19 November 2004

"Anda's Game" by Cory Doctorow

Salon.com has published a new Cory Doctorow story, "Anda's Game", that is fun to read and also offers a couple of interesting nuggets for thought, as Doctorow stories are wont to do. He's a remarkable writer for a number of reasons, but what most sticks out in my mind is his ability to write fiction that is real science fiction by anybody's definition, but that is also able to appeal to a broad audience, one not practiced at decoding the semantic clues emanating from the average SF story. SF has been said to be the most recursive sort of popular literature -- it builds off its own past, with writers riffing on each other's ideas, terminology, situations, and even, at times, characters -- and this is sometimes a problem for readers who are not steeped in all the tropes and technobabble, and for whom many SF stories seem either thin or incomprehensible.

Doctorow is up to something slightly different, although certainly not something alien to science fiction: he takes ideas from popular culture -- the sort of ideas he might link to from Boing Boing, generally about science and technology, but sometimes culture or society or anything else that seems to be zinging through the zeitgeist -- and casts a spell of "What If?" on them. The wonderful thing about "Anda's Game" is that he does this while also be completely recursive.

Thus, we end up with a story that is about computer gaming, issues of immigration and globalization, and growing rates of childhood diabetes -- while it is also quite obviously rethinking elements of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and dropping little homages to Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, and Lewis Carroll like breadcrumbs or brain candy along the way. None of the references are essential to understanding the story; they exist as another layer, one that makes "Anda's Game" a somewhat deeper experience for readers in the know. The story should appeal to anyone with an interest in kids and computers -- even an interest bordering on a concern -- with added easter eggs for SF readers.

"Anda's Game" made me think of two other stories: James Patrick Kelly's "Think Like a Dinosaur" and Pat Murphy's "Inappropriate Behavior". "Think Like a Dinosaur" revisits the old sci-fi "matter transporters" and, specifically, Tom Godwin's story "The Cold Equations" in a similar way to what Doctorow's up to with Ender's Game. "Inappropriate Behavior" has a main character with Asperger's Syndrome (or something similar -- the doctors in the story don't all agree), a condition that has recently gained a lot of media attention, much as childhood diabetes has gained attention from warnings about children's obesity. "Anda's Game" is as good as either story, and less contrived than "Inappropriate Behavior".

Jonathan Strahan recently declared that "the centre did not hold" for science fiction as a specifically defined genre/style/mode/literature/thing, and that the "task we should be attempting is to describe the literary diaspora that is happening in the wake of sf's centre failing to hold". Doctorow's story is one example of a piece of SF that results from not so much the center failing to hold, but rather the center expanding by concerning itself with a variety of ideas that are not proprietary to the SF community, and then by choosing a mode of expression that offers pleasures for specific groups of readers (SF fans, technogeeks) without excluding other groups of readers. It is entertaining while also being thought-provoking about the lives we lead, and is therefore the best sort of popular literature. Is it great literature for the ages? I doubt it. Is it worthwhile reading right now? Undoubtably.

Update 11/25/04: Other looks at "Anda's Game" are available from Derryl Murphy and Aaman Lamba, who also offers the story as HTML and a text file.

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