Radicalized by Cory Doctorow science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsRadicalized by Cory Doctorow science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsRadicalized by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow’s Radicalized (2019) is a collection of four near-future novellas that cast a critical eye on current societal trends. As is nearly always the case with collections, the story quality/impact varies, but the floor here is relatively high.

In the first, “Unauthorized Bread,” Doctorow takes on digital rights/permissions, mergers and monopolies, and the growing movement away from creating tech the average person (or non-average for that matter) can easily modify/repair themselves. The protagonist is Salima, faced one day with a broken Boulangism toaster-oven which only accepts the company’s proprietary bread — “unauthorized bread had consequences ranging from kitchen fires to suboptimal toast.” Not having the money to buy a new one, Salima goes online and teaches herself to hack her appliance, giving her “a new kind of toaster, a toaster that took orders rather than giving them.” From there it’s a short hop and skip to her dishwasher and then other appliances. Eventually this spreads to the rest of her less well-off building compatriots, who live on the “subsidized” floors of a high-rise buildings whose elevators prioritize the full-payment tenants (a great metaphor about what doors open to what people in society), and it becomes a tense if mostly one-sided conflict between Salima’s group and the corporations. Some of the tech exposition can get a bit clunky, and I’d say the story goes on a bit long, but the tension is real, the stakes within the story high, and the real-life analogues wholly unnerving, as any good near-future story should be. This first story also has, I thought, the strongest, most effective and affective characterization of the four.

“Model Minority” is a weaker story, I felt, not so much on a craft basis but just because I’ve seen this sort of story lots of times before, and I’m not sure Doctorow adds much new here or much surprising within the story’s own world. It’s an alternate version of a Superman (here known as American Eagle) who, after decades, has awakened to the racial injustice of the American legal system and decides for the first time to intervene when a Black man is brutally beaten by some cops. Unfortunately, his naivete means things go from bad to worse thanks to his intervention, something the far more wise to the world victim had warned him of, as did the Eagle’s quasi-friend, billionaire crimefighter “Bruce.” Both also warned the Eagle of his own danger of being “othered” as the categorization of “white,” and the attendant privilege that comes with such categorization, has always been a malleable thing and his alien background means his acceptance so far by society is a fragile bond.

Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow

“Radicalized” is a biting indictment of the US health care system. The main character is Joe Gorman, whose wife enters the system thanks to stage four breast cancer. A desperate search finds a last-chance treatment, but its 1.5-million-dollar cost is rejected by their insurance company. Furious, despairing, Joe finds support on an anonymous forum (Fuck Cancer Right in Its Fucking Face) for “fathers whose wives were dying of treatable breast cancer who had been denied coverage by their insurers.” The story spins out into a chilling tale of domestic terrorism, a sort of larger-scale John Q, if anyone remembers that Denzel Washington movie about a father who takes an emergency room hostage after his dying son is denied a life-saving treatment, though Doctorow’s take is far more realistic, complicated, and much darker.

The last story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” updates Poe’s story from plague to a post-apocalypse (more of a societal/financial collapse, it seems, than the typical nuclear/zombie type) as the main character, Martin Mars, and his hand-picked thirty friends ride out the aftermath in his carefully prepared bunker in the remote Arizona hinterland. Martin is the kind of rich social Darwinist macho-wannabe that’s easy to hate, especially when contrasted to several other characters in the story. The story itself moves along well, but the contrast is a bit too blunt for me, the characters too simple.

That’s the case to varying degrees for all these stories. For me, the first is the best at overcoming those issues, with a richer, deeper sense of character not just for Salima but the rest of the characters as well. But if some of the characterization is thin, or some of the social commentary a bit too on the nose, Radicalized nonetheless does what all such work should aim for, forcing the reader to examine far more closely what is too easily glossed over, to reexamine society’s and one’s own values and priorities and complicity.

Published in March 2019. Told through one of the most on-pulse genre voices of our generation–New York Times bestselling author Cory Doctorow–Radicalized is a timely novel comprised of four science fiction novellas connected by social, technological, and economic visions of today and what America could be in the near, near future. Unauthorized Bread is a tale of immigration, the toxicity of economic and technological stratification, and the young and downtrodden fighting against all odds to survive and prosper. In Model Minority, a Superman-like figure attempts to rectifiy the corruption of the police forces he long erroneously thought protected the defenseless… only to find his efforts adversely affecting their victims. Radicalized is a story of a darkweb-enforced violent uprising against insurance companies told from the perspective of a man desperate to secure funding for an experimental drug that could cure his wife’s terminal cancer. The fourth story, Masque of the Red Death, harkens back to Doctorow’s Walkaway, taking on issues of survivalism versus community.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.