Tuesday, July 26, 2005




Excerpts from Cory Doctorow's live appearance before an audience of Second Life Residents last Sunday.  Background details here.  (Originally published here.)


Hamlet Linden: Among the top tier 'thought leaders' of the Internet age, Cory Doctorow is an award-winning writer, a passionate digital rights advocate, and the co-editor of the mammothly popular Boing Boing blog.  His latest novel, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, is a deeply moving tale of magic, love, family, and Internet connectivity. Ladies and gentlemen, furries, faeries, space warriors, and other Second Life species of indeterminate gender and classification, I'm proud to present: Cory Doctorow's avatar!

[Uproarious applause]

For those few here (and I hope it's just a few) who haven't read Someone Comes to Town yet, why not give us your brief cocktail party pitch for the story?

Cory Doctorow: Hmm-- it's not an easy book to summarize. Alan is a serial entrepreneur who moved to Toronto to get away from his family. His father is a mountain and his mother is a washing machine. He has several brothers, including one who is an island, three who nest like Russian dolls, a precognitive, and a demonic savage. When he was a teenager, he murdered the latter brother, with his other brothers cooperating. And now that brother is back form the dead, stalking them all. Alan has fallen in with a gang of anarcho-info-hippies who are using dumpster-dived hardware to build meshing WiFi repeaters in a mad bid to unwire all of Toronto, or at least the bohemian Kensington Market streets. Meanwhile, his neighbors-- a student household-- contain a girl with wings and a mean-spirited guitar player/bartender, who, it appears, may be in league with the demonic brother.

So that's it in a nutshell.  A very large and n-dimensional nutshell.

HL:  If someone asked me to classify Someone Comes to Town, I'd call it "high-tech magic realism". (That may be a new genre!) But how's that hit you?

CD: I think that's a good classification. I've been calling it a techie contemporary fantasy -- contemporary fantasy being the label commonly applied to magic realist fiction when written by North American popular authors instead of Marquez and his cohort.

HL: I'd say this is your most personal, heartfelt work of fiction, least it strikes me as such.

CD: Well, the most important moment I had in writing instruction was while I was at the Clarion workshop in 1992. My instructor, James Patrick Kelly, listened to my fellow students praising a story I'd written, and when they were done, he said, "Cory Doctorow, you are an a**hole. You've managed to write a completely vacuous piece utterly devoid of any emotional oomph, but with enough clever that it's convinced these people that it has merit." He told me that I needed to learn to sit down at the keyboard and open a vein.

That's what I've been trying to learn to do ever since.



Hamlet Linden: Some members of the Book Club wonder what inspired Someone Comes to Town. Actually, they wonder what kind of drugs you were on when you came up with it, but I'm guessing they're looking for tips beyond the pharmaceutical kind.

Cory Doctorow: Heh. As befits drugs, I'm pretty dull. I'm a near-teetotaller, I've given up narcotics of all kind, I eschew caffeine, and don't even partake of carbs. However, I am generally massively sleep-deprived and I have a pathological need to be connected to the Internet nearly always.

As to what inspired it, I dunno -- nothing and everything. Writing is how I figure out what's going on in my own head. I started SCTTSLT in a hotel during an Xmas holiday weekend a couple years back. Wrote 10,000 words all in one gulp. Then worked on it for 6 months, took some time off and went back to it. Got right up to the ending and realized I wasn't going to be able to finish it the way I'd planned. So I thought up a different ending and wrote it, thinking I'd have to go back and rewrite the whole book to make the ending work. And when I went back, I discovered that I'd foreshadowed the "new" ending on the very first page, written two years before, in one gush in a hotel-room. It had been there all along, but it had taken me years to find that out.


HL: Related to that, [book club member] Crackorphan Shortbread wonders what autobiographical elements helped spawned the novel.

CD: Well, there are several. I had many friends who lived in group houses in Kensington Market. And my pal Darren Atkinson is a career dumpster diver who really does get all kinds of amazing crap out of suburban Toronto dumpsters.

I had a terrible experience with the WiFi in Geneva [like a Someone character did.]

And my grandfather had nine brothers. I only knew a few of them, and once, one came to visit from Russia, and he really did look like he could nest inside my grandfather like a Matrioshka. He had lost an arm fighting with the partisan guerrillas in Poland. But apart from that, he was basically an XL to my grandfather's XXL.

HL: [Club member] Sean Gorham asks, "What's the deal with the whole 'son of a mountain and a washing machine' bit? Maybe I'm missing something obvious."

CD: It's just a way of making the story more and less real. It sets out a story that is at once absurd and fraught with peril. Plus it's cool.

HL [laughs]: It had meaning to me at the point when the hero is asked by his girlfriend to meet his family, and he's like, "Uh, well, my family is very strange." But then, we all feel that way, even if our dad isn't a mountain etc. To me it captures that feeling of loving your family but feeling for certain the outside world will never understand it the way you do.

CD: Yeah, that's for certain. There's enough second and third marriages and so forth in my family that I don't even know which people at the weddings are actually related to me. I usually grab someone who's new to the bunch and drag them around and say, "This is my friend ________" and wait for the possibly-relative to say, "Oh, I'm Cory's third cousin's wife."


Hamlet Linden: [Book club member] Ronin Arnaz asks, "Why did Cory make the characters's names so ambiguous? Was it related to the geek trait of being bad at remembering names? And did the selection of when to use each name have anything to do with the character's state?"

Cory Doctorow: Well, there were a few reasons: 

1. In science fiction/fantasy there's a tendency to make up awful, impossible-to-remember names, which means that readers shorthand for the names by remembering the first letter.
2. By establishing that their names were fluid and unfixed, it made it seem that they were not of this world, that the names were a badly-fitting garment donned solely to satisfy the needs of the rest of the world. The names' individual state were not really related to the emotional states of the characters.

HL: Related to that question, [Club member] Kurtz Lawson says: "I noticed that [the names are] in Alpha order. I wonder why he chose the particular letter groups."

CD: Well, that was at least a convenient way to keep them straight in my head. Plus I figured that it was the kind of utilitarian convention that a family that odd might employ. And it gave me the opportunity to play with things like naming Kurt and Krishna with the same initial letter, setting them up like rooks to the Kings.

HL: There's a point in the book where the family drama just sort of stops cold, and we spend all our time on this plan to cover Toronto in wireless Internet. Which is interesting in itself, but I remember sort of thinking, "Dude, what about the family crisis you were just having?!"

CD: Well, sure -- but that's the whole strategy of a braided story: take the reader to a point of tension and leave off, writing another thread to high tension, and leave off, taking another thread to high tension. The tension-- if this works-- becomes cumulative, and then the reader comes apart in pieces from the tension... If the writer is successful, the reader just might!

HL: I also read it as the hero's way of avoiding this family drama by throwing himself into his adopted family and their project, this high-tech project, which I think a lot of us in the Net world do.

CD: Well sure, that too-- plus he's really weird and his whole raison d'etre is being less weird, fitting in with the real world. It's why he left town in the first place.

HL: In this book and your last one, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, I'm struck by the earnest intimate quality of the male friendship, between the protagonist and his best friend. They're a lot more openly emotional than how they're usually portrayed.

CD: Huh -- well, I've been in some pretty intense emotional settings with my pals, I suppose. I started a company with two friends. I went to Costa Rica and lived in the jungle with a group of eleven other people, building schoolhouses, and we were very tight (they also saved my ass when I got typhus). And of course, with EFF, I have co-workers who are also comrades in a really serious, no-fooling struggle that involves a lot of Machiavellian shenanigans and high stakes.

HL: Having finished the novel, Ronin Arnaz wonders, "What happened to Davey and Brent?" (And avert your eyes, anyone, who doesn't want to know that part of the ending!)

CD: What happened to Davey and Brent is that Alan got away from them.  For now.

HL: Does that suggest a sequel?

CD: Hmmm. It's always possible but so far I feel like there are so any worlds to invent and stories to tell that i'm not all that interested in returning to the old ones.

[Ronin Arnaz, from the audience:  Part 2: The Mountain's REVENGE.]

CD: I'm working on two novels right now that are totally different and Charlie Stross and I have a gentlenerds' agreement to write a book and also finish the cycle of novellas we've been banging on. I'm retiring [from staff duties at EFF] to write full-time in March '06, so I might have more time then... Maybe I'll think about sequels.


Hamlet Linden: [Book club member] Kurtz Lawson says, "I was wondering about the significance of the access point in the empty house at the end."

Cory Doctorow: I wanted to connect the stories more explicitly, to make it clear that there was inexplicable magic at work in both the techie stuff AND the family stuff -- that no element of the story was immune to the irrational influences of the shadow world to which Alan and his family belonged.

HL: Your hero spends a tremendous amount of time trying to connect humans via wireless Internet, but the irony is, he hardly knows how to connect with them, himself!

CD: Well, that's the paradox of all social software, isn't it. We have geeks cooking up software where people are expected to explicitly enumerate their fuzzy, qualitative social relationships, which are inherently non-enumeratable. They are expected to do things like rate their friends' "sexiness" on a scale of 1-5, etc. It's like some kind of Asperger's-gone-wild thing, where people who are incapable of grasping non-explicit cues about the social world can finally force everyone else into wearing lapel-pins that set out all those fuzzy, hard-to-grasp social niceties. It's a world of Dr. Spocks who finally get to force the McCoys into giving up on irrational behavior.

Yeah -- again, the geek's paradox. A lot of science fiction people (me included) have that.


HL [continued]: I like how, as the hero gains a little more understanding of how humans actually think and feel, his own fiction starts emerging from him.

CD: That's right-- he starts to use stories as a way of trying gedanken experiments to test his hypotheses about what it means to be a person.

HL: [Audience member] Jarod Godel asks, "A lot of the backstory and universe in Someome Comes To Town was left open; was this done on purpose, trying to encourage fan fiction to fill in those gaps?

CD: Not to encourage fan fiction per se, but the human imagination has a lot higher polygon-count than prose could ever have. Leaving most of the world in shadow lets readers fill in very high rez pictures where you don't have the throughput in the printed page. That said, if fan fiction emerged that filled that in, I'd be mightily chuffed.

HL: [Audience member] Sansarya Caligari asks: The book makes a statement about 'difference', and I wondered if you could expand on how the concept of difference is becoming less important as we move into alternative worlds. (i.e. Second Life)?

CD: Well, I wrote about this a bunch in my second novel, Eastern Standard Tribe-- I think that the network lets us form communities with people who are socially deviant in the same way we are, and thus escape the socially normative pressures that would otherwise bring us into line. I think that that has the tendency to make us less homogenous and at the same time more accepting of others point of views because we understand that everyone can have her own message board or alt.group or MMOG where she can be as weird as she likes.

Philip Linden [from the audience]: But isn't the 'Multiple Personality Disorder' nature of these many manifestations a sort of tragedy of the commons? Don't we all lose if we can be ever more of an a**hole in our 'a**hole' avatar?

Cory Doctorow: I dunno if I understand the question -- which "many manifestations"? The different names for the characters?

PL: Many different [MMO] accounts/identities online.

Ronin Arnaz [from the audience]: I think he means like that it's a bit of a shame we build these worlds, then some of us come onto them and be asshats (griefers).

CD: Well, that's kind of like asking, "Wouldn't it be better if it only rained when we brought our umbrellas along?" I mean, sure -- it would be great if there weren't people who behaved badly on the interweb, but people do behave badly, even when they're non-anonymous, and making everyone subject to editorial oversight turns the Internet back into AOL. I think that with all bad actors, we need coping strategies that help us filter them and socially bend them. Teresa Nielsen Hayden has written brilliant moderation hacks on her blog, Making Light, about encouraging good behaviour online.


Hamlet Linden: [Book club member] Random Unsung had a question about the permissions and rights for the SL edition [of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town], but I'm going to direct that question to [creator of the "official" SL edition of Someone] Falk Bergman and the other creators of the [Expo] books for after. So, onward…

Cory Doctorow: I wouldn't mind hearing the answer to that question regarding permissions and rights for the SL edition...

HL (relenting): Random Unsung says, "You've made your book available for free to anyone in SL through Hamlet's innovative contest-- but none of the contestants are making this technology available for free or for sale. When will Gutenberg come to SL?"

Cory Doctorow: Yeah, I'd be pretty disappointed if the effort that my sharing inspired didn't end up getting shared as well-- I was really hoping that the in-game book would turn out to be a template for lots of in-game books, including Gutenberg and Charlie Stross's Accelerando and a whole SL library.  Now, THAT would be a legacy to leave in this place.

Falk Bergman:  Random, the page scripts are secret because of the autograph function.  I do not want people to send goatse pics to some poor unsuspecting avatar reading a book.

HL: I certainly hope so, too. I left it up to the creators of each prototype what kind of Creative Commons they wanted to offer to their technology, if any. But I do think Falk's is open [source], right Falk?

FB: Yes-- everything except the pages.  I did not think it to be that valuable of a creation-- as soon as html-on-prims gets here, everything [else] will be obsolete.


HL: Caliandris Pendragon asks, Why do you use so few colors in your writing? As I was trying to make clothes for


[on the cover of the SL edition], I realized that you don't often talk about a specific colour for clothes.

CD: Colours-- well, for one thing it turns out that I'm slightly colour-blind. I live in a flat with a green room that I see as grey! But it's a fair cop -- I should certainly be using more colours as I write.

HL:  [Audience member] Jarod Godel asks, "How do you think Someone Comes To Town stacks up or compares to Anglo-Western comic books, where magic and technology operate in conjunction all the time? Would you say your book is a good model, or extension, for the comic industry..."

CD: Jarod, I don't know much about the comics industry, apart from what I've observed on the sidelines. It's a severely screwed-up industry by all accounts. For example, if you go into a bookstore and buy the first perfect-bound edn of a new comic (say the issues 1-3 of Trasnmet that first came out), and then go to a comic store to find issue 4, chances are they don't have it and can't get it. So there's no way for people to go from being bookstore patrons of perfect-bound collections to comics-store patrons of individual monthly editions.

Regarding the sf/f crossover, I think that the conceit of sf as predictive of the future and hence different from fantasy is pretty bankrupt. Not only is any sufficiently advanced tech indistinguishable from magic, the reason to WRITE about sufficiently advanced tech is to incorporate magic into your storylines (e.g., Gibson's cyberspace). So I think that the field is ALREADY incorporating magic into its science. And vice-versa.

HL: [Audience member] Neal Stewart says, "During a conversation about Alan and Kurt's network, the 'Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse' are mentioned ('kiddie porn, terrorists, pirates, and the Mafia'). As an EFF supporter, how do you respond to this criticism of their network and similar projects like Freenet, etc.?

CD: It's pretty straightforward: we can't let the bad guys set the bar for how we limits the freedoms of the good guys: we can't punish the innocent to get at the guilty. If our litmus test for an architecture of control is, "Could this be used by the evil to do evil," then everything from the car to the kitchen knives would have to be locked away.

HL: Then again, when you're talking about full-scale terrorist attacks, that does sorta change the context, doesn't it?

CD: Nope -- it sure doesn't. We've all given up our shoes, our nail-scissors, our dignity and our Fourth Amendment rights, and it STILL hasn't stopped terrorist attacks. If creating a system of internal passports for Americans who want to cross state lines worked to prevent terrorism, then maybe you'd have a point-- but the object of terrorism is to frighten people into behaving irrationally, and to abandon their principles. If the response to terrorism is such an abandonment, then the terrorists really do win.


Linden credits: Nova Linden created the awesome soundstage/auditorium, Jeska Linden provided security, crowd control, and question moderation; Pathfinder Linden assisted with terraforming and land rights; Bub Linden took some screenshots; Video Linden (as controlled by Jesse) came in and simulcast the event live on the homepage.


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