Fiction Reviews


(2019) Cory Doctorow, Head of Zeus, £10, hrdbk, 289pp, ISBN 978-1-789-54109-0


Alright, this is a case of “don’t do as I do, do as I say.”  Anyone who has read my reviews will know what a reluctant reader I am, dreading thick books, with hardly any chapters in them, and that reluctant readership continues whenever I read short story collections or anthologies as I read the shortest story first and build my way up to the longest. That’s a problem here, because I read the shortest of these four novellas/long short stories first and built my way up to the longest one, leaving it until last.

The problem? Well, the problem is that the first story in the book – “Unauthorized Bread” - is the longest, but also the weakest. Why? The length is a problem, and Doctorow ignores that old maxim “show, don’t tell” as there is a heck of a lot of telling going on here, whole pages of info-dumping which really slows the story down. Until strangely when we reach the end when it becomes a strange hybrid of a thriller/caper novel, and is exciting and very, very cinematic – I could easily imagine it appearing as an hour long tale on some anthology show on say “Netflix”, but while exciting it’s also a bit rushed compared to what has, leisurely, gone before.

In “Unauthorized Bread” we meet Salima who has been on her own in a refugee camp for years. She’s a survivor and when she finally gets to the city she’s given a low-rent apartment. The catch? Well, she has to use the gadgets she is given, and that’s how her landlord and the manufacturers make money out of her, because she has to use authorized dishes, and detergent and, even bread, to use the dishwasher, washing machine and toaster. Except, these gadgets are starting to go on the blink, with the companies that made them, going bust, or being taken over, and the final straw is when her toaster stops working. Salima turns to the dark net and starts using illegal patches and fixes, and pretty soon she can buy any bread she likes, as well as cheaper versions of everything else she was forced to use. She shares her knowledge and expertise with her neighbours and soon everyone in the block is saving money, but eventually the companies will be back and if there is a financial black hole in the accounts of the apartment block then Salima and her neighbours will disappear down it. emerging through the other side to face eviction and jail. Somehow, she has to put the genie back in the bottle.

The second story is “Model Minority” about a superhero whose real name is Clark, who has a girlfriend called Lois, and a billionaire friend called Bruce, who is also a vigilante, but, no, this isn’t a tale about Superman, but a story about the American Eagle, who intervenes when a bunch of which cops beat up an innocent black guy and finds that he can’t beat the system, and despite all his heroics over the years he finds he is the ultimate immigrant - the alien from another planet. Who isn’t even human, who has all that power and probably can’t be trusted, in a clever little story that chimes well in this post-Brexit, post-Trump world. The Eagle thinks he is oh, so clever, with his little games and tricks to maintain his secret identity over the years. But Bruce knows it, and so do the Government, and they can make things very uncomfortable for him What can he do? What should he do? Fight on, fight the system, fight America? Fight the whole world?

The third tale, “Radicalized” is the best of the bunch, and so clever, and I’m not going to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the story here, suffice to say it’s about how desperate, ordinary people at their wits’ end resort to terrorism. Read it and weep.

“Masque of the Red Death” concerns one Martin Mars, who like Prince Prospero in the original Poe story is trying to ride out the end times by constructing what he calls “Fort Doom”, and he’s selected a group to join him as soon as the writing is on the wall and everything goes Mad Max, like he expects. Except Martin didn’t get where he is today without being a ruthless, greedy bastard. He is in this for the power, and the sex, and of course, it’s all going to go downhill in a highly entertaining way. This was the story I read first because it is the shortest and it is the most fun, in a darkly, twisted sort of way.  But as said at the beginning of the review, start at the beginning with Salima’s fight against the system, and work your way forward in a collection that just gets better and better, even if novellas three and four are in the wrong places.

Ian Hunter


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