GROWING UP SCI-FI: CONCEPTUAL BUILDING BLOCKS
Upon meeting Doctorow, I found him to be a person of great calm and certainty regarding his writing:
“I always wanted to write science fiction. I grew up in a great science fiction writer’s town. Judith Merril–who was an American feminist, science fiction writer, and critic and anthologist–moved to Canada, to Toronto where I’m from. . . and she took along her and Frederick Pohl’s book collection. . . and donated it to the Toronto Public Library System where it was the basis, the nucleus of what’s become the largest science fiction reference collection in the world.”
In what was fast-becoming a mecca of science fiction in an important era of technological growth, Doctor Who was on public television; Merril would explain the origins of these concepts in the world of science fiction literature. From these promising beginnings developed a habit and consistency that becomes the basis of any writer’s great success, although for Doctorow it started earlier than most:
“As a teenager, I started sending stories to magazines and started selling them when I was, like, 17, and then I went away to the Clarion Science Fiction Writing Workshop and was mentored by great writers and made great friends there [like] Jeff VanderMeer and lots of other great writers.”
What starts out as the journey of an artist aspiring to succeed becomes the groundwork for the belief that the sharing and building of ideas and concepts is what creates and strengthens the quality of stories. These stories introduce concepts that become building blocks for later stories, thus allowing further refinement and iteration after readers are introduced to an idea.
This pattern holds especially true in science fiction, where concepts aren’t what make stories, but instead lay the backdrop for the genre with a long history of sharing:
“Science fiction was always like that, as a matter of fact. Judy, she and her granddaughter collaborated on her memoir that won a Hugo award about her life in the field and she was one of the Futurians…that Asimov and Bradbury and she and Pohl and Kornbluth and a bunch of other leading writers were members of, and she talks about how they would steal each other’s ideas all the time, that one of them would come up with a thing and then six of them would go, ‘I can write that better.’”
This friendly competition created a series of ubiquitous concepts that are now commonly accepted in the groundworks of nearly all science fiction work.
He goes on to explain that once an idea is established,
“ . . . readers have a vocabulary now. They have an aesthetic and conceptual vocabulary.”
This vocabulary is now something that the next writer can build upon, and the genre can grow and further expand. The audience already has the basic concepts and supporting ideas down because they’ve already been introduced elsewhere. From there, the next writer picks up the baton in this conceptual relay race and takes the ideas even further into the realm of the unknown, pioneering modern (or post-modern?) science fiction concepts, like cyberpunk. Once the initial bridge is crossed, the next story doesn’t have to tell you why people have turned to technology to better their lives because the case for that has been made numerous times already. The beauty of this concept is that every genre at some point was started with a story, painting worlds that had never been seen before, and then the next story takes that world and fleshes it out even more and then more and then even more until the reader is able to accept the concept of time travel or cybernetic implants because they are common place in the world of fiction.
COPYRIGHTING COMMON CONCEPTS — DID YOU OWN THE BATON THAT YOU PASSED?
It is within this continuum that Doctorow has released a lot of his work, choosing to do so in a way that gives him control and allows for the expansion of the ideas and topics in fan fiction and other non-profiting avenues. This sort of thinking also seems to influence how Doctorow views copyright and the restrictive nature of ideas and concepts being withheld from common usage:
“Copyright has become a mechanism for making the internet more brittle and fragile, in the name of defending artist income.”
In essence, every protection of the usage of an idea, is in actuality another wire being placed in the bird cage until the ideas every writer knows and has access to are trapped behind a series of laws in the name of defending artist’s income. However, according to Doctorow,
“the reason artist income is poor is because we have massive concentration in the entertainment sector. You know, record entertainment industries have completely rebounded from pre-Napster levels but musicians aren’t seeing much of that money.”
Doctorow goes on to explain how the massive concentration of distribution and rights control in the entertainment industry has taken an awesome amount of leverage out of the hands of the creator:
“It’s pretty obvious that if you don’t have anywhere else to take your work that they have a buyer’s market and you don’t have a seller’s market, and they can abuse you safe in the knowledge that there is nowhere else you can go.”
Doctorow dismantles the idea that copyright is protecting and helping artists grow their income and their brands, finding instead that perhaps the old model may be limiting the number of people who have access to his works from the very beginning.
This is a concept that the award-winning author has attacked from many angles, publishing his thoughts in Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age and for a long time, giving away the digital copies of his book in an effort to increase his physical book sales:
“I can’t tell you the number of people who said that they become effectively paying customers because they got my works for free electronically and they’ve gone off to buy books.”
This conversion from free enthusiast into a fan of the printed works is the kind of conversion that Doctorow’s passion is capable of. Unfortunately, as of the printing of his last two books, his publisher has asked him to discontinue this practice, which is likely an attempt on their end to protect a potential revenue stream.
ADDRESSING THE NEED FOR INTERNET ADVOCACY
It’s this passion that has led him into fights and beliefs about the future of the internet,
[which] . . . is kind of like our nervous system for the 21st century. It’s what is holding our species together. It’s where we do all the important things — our family lives and our romantic lives, our political and civic engagement and employment and education and so on, and yet we continue to regulate the internet as though it were a video on demand service.”
The belief that the internet is an important tool worth fighting for is one that led him into battle against a recently passed copyright directive in the European Union that seems hellbent on crippling the little guys, not punishing the big guys for over aggressively protecting potential copyright violations, and that eventually will favor companies like Google, leading Doctorow to say that,
. . . if you think Google is hard to negotiate with now, give them ten years and no competition and see how you like them then.”
Of course, this was not a fight that Cory Doctorow fought alone, working with Electronic Frontier Foundation and around 5 million signees on a petition speaking out against the EU’s Article13 internet censorship plan, the largest petition in the history of the European Union and the second largest in world history. In the streets, more than 200,000 people marched in over 50 cities. Although this particular battle was lost, this is one of many ways in which Doctorow is still circling, attempting to show the world exactly how important the internet can truly become.
I think that we are overly attuned to what technology does, and we don’t pay near enough attention to who it does it for and who it does it to. My hope is that we can arrive at a future in which people are in control of their technological destiny, where we can seize the means of computation and we can use that to build broad pluralistic movements to address the really serious, significant crises of our age, which are things like climate change, inequality, the discrimination against people on the basis of their gender and their race and those issues. And when I fight for a free and fair and open internet it’s not because I fancy that the internet is the most important thing, but I do think it’s the most foundational thing, and I think all of the other fights will be won or lost using networked tools. Unless we have a free, fair and open internet structure, we lose the fights before they’re joined.”
It’s this future that Cory Doctorow is looking to, one where the freedoms and the rights of creatives are more in their control, to their benefit, and not exclusively enjoyed by a few people who had little to do with the creation of the art in the first place. It’s for our access to a free and fair internet that he continues to fight.