Sept. 26 2012 12:00 AM

Sci-fi wunderkind coming to Lansing for signing event


Young adult author, science-fiction novelist, blogger, website editor, magazine contributor, expert on publishing and copyright law. They all fit the bill when describing Cory Doctorow, but he’s more than a one-man band. He has a symphonic voice when it comes to the bloody edge of technology and the publishing industry. He openly derides Internet copyright laws, which he sees as archaic, and has definite theories on who he thinks will win the information war. 

“I get the same dumb question, ‘Where do you get your ideas,’” Doctorow says by phone from his home in Toronto. “Look around you.”

His science fiction novels and short stories are permeated with observations and allegorical tales about how technology affects our culture, with many of his characters fighting a corporate lobby-backed government. His latest young adult book, “Pirate Cinema,” is set squarely in a near-future version of this increasingly hostile world. Protagonist Trent McCauley, a teenage genius living in London, makes movies by sampling and rearranging videos he downloads illegally from the Web. The catch is, in this future society, you lose your Internet rights for a year if you are caught. This happens to Trent, so he takes his skills underground where he becomes a techno-activist fighting the government and corporations over the control of computers and their users. 

Doctorow says the premise is not that far-fetched or even futuristic. He gives examples of corporate spying on employees, video cameras following our every move and hidden microphones in airports as intrusions we all face. And don´t get him started on prospective employers wanting personal Facebook login credentials — he calls it the “urine testing of the 21st century.”

“There is a war on general purpose computing,” Doctorow said. “And there are questions about who will have control — the user or the government and corporations.”

Doctorow appears at the Schuler Books in Eastwood Towne Center at 6 p.m. Oct. 8 to sign copies of his books and lead a discussion. He says these events are often attended by “guys with big Unix beards,” but also by parents and their children. He said he is especially pleased that boys read his young adult books since they are so often reluctant readers, but it’s easy to see why they are attracted to his books — he’s the Robert Louis Stevenson and H.G. Wells of his generation, taking kids on a techno-fused pirate adventure.

Doctorow not only writes about a dystopian world — he lives it on the Web, often experimenting with self-publishing and free downloads that make book publishers cringe. His most recent adult book, “Rapture of the Nerds,” is available as a free download, as are all of his novels through the alternative Creative Commons licensing. He says that readers can thank him by promising to buy a hard copy and donating it to a library.

Having worked in the computer industry as a programmer and CEO and as a representative for the Electronic Freedom Foundation, he sees the digital world differently than most hidebound authors and publishers. He said copyright law is based on outdated industrial rules that involved the making of a physical copy. He equates it to the record industry, where to make a copy or pirate a record, you needed a pressing plant. 

“Copyright has gotten too big for its britches,” he said. “Everything you do on the Web involves making a copy. As an artist I’m all for copyright, but it needs to be unambiguous and not make criminals of us all. (File sharing) is a fact, not a problem that will go away or can be solved. We are not converging on the issue — we are diverging.”

Doctorow points to a six-week stint he spent on the campus of Michigan State University in 1992 as a participant in the Clarion Writer’s Workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers as a “site of great transformation” for his writing. Doctorow also fondly remembers the years he spent exploring pulp science fiction magazines— some at Curious Book Shop in East Lansing — that are often pointed to as the golden age of science fiction.

“In reality they were very uneven,” he said. “But in the recollection of the past, we have a cognitive bias for remembering lovely things.”

About this phenomenon, Doctorow quotes Sturgeon’s Law — proposed by science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon — that “90 percent of everything we create is crap.” Doctorow named his personal blog for the maxim (sample post: “Why Science Fiction Movies Make Me Crazy.”), but even though it seems to be pessimistic, Doctorow has a corollary that tempers it. 

“You double your success rate if you triple your failure rate,” he said. 

Cory Doctorow
Book signing and discussion
6 p.m. Oct. 8th
Schuler Books & Music
2820 Towne Center Blvd.
FREE, but requires tickets, available Oct. 2. First 100 tickets available with “Pirate Cinema” purchase only. Call 517-316-7495 to reserve a ticket.