A Place So Foreign (And 8 More) - Cory Doctorow

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

A Place So Foreign
And 8 More
Cory Doctorow
Four Walls Eight Windows
ISBN: 1568582862 (Amazon link)

Exactly one year ago today I reviewed Cory Doctorow's first novel, Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom. I enjoyed it, but didn't rate it all that highly, and I wasn't sure why Doctorow was attracting so much praise. Well, I do now; this short fiction collection is positively brilliant.

As the title suggests you get nine stories:

Craphound - Such a popular story that Doctorow's web-site lives behind it, see www.craphound.com. A very nice character piece about aliens who love junk sales and why discarded crap holds such appeal for some people.

A Place So Foreign - A novella which does something very nice with the idea of time-travel and why you can never go home. Manages to somehow evoke a particularly nostalgic 1950's future.

All Day Sucker - A short ideas piece on why algorithmic complexity means you really don't want a computer embedded in your head. If you snigger, you probably write code.

The Rebranding of Billy Bailey - Oh, vicious. Doctorow notes in the foreword that this is as much in praise of branding as it is satirical. Difficult to describe, but imagine Bart Simpson worrying about his own branding in order to establish his playground status. Very smart, very original and very, very effective.

Return To Pleasure Island - A strange little tale about the blurring of reality around theme parks, mixed with Pinnochio. Doctorow is fascinated by Disney, I'm appalled by it, this didn't work for me, but I liked some of the writing.

Shadow Of The Mothaship - My absolute favourite of the collection. He has a little shared world - Bugout - with the next couple of stories, one in which many of the grown-ups have been taken up by aliens, and those left behind are playing with all-purpose foam and solvent. The actual story is best read cold, but the writing in this one crackles with invention. The wordplay here is superb.

Home Again, Home Again - Set in the Bugout world, this explores what it means to be normal, why kids are bastards to each other, and growing up. Oh, and Nicholas Tesla appears. Terrific.

The Super Man and the Bugout - Second best story in the collection, absolutely hilarious "What if... Superman were Canadian? And Jewish? And a Lefty?" Brilliant, brilliant. Worth reading for Super Man's Jewish mother alone. "She hated the costume. When the Department of Defence had issued it to him, she'd wanted to know why they were sending her boy into combat wearing red satin panties."

0wnz0red - Sterling and others can't praise this enough. I don't know why. I think I'm the target audience for this one (scientist by training, programmer by trade, been laid off in dot-com boom/bust, cynical, caffeine addict - all check), but it has left me cold ever since I read it on Salon some time back. It's just too obvious for me, ignores some of the more interesting issues the tech would raise, and I didn't think the actual story he got from the idea was half as interesting as some of his other work. It's not bad, it's just ... okay. I enjoyed the characterisation quite a bit, but the rest is weak.

On reflection, I think much of the reason I don't like this one is that titular use of leet speak. To me, a Unix weenie who knows his geek history, this just suggests trying too hard. Programmer != 12-year old IM warez dood, and leet speak isn't something any programmer I know would ever think in. Ever. It'd be shameful. I know it's picky, and usage may well differ where you learnt to use vi, but that was one of the things that blew the geek credibility of this one out of the water at the start. The other deal breakers were the idea of QA building code, and using email to report bugs. And the science? Read it as a character piece and ignore the biology.

So, what do I think of A Place So Foreign overall? An exciting collection. Recommended.

Posted: Mon - March 15, 2004 at 01:58 AM