“When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth” by Cory Doctorow: A “Rewired” Review

Copyright © 2007 by Tachyon Publications.

My reviews of Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology conclude with “When Sysadmins Ruled The World,” a story by Cory Doctorow that was originally published in Jim Baen’s Universe in 2006.

Felix Tremont is a systems administrator who gets called away at one in the morning to fix a crashed server for a financial company.  However, he and the other sysadmins soon find themselves stuck at the office when a worldwide catastrophe strikes, a combination of bio- and cyberterrorism that wipes out thousands of human lives and crashes most of the civilized world.  With his wife and newborn son gone, Felix is one of the surviving tech geeks responsible for maintaining the Internet–now a vital resource in the post-apocalyptic scenario–though it tasks their survival instincts when supplies starts to run low.  Eventually, after several conflicts on the Web and in the office, Felix and his partner Van set out to see what’s still salvageable in the outdoor world and if they can fix it as well as they’ve tried to fix the Web.

Felix is definitely not a classic cyberpunk hero.  He has a steady job with a wife and a kid.  He doesn’t go after corporations and governments because he has a job to do and they would crash without his expertise anyway.  Another key aspect about his character–about all the sysadmins in this story–is that he has a very deep sense of responsibility as both a proud geek and an admin for the Internet.  This shows up when he runs and gets elected as the first Prime Minister for the “Distributed Republic of Cyberspace,” though he doesn’t get to do much in that role.  Felix and Co. are guys who would rather put society back together because they already come with a sense of society from belonging to mailing lists, newsgroups, and chat rooms.

Since this is my first Cory Doctorow story (and probably not my last), I have to say that this guy isn’t one to skip on his research.  He appreciates how people would react during a terrorist attack, even at a distance, and he gets just how terrifying the prospect of bioterrorism is.  His sysadmin characters also seem like real computer geeks, all wearing t-shirts with messages on them, speaking through code and root passwords, and drowning in pop culture references.  They also worship the Internet because it’s where they live and breathe, as opposed to so many other people who might use such virtual activities as an extension or distraction from their real lives.  But, as Doctorow questions, if the real world has gone to hell, then maybe virtual life doesn’t seem so bad?

In short, this is a very heartfelt and in-depth story about terrorism and Internet culture, both of which are interwoven with twenty-first century life.  Felix and his friends may be geeks, but when the chips fall in the real world, it’s a comfort to know they’ll be around to keep the silicon chips up and running.

This marks my last review for Rewired: The Post Cyberpunk Anthology.  I hope that my readers enjoyed it half as much as I enjoyed writing it, and if you have any recommendations for other anthology or series reviews to do in the future, please be sure to let me know.

Bibliography: Doctorow, Cory.  “When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth.”  Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology.  Ed. James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel.  San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2007.

“Search Engine” by Mary Rosenblum: A “Rewired” Review

Copyright © 2007 by Tachyon Publications.

My reviews of Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology continue with “Search Engine,” a story by Mary Rosenblum that was originally published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact in 2005.

Aman is a profiler, a private investigator who specializes in tracking people through their ID chips, Internet history, and every purchase they’ve ever made, electronic or otherwise.  When a government agent hires him to look for an environmental activist, Aman has to move beyond the comforts of his desktop computer and do a little fieldwork to track down this person of interest.  But what he finds brings his personal problems into sharp focus, which no amount of profiling work can help him avoid.  It also makes him start to care more about the world around him, as he stumbles upon evidence that the incumbent government is up to something to ensure an electoral victory.

Aman is a young man with a lot of experience, being a profiler for the private investigation firm called Search Engine, Inc.  He’s a bit jaded, though he does care about others, even if they’re naive and irritating like his new assistant Jimi or even his target, which happens to be the case for one Daren.  This story is ultimately about Aman despite his assignment to track someone else.  It’s a story about him learning to ask Why? instead of Who? and Where?

Domestic surveillance is nothing new in fiction, let alone in the grim world of cyberpunk.  However, this story is interesting because it actually looks into a very modern phenomenon: that, thanks to the Internet, we’re more open about what we’re doing because all our electronics and digital technology are now more interconnected.  As much as we worry about government intrusion, there are so many ways that anyone can track us through online activity, credit card purchases, and a dozen other ways that rely on electronic media.  Profilers like Aman can just run our names through a search engine and come up with all kinds of stuff (Rhapsodist Note: If any readers have the urge to do the same with me, I’ll categorically deny anything you find.  The video of me in drag was for a friend’s film school project, understand?).

Ultimately, this story is a nice blend of science fiction, mystery fiction, and noir.  The fabric of Aman’s everyday life is both familiar and frightening, as is the ability to track anyone at any time with a dedicated Web search, a profit motive, and no conscience.

Bibliography: Rosenblum, Mary.  “Search Engine.”  Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology.  Ed. James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel.  San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2007.

“The Calorie Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi: A “Rewired” Review

Copyright © 2007 by Tachyon Publications.

My reviews of Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology continue with “The Calorie Man,” a story by Paolo Bacigalupi that was originally published in F&SF Magazine in 2005.

Lalji, an Indian resident of the US, is roped into a scheme by his friend Shriram to smuggle a rogue geneticist down the Mississippi River.  This geneticist has a scheme to upset the botanical patents held by large combines like AgriGen, cultivating and spreading un-patented seeds.  However, things start to go wrong right away, as Lalji and his crew have a bad run-in with the Intellectual Property police, but in the end, the genetics material is saved and Lalji slowly comes around to believing in something for the first time in years.

The setting of this story is based on speculation about how society might evolve in a world where fossil fuels have finally run dry and an outbreak of famine has resulted in the regulation of food production, which has become the new big industry thanks to conglomerates and genetic engineering.  With the lack of oil as a fuel and energy source, I have to give Mr. Bacigalupi credit for conceiving of kinetic energy as an alternative–specifically, the kinetic energy of coiled springs.  It seems a bit absurd the first time you read it, but after a while, it makes sense when you consider how cheap and reusable springs would be after the end of fossil fuels.

Mr. Bacigalupi calls this story an example of “agri-punk” and it definitely counts as that as much as it is a post-cyberpunk tale.  A classic cyberpunk story would feature a lone hacker trying to bring down the corporate overlords with a small but brilliant act of programming.  That’s more or less what happens in “The Calorie Man,” but instead, the corporations are agricultural combines, the hacker is a geneticist, and the programming doesn’t go through the Internet but into the genetic structure of seeds.  The story is also noteworthy for not making this geneticist the main character; rather, that role is given to Lalji, who is merely a witness to the plot and only has to get the guy and his seeds from Point A to Point B without drawing the IP police’s attention.

Overall, while at times this story might be a bit slow, there is a good narrative at its heart.  It’s nice to see cyberpunk reimagined into something unexpected like agriculture and to have a realistic non-Anglo protagonist for once.

Bibliography: Bacigalupi, Paolo.  “The Calorie Man.”  Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology.  Ed. James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel.  San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2007.

“Two Dreams On A Train” by Elizabeth Bear: A “Rewired” Review

Copyright © 2007 by Tachyon Publications.

My reviews of Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology continue with “Two Dreams on a Train,” a story by Elizabeth Bear that was originally published in Strange Horizons in 2005.

Patience is a woman who lives in the caste-society of Lake Pontchartrain.  She knows that she can’t get beyond her current status in society, but hopes that her son Javier Alexander–or “Javye”–will use his gift to be an artist and have his own future.  Javye, however, would rather use his artistic talent to tag the sides of incoming and outgoing commercial starships with graffiti.  In the end, though, he and his friend Mad get caught by the police and Javye has to face his mother, whose hopes for his future are now dashed.

Like with a lot of these stories, the setting is just fantastic enough to create an interesting background: a Louisiana of the future where a caste system has emerged, identifying tattoos are common, and commercially-owned starships hauling freight are as prevalent as present-day trucks.  The opening scene of Patience getting a scar from a local skin artist is also noteworthy, receiving a very graphic description that’s treated like a routine exercise.

But it isn’t the fantasy that makes the story, but rather the central relationship between mother and son.  Patience is the archetypal mother, having made her choices and done what she could for her family; her only goal is to give her child the opportunities to make a brighter future than the one she got.  Javye, on the other hand, is a teenage delinquent.  He’s got plenty of talent as an artist, but would rather tag starship hulls with graffiti and goof off with his friends.  The concept of a “future” doesn’t interest him.  He’d rather put his talent to work on something he can touch and sense for himself, being the typical adolescent.

And it’s worth mentioning the significance behind the title as it links to the key theme.  The “train” in this story is the line of starships that come and go from Lake Pontchartrain.  They’re just props for the story, but they represent two different things to Patience and Javye.  To a worried mother, they’re a way for her son to leave town and make his own life in a better place; to her jaded son, they’re just another surface he can tag, so that everyone can see his artwork wherever the ships go.

I think this is a good story in general, but I’d certainly recommend it for anyone who wants to know more about the disconnect between generations.  If you’re a parent who wonders why your child could be doing more with his or her life, or a child who doesn’t get why your folks are so anxious about life, this story would be a good step to better understanding one another in its own tragic way.

Bibliography: Bear, Elizabeth.  “Two Dreams on a Train.”  Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology.  Ed. James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel.  San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2007.

“The Voluntary State” by Christopher Rowe: A “Rewired” Review

Copyright © 2007 by Tachyon Publications.

My reviews of Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology continue with “The Voluntary State,” a story by Christopher Rowe that was originally published in Sci Fiction in 2004.

In a post-Singularity future, the citizens of the Voluntary State of Tennessee live under the protection of the Governor, a superintelligence known as Athena.  However, while all their material needs are being met and morale is high, their society is not free.  Soma is one such citizen of Tennessee, who soon gets caught up in a Kentuckian resistance movement known as the Crow Fighters.  Meanwhile, his intelligent car undergoes repairs at the hands of a mechanic named Jenny, who has her own fight with the authorities that coincides with the Crows’ plan to bring down the digital autocrats.

Citizens of the Voluntary State have some rather unusual legal names, like Soma-With-The-Paintbox-In-Printer’s-Alley (who works as an artist and lives in Printer’s Alley) and Jenny-With-Grease-Beneath-Her-Fingernails (who’s a mechanic).  They also live in a world that seems reminiscent of Brave New World, full of police and surveillance that emphasize politeness, a parent-like ruling class, and daily communal activities like singing the national anthem.  It’s a world where everything is malleable and intelligent, from cars and horses to garages and human brains.

In a strange way, I find it fitting that the story’s set in Tennessee and involves a resistance movement in Kentucky.  Besides the usual libertarian conservatism in American Southern politics and culture, the idea of bringing all this change to Tennessee reminds me of the New Deal plan that brought about the Tennessee Valley Authority.  Its goal of bringing electricity and raising the quality of life for the region is similar to the approach taken by the Voluntary State, which faces similar criticisms from the Crows as the TVA did from libertarian conservatives.

“The Voluntary State” is an interesting story, though one built more around perspective and the oddities of a future civilization ruled by superintelligence.  The characters may not be that strong, but the plot moves quickly and the depth of the setting is clear enough to make it enjoyable.

Bibliography: Rowe, Christopher.  “The Voluntary State.”  Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology.  Ed. James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel.  San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2007.