A refugee takes great risks to get control of her toaster. A superhero makes a misguided attempt to address racism and police corruption. A husband’s frustrations with health insurance coverage for his sick wife lead him down an internet rabbit hole to radicalization. A wealthy finance-bro retreats to his underground bunker when civilization gets unstable. These are the plots of the four novellas comprising Cory Doctorow’s “Radicalized.” They are all extremely timely — they practically scream, “TOPICAL!” The subtitle is in fact, “Four Tales of Our Present Moment.” Subtle messaging isn’t the goal here, but the stories are told with the nuance that complex issues deserve, and the characters are given a depth that makes you care about them.
The first story, “Unauthorized Bread,” is the strongest of the collection. It deftly explores themes of a refugee crisis, stark income disparities, exploitation of vulnerable populations and how much proprietary technology dictates our lives. When the main character learns how to hack the software in her toaster so it will make any kind of bread she wants, she soon ends up liberating appliances throughout her apartment building. As the risks of these actions become apparent, she is faced with difficult decisions.
While illustrating the complexities of racism in this country, “Model Minority” also seems to be taking the air out of our current superhero obsession. A superhero finds that systemic racism might be the one villain he can’t defeat. Men in tights might not be our salvation after all.
In “Radicalized,” a woman’s potential cancer cure is thwarted by her insurance company. Her husband looks to the internet for support and to vent his rage. He finds many in his situation and in a similar state of mind. While there is support, there are also those encouraging each other’s worst impulses. Violent acts ensue.
“The Masque of the Red Death” is the story of a wealthy man who works in the finance industry and his “fortress.” This fortress is a relatively swanky bunker designed so he, and the carefully selected group of people he allows to join him, can wait out the collapse of civilization. The story shares its title with a famous Edgar Allen Poe story. If that story is familiar to you, then it will foreshadow the conclusion of this one. This novella (fittingly placed at the end of the book) questions if retreating from crisis in the name of self-preservation is the best response, or if rallying together with others is.
While each novella in this collection takes on difficult issues and presents disturbing possibilities, they are not without entertainment value. Many are laced with humor, and the well-crafted stories pull you along. Cory Doctorow has created a collection that does what the best of speculative fictions does — it is thought provoking while also immersing you in a compelling narrative. It might even prompt a few people to try and change the direction we are heading in.