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With A Little Help by Cory Doctorow

01/05/2011. Contributed by Gareth D Jones

Buy With A Little Help in the USA - or Buy With A Little Help in the UK

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pub: CorDoc-Co Ltd. 357 page small enlarged paperback. Price: by donation, be generous and give $10 (US). ISBN: 978-0-557-94305-0.

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If I were to self-publish a collection of my own stories, I probably wouldn’t sell a huge amount of copies. One of the main arguments against self-publishing is the lack of editorial input, potentially leading to the publication of things that should have remained unpublished. Of course, when the author is someone rather well-known like Cory Doctorow and the stories have already appeared in respectable venues that does away with the problem. This isn’t just another self-published volume, however, but a publishing experiment, for the reasons which are explained in the introduction and conclusion. The basic idea is that the entire collection is published under a creative commons licence, can be downloaded for free, gives credits to those who spot typos and includes a story commissioned for the volume that is accompanied by an advertisement. So, several experiments I guess. ‘With A Little Help’ contains thirteen stories, mostly of the near-future variety. I enjoyed all of them, but I’ll just relate some of the highlights.

‘The Things That Me Me Weak And Strange Get Engineered Away’ is told from the intriguing point of view of a data-mining monk who emerges into the outside world after years of seclusion to track down an Anomaly. He discovers the world to be intimidating and baffling and his confusion helps us see the benevolent dictatorship that has developed outside. Like several of the other stories, current trends in computing are developed to a satirical degree as an exploration of where society might end up.

Computer networks modelled on ant colonies direct the planet’s infrastructure in ‘Human Readable’ and also cause on-going arguments about whether mankind should rely on systems that can’t be controlled. The two characters central to the story, Trish and Rainer, are probably the best developed in the volume, as they work together, spar with each other, and experiences the ups and downs of the ants. It’s an intriguing idea, wonderfully told.

‘Liberation Spectrum’ is based, like several of the other stories, on genuinely possible technology, but explored through an original and entertaining storyline. The technology in question, a new type of radio network that I’m not going to attempt to explain, is being sold and installed by a multi-national company that travels round in a tour bus. Great way to cut overheads, if slightly uncomfortable. The way such a unique company would operate and the personal interactions of the staff make for a great story.

In ‘Chicken Little’, the super-rich can extend their lives indefinitely, preserved in vats with a huge supporting staff to take care of their every need. The question that occupies sales exec Leon is what can you sell to someone who already has everything they need. As Leon pursues that lucrative commission, we’re given a view of what ultimate power and money can accomplish and what it means to society and to individuals who come to their attention.

‘Epoch’ is the only original story of the collection and looks at the classic question of whether an artificial intelligence is truly alive and whether it can or should be controlled. Odell is the systems administrator responsible for maintaining BIGMAC, the power-hungry and anachronistic AI, who is scheduled to be turned off. Although deep and meaningful questions are explored, this is not a heavy tale of woe, but a touching tale of a doomed relationship.

This is a solid collection of well-written, thought-provoking stories, entertaining and interesting throughout. So the experiment is not whether an author can produce a decent collection himself, but whether the publishing model works. There’s no doubt that the stories work, but we’ll have to leave it to Cory Doctorow to tell us whether his publishing venture works out.

Gareth D. Jones

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This book has 12 votes in the sci-fi charts

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