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Context: Further Selected Essays on Productivity, Creativity, Parenting, and Politics in the 21st Century
Cory Doctorow
Tachyon, 238 pages

Context: Further Selected Essays on Productivity, Creativity, Parenting, and Politics in the 21st Century
Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow was born in Toronto, in 1971. He has sold fiction since the age of 17. His story, "Craphound," was published in Science Fiction Age. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was his first novel.

Cory Doctorow Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: For the Win
SF Site Review: For the Win
SF Site Review: Makers
SF Site Review: Makers
SF Site Review: Little Brother
SF Site Review: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town
SF Site Review: Eastern Standard Tribe
SF Site Review: A Place So Foreign
SF Site Review: Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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Context is the second collection of essays from Cory Doctorow, following on from Content. And like that first collection, it consists of a large number of very short pieces culled from a wide variety of sources, the oldest first appeared in 2008, the most recent in 2011. Given that there are 44 pieces squeezed into 238 pages, you can tell that none of them is particularly long or goes into any great depth. And though Doctorow is well known not just as a novelist but also for his online presence, it may be something of a surprise to realize that the vast majority of these pieces first appeared as columns in print media such as Locus and the Guardian.

The pieces have been gathered in no immediately apparent order. They are not chronological (at one point he refers to his previous column, a column that only appears 100 pages or so later in this volume), nor have they been arranged thematically. Or rather, there are odd clusters of essays: the first two or three essays, for instance, focus on his young daughter Poesy, but that's hardly a theme, and since Poesy crops up several times in later essays it's not even exhaustive.

What we have, therefore, is a more or less random tour through the interests, concerns and obsessions of Cory Doctorow. Particularly obsessions. We keep returning to the same narrow range of topics, chief among which, it will come as no surprise to anyone to learn, is the idea of copyright in a digital age. He has a lot to say about this; or rather, he says the same few things several times in different ways. What it boils down to is the idea that the big copyright holders, music companies, publishers, film companies and the like, are enemies of creativity. Power should be in the hands of the creators.

It's a seductive position, and most of Doctorow's likely audience are going to spend most of their time nodding along quite readily to what he says. We're already pretty much persuaded of the justice of this cause, so we aren't really going to pay much attention to the fact that there are odd little gaps and elisions in the argument. Actually, there isn't really much of an argument: this is rousing restatement but he isn't really laying out a case. And while Doctorow and his supporters present this as a radical response to the capitalist structures of the creative industries, it is notable that his own case is entirely capitalist, it is about where the money goes and alternative ways of generating money from creative endeavor. But then, it's not always clear that Doctorow sees capitalism in other than rather narrow terms: capitalism is big business but not small business.

Thus, for instance, in a discussion of Chris Anderson's book Free, he castigates Anderson for not appreciating the anti-capitalist nature of the new information society he advocates. But in doing so he describes a family's choice of dinner menu or where we sit in an office as owing more to communism than capitalism. Except that in most offices where I've worked the arrangement of desks owes far more to a form of precapitalist autocracy than any version of communism I've encountered: the more power you have the bigger your office, the less power the less choice in where you sit. And unless you are pretty well off, a family's choice of dinner menu is going to be at least partly dictated by such capitalist issues as what we can afford to eat. The dichotomy, in other words, is not simply between big business and communism, it is far more varied and subtle than that. And indeed Doctorow's own position, as stated here, probably puts him rather closer to the big business camp than it does to communism. At least, it presents creativity in largely economic terms, focusing primarily on generation of income and control of rights. Doctorow's case is not about ending capitalism, however he might protest, but is rather about rearranging who has most control over where the money goes.

There is nothing particularly wrong with this, it is a simple and practical response to the creator having to live in our current society. But you do end up wondering if the digital age, in this case, whether the digital age might end up being in any way radically different from what has gone before.

Of course, a book like this was never going to be a place for laying out the complexity of such a vision, the detail of such an argument. These are what used to be called "occasional pieces," and you are never going to overthrow capitalism in a 2,000 word newspaper column, or even in a whole bunch of 2,000 word newspaper columns. And, to be fair, Doctorow doesn't even try. He is content to say, many times and in several different ways: "here I stand." But mostly he doesn't say why he stands there, or why we might want to take the same stand. And between these various restatements, there are all sorts of obvious fillers. So you'll find out why he dislikes 3D movies, why the Times paywall is probably not financially viable, and why he wouldn't buy an Apple iPad. You'll also find out what software and hardware he uses, and how he runs his email, which is probably more technical information than I need to know.

To be honest, I'm not sure what this book is for. If you're a Doctorow completest it gives you his ephemeral newspaper columns in one place. But for the rest of us, I'm not sure there's enough of substance or of interest here to really warrant the investment.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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