When we think of the word ‘radicalized,’ it’s often attached to mindset so extreme that it feels far beyond us. It’s highly doubtful that the people sitting across from me in the coffee shop I currently occupy would identify with militant white supremacists and/or jihadists (at least I sure hope not).
But when a person or people become radicalized, it’s not an overnight event. It’s a gradual evolution, infecting thoughts and belief systems like a virus…and strange as this might be to hear, it’s not always necessarily a bad thing depending on where you stand. I’m sure the British weren’t thrilled about the radicalization they saw among the colonists in the late 1700s, yet here we are.
Cory Doctorow’s Radicalized presents us with four stories of people becoming radicalized by events and societal constructs that are either in the near future or firmly planted in our present–including what is legitimately the best Superman story I’ve ever read.
Let’s take a very spoiler-lite look at each one:
Doctorow’s first story is the weakest one, but not due to its premise or characters. The protagonist — an immigrant woman named Salima struggling to survive in an America with a pronounced wealth gap — is wonderfully written. Her tragic history is countered by a stubborn and heroic persistence, which not only helps her to survive, but also infuriates her when her apartment-supplied appliances refuse to work unless you buy the products it is specifically licensed for.
When a corporate shake-up results in her toaster not working, this drives Salima to ‘jailbreak’ it, allowing her to illegally toast any type of bread she damn well pleases. What starts as a small act of justified independence turns into a full scale technological rebellion within Salima’s apartment complex, putting her as the the unwitting leader of a movement. While her friends and neighbors are granted newfound economic freedom, they are haunted the by specter of potential eviction or even arrest.
Doctorow does a superb job explaining things through Salima so that they can make sense to anyone, even a technological luddite like me. Unfortunately, all the talk about coding and hacking still made the withered left hemisphere of brain feel occasionally bored and restless.
This is also the only story that has a “neat” ending. All the others have conclusions that are decidedly more “messy,” but in a good way. ‘Unauthorized Bread’ puts a bow on things that will definitely make you feel good, but feels far too easy considering everything that led up to it.
And by the way, if this sort of licensing tech sounds like science fiction to you, then you might want to try reading your Apple user agreement the next time it pops up. It’s definitely where we’re headed.
Make no mistake: This is totally a Superman/DC Universe story. Doctorow does about everything possible — even with character names and locations–to make this clear without crossing the line that would have Warner Bros. lawyers banging down his door.
It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know that going in, though. The truth is that I’ve never been Supes fan. As cliche as this is to say, his invulnerability and impeccable character always made him seem boring and devoid of intriguing conflict. I know his real fans can (and will) chastise me for this, but it’s not a view I hold from a place of ignorance. I’ve read plenty of Superman stories and just couldn’t ever into them…except for Injustice, obviously (don’t @ me).
In ‘Model Minority,’ Doctorow works from one of the most tired modern Superman tropes imaginable: Jor-El being awed, inspired, and even humbled by the courage and strength of the human spirit — while at the same time managing to get backed into a corner by the villainous machinations of humanity’s paranoia and fear.
But instead of a contrived tale of Superman learning something special about himself, Doctorow molds this premise into a tour de force examination of the racial tensions currently gripping our country. He delves headfirst into the hard questions such a story would entail:
- Why has Superman allowed racially motivated violence and oppression in the United States to continue throughout his time on Earth?
- Why doesn’t Superman do more to stop it?
- What type of fallout might happen when Superman oversteps his previous boundaries of interference?
- How much is Superman willing to sacrifice in a fight with what amounts to the dark side of basic human nature?
But don’t worry, my fellow meatheads. ‘Model Minority’ isn’t just a hypothetical essay on nonexistent, super-powered solutions to fighting social injustice. There’s plenty of great action sequences and suspense (along with tons of terrific dialogue) to keep you entertained — including one scene of Superman’s involvement in a foreign military engagement that I would sell a kidney to see drawn or filmed one day.
The story’s climax is the best part though, delivering a powerful message that’s equal parts inspiring and sobering. There’s a lot of thoughtful examination and even a few answers, but no solutions — and plenty of hard questions that we mere mortals need to start asking ourselves.
While Doctorow’s first two stories deal with near future and supernatural premises, the premise in ‘Radicalized’ is painfully familiar and current: Skyrocketing medical costs that make life saving medicine unaffordable for many of the people who need it.
The drama unfolds from the perspective of a man whose view would probably mirror most of ours. On one hand, he clearly sees that life and death decisions should not be made by insurance companies based on their cost effectiveness. But does that justify acts of terrorism to counter it — especially if those horrific tactics prove to be effective?
It’s a hard question to answer that also makes for a gripping tale–one that will probably spin your moral compass more than a few times.
The Masque of the Read Death
When a hedge fund bro manages to figure out the approximate time the global economy will collapse, he builds a tricked out shelter for him and a few folks who he deems worthy of survival (and his company). As you might imagine, things start to deteriorate once everyone makes it inside.
It sounds simple, but Doctorow does a masterful job taking us through the group’s slow decline. It’s so good, in fact, that you often find yourself sympathizing with characters who really don’t deserve your sympathy at all.
Also, as a firmly right-brained person, I always love a story where it’s shown that not everything in this world can be solved and/or categorized by an equation — especially human life.
Even the “weak” story (‘Unauthorized Bread’) in this group is a good one. Add in two of my favorite novellas ever (‘Model Minority’ and ‘Radicalized’) along with another exceptionally strong entry (‘The Masque of Red Death’) and you’ve got a book that absolutely needs to be on your to-read list.
Even if you’re the type who prefers their stories without a lot of politics, each tale is highly engaging and enjoyable on its own merits. But just because you’re reading for pleasure doesn’t mean you’ll be immune from seeing our world a little differently once you’re done.
Maybe not radically different, but different nonetheless.