With a Little Help – From Friends, Family, and Others

Not everything in the Public Domain is old. There are a number of authors who are publishing work for free under Creative Commons licenses. One of these is Cory Doctorow, and one of his books is With a Little Help.

The book is a collection of short science fiction stories, some of them commissioned by particular publications or editors. The subjects range from Artificial Intelligence, to monastic orders of infosec officers and coders, to physical books becoming weird scrapbook collectors items, to what happens when the global network which controls EVERYTHING goes on the fritz.

The man himself

As a writer and editor for BoingBoing, a repository of what’s trending on the web, Cory is extremely plugged in to hot topics and emergent technologies. He notes in the intro to the book that the future used to be full of rocket ships and space travel, but now it seems to revolve around this internet thing (he assures us, it’s gonna be big!) Also in the introductory section is a note about typos: all books have them, but he requests you go looking for them, and provides an email where you can send him notes about them. Subsequent publications will have the corrections, and there will be a footnote on the page thanking the person who found it (I assume only the first to submit the correction will be noted).

While I enjoyed all of the stories (a rarity in collections), I’d like to mention two in particular: “The Right Book” and “Epoch”. The former concerns physical books becoming scarce and therefor valuable, and the latter concerning a rogue AI.

I think it needs a moustache…

In “The Right Book”, we meet the owner of a this-and-that shop, Arthur, and his customer, Chloe Autumn. There’s a giant online world/fanfic/writing excercise called “The Story So Far”, and a few people have begun to create books out of certain sub-plots. Each book is a combination scrapbook, art project, and micro-curated publishing. Imagine if Pinterest, Amazon, WoW, and eBay all got put into a blender by a hipster mixologist.

Chloe has seen the posh girls at school with books of their own, and as Arthur has a few in his window, she comes in to buy – only to find the price on even the most reasonable is beyond her. But she returns, having made a few of her own (she’s made her own contributions to “The Story So Far”); she offers a decent price and Arthur snaps them up.

Seventy years later, Chloe is a well-known author and distributor of these books – specifically for young readers. She and Arthur sell to shops which welcome children and adolescents, get to know their tastes, locate or create books which will suit their audience.

Doctorow said the story was inspired by Patrick Nielsen Hayden‘s rant concerning the disappearance of small book distributors which serviced local grocery stores and pharmacies. Most people don’t go into bookshops unless they already love books – getting new readers hooked was usually the result of books NOT in bookshops. Giant distributors carry giant titles, bestsellers, blockbusters; folks are less likely to find funky, off-beat, “right” books. Incidentally, the story was commissioned by The Bookseller, the oldest publishing trade magazine in Britain.

The other story I’ll speak of is “Epoch”, which was another commission. This one was a request from Mark Shuttleworth (of the Ubuntu project and Canonical). I’ll just quote Mark’s brief to Cory:

Dave’s not here, man.

It’s 2037 and a company has built an AI as a skunkworks initiative. The AI is emergent behaviour from a network of tens / hundreds of thousands of servers in a large-scale data center, that costs a lot to run.The company has hit the wall and so the lights are going to get turned out, but some of the people involved figure turning off the DC is tantamount to the murder of a sentient being. So begins a race against time, which might involve solving or at least raising some of the thorny jurisprudence issues of “what are the rights of a bankrupt / dying AI”.

Maybe there’s a defense angle…Also, being 2037 / 2038 (I forget which) the Unix epoch 32-bit rollover is happening, and because of the whimper of Y2K nobody took it seriously, and IT systems around the globe are going to hell in a handbasket as a result. Perhaps there’s an open source angle too.

That’s a great summary of the story – but I will mention that the AI Doctorow created for the story is a moral, sarcastic, sneaky bastard of an AI. At one point, after the potential shut-down has been reported,  BIGMAC (that’s the AI) manages to get a pleading email to every person who has email. Every person. Every language, every system, every country. Without it hitting anyone’s spam filter.

Let that implication sink in.

So yes, it’s a damn good story. And as I said earlier, this is a collection of good stories, one I will keep around to read again. I may even send in the list of typos I found – I liked it that much: I am willing to offer free copy editing.

If you would like to read it for yourself, With a Little Help is available for FREE on Feedbooks.

You can read plenty of other Doctorow titles for FREE as well, just click here. Or check out his blog here.

You’ve probably noticed we love sci-fi around here:

Havilah just recently reviewed Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper.

Dileas has a great article on Beyond the Door Philip K. Dick.

Gen and Cheryl have a heck of a discussion over “True Blood” and the books that inspired it.

I’ve even written a thing or two myself.

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