SFRevu Interview: Cory Doctorow Conducted by Ernest Lilley
Feature Book: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow
Left: Cory shows off his gadgets at the 2000 NYC SFWA reception, shortly after winning the John Campbell Award for best new writer. photo: Ernest LIlley
Cory Doctorow Interview:
Ern: Your first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, is set in Disney World, and looking around the web I've come to conclude that you have a Disney jones...
Cory: Yeah, and I have since I was a very young lad. My parents are schoolteachers, and my grandparents are little old Jewish people from Toronto, which means they spend their winters in Fort Lauderdale. So the confluence of these facts is that I always had Christmas break free in with my parents in Fort Lauderdale. My grandparents lived in a gated guarded seniors. community called Century Village, which is actually a franchise, though my dad called it cemetery village. And there's not a whole lot for a six or seven or eight or nine year old to do in cemetery village, so we'd get in my grandfather's land yacht and we would drive to central Florida and go to Disney World. So I had string of incredibly formative experiences in the theme park. I was ready for that sort of techno-utopia because my parents were Trotskyites, my dad was is a computer scientist and mathematician that went into teaching.
Thereís one thing thatís absolutely true about Marxists, and thatís that they are techno-utopians. You canít be a Marxist unless you believe that technology can solve social problems. This was kind of confluent with Disneyís beliefs as expressed in the park, so there was always a kind of schizophrenic admiration of the work in the Disney park. On the one hand Walt was kind of a force for horrendous American materialism, and as a global exploiter while on the other hand there was this techno-utopianismÖthe Disney parks were so compelling, we kept going back to them again and again. That really left its mark on me.
There is something really fabulous about the Disney parks, and I tried to write about this in the book, thereís a level of finish in the parks, especially the parts that Walt put his hands on, thatís above and beyond what the market demands, and in this way itís not really a capitalist venture the way we think of it. In a working market you just do what the market calls for, and putting icing on the cake isnít something that a rational actor does if the market will settle for a nice cake.
Ern: But Walt didnít come out of the ďgood enoughĒ generation.
Cory: I donít know about that. Doing what was good enough has always been the standard for capitalism, the only reason you do more than the market demands is because youíre doing art. Youíre doing something that gives you aesthetic satisfaction, and if feels right. Commerce is stuff you do because there is a demand signal.
For all the detractors of the Disney parks, and I hear their arguments, there is stuff present and visible in the parks that is art and not commerce by that definition.
Ern: Of the three parks, Disneyland, Disney World and Epcot, do you have a favorite?
Cory: Itís an interesting question. Iím a fan of Disney World because itís my home base, itís where I grew up. Certainly thereís a lot in the Disney World complex that isnít in the other parks, though none of it so well realized as the Magic Kingdom itself. In aggregate there is as much cool outside the Magic Kingdom
There is a kind of cleverness in the California park, the Disneyland, not the California adventure, which is dreadful, but in the original Magic Kingdom that is the result of not having the budget to do what Walt wanted to do and having the necessity of being incredibly creative. You know when they opened the park they ran out of money. Roy Disney, who held the purse strings, wouldnít release the cash to build DisneylandÖhe thought it was a bad ideaÖso Walt raised the money privately by doing a lot of things including cashing in his life insurance. He also broke the Hollywood cartelís boycott of television. They believed it would crash the movie houses so they been withholding their content from television. So he went to NBC studios who had this crying need for color content because they had just, at the FCCís insistence, upgraded their equipment for color broadcast. So for seven million dollars he opened up his vaults and he broadcast a lot of color movies as well as infomercials for Disneyland.
Ern: So that was what we watched on Sunday nights as kids. So, why havenít you written a history of Disney?
Cory: I did pitch something around once. It would have been called the ďAmbivalent-Obsessiveís Guide to DisneylandĒ. It would have been sort of like movie reviews, but of all the different rides. I was going to write it with a friend of mine who viewed the parks with sort of deep suspicion.Öbut nobody was biting. Itís still got a warm place in my heart if there are any editors out there with money.
Ern: Youíve done a bunch of tag-team writing. For instance there was the ďIdiotís Guide to Science FictionĒ (see review) which you wrote with Karl Schroeder, whom I think a lot of (see our interview with Karl). How did that come about?
Cory: I got a pitch from an editor at the Idiotís Guide publisher, and he said they were thinking of doing an Idiotís Guide to publishing SF and knew me from the Well, (www.well.com) an online community weíre both part of. Was I interested?
Of course I was, but since Iíd never actually written a novel I wasnít sure I was exactly the right person for it Ö but my friend Karl, who had just published his first novel, which was very good (Ventus: See Review) would be good. And we pitched doing a piece that wasnít about how to chat up Lester Del Rey over lunchÖbut is targeted at new SF writers that are trying to break into the field. Some stuff is timeless wisdom, but the business stuff changes from year to year.
Ern: So how did you know Karl? I mean, youíre both Canadians, but itís a big country.
Cory: Well Judith Merril got fed up with the US politics during the Vietnam War and she moved to Toronto. She donated her personal Science Fiction collection to the Toronto public Library and they created a reference libraryÖyou couldnít check books out of it. They went on to assemble one of the really great SF reference libraries in the world.
Ern: Is it still there?
Cory: Oh, yeah. It was originally called the ďSpaced Out LibraryĒ and now it has the much more dignified name of the ďMerril Collection of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and SpeculationĒ though there are still people in Toronto that still call itÖthe Spaced Out Library.
So Judy was the writer in residence, and Toronto writers went to her to find out how to be Science Fiction writers and she started teaming them up according to level. Some of those groups are still going, but the one that I met Karl in has crashed. Another one started out of its ashes called the Cecil Street Irregulars, which I attend when Iím in there..and thatís Karl Schroeder, Michael Skeet, David Nickle, and me and Sarah SimmonsÖand thatís how I know Karl.
Judy was kind of an amazing force for good in the Toronto Science Fiction world. One of the things she did was to get a grant from the school board to go around and start writers workshops that were founded on Clarion principles at High Schools all around Toronto. When I arrived at the alternative school that I went to for five of the seven years of high school that I did, there was an amazing, brilliant, writers workshop that had been started by Judy seven years before and was still chugging along.
So I was workshopping there as well. She was an incredible presence, and I think that Torontoís blooming science fiction writerdom is attributable to the work that Judith Merril did.
Ern: Which alternative school did you go to?
Cory: Itís called SEED school, and was started in 1969 and SEED stands for Self Exploration something Education and Discovery. Though I suspect people would rather it didnít make up a word that meant anything. It was an incredible school. It was basically started by students that ceded from the Toronto School Board, who just walked out of the school one day and started meeting elsewhere. They started holding classes and finding people who could teach them. Eventually they got pulled back into the Board. Over the years itís faced a lot of struggles and right now itís very embattled. The thing about SEED is that you could study whatever interested you if you could find somebody to teach it. Itís kind of like a scene from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where as much of the education was about learning how to get educated as it was about the things you were nominally studying.
It was brilliant. It made me the man I are today. I did five years there voluntarily, cause I didnít want to leave.
When I wound up in university, I found myself studying stuff that was a far less edifying, far less interesting, and certainly a lot more expensive, as SEED was free. Itís a public school. I dropped out of four schools in two years trying to find the right school before concluding that there wasnít oneÖ.and I never went back.
Ern: As Karl Schroeder never went back.
Cory: and my editor at TorÖPatrick Nielsen Hayden. A number of very, very sharp and witty people in SF didnít finish high school or college. I think itís one of the things that happens to people who are bright and who read a lot of Science Fiction. They realize that the system really isnít targeted at teaching them. Itís kind of a shame, it would be nice if people stayed in the system and kicked against it.
Right now thereís a broad scale attack on alternate education and SEED is under attack. Itís really a pity, itís the one from which all the other are descended, and it has such a glorious alumni, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics, Marshal McLuhanís kid, and a number of others.
Itís really dreadful that it might go away because educators want to fit a one size fits all solution on the students in Toronto.
Ern: I went to an alternative college (College ďAĒ) in New York State for my first two years of college. It was a great experience. Unsurprisingly, I did some seminars on Science Fiction.
Cory: I did a lot of Poly-Sci. I did a credit by using reference libraries to find every single quote by George Bush and correlate them with every other single quote I could find from George Bush and put them together in a hyper-card stack.
Ern: Is that on Craphound (www.craphound.com, Coryís famous blogsite)?
Cory: Itís lost to history, somewhere on a bitbucket on a crashed hard drive. It would be pretty trivial to do today.
Ern: And you have twice as many George Bushes to work with.
Cory: This is the kind of muckraking sport that the internet has made possible. There is a kind of new journalistic sport of assembling plausible accounts which contradict the official line and exposing it. It was the kind of thing that only investigative journalists with large budgets were able to doÖbut now itís everybodyís game.
Ern: Is that good?
Cory: If you think that Trent Lott was an unwholesome lawmaker, it is. His initial gaff at his birthday party would have just fizzled if it werenít for all the supplementary research.
(Senator Lottís gaff on race can be explored at length via Google: Lott Thurman Race 1948)
Ern: So you grew up in Toronto?
Cory: Born and raised. Except for brief experiences in Costa Rica and Baja California/Mexico. I spent 95% of my life up to two years ago in Toronto.
Ern: And you were born around 1970?
Cory: July 17th, the day that Disneyland opened, 1971 the year that Disney World opened.
Ern: When was your first big reading experience?
Cory: The first adult book I ever read to myself was Alice in Wonderland, and I was hooked. I never looked back. Today there's this weird-ass clinical diagnosisÖhyper-lexiaÖpeople who canít stop reading. From that day onward I never stopped reading pretty compulsively. I think thatís pretty common in SF readers.
Ern: If you donít count that as SF, what was your first identifiably SF or Fantasy experience?
Cory: It was actually a story-telling experience. My dad had grown up on Conan comics and the Robert E. Howard books, and he retrofitted Conan storylines into Socialist parables that he used to tell me on long car trips. Starring a multiethnic, gender balance trio called Harry, Mary and Larry. So I grew up on these sort of redacted Conan stories that been worked out as parables about workers paradise stories. There are a lot of first and second generation Marxists in Science Fiction today, youíve got people like Stephen Brust, and China Miťville and Ken McLeod. The techno-utopianism is the one thing you never shake when you grow up in a Marxist household; itís the unshakeable faith that technology can affect positive social change.
Cory: Yeah, that was "2000 Year Checkup", to the special Youth Issue of On-Spec magazine. That was about a year after I started sending in submissions to Asimov's...but it actually took me ten years to make a sale there.
Ern: This was after joining the first writers group?
Cory: About the same time.
Ern: Let's talk about Punk. I was on a panel with James Patrick Kelly, Rob Sawyer and Paul Levinson, where we all agreed that Cyberpunk had died from its own success. Having declared victory, it had nothing left to do.
Cory: I don't like that thesis very much at all.
Ern: Great. So tell me why not. Did it become something else? Do you consider yourself a punk of some flavor?
Cory: I don't know if I'm a punk or not. I think that literarily, Cypberpunk was a genre that treated computers as metaphors for social phenomena, and explored those phenomena by extending the metaphors. That's what Science Fiction has always been about. Here's a technology that I will use as a metaphor for something that's going on in the real world, to tell a story about the real world.
The thing about cyberpunks is that they were rigorously non rigorous. They didn't care that the computes they described did not and could not be substantiated in real computing. There's a funny bit that a Microsoft employee wrote after Gibson had spoken there, in which Gibson admitted somewhat shyly that he had been hanging around "Geek Bars" to pick up geek slang when he was writing Neuromancer. That he hadn't gotten it quite right, which is why "Microsoft" is a wafer of software, rather than a software company, because he hadn't twigged that Microsoft was a company when he was writing it.
So, I think the generation that is writing today grew up in a world that is primarily defined by technology that in some was was predicted and was also inspired by the cyberpunk writers. They are fairly mimetic - they're rigorous about their technology - and their god-in-a-box, their "deus ex" is Nanotech and Biotech. Which is still outrageous and still fuzzy enough that you can write what you want to make your point, and most people won't know the difference.
Ern: Biotech and Nanotech seem to be less things that individuals can control, or create. They seem to be forces that act at the behest of corporations or their own agendas.
Cory: To the extent that they aren't the province of garage hackers for the most part, you're correct. But I take exception to the notion that Bio and Nanotech will never be personally useful. For instance, there aren't garage hackers who are making microchips, and there never have been. You make microchips in giant fabrication facilities in Southeast Asia. And yet there were avid computer hackers that did things with microchips that were very exciting.
Ern: Point taken. What are you working on next?
Cory: I've actually just sent in the proposal for one of the two novels I'm working on and I'm hoping to have the other proposal done shortly. The book I just turned a proposal in for is called, "User Bin God", and it's a novel about singularity mysticism, about people who believe they can overclock their brain and become trans-human and who are in a cult that is built around doing this. It has a lot to do with how I think mysticism spreads and how different schools of mystical belief are rivals and how they aren't...and how they compete with each other.
I've just written an editorial about this for an upcoming issue of the Whole Earth Review...they're doing a Singularity issue. In it I describe what I call the "funny hat school of mysticism" which is the intersection of a funny hat and revealed wisdom. So, basically, if you are give some level of Masonic truth, while you're wearing a funny hat and standing in the inner room, you have a mystical experience. There's a biochemical - neurochemical experience that goes on. But if you read that same information badly scanned and posted on the web that you find through Google...not only do you not have a mystical experience, but it inoculates you against future mystical experiences in respect to that information.
So once you read an early draft of the Church of Scientology...
Ern: ... you're ideological immune system kicks in and develops Scientology antibodies.
Cory: That's right. The exception to this is
Trans-humanist mysticism, and Trans-humanism is just as much a mystical school of thought as anything else. It's transcendental, and it
relies on articles of faith.
talking about a lot of things that are demonstrably true and a lot of
things that will never be demonstrably true, that you have to take as an
article of faith.
Presumably this is true for humans as well. So no matter how fine a scan of the brain you have, if you're missing the gonads you're likely to have something that's maybe recognizably sentient, but still isn't "you".
So, the interesting thing about singularity mysticism is that its "funny hat" is the internet. The way that you have a mystical experience in the singularity is to look up documents about the singularity on the web and that's your mystic rune. So it suggests a king of competitive environment or ecology for mystical belief in which mystical belief is "zero sum" because you're holding one or another mystical belief.
You can out compete another cult by placing more information about them in places where Google can find it. So, I'm writing this novel, which has this terrible working title and I'm looking for a better one than "User Bin God".
(Note to the reader: If you're still with us at this point, you might consider getting a copy of Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash (See Review), which is about information transfer between the brain and computers...and clay tablets. Reading it will either prepare you for greater wisdom when User Bin God comes out, or inoculate you against it...but it's a good book.)
Ern: We're agreed that the concept sounds great, but the title sounds bad. I've been giving a lot of thought to the whole body as seat of self while reading all these stories about people uploading their "consciousness" into a computer.
Cory: Right. I have to thank Bruce Sterling for setting me straight. I was at his place in September for a Turkey city workshop, and we had this discussion. It's a traditional Socratic dialog of Trans-humanists, which goes: "If I amputate you arm, are you still you? What if I amputate your other arm? What if I replace one section of your brain with a mechanical replica, and so on and so on."
So it showed me that the answer to "If I amputate one arm are you still you..." is "Absolutely not!" I'm a different person. He had a very good point. You might be a person, but you won't necessarily be the same person.
Ern: Is Sterling the "Cowboy Character" in Down and Out?
Cory: No...God no...Jesus! (Chortles for a while). Not in a million years...not between now and the heat death of the universe.
Ern: Then who is he?
Cory: I wonder. I wonder who he is. I think he's the pastiche of a lot of rounders and ne'er-do-wells that I've known through my life, that have sort of staggered in and out of my life while going about their adventures.
Part of the process of becoming an adult, I think, is watching people when you're young and they're young, who seem to get away with everything. And when you're older and they're older, you realize that they actually didn't get away with anything. That they're making hashes of their lives.
Ern: Been there.
Cory: Certainly I know a lot of people who are very sad actually. People I admired and respected a great deal but are really going nowhere very fast, who wind up living on the streets. It's very sad. Sterling was the furthest thing from my mind. I don't think I'd even met him at that point.
Ern: And the other novel?
Cory: The other book I'm working on is called "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town", and it's a big fat urban fantasy mystery novel about trolls and golems and winged people and wireless networking.
Ern: Of course.
Cory: It's set in Toronto and it involves this guy who is the eldest of ten brothers, each stranger than the last. There's one who's an island, and there's one who's a corpse, and there's three that nest like Russian dolls and so forth. The corpse is actually murdered by the other brothers but has come back to hunt them. The eldest brother has long since moved to Toronto from Northern Ontario, and has retired to write, and he's being stalked by this person and he and his plucky band of crusty, punk, wireless network hackers end up tracking down his rouge brother. It's a strange fantasy book, and I've been having a lot of fun writing it.
Ern: Is that all you've been working on?
Cory: No, well, I've got an anthology project I've been working on that I can't say much about, that I'm co-editing and pitching around right now. It's not open to submission. It's all reprint. Make sure that you print that.
(Note: The project Cory is talking about is A Place So Foreign and Eight More. Introduction by Bruce Sterling, a story collection coming out from Four Walls Eight Windows this fall)
Ern: Is there anything else you'd like to plug?
Cory: Well, the novel that I've got coming out in November is Eastern Standard Tribe, from Tor. It's a novel about cabalistic secret societies of people who are bound together by the fact that they all rise and sleep on the same schedule...so they're sort of the descendants of the stock traders and so on who all live on New York time, even though they are living somewhere else in the world. I sent a copy to Warren Ellis who wrote Transmet (Transmet is an adult SF comic about a future so gritty it could be today...except for the aliens. http://www.transmetropolitan.com/), an he wrote this great thing in his newsletter today, he wrote:
I'm eight chapters into Cory Doctorow's new novel and I want his blood. Easter Standard Tribe is to be published in November and Cory emailed it over for me to read and provide a cover blurb. Here I am still slowly building something called "self tribes" and Cory sends me something called Easter Standard Tribe. You can imagine how happy I was. So far the book is striking minors off the same chords as Self Tribes. Plus it's really bloody well written. Me Kill Cory Doctorow Now. I'll write a nice blurb for his book first though, it can be the doomed bastard's epitaph. I'll send a squad of finely trained San Francisco death pervert girls into his warehouse home where they will wear his dangly bits as grisly murder trophies.
Ern: You should use that for the blurb.
Cory: I'm thinking of it.