Like it or not, this collection of four short stories by Cory Doctorow is America. It’s also fascinating, deeply engaging, controversial, and thought-provoking. The four stories may at first seem unrelated, but musing on them for a while leads to several realizations about their important similarities and common themes.
The first story, “Unauthorized Bread,” relates the trials of an immigrant in America. Her name is Salima, her skin is brown, and she experiences all the horrors of the realities of “aliens,” of other-ness in this country. She is spit upon, virtually or literally, ignored, oppressed, considered subhuman. But she doesn’t give up. She fights the oppressors — the people and worlds of corporate greed and power — and works her way, painfully and gradually, up the social ladder. To do so, however, she must break laws, protect those who are even weaker and more downtrodden than she, and stubbornly use all her wiles, her discipline, and her native intelligence to outsmart the elites. She is aided by unlikely heroes — other immigrants, children, and a young woman who is a traitor to her own corporate employer. Salima has, of course, been radicalized. Upward mobility for her is impossible if she plays by the rules. So she refuses to do so, and she triumphs.
The second story, “Model Minority,” is a very funny, very sad, and extraordinarily profound take on the superhero saga. American Eagle is the name of the invincible protagonist, Doctorow’s version of Superman, with all the attendant super-powers. He has lived for hundreds of years and will live for hundreds more, and he has courageously fought evil for his entire life on earth. He is a hero to all the people of earth. But he makes an egregious error — he saves an innocent black man who is being severely beaten by four brutal cops with nightsticks. That black man proves to be much smarter, much more worldly-wise than American Eagle himself — and even much more courageous. The cop-in-chief has the black man arrested for “resisting arrest” and other phony charges. Eagle wants to help more, but the man says, in effect, “You can’t help. You can only hurt; because now that you’ve said that a black man is right and innocent and a big-city cop is wrong and guilty, you’re like me. You’re a n—-; the other.” And he’s correct. Eagle becomes a veritable symbol of evil to all of his former admirers. He’s an alien invader, a poisonous immigrant, a dangerous radical; and he must now disappear, disowned by all — even “Bruce” and “Lois.” It’s significant that in this story, too, unlikely heroes arise: Bruce Guess-Who and even the rescued African-American, who himself becomes an effective, radicalized fighter against the injustices that plague America.
The third story, “Radicalized,” is a powerful indictment of that ubiquitous symbol of corruption and greed, the American health-care system, particularly health insurance companies. And Doctorow names names — Blue Cross, Cigna, and more. Joseph is an ordinary guy whose wife has miraculously recovered from a deadly cancer. He has, however, become involved and entangled with a dark-net group that urges violence against those companies, the ones who cause the deaths of thousands of people, people who are sick, very sick. In this sad tale, there are treatments that might just cure them of their deadly diseases. But those treatments are denied by insurance companies, claiming they are “experimental,” even when doctors know that they will very likely cure the patient. Members of the mourners’ group, lovers and relatives of those who have died because of the vile callousness of the health industry, begin to take violent and deadly actions against those whom they perceive to be representatives of that industry. Though Joseph has harmed nobody, he is arrested along with the mourning murderers. Radicals, it seems, are always punished. But “Americare” has finally been instituted. There is health care for all. “Who says violence doesn’t solve anything?” says his wife.
The last tale in the collection, “The Masque of the Red Death,” is a dark and macabre re-take of the already macabre story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe. The protagonist in this one is Martin, an arrogant, wealthy, self-satisfied, obsessed shell of a human being-businessman who knows (because he is so brilliant and well-informed) that the Apocalypse is just around the corner. Rioting, conflict, war, and ultra-violence in every form are about to end the world as we know it. So he builds himself a magnificent fort which he calls Fort Doom. When the end comes, he will be ready, along with his thirty disciples — chosen by him very selectively — to survive “The Event,” unlike the stupid “great unwashed,” all of whom will, of course, perish.
When the violence explodes, Martin and his friends are, they think, safely tucked away in Fort Doom, set to emerge only when the rest of the world has essentially destroyed itself. But human beings being what they are, his very best-laid plans fail utterly. The denizens of The Fort die away slowly and painfully one-by-one until Martin is the only soul left inside. And he is gravely ill. And one of the actual survivors is a woman he had cruelly turned away from Fort Doom when she was in a desperate situation. Both Martin, in his own way, and that woman, in hers, have been radicalized, but his radicalization was for all the wrong reasons and for all the wrong motives — to guarantee his place among the elites, the establishment, the corrupt and the greedy. She, on the other hand, has risen up against everything he stands for. The radical is always punished. But sometimes, just sometimes, the radical survives and can prosper despite the overwhelming power of his (or her) adversaries.
One of the most fascinating qualities of “Radicalized,” and one of the most telling, is the emotion that it will evoke in its readers: anger. People of every political stripe, including the extremes on both ends of the spectrum, are likely to feel angry after reading these stories. Progressives will be angry because of the stories’ virtually indisputable truths: Folks who comprise the “other” in America are all too often oppressed, poor, feared, and hated. They are perceived as undeserving of equality. They are seen as lazy, stupid, indolent, incapable of self-improvement. They are the targets of racism, gender discrimination, anti-immigrant rants, and the ugly violence that all those bigotries engender. And Doctorow portrays all those behaviors, those fears, and those hatreds as inevitabilities due to the inherent flaws of our political and financial systems. His presentation stabs us in the heart. So what is the result of those treatments of the “other”? Radicalization, of course. Who can blame the immigrant for cheating her way past the stupid rules that plague her? Who can blame the righteous man who is exiled or hated for taking the side of the innocent minority? Who can blame him for his radical response? Who can blame the spouse of the person who died because of the greed and corruption of our health system; who can blame him for the revenge that he eventually and inevitably levels on those villains? Who, finally, can even blame the rich, powerful and selfish bigot for thinking there is no punishment possible for his immoral life-style and behaviors? Radicalism on the part of the oppressed is the necessary, inevitable, and only possible response to those disgusting conditions. And anger is the only possible response of the reader who sympathizes with the plight of the “other” in America.
Yet — the conservatives among us will feel equally angry after “Radicalized.” Here is an author who applauds cheating, hatred of superiors, jealousy, and even violence against those who are sworn to protect us; a book that attacks the character of the very systems and beliefs which have made America America; a group of tales that generally preaches a purely Marxist tenet as truth: the oppressed not only have the right to rebel, they have an obligation to do so. Even violently. And radicalism and rebellion are required and inevitable in places which clearly demonstrate what the downtrodden insist are the evils of unfettered capitalism.
Doctorow is an uncannily powerful rhetorician and preacher. The reader’s response, too, will be powerful; someone and/or something will be the target of that powerful emotion. And the particular target will depend almost entirely on the reader’s political position. This is an important book.
Review by Jack Kramer
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Tor, the publisher, for review purposes.