Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
2008.03.02 : Overclocked
Stories from the Writer of the Future Present

"The future has arrived, it just isn't evenly distributed."
- William Gibson

I've just gotten around to reading Overclocked, Cory Doctorow's latest collection of short fiction. Doctorow, you will recall, is digital rights activist, fellow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, bane of DRM implementers everywhere, and co-proprietor of the world's most popular blog. He is also a well-regarded science fiction author, who is noted for giving his books away electronically, thus putting his author's royalty money where his activist mouth is.

Overclocked is an excellent if slightly uneven (have you ever read a story collection that isn't?) fistful of cyberpunk-esque yarns that I'm guessing will be liked by people who like my stuff: it's fast-moving, forward-looking, geeky, and ultimately good-hearted. He says the secret to his success is predicting, "with rigor and absolute accuracy", the present. He does (like the best speculative fictionists) shine a great deal of light on our current affairs, while making the future seem like a very familiar place. (*) (In "I, Rowboat", for instance, most humans have abandoned their physical bodies and uploaded their consciousness to the noosphere – but when you need reliable information on coral reefs, the first place you turn is still Wikipedia.) His writing is unostentatious, even plain at times; but he can very plainly write. (This is undeniable if only, though not only, because he makes you care, and care deeply, about a sentient rowboat. Fer Crissakes.)

"When Sysadmins Rule the Earth", one of the two hands-down standouts (the other is "Anda's Game"), is a cri di couer from the "steam tunnels of the information age". A "type-one" sysadmin (flabby with a beard; type twos are tall and thin with ponytails) leaves his wife and young son in the middle of the night to bring up some crashed routers – at which time a series of devastating physical, digital, and biological attacks brings the real and virtual worlds to their respective knees. Locked into their data center, behind sealed doors and microparticulate air filters, his band of hard-core admins struggles to keep their Internet backbone up and humming, in the face of barrages of worm and trojan attacks, while the world goes to hell outside.

"We're going to staff the racks and keep the networks up. This is critical infrastructure, and it's our job to make sure it's got five nines of uptime. In times of national emergency, our responsibility to do that doubles."

The group gets to work, keeping in touch with their beleaguered compatriots around the world – including the indominitable Queen Kong, who run's Google's data centres – and struggling to head off internal dissension and desertion. They labour valiantly but without hope, waiting for their food and generator power to run out, holding worldwide elections for the new, post-apocalyptic digital regime, and watching as more of the real world turns cold and black.

Half the data centres had gone dark. Queen Kong's net-maps of Google queries were looking grimmer as more of the world went offline, though she maintained a leader-board of new and rising queries – largely related to health, shelter, sanitation, and self-defense. Worm-load slowed. Power was going off to many home PC users, and staying off, so their compromised PCs were going dark.

It's loaded with apposite geeky references – Doctorow has worked as a sysadmin himself, and it shows – which will be greatly appreciated by those who appreciate these kinds of things, and a bit less so by those who don't. But the characters are also very human, which is a tougher trick to pull off. And when the last hold-outs are finally forced to abandon their digital redoubt, and go out into a shattered world, you know these are just the kinds of guys you'd want to have helping rebuild it.

"Anda's Game", which received the conspicuous honour of being included in Best American Short Stories 2005, is at least as strong, nearly as fun, and loaded with an even more timely (and touching) message. Anda, a podgy and insecure adolescent, is recruited by a clan of online gamers – for girls only. They encourage them to play openly as girl avatars, and band them into one of the most formidable and feared tribes in any number of games.

"Nuke 'em till they glow and shoot 'em in the dark! Yee-haw!" Lucy called, and Anda laughed and pounded her fist on the desk. Gobbets of former enemy sailed over the treeline dramatically, dripping hyper-red blood and ichor.

It isn't long before Anda is being recruited into missions that pay in real money (via PayPal) rather than in online gold. She finds herself going out on assault/assassination gigs in which her job is to infiltrate heavily-guarded buildings, and kill everyone inside. Her curiosity is piqued when she discovers the avatars inside whom she is slaughtering are engaged in menial in-game tasks (like shirt-making) for small payments of gold.

Soon it transpires that these avatars are part of virtual sweatshops where impoverished girls in developing countries sit in 14-hour shifts earning online gold, and building up characters, both of which are sold on eBay for real money. Science fiction? Hardly – this is huge business in many parts of the world, and the real value of virtual economies is staggering, and growing fast.

After much moral agonizing about stealing wages from girls who may otherwise have to work as prostitutes, and about who is actually doing it for love of the game and who for money, Anda (and her clan) switch sides – continuing their ass-kicking exploits, but this time on the side of the workers (and their labour organiser). This is an illuminating look at what terrors and wonders the present holds – and an enormously fun ride along the way. (With its confluence and confusion of real and virtual life and combat, it also has an uncanny relevance to my new book in progress.)

Doctorow has a talent for steering his stories to a satisfying, even inspiring, conclusion – but then turning around and ending another one ambiguously, or even disturbingly. But with either flavour, you'll probably tear through these pieces – especially if you're a fan of Snow Crash, or Blade Runner, or my stuff – as they're cracking good reads in any tense.

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close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

You can reach him on .

THE MANUSCRIPT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
PANDORA'S SISTERS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
D-BOYS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
COUNTER-ASSAULT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book One - Fortress Britain, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Two - Mogadishu of the Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Genesis, by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Three - Three Parts Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Four - Maximum Violence, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Five - EXODUS, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Six - The Horizon, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Seven - Death of Empires, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eight - Empire of the Dead by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : NEMESIS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Nine - Cataclysm by Michael Stephen Fuchs

ARISEN, Book Ten - The Flood by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eleven - Deathmatch by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Twelve - Carnage by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Thirteen - The Siege by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Fourteen - Endgame by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Fickisms
ARISEN : Odyssey
ARISEN : Last Stand
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 1 - The Collapse
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 2 - Tribes
Black Squadron
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 3 - Dead Men Walking
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 4 - Duty
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 5 - The Last Raid
ARISEN : Fickisms ][ – This Time, It's Personal
ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple
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