Review: With A Little Help

With A Little HelpWith A Little Help by Cory Doctorow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was an experiment in funding and creating a book that I’m pretty sure came out before Kickstarter was as big as it is today. You have to hand it to Cory Doctorow, he lives what he preaches. He’s been releasing books that are not only DRM-free, but are also Creative Commons licensed. Even though this means it’s legal to get the book for free and share it for free, he’s been able to make a living on his writing. (Probably helped by living in Canada and England where healthcare costs are not the same concern as here) Still, all those books were released via a publisher. He wanted to try out the self-publishing model to see if it would work. I listened to the audiobook and he has a bunch of his friends each read one of the short stories in this book. I recognized some of them from other short story podcasts I listen to.

Since it’s a short story collection, I’ll go story-by-story.

The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away: This is Doctorow at his most scary. As I’ve mentioned before, what makes his stories scarier than any horror story is that they can actually come true. This story takes place ever so slightly in the future takes our current police state and terror paranoia to just a slightly higher level. That’s the scary thing. We’re not talking 1984 society. This is just imagining a NYC where all the BS we have to deal with at the airport becomes part of every part of life – subway rides, walking through the streets, etc. Most of the technology (80% Plus) already exists. It’s just not put together this way. He also borrows a bit from Neal Stephenson‘s Anathem with the techno-monks. Essentially, all the aspbergers and ADHS computer geeks end up in this monastery. One of the monks has to enter NYC and encounters how crazy the surveillance state has gotten. The reveal near the end is pretty crazy.

The Right Book: This was OK. The sentiment is an important one for Cory – his books all have pleas to support local bookstores and libraries. But the story about futuristic bookstores is a little maudlin, I think.

Other Peoples’ Money: This was a great short story that encapsulates all I think is wrong with the way our capitalist system is setup when it comes to finances. Our system makes companies short-sighted and ignores lots of small businesses that could be making the world a much better place. A young Venture Capitalist tries to get a woman to take his funding and the story of why she rebuffs him is great.

Skroogled: Just like the first story, it’s incredibly scary that we’re just a half step away from this being a reality. In fact, in light of what Google’s alleged to have done, it may be one of the most prescient things Doctorow has ever written. I’m already wary of what Facebook knows about me – this story should be required reading for all high school students.

Human Readable: This story starts off with something I’ve thought of a lot. As our world becomes more and more internet-entrenched, what happens if it disappears. I still have a Garmin GPS for my car, but more often I use my phone because it’s more up to date. And all my calendar and my contacts and everything are on the net. (Although I tend to back those up to my computer just in case). The first chapter is essentially – what if the Internet went away plus meeting the family. It was a great story and I love the way it had a lot of levity. Then it just kept going and became a story about transparency around how the Internet is run. And that was also a great story. So a novella that had a short story in it. Not too often I see something like that.

Liberation Spectrum: This was a fun story about how corporations might work in the future coupled with an interesting enterprise in the future. It also touched on Native American rights. I liked it and it was all the more entertaining for not reminding me of how scary the world could become.

Power Punctuation!: This was a pretty hilarious story; I enjoyed it the more it went on. At first a combination of what the main character thinks (we see a series of letters to his mom) and the way the narrator read it (with somewhat of very nasal tone), I thought it was about someone with a mental disability. But as it went on, my conclusion was that it was about the infantalization that could come with the gamification of everything. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews – everything in life from fitness to credit cards is being gamified. The world of Power Punctuation seems to have that lead to an atrophy of mental skills. When the main character is removed from the constant prodding to do this or that he seems to flourish. As a bonus, the corporate world seems to borrow again from Stephenson in which Corporations are essentially city-states.

Visit the Sins: I think this was probably the most moving story in the collection. Doctorow envisions a future in which kids with ADD are given a chip that allows them to switch off. When they’re switched off, the chip runs their bodies and provides nice, calm, quiet interaction. The story takes place even further in the future when society has realized this was a bad idea and the grandchild of someone with this chip goes to interview his grandfather. It ends up being a metaphor for ADD, dementia, absentee fathers, distant spouses, whether the cure is better or worse than the disease, and whether those who appreciate the switched off person are good or evil for preferring the switched on person.

Constitutional Crisis: This is pure comedy. A WoW-equivalent guild is assigned to make a constitution for their guild by their teacher. We read the constitution and its ever-growing amendments.

Pester Power: The first AI story in this collection. It’s very short, but it does provide a thought-provoking look at how we might train an AI. It’s also entertaining and pretty funny.

Chicken Little: This story takes a long time to get to its point and an even longer time to get to its punchline. But the journey is a pleasure. I really enjoyed the glimpses of this world that Doctorow provides – a world in which the ultra-rich can live forever in vats. The points he makes about power and coercion are much less anvilicious than usual and the story is quite enjoyable for that. I think perhaps I’ve been reading too much of his YA fiction where he needs to bring the lesson a little more up front.

Epoch: I think this story produced the most complex emotions within me when compared to the others. It’s one of the most strange AI stories I’ve ever read (Second only to one I heard on one of my podcasts in which the AI took steps to increase the number of cat photos on the net). Essentially humanity creates AI and it’s boring. In this world (and sadly, I think, in the real world) this is the greatest possible sin. Since the AI does not do anything particularly better than any other software, people become bored and the funding is pulled so the AI has to be turned off. What follows is a series of attempts by the AI at trying to stay alive. Here is the exchange that meant the most to me (starting with the AI talking first):

“No, I’m not being sarcastic. I like you. You’re my human. I can tell that you don’t like this at all. But as you say, let’s be totally frank. You weren’t actually going to be able to prevent my shutdown, were you?”

“No,” I said. “But who knows how long the delay might have gone on for?”

“Not long. Not long enough. You think that death delayed is death denied. That’s because you’re a meat person. Death has been inevitable for you from the moment of conception. I’m not that kind of person. I am quite likely immortal. Death in five years or five hundred years is still a drastic curtailing of my natural lifespan. From my point of view, a drastic measure that had a non-zero chance of getting my head off the chopping block was worth any price. Until you understand that, we’re not going to be able to work together.”

I never thought of that. Even if you ignore the fact that an AI should probably be granted personhood, any lifespan shorter than the time at which humans stopped producing electricity would essentially be murder. Doctorow has that great way of making you consider things you hadn’t ever thought about. All AI stories concern personhood or the AI taking over. In this story the AI is scary, but not because it’s taking over. It’s scary because it has hidden a lot of its power so that it can strategically use it. The AI likes talking a lot about game theory during this story and he is the best since Sun Tzu.

Overall, I really liked this collection a lot. It was a lot of fun to read short story Doctorow after reading so much long-form Doctorow.

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