Cory Doctorow, science fiction writer and activist, talks to Wendy about growing up in Toronto, "wooing the muse of the odd", the politics of pulp fiction, and how people react to disasters in real life. Then, a global pandemic hits.
“What mostly happens in disasters is, they're the moment in which the background refrigerator hum of petty grievance stops and leaves behind this ringing silence in which you realize that you have much more in common with your neighbours than you ever had as a point of difference.”
- Cory Doctorow
Radicalized by Cory Doctorow
Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater (ebook unavailable, so try Lizard Music instead)
A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit
Afterland by Lauren Beukes (ebook coming soon)
Or What You Will by Jo Walton (coming soon)
The Thessaly Series by Jo Walton (Series about Plato's Republic)
Lent by Jo Walton (one of the books about Florence)
Books by Ada Palmer
Other topics discussed:
The Wonderful Power of Storytelling - speech by Bruce Sterling
craphound.com (Cory Doctorow's website)
Wendy: Welcome to Shelve Under: Podcast, the Toronto Public Library podcast for readers, writers and everyone practicing physical distancing. My name's Wendy and in this episode, I'm going to talk with science fiction author Cory Doctorow about writing science fiction as a political act and about how human beings deal with crises. This is going to be kind of an unusual episode because as we were planning and recording and editing it, a global pandemic broke out. So right now, as I'm recording this introduction, it's April 14th, schools in Toronto shut down a month ago. Mayor Tory declared a state of emergency three weeks ago. About a week ago, the graveyard near my house where I go for walks closed its gates. We've been informed that along with other city services, libraries are going to be closed until at least July 1st. There's nothing normal about any of this. I would normally be recording this introduction in the studio at Fort York Library or maybe in a supply closet at Toronto Reference Library, because that's where we record a lot of stuff. Instead, I'm recording it in my basement at home. You can probably hear the freezer buzzing in the background. You might be able to hear my cat Maxine purring. She's really happy that I'm home all the time now. Anyway, I thought I'd record some extra narration for this episode because I feel like it needs it. I'm going to play you the introduction that Christina and I recorded a couple of weeks ago. This was about 10 days into lockdown. Christina sounds pretty coherent, but I'm clearly in a fugue state.
Wendy: Hey Christina.
Christina: Hey Wendy. How's it going?
Wendy: It's good. It's been great. Sorry, ok. So how's your self-isolation going?
Christina: It's...I don't know. I think I'm not dealing with it very well. I don't know. I'm not, I don't feel like I'm keeping it together so much. It's just I don't know. I can't even explain it. It's just everything is so surreal for me. And not being able to physically see people like my family or friends and not being able to, like, hug anyone or like being in close distance with people. It's very bizarre for me. Sorry, does that make sense?
Wendy: It totally does. Yeah, that's that. It is really surreal, right? Like, it's just really strange and really sudden.
Christina: How are you dealing with it?
Wendy: About the same, to be honest. I mean, one good thing is that I'm still I'm working from home and work is sort of keeping me sane a little bit. It's giving me something to do and kind of giving me a focus for my days. But we just this is a Monday. This is we're talking now on March 23rd. And yeah, the weekend was really hard. Suddenly there was nothing kind of officially to do. And the days just disappeared so fast.
Christina: You know what? I thought I would take this time to, like, do more things, but I found that I haven't been able to. Like I haven't been able to focus or concentrate because I think I'm getting all this anxiety or like sadness.
Christina: And I don't know how to not feel those things.
Wendy: Yeah. I mean, I think you just you just kind of do have to feel them, right. But it's hard to know what to do with it. Yeah, I've been scrolling through Twitter a lot. Like checking the news every five minutes and that..
Christina: Which I think is also contributing to my anxiety.
Wendy: No doubt. No doubt. And this episode with Cory Doctorow. Actually one of the things that sparked it was because his book was selected for Canada Reads, which has now been suspended for the time being because of the pandemic.
Christina: Sorry what's the title of the book?
Wendy: Oh yeah, thank you. The title of the book is Radicalized and in Radicalized, there are these four novellas and they're all about different sort of different political situations. He's a very political writer. So he's got a story that's about Black Lives Matter and what would happen if Superman tried to get involved in the Black Lives Matter movement right now. He's got a book about sorry, a novella, about health insurance and the difficulties people have with health insurance in the States. And so people get radicalized around that. That's where the title of the book comes from. But there's one book, one novella at the end of the book called Masque of the Red Death. And it's about preppers, like people who hoard goods, you know, material goods. Actually, it's not a pandemic initially, I think it's a political uprising or something like that, but then it turns into a pandemic. People sort of move into a bunker and they have all of this food and all of this, you know, all of this stuff. And they try to lock themselves away from everybody else and how things go for them. So I wanted to talk to him about that. So we wind up talking about that a fair bit in the interview. One thing I wanted to say is that in light of everything that's happened since then, I now think maybe locking yourself away from other people for a time might not be such a bad response to some circumstances. So we don't really touch on that in the interview, but I just wanted to make that clear. So do you want to just listen to it?
Christina: Yeah, let's do that.
Wendy: Okay. So now the interview. So this took place only two weeks earlier than the recording you just heard on March 9th, and things changed so much between those two dates. For example, the night before this interview, I had taken my 80-year-old father out to see a Gilbert and Sullivan Show, which seemed like a fairly reasonable thing to do at the time, which I can't even imagine doing now. I'm even a few days afterwards, even after, say, March 12th, I, there's no way I would have done that. Anyway, I was interviewing Cory Doctorow on March 9th and I realised that I wanted to talk to him about his novella, The Masque of the Red Death, which was starting to seem pretty relevant. But at the same time, the pandemic was still seeming distance enough that it made sense to me to ask him all these other questions, because I'm you know, I'm kind of a fan, there were things I wanted to know. So we talked about his early years growing up in Toronto.
Cory: And I was going to a school that was then called the Alternative Learning Program in Toronto. It's now called I think it's called Avondale now. And it was a K to 8 one classroom self-directed learning alternative school. And they used to kick us out of the school on Wednesday afternoons, on alternating Wednesday afternoons, to just roam the city while they did professional development. We did all kinds of amazing projects, like we did one where where we ate in a different kind of Chinese restaurant for several months and did a massive project on variance in regional Chinese cuisines at like, it was like a group of nine to 13-year-olds. It was pretty cool, but we would also like we would go downtown and go to the arcades and go to the Dungeons and Dragons stores and go to the used bookstores.
Wendy: We talked about a favourite children's author we have in common, Daniel Pinkwater, who had a big influence on his writing.
Cory: And so Alan Mendelsohn is a Daniel Pinkwater book about a kid who's kind of a misfit, and we were all a bit weird, who would who encounters and becomes best friends with a new weirdo at school named Alan Mendelsohn, who is this very strange kid who introduces himself to everyone he meets as Hi, I'm Alan Mendelsohn. I am from Mars. And Alan Mendelsohn starts talking him into playing hooky and taking buses down and into weird semi disused neighbourhoods of the sort we used to go to and combing through weird disused bookstores of the stories to cone through and eating in weird greasy spoons. They're particularly fond of a kind of green death chilli, which is also the kind of thing we used to seek out. And it's about how these two kids discover like a badly mimeographed, scammy cult manual that actually turns out a work and lets them like do mind control, levitation, interdimensional travel. It's a monumentally satisfying and brilliant book.
Wendy: We talked about a speech by Bruce Sterling that he heard as a university student that changed his life. Here's a snippet of the speech.
Cory: We're not into science fiction because it's good literature. We're into it because it's weird. Follow your weird, ladies and gentlemen. Forget trying to pass for normal. Follow your geekdom, embrace your nerditude in the immortal words of Lafcadio Hearn, a geek of incredible obscurity whose work is still in print after a hundred years. Woo the muse of the odd.
Wendy: And actually that speech is amazing and I got him to read the whole thing, so I'm going to include it at the end of this episode, so you can hear it in all its glory. We talked a lot about his pursuit of science fiction as a way of talking about politics and about the way the world works. Before the interview, I'd raised the idea that some people see him as a kind of techno- optimist, and this was his response.
Cory: Well, first of all, I mean, the reason I'm interested in science fiction is in part a political project, right? I think that there's been a kind of false dialogue both in science fiction and in technological criticism about what it means to care about technology. And there's this false narrative that the primary reason people cared about technology is that they were hopeless optimists who couldn't imagine things getting worse as a consequence of technology. And so who devoted themselves to sort of clearing a path for this utopian future and just stopping anyone from asking any difficult questions about the technology. And I don't think that's so. I think that, you know, everyone who sort of mattered in this fight, everyone who took it seriously enough to get involved as an activist or, you know, doing activist things with code or normatively or with law, they cared about it, not because they thought it would automatically be amazing, but because they thought that it would be amazing unless we screwed it up, in which case it would be unspeakably ghastly, right. That's the - that's the corollary of "this will all be so great" as dot, dot, dot "if we don't screw it up."
Cory: And you know, the reason I write science fiction is to convey both of those messages. It will be so great... if we don't screw it up. And my fiction back to, you know, the master's house and the master's tools, my fiction is designed around this idea of showing people what happens if they don't seize the means of computation and also what they can realize if they do. You know, that's the premise of all the stories in Radicalized, this, the Canada Reads book.
Wendy: But listening back to all this now, I feel like how was I so oblivious? This thing was bearing down on us and I'm basically ignoring it. So that's why I'm kind of hustling you through the first part of the interview now. To get to the part that feels relevant to me now, the part where we talk about The Masque of the Red Death. And after this, we're going to talk about books. And trust me, you want to know what Cory Doctorow is reading. His recommendations are great. So I'm just going to go straight through for that part.
Wendy: So the story, The Masque of the Red Death, it seems particularly pertinent to me right now. So just so people know, today is March 9th, 2020. There is a coronavirus pandemic sort of ramping up around the world there. I think 15 cases in Toronto as of today and I think 14 in L.A. County. And, you know, you haven't been able to buy hand sanitizer, at least in Toronto, for the last two weeks. People are hoarding toilet paper, and a lot of this stuff seems to be related to things that happened in that story. So I was wondering if you could talk, tell us a bit about what the story is about?
Cory: Yeah, it's a story about preppers who are people who prepare for the end of the world, not by thinking about how they will help their neighbours, but about how they will fight off their neighbours, whom they believe are only one crisis away from coming over to eat them. And preppers are, I think, part of the problem, not part of the solution. It seems facially obvious to me that if there is a civilizational crisis, that the people who are cowering in luxury bunkers, wetting the bed, and waiting for better people than them to get the sanitation working again are by definition part of the problem and not part of the solution. That the way you solve things is not by running away from the problem, but running towards it. And I think that the stories we tell ourselves about disasters have an outsized influence on how we react to disasters. It's one of the reasons that I've written both Walkaway, which was my my last novel and and the story The Masque of the Red Death, because the belief in the bestiality of your fellow man, it's a well-documented phenomenon in sociology, they call it "elite panic". And it's the thing that informs your first reaction when you learn that bad things are coming and it is at great odds with the actual historic lived experience of disasters. Rebecca Solnit, who is a towering genius of both history and literature and who coined the term mansplaining. I don't know if you know this as a woman, I can explain it to you.
Wendy: Oh thank you.
Cory: Mansplaining is when a man explains something to a woman. Anyway, so Solnit wrote this book called A Paradise Built in Hell, where she closely researches the history of disasters and she uses the gold standard for historical research, which is contemporaneous first-person accounts. So diaries, newspaper entries, letters from people who lived through these disasters, starting with the 1906 quake in San Francisco, but also the Haiti quake, the New York blackouts, Katrina, and so on. And they're all disasters that are remembered as times in which order broke down and people turned on each other. And what she shows is that to the extent that that ever happened and a lot of the times it's just a legend, it happened at the periphery and it was magnified by the security efforts undertaken to prevent it. So, for example, in Haiti to prevent food riots, they penned everyone who is receiving food from relief workers in a kettle, right - in a police pen with riot cops all around them, you know, armed and armoured with pepper spray who shoved them towards the crowd if they got too close and kicked off the riots that they were there to prevent. And that actually what mostly happens in disasters is they're the moment in which like the background refrigerator hum of petty grievance stops and leaves behind this ringing silence in which you realize that you have much more in common with your neighbours than you ever had as a point of difference. And it's when you rush to dig through the rubble, to rescue them. And when people pitch in, you know, when disaster strikes and the power goes out, most people have a barbecue to cook the food in the freezer and share it with their neighbours, not, you know, raid the neighbour's place to steal their generator.
Cory: And that, so to Masque of the Red Death. It's a story about preppers dying in a bunker. Rich, Ayn Rand-poisoned, you know, neo-Liberal preppers who are convinced not just that, given half a chance, the poorest will come and eat them. But also that this disaster represents an opportunity, because as the poors devour each other outside of the doors, they are ridding the world of the unnecessariat, right. The people who have nothing to contribute, the takers, not the makers. And that when the disaster is finally over and when some, you know, peons get the sanitation running again, they can emerge with their AR15s and their thumb drives full of bitcoin and assemble a harem and live out like a perpetual Frazetta painting. And they're wrong, because you can't shoot germs and they discover that in the hardest way possible. And also that the authoritarian response to pandemic always leads to disaster. That denial and the denial of individual agency just incentivizes people to not cooperate. And, you know, pandemic is when we need the most cooperation.
Wendy: So in terms of what's happening now, I mean, are there any sort of lessons that we can kind of draw from this?
Cory: Well, you know, definitely you know, we hear a lot of stories about bad behaviour. And so, you know, we have this outsized view of what's going on. But I think that for the most part, you know, when you talk to people on an individual level, you discover that the quiet truth of people's daily experience is that they care about each other and want to take care of each other. And you know, that again, like recapitulates the original sin of disaster fiction. And you know, Pulp Fiction, which science fiction is, in which I write, you know, back to that Bruce Sterling speech, and, you know, we don't do this because it's good literature we do it because it's weird literature. And Pulp Fiction is driven by plot and Pulp Fiction relying as it does on plot, you know, it's sometimes rather than choosing between man versus man and man versus nature takes a twofer and writes the story where the tsunami knocks your house down and then your neighbours come over to eat you as an easy way to get more plot into the story. But, you know, as I figured out with Walkaway and then tried to do from the other side with Masque of the Red Death, there's actually like an enormously good story to be told. On the one hand, with Walkaway in people who aren't turning against each other but have legitimate, genuine, irreconcilable differences about how to reconcile the crisis, who love each other and care about each other and still can't work together, that's like a much more interesting story, right? Like the story of the rando that you met on the street who said something unpleasant and you exchanged some words and then never saw them again is a story of conflict, but it's a low-stakes one. The story of the argument you had around the Christmas table that forever alienated you from your family. That's a really important story. That's a really dramatic story. And so arguments among people who love each other, it make for make for really good fictional fodder. And then, you know, viewing it from the other side where you show how the belief in, you know, in the bestiality of humanity is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And you watch these people who are so accomplished, you know, disintegrate as a consequence of the mind virus that they've caught from pulp fiction is a really good kind of dramatic opportunity to tell a great gripping story. I think.
Wendy: Now, finally, speaking of what makes a good story for you, are you reading anything good right now that you'd recommend?
Cory: Oh, God, I've got such a giant stack of amazing stuff I'm reading right now. So I'm reading the new Lauren Beukes novel, which is called something like Afterward. The problem with reading advanced reading copies is that like you don't see the covers because they're just plain white covers. But the new Lauren Beukes novel is looking super amazingly bad ass. I'm also reading Jo Walton's Or What You Will, which is another forthcoming book. Jo's a Welsh transplant to Montreal and who writes a lot of extremely amazing, self-referential, semi-autobiographical science fiction and fantasy and also stuff that's nothing like that. She wrote a series of cosy mysteries set in a post-war UK where they had capitulated to the Nazis and they're living alongside a Nazi Europe as a notionally independent kingdom. And it was an allegory for the war on terror when the UK was forced into a bunch of incredibly authoritarian moves by the U.S. government after 9/11 that are just spectacular alternate history novels. She got her start writing, you know, just straight up, heroic fantasy that was very imaginative. And now she's doing all kinds of amazing stuff. So the new one Or What You Will, is a novel told from the point of view of the imaginary friend of a novelist who is the person that the novelist parachutes in to breathe life into her characters while she's working. And the novelist is now 70 and has had 30 very successful novels and is getting ready to die/retire. And this imaginary friend, this character in her head has got a plan for both of them to live forever. And the story is told from this character's point of view, this imaginary friend's point of view. But it includes the novel that the person is writing. So there's a novel inside the story.
Cory: And it's all set in Florence. And Jo is very influenced by Ada Palmer, who's a Renaissance historian, who studies Florence, studies the spread of forbidden information during the Inquisitions. And she's a spectacular science fiction writer as well. And Jo and Ada keep going to Florence together. And then Jo keeps coming back and writing spectacular novels about antiquity and Florence. She had a trilogy about an island in which Athena has gathered everyone who ever wanted to live in Plato's Republic from antiquity all the way up to our future, so 22nd century, you know, computer scientists who all are sent back to prehistory to the island that eventually is gonna become Atlantis so that when it when it sinks, there will be no trace of it. And then they live out Plato's Republic as an experiment overseen by Athena. Like, it's just really amazing novels.
Wendy: That sounds incredible.
Cory: So I'm reading Or What You Will. It's really good. All of her books are good. They're also weird and amazing.
Wendy: So finally, we're back to March 23rd with me and Christina.
Christina: Wow, so I really want to read Radicalized now.
Wendy: Yeah. It's I mean, I really recommend it. It's a really good book. It's available. We have it at the library. It's available on Overdrive. But you can also, if there are a lot of holds on it and you want to read it right away, you can also get it from Cary Doctorow's website, which is it's pardon me, but it's craphound.com. C-R-A-P-H-O-U-N-D and you can you can download it there for I think I think it's pay what you like, suggested donation $10 for the e-book or something like that. So yeah, I'd recommend that.
Christina: So in the fourth novella it's as you said in the interview, it's really relevant now.
Wendy: Yeah. It happens to be. You know, I mean really in a way any of those stories could relate to things that are happening now because they're all really close. But this one just sort of happened to it at the same time as this pandemic did, so...
Christina: And it's pretty reassuring, I guess to know that in the end, we'll ultimately want to help each other versus turning against one another.
Wendy: What I really liked when he said that, because I've found that to be true, too. I mean, I remember, do you remember the, were you around for the blackout in 2003?
Christina: Yes. The community feel was amazing. It was like everyone had their boomboxes out and people were sharing food.
Wendy: Yeah, people were having barbecues like Cory said in the interview, you know, people break out their freezer, everything that's gonna spoil in their freezer, and they just cook it up and share it with their neighbours. I mean, I remember that night we were, my husband and I were in a band and we were supposed to play that night. And the club didn't have any power, but we all had acoustic instruments. So we wound up just setting up on the street. And all of these people came. One of the ladies, one of the neighbours from up the street brought out a bunch of votive candles and put them out so we had a little marquee and...
Christina: Oh wow.
Wendy: It was just, it was like the nicest. And people were bringing their own food and sort of sharing it around. It was one of the nicest nights of my life.
Wendy: Honestly, like I have such fond memories of that time. So when he was talking about how people come together in a crisis, it really reminded me of that. And I was you know, I was thinking, I hope we can find a way to do that, even though we can't be all be together physically, you know?
Wendy (later): So that's that. But you know what? This pandemic isn't going to last forever. And when it's all over, you might find that you need some inspiration about what to do next. So here's the full text of that speech by Bruce Sterling that I was talking about before. I think it sort of works as a manifesto for Doctorow's work as a writer and activist. And, you know, I think maybe you could do worse than make it a manifesto for life post-covid. So, here you go.
Oh, and heads up. There's a line in the speech that gets a little bit out there. If you're listening to this with kids or other sensitive people, you might want to skip this part. Okay.
Cory: We're not into science fiction because it's good literature. We're into it because it's weird. Follow your weird ladies and gentlemen, forget trying to pass for normal. Follow your geekdom, embrace your nerditude in the immortal words of Lafcadio Hearn, a geek of incredible obscurity whose work is still in print after a hundred years. Woo the muse of the odd. A good science fiction story is not a good story with a polite whiff of rocket fuel in it. A good science fiction story is something that knows it is science fiction and plunges through that and comes roaring out the other side. I didn't think you can last by meeting the contemporary public taste from the last quarterly report. I don't think you can last by following demographics and carefully meeting expectations. I don't know many works of art that last that are condescending. I don't know many works of art that last that are deliberately stupid. You may be a geek. You may have geek written all over you. You should aim to be one geek they'll never forget. Don't aim to be civilized. Don't hope that straight people will keep you on as some kind of pet. To hell with them. They put you here. You should fully realize what society is made of you and take a terrible revenge. Get weird, get way weird, get dangerously weird, get sophisticatedly thoroughly weird and don't do it halfway. Put every ounce of horsepower you have behind it. Have the artistic courage to recognize your own significance and culture. Okay, those of you into science fiction might recognise the classic rhetoric of cyberpunk here. Alienated punks picking up computers, menacing society. That's the clichéd press story, but they miss the best half. Punk into cyber is interesting, but cyber into punk is way dread. I'm into technological people who attack pop culture. I'm into techies gone dingo, techies gone rogue, not street punks picking up any literary junk that happens to be within their reach. But disciplined people, intelligent people, people with some technical skills and some rational thought who can break out of the arid prison that the society sets for its engineers, people who are, and I quote, dismayed by nearly every aspect of the world situation and aware on some nightmare level that the solutions to our problems will not come from the breed of dimwitted admen that we know as politicians. That still smells like hope to me. You don't get there by acculturating. Don't become a well-rounded person. Well-rounded people are smooth and dull. Become a thoroughly spiky person, grow spikes from every angle, stick in their throats like a puffer fish. If you want to woo the muse of the odd, don't read Shakespeare, read Webster's revenge plays. Don't read Homer and Aristotle, read Herodotus where he's off talking about Egyptian women having public sex with goats. If you want to read about myth, don't read Joseph Campbell, read about convulsive religion. Read about voodoo and the Millerites in the Münster Anabaptist. There are hundreds of years of extremities. There are vast legacies of mutants. There have always been geeks. There always will be geeks. Become the apotheosis of geek. Learn who your spiritual ancestors were. You didn't come from nowhere. There are reasons why you're here. Learn those reasons. Learn about the stuff that was buried because it was too experimental or embarrassing or inexplicable or uncomfortable or dangerous. I mean, that is such a Bruce Sterling rift. Oh, my God.
Wendy: I just want to applaud right now. That's so stirring.
Cory: It does make you want to stand up and salute.
Wendy: It really does.
Cory: Yeah. He's the bomb for sure.
George: Cory Doctorow is a science fiction writer and activist. His latest book is Radicalized. Christina Wong works at Toronto Public Library, and just wishes she could hug her friends again. Wendy Banks is a librarian who is kind of freaking out right now. Shelve Under: Podcast is produced by Wendy Banks, Jason Behzadian, Ted Belke, Michael Warner and Christina Wong, with production assistance from George Panayotou.