Geek Girl Magic

A Review of Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s In Real Life (First Second, 2014)

By Derek Newman-Stille

in real life

 

Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s In Real Life explores the complexity of geek girl life. Focusing on Anda, a high school student who finally finds her place in the MMORPG game Coursegold Online, Doctorow and Wang examine the flexibility of identities in an MMORPG-enabled world. Anda is a young woman who is able to explore her identity and knowledge of herself and her world through her online identity, creating an online persona that she sees as full of potential to go where her physical form can not. Over time, Anda starts to modify her own looks to reflect her online avatar more, exploring the critical question of what is “real” and whether there can be a “real” any more.

 

In Real Life explores aspects of MMORPGS like the uncritical racism involved in gamers assuming that anyone who is a non-English speaker is a ‘gold farmer’ (those who level up characters and then sell them to gamers for real money) and therefore not a “real” gamer. Anda has to confront her own racism about those believed to be gold farmers and has to deal with online bullying as a result. Anda discovers the power of the online world for developing community, but she also discovers the potential of online communities for developing factions and fracturing groups of people.

 

In Real Life is a graphic novel that questions ideas of reality and points out that we create our realities out of the texts we have been given – whether these are online fora or whether they are social assumptions that have been provided to us as texts for interpreting our world. Doctorow and Wang illustrate that reality is a fluid concept and one that is constantly being reshaped and changed as new understandings and ways of interpreting the world become available. They point out the reality-questioning potential of online gaming.

 

To discover more about In Real Life, visit http://www.firstsecondbooks.com/

“I hate it. It’s like there’s no human beings in the chain of responsibility, just things-that-happen. It’s the ultimate cop-out. The system did it. The company did it. The government did it. What about the person who pulls the trigger?”

-Cory Doctorow – Homeland (Tor, 2013)

Quote – Coping Out Of Responsibility

The Absurd Undercurrent to Rationality.

A review of Cory Doctorow’s Shannon’s Law (in Welcome to Bordertown: New Stories and Poems of the Borderlands Ed. Holly Black and Ellen Kushner, Random House, 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Borderland is a place that exists between the Elfland and mundane reality. It is a strange blend of the fantastic and the urban, a city that is invested and embodied with the oddities and absurdities of magic. Elfland is a place where secrets are kept. It is a place that is so different from our own realm that humans can’t comprehend it and the elves that come across to Borderland can’t explain the differences. It is this oddity, this confusion and difference that attracts the attention of Shannon Klod. When the Way from the human world into Bordertown opens after having been closed for years, he packs up every bit of technology and crosses over with the intention of ridding Bordertown of what he sees as chaos, that uncontrolled oddity that makes Bordertown so fascinating and simultaneously confusing. Shannon brings the internet to Bordertown, seeking to create a connection between the worlds, one that is technological, run by rational processes and anchored in reality.

Of course, in order to get the internet to work in Bordertown, he has to incorporate the magical, the absurd into his specifications. It requires the use of carrier pigeons, mirrors atop buildings, and other oddities that are uncommon to the work of techies. Shannon and his techies see these as inelegant solutions to problems, wishing to streamline the process and make it make sense. But, chaos naturally resists order.

Borderland, much like the fairy world, Elfland, runs according to a creative paradigm rather than a sense of order and simplicity. The Elfin lands run on ideas of aesthetics, dramatic situations, and things that are interesting. Information can pass between the realms, but only if it is interesting. Shannon claims to be anti-aesthetic, to not understand the artistic and to exist in a state of pure rationality. When Shannon tries to expand his internet connection beyond Borderland into Elfland, he has to paint binary code into the frame of a painting and write numbers into a poem in order to make it fascinating, interesting and therefore of sufficient quality to pass between the realms. A man who does not like to believe he has any aesthetic sense has to rely on the artistic ideas of others and himself in order to get materials to pass between the realms. He has already allowed the creative to slip into his consciousness, changing him and illustrating on an unconscious level that there is room for movement away from a purely rational outlook to one that includes the epic, the magical, and the passionate. He falls in love with a half Elf, half human woman, a blending of the absurdity of the Elfin realms and the rationality of the human realm. She is a techie, interested in Shannon’s project, but also enjoying acts of epic beauty, fascinated by jumping from rooftop to rooftop and the rush of excitement that comes from risk.

What Shannon ignores is that aspects of the internet are magical themselves, they resist easy laws and easy understandings and defy attempts at control. Control systems are constantly updated to try to regulate the internet, but it is always altering as people interact.

“They’ve got their epic magicks and their enchanted swords and their fey lands where a single frozen moment of deepest sorrow and sweetest joy hands in a perpetual balance that you could contemplate for a thousand lifetimes without getting the whole of it. But… we invented a machine that allows anyone, anywhere, to say anthing, in any way, to anyone, anywhere.”

To find out more about Cory Doctorow’s current projects, visit his website at http://craphound.com/bio.php

“The system was people, and I was part of it, part of its problems, and I was going to be part of the solution from now on.”

-Cory Doctorow – Homeland (Tor, 2013)

Quote – People Are Part of the Problem, People Need to be Part of the Solution

Paranoia, Power, Politics, Police, and Protest

A Review of Cory Doctorow’s Homeland (Tor Teen, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

Cover photo courtesy of the publisher

Marcus was known as m1k3y when he was younger, a web protestor and advocate of human rights who exposed government corruption. In Homeland, Marcus is a young adult, just beginning life outside of university. He has all of the regular issues facing a young person – searching for a job, dealing with student loans, new relationships… but he also has had a new set of responsibilities placed on him. When two of his friends are kidnapped, they leave him with a huge document listing and proving a remarkable variety of government and corporate abuses of power, criminal activities, and general corruption. He has to think about his own safety and the safety of his friends and family when he decides whether to release this information to the public.

The world Cory Doctorow creates in Homeland is one of corruption by people in positions of power (the 1%), government control, surveillance, invasions of privacy, and the general disinclination of the public to challenge these systems of control and abuse…. in other words, our world. Homeland, as well as being a brilliant story, is a call to activism, a demand that readers open their eyes and see the world around them with all of its flaws and to do something about the horrors that are being perpetrated in their name (in the name of the public, in public security, or ‘our best interest’).

With the rise of protests against the abuses of power by the 1%, the occupy movement, and Anonymous, Homeland is written at the perfect time to empower young adults to take an active interest in their world and in the collective power that they can wield against a corrupt system. Our society is one in which protests, activism, and even general consciousness about injustices is discouraged… indeed one in which many of the groups who bring awareness about inequalities are criminalised and portrayed as social problems. Doctorow reminds us that we cannot allow the criminalisation of social protestors and people standing up for collective rights, and that we need to ask questions, inquire about things, be aware, and actually DO SOMETHING about the corruption in our world rather than assuming that this is the natural way of things.

Doctorow’s character Marcus is a hacker, but not someone who puts malicious software on computers (as many hackers are portrayed to be), he is someone who is intensely interested in governmental and business corruption and the abuses that occur to the public in the name of “public safety” and “betterment”. He sees the Orwellian doublespeak that is used to put layers of control on the public. Marcus faces moral dilemmas when hackers break into his own computer and begin surveilling him – the same kind of surveillance and violations of privacy that corporations and the government have done to control society. Despite what they have done to him personally, they provide him with information that could help to ensure his freedom from the corporations that stalk him and endanger his friends  – BUT if he uses it, he is endorsing the kind of malicious use of technology that he has been fighting against (attacks on his own privacy). His ‘saviours’ are very much like the corporations that have endangered him in the first place. Doctorow ensures that his novel has no easy morals – no ‘hackers good, corporations bad’ dichotomies, but rather relies on his readers to determine their own morals and question the diversity of individuals who are conducting actions rather than trying to paint entire groups with one moral brush.

Doctorow doesn’t limit his ideas of moral ambiguity to personalities in the novel, he also explores the dualistic role of technology – no technology is, in itself, either good or bad, and technology that was used to support the 1% and their abuse of power can be reworked, changed, and re-purposed to help to expose those abuses of power. UAVs, although used to spy on protestors and reveal their positions to police can also be used to take areal photos of the group to expose police bullying and abuses of power as well as to show ways for protestors to escape from police blockades. Doctorow illustrates that protestors have to be as willing and able to adapt, change, and modify their strategies as those in charge of the systems of oppression around them.

Homeland reminds readers that we can’t blame the system and give up our agency over what is happening in the world around us. Acts are being committed in our names, in the name of the public that we would not approve of. We have to take responsibility and do something.

To find out more about Cory Doctorow, you can visit his website at http://craphound.com/ . To find out more about Homeland, visit Tor’s website at http://us.macmillan.com/homeland-1/CoryDoctorow .