wnz0red," in which a computer programmer named Liam hacks into his own body to make it "user-accessible" so that he can reverse the course of his HIV—a process that takes only three hours. The U.S. military initiated the project to create super-soldiers, but Liam decides to take over when the procedure goes awry on a fellow patient: "The membranes of all of Joey's cells had ruptured simultaneously, so that he'd essentially burst like a bag of semi-liquid Jell-O." Instead of exercising caution to prevent a "liquidity event" like Joey's, Liam hacks into his body even more aggressively. In addition to curing his HIV, he accelerates the growth of his muscles, enhances his reflexes, makes himself immune to cancer, and creates "metabolic controllers" so that he can eat whatever he wants without gaining weight.

The Faustian motif of the desire for forbidden knowledge—transformed into the desire for dangerous technology—runs through much of Doctorow's fiction. In his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the protagonist has a cellphone implanted in his inner ear and a networked computer wired into his brain—but he's essentially a traditionalist who feels depressed by the homogeneity that technology can create. In A Place So Foreign, the characters don't voice objections to technology, but their lust for it often gets them into serious trouble.

"0wnz0red" is also a polemic on fair-use freedom, which is another motif in Doctorow's fiction—and in the presentation of it. Doctorow offers six of the nine stories in his collection for free online (www.craphound.com) under a Creative Commons license. He writes on his Web site, "As with my novel, I've shipped these stories without doomed, dumbass DRM [digital rights management], without user restriction, and without requiring any kind of proprietary reader."

Essentially, Doctorow believes in sharing, and no behavior will turn his characters into villains (or "dumbasses") faster than refusing to share. In "0wnz0red," the war-mongering Feds refuse to share their technology, even though Liam discovers a way to infect himself with a cure for HIV: "It's a sexually transmissible wellness, dude," he tells a friend and co-conspirator. "I've been barebacking my way through the skankiest crack-hoes in the Tenderloin, playing Patient Zero, infecting everyone with the Cure."

Doctorow embeds exposition in the action and dialogue, making his fiction fun to read—in other words, you don't have to slog through idle descriptions of technology or mythical family trees. When the "robutler" in the title story affixes its "electrode fingertips" to the narrator's temples to "juice" them and clear away his headache, the incident passes so quickly that it doesn't seem too cute or campy. The author's minimalist style is a refreshing change from the meticulous, heavy-handed prose of classic fantasy and SF novels, aptly conveying what it might feel like to have your temples juiced.

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Winter 2003/2004 Table of Contents