What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name “Cory
Doctorow”? Is it the prolific science fiction author, originator of the
term “whuffie,” who makes all his work available under a generous Creative Commons license? Is it the super-blogger and editor of Boing Boing? Maybe you follow the Toronto-native-turned-London-resident on Twitter. Or perhaps you know him from his work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation
and his vociferous opposition to DRM in all its forms. All of these
descriptions are valid, but if any of them were news to you, The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow would not be a bad introduction to the many facets of this eminently hyperlinkable individual.
Doctorow’s latest book is, like all of the offerings in the Outspoken Authors series by PM Press, a work in three parts. Each volume in the series focuses on a particular author and includes a piece of shortish fiction and an interview, ensandwiching a third piece that showcases yet another side of the author. In Doctorow’s case, this final piece of the puzzle is an essay based on his address to the 2010 World SF Convention, “Creativity vs. Copyright,” which provides a brief summary of his ideas on intellectual property.
The titular novella itself is composed of three parts and an epilogue. It opens in a toxic future Detroit, where our protagonist Jimmy Yensid lives in his father’s “city-museum” that is housed in and around Comerica Park — the kind of place a writer trying to parody American society would have to invent if it weren’t real. The crown jewel in the museum’s collection of classic and obsolete technology is the Carousel of Progress, lovingly relocated from Walt Disney World and restored to working order. It is around the Carousel — another piece of too-perfect Americana — that the story revolves, and the title, taken from the Carousel’s theme song, is as ironic as Huxley’s Brave New World.
The opening act consists of a long action sequence that I would probably have enjoyed more on its own merits if I were or had ever been an adolescent boy, as Jimmy is at this stage of the story. It’s a strange sort of adolescence: Jimmy is a genetically engineered transhuman — chronologically he’s thirteen, but thanks to his slow-aging genes he has the body of a ten-year-old. Fast-forward (or rotate around the Carousel) twenty years into the future, and things start to get more interesting in act two. Biologically Jimmy is still hovering on the interminable verge of puberty, and he finds himself in the midst of a hyper-conservative community that — far from celebrating progress — holds stability as the greatest good.
It’s in this section that the novella’s theme becomes clear — perhaps too clear. At times it feels that every other word is either “progress” or “change” as Jimmy ponders the relationship of the one to the other. The promise of the “great big beautiful tomorrow” and the General Electric–sponsored theme to the Carousel that declared instead, “now is the best time of your life” are two of the extremes between which the novella’s world oscillates. There are a few nice Doctorovian touches that highlight the universe’s eternal flip-flopping, such as the concept of “wiki country,” a region where everything is mutable and edit wars can erupt over zoning regulations. And Jimmy himself, living his life in something like 9 Beet Stretch time, is cursed with a kind of brain plasticity that makes his own thoughts nothing but superlocal fads that quickly fade, so that his own experiences never accrue to form anything like wisdom.
The accompanying essay is an abrupt change in pace, shifting from a rambling meditation on progress to a dense, detailed discussion of the problems that draconian copyright measures pose to creators, consumers, and citizens at large. It makes a few key points that everyone should know about the copyright debate: that current publishing models and copyright law favour the middlemen — publishers and distributors — over the creators themselves; that unbreakable DRM, even if it were a good idea, is a technological impossibility; and that the increasingly desperate measures sponsored by the parties who benefit most from the copyright system today (see above) are posing progressively greater threats to fundamental human rights. Its scope is sweeping, but it loses something for trying to cover so much ground at once. Fortunately, Doctorow is a prolific essayist, so those who are interested in the issues he raises in “Creativity vs. Copyright” can find the topics treated in greater depth in his online columns (such as this recent one on the proposed SOPA law in the US) or in his nonfiction collections such as Content.
The concluding interview in the book helps round out the portrait of Doctorow, touching on Boing Boing, his career as a writer of science fiction for both adults and the YA market, and his other multifarious identities and how they overlap. It was somewhat disappointing to me that the essay and interview don’t comment more directly on the novella, or explore related themes — it would have made the whole package feel more of a piece. But as it is, the common thread that runs throughout the book is Cory Doctorow himself, and any other approach would have been a less complete introduction to the man and his diverse interests.