With a Little Help, by Cory Doctorow
Short story collections by a single author can often be awkward things – the stories collected in them were often written at very different times, and intended for different markets, which tends to leave the resulting collection fairly disjointed. That’s not the case here, though – Doctorow’s got a strong authorial voice that carries through all of the stories, and gives them a unified feel.
Science fiction has often been referred to as the “literature of ideas”, especially in the short story medium, and Doctorow has shown mseld a capable capable heir to that tradition. The stories he prestents in With A Little Help are all based on unique, complex ideas that draw from fields such as counter science, economics, neuropsychology, and sociology. This syncretic approach allows for some fascinating ideas that really encourage interesting discussions among readers.
Perhaps Doctorow’s most interesting idea is that the present era is an aberration, and that a key feature of the future will be a return to older social structure. Whether it’s cloistered monasteries that act as data managements centres, or arts patronage as a venture capital opportunity, Doctorow seems fascinated by the idea of tomorrow as a glitzier digital reflection of yesterday.
The main downside of With A Little Help is that Doctorow is so focused on expressing these ideas that he spends less time focused on developing characters. With a few notable exceptions (“Visit the Sins”, for example), the characters in Doctorow’s stories are stand-ins for Doctorow to expound on his thoughts on technology, capitalism, and social organization in a series of techno futuristic Socratic dialogues. The Socratic dialogue is a difficult style to master, and as times it leaves the reader feeling that they’re being preached at instead of being engaged with. That lack of engagement ultimately leaves the collection with an unsatisfactory reading experience.
In the end, With A Little Help is filled with idea porn that would likely appeal to people who are attuned to Cory Doctorow’s views on science and culture; however, the way in which those stories are presented would leave all but the most entrenched fans feeling disappointed.