Setting aside the embarrassing lack of jetpacks, there can be no doubt that we live in a science-fiction future. It's become almost a cliché to say that, but just because a truth is universally accepted doesn't make it any less true. One of the most discussed product debuts of the last few months is a glass screen, 10 inches tall and half an inch thick, that enables you to contact almost anyone on the planet via text communications, watch movies, read virtually any book ever published, and play games with people on other continents. We live in some author's paperback science-fiction novel.
What nobody thinks to ask is this: What kind of a science-fiction novel are we living in? We have no privacy (and, hell, most people don't even care that they have no privacy); our economy is held hostage by a handful of aging corporate entities that, dinosaur-like, can't respond to change until it's way too late; half the population seems to be rejecting intelligence as some kind of sin; even our best, brightest hope—a world leader who appears to have been handpicked from central casting to represent a futuristic, more hopeful America—can't seem to conceive of a way out of our current financial disaster without propping up the old institutions that are too big to fail and too anachronistic to live; and we're choking the skies and the seas to death with our combustion-engine addiction. The dream of walking into any one of thousands of restaurants and, within milliseconds of ordering, getting the same identical hamburger anywhere on the planet for a few pennies has come true, and we can see now that it was a stupid dream, and not one worth fighting for.
We're living in a dystopian future, we're a populace in need of saving, and the logical next question is: What do we do now? For the last hundred years, we've looked to our science-fiction authors for the answer. What do we do now, H. G. Wells? (We should envision scientific exploration as an adventure, of course, while we make sure to treasure our humanity as the sacred thing that it is.) What do we do now, Kurt Vonnegut? (We should remember our past but still recognize that we are ridiculous, tiny specks on an insignificant ball of mud, and, despite that, we should be kind to one another.) What do we do now, William Gibson? (We should break free from the constraints of laziness and struggle to find our identity, even if that identity doesn't fit in the strict marketing demographic we've been assigned.)
The scope of science fiction's answers have gotten smaller and more personal over time; now they're so insignificant as to be nearly irrelevant. Modern mainstream science fiction seems almost unwilling to answer the question of what to do now; at readings and conventions, sci-fi authors talk openly of their attempts to "launch" a "franchise," as though they are marketers and not authors, when what we need, anyway, are prophets. Instead of imagining new ways for us to imagine ourselves, they slice their markets up into smaller and smaller niches—steampunk, the New Weird, historical zombie adventure—and keep zapping the same atrophying pleasure centers over and over again, expecting the same orgasmic returns every time. Cowardly, they have given up telling us what we should be, and they have started giving us what we want.
Here's the thing: Even if you don't realize it while you're reading it, all good science fiction is political. And that means that one of the only great science-fiction writers in the world today—one of the only writers who bothers to ask, "What do we do now?"—is Cory Doctorow. He's one of the few modern science-fiction authors who's completely unafraid to offend his audience by taking tough, uncompromising stands on political issues. His three most recent novels—released over the last two years, in chronological order: Little Brother, Makers, and For the Win—read like a slow-motion video of an explosion, each one reaching out dramatically further in scope, impulsive energy, and authorial intent.
Little Brother is a guidebook about civil disobedience in the digital age disguised as a novel for young readers. The narrative contains brief, friendly lessons about blocking your ISP address or using cryptography to conceal activities and information, and the story, about a young man in San Francisco who is mistakenly labeled a terrorist, explains why you would want to conceal some activity in the first place. (A common refrain on comment threads about internet privacy goes along the lines of "Why would you want to keep your web browsing secret? What have you got to hide?" It's the good science-fiction author's job to demonstrate why this is important.)
The opening pages of Makers attacks the very idea of corporatism:
Capitalism is eating itself. The market works, and when it works, it commodifies or obsoletes everything... money won't come from a single, monolithic product line... the money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people.
The rest of the book imagines what that post-corporate-behemoth world would look like, a world where the Disney corporation—the last flailing mammoth on the plain—will do anything, even kill, to keep from going extinct. Doctorow fires off new ideas at a staggering pace: Inventors find a way to make packs of surplus Elmo dolls salvaged from the garbage (dolls that, to meet the demands of increasingly elaborate Christmastime fads, have evolved into simplistic robots) drive cars and perform other complex tasks; tiny robots build even tinier robots that can skitter around and improvise the construction of a useful tool. In the middle of an argument about obesity, one character reframes an entire modern-day debate: "We didn't get less willful in the last fifty years. Might as well say that all those people who died of the plague lacked the willpower to keep their houses free of rats. Fat isn't moral, it's epidemiological."
And Doctorow's latest novel, For the Win, broadens his scope to a global scale. It's an economic primer disguised as a political thriller about third-world children who are paid paltry wages to "mine" gold in massive multiplayer online games so that their bosses can sell the virtual gold to wealthy players who don't have the patience to work their way up through the game. (This is a real, modern-day phenomenon, and Doctorow points out that it's not as absurd an idea as it originally sounds; after all, the entire economy of the planet Earth runs, basically, on an irrational confidence in the idea of gold.) Characters smuggle themselves on freighters delivering tons of plastic crap from China to the United States, they hijack abandoned blog comment forums to use as message boards, and they struggle to find the identity that they want in a multicultural world, picking and choosing from a seemingly infinite palette of names, beliefs, and concepts.
But more than that, For the Win suggests that it would be easy, with ever-present access to communication, for these gold miners to organize, to form a union, and to strike. He refocuses old ideas into something clever and new (in a nod to the Pacific Northwest's rich history of organized workers, union members in For the Win refer to themselves as "webblies," and they call their union the IWWWW—the International Workers of the World Wide Web). To publish a book for young readers that is so plainspoken about the importance of unions feels like an act of political bravery; you won't find that in the newest Neil Gaiman book.
So, Cory Doctorow, what do we do now? The future that he maps for us isn't one of dramatic change—most of his novels end with modest, reasonable political advances toward the better—but he does suggest that for the first time in history, communication technology and human intelligence have increased to the point where we can devise and sustain a more complex, and more just, way of governing ourselves. His books suggest a world where we finally listen to one another, and recognize ourselves in others, and start the slow, messy process of working to make things better.