Mr. Doctorow is an optimist. Even when characters in "Overclocked"
are getting their ass-cheeks sawed off for black-market meat, there is
a relentlessly positive undercurrent to his stories: things can get
better, things will get better if we work for it, and technology can
help. Of course, it might have been technology that created the mess
in the first place, but that's just how things go.
I'm uncomfortable with it. It reminds me too much of the Bright
Future Of The Atom in the old pulps, and I am only too aware of how
perverted such visions can become. Free electricity and cheap space
travel turn into thermonuclear war, thousand-year waste problems, and
dirty bombs. So too may the computational visions of Mr. Doctorow and
others turn sour.
Not that he is unaware. All six of the stories in "Overclocked" are
explicitly about the interface between technology and society going
wrong, often in a spectacularly horrifying way. But even when he is
describing horrors, there is a bright and cheery detachment that
separates the reader from the visceral experience, letting them know
that it will probably all turn out OK.
I take "Stories of the Future Present" to be a nod to the accelerating
rate of change that is hurling us all into the future, whether we are
ready for it or not. But at the same time, the book might well have
been titled "Stories of the Present Future." There is just something,
well, trendy about Mr. Doctorow's vision of the future.
And maybe I'm giving Mr. Doctorow a hard time for things that are no
more his fault than the Bright Future Of The Atom was the fault of the
pulp writers. It's not like optimism is in any short supply in
science fiction either: certainly I don't gripe at Bujold for the fact
that Miles Vorkosigan will always come out on top, or at Weber for the
fact that I damned well know Manticore will win the war.
Mr. Doctorow, however, feels to me like he is in a different position
than these other authors. Like his ideas feel so familiar and trendy
to me because he is probably one of the people setting the zeitgeist
of what our present future is. Reading these stories, I think of
Patrick Farley's story "The Guy I Almost Was" about his journey to
disillusionment with "cyber" culture in the early 1990s. So when I
read his stories, I end up critiquing not just the writing but how his
ideas connect with my thoughts and fears about the world.
If you haven't guessed it by now, let me spell it out for you: his
writing is damned good. Mr. Doctorow has an easy, flowing style that
drags you along the page as fast as you're willing to follow. He is
fluent with his material in a way that few authors are, and he has a
terrifically good grasp of Clarke's Third Law. It takes great
restraint and skill to both understand a technological conjecture
thoroughly and show us how it feels to an ordinary person who doesn't
care how it works, just what it does.
In this end, if you want a frightening, well-thought journey into our
present future, read this book. Just be careful about the memes it
may infect you with.